North Sinai: A new focus

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 21 Oct 2016

Ahmed Eleiba reports on the latest deadly attack by Islamist militants in North Sinai on security forces

Egyptian army
Snapshot from video released by the Egyptian Armed Forces on official Facebook page on ongoing operations in north Sinai

The recent terrorist attack at Beir Al-Abd, 80km from Arish, which resulted in the deaths of 12 Egyptian soldiers and officers, brought to mind similar attacks against security checkpoints in Karm Kawadis, Al-Safa and elsewhere.

It had been thought the killing of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis leader Abu Doaa El-Ansari and other members of the terrorist group in April had delivered a debilitating and long-term setback to extremists' attacks in North Sinai.

In an official communiqué Egyptian army spokesman General Mohamed Samir reported that 12 “heroes of the armed forces” died and six were wounded in an attack by “an armed group of terrorist elements on Friday morning against a security checkpoint in North Sinai, using four-wheel drives.”

Samir added that in the exchange of gunfire that occurred between the soldiers and the attackers 15 terrorists were killed.

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which began calling itself the Islamic State's Sinai Province following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014, claimed responsibility for the Beir Al-Abd incident. The Egyptian army retaliated by targeting terrorist hideouts identified on the basis of intelligence reports.

“At dawn on Saturday 15 October, several air force units undertook a reconnaissance of the target areas and, after ascertaining the coordinates carried out intensive air strikes that lasted three hours,” said an official statement issued by the Armed Forces General Command last weekend.

The “Revenge for the Blood of the Martyrs”, as the statement named the operation, “resulted in the destruction of areas where terrorist elements were concentrated, as well as the destruction of collection points for arms and ammunition and of seven four-wheel drive vehicles.”

The statement added the armed forces were currently targeting “a number of takfiri elements who carried out criminal operations and the elements that aided and abetted them.” 

The interior ministry also issued a statement reporting it had thwarted “two attempts to smuggle large quantities of weapons and ammunition into North Sinai from a farm located on the border of Sharqiya and Ismailiya governorates and from a weapons cache in the governorate of Beni Suef, south of Cairo.”

According to the statement, police arrested a “group of terrorist elements” after confiscating hundreds of rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. 
Location of the Beir Al-Abd attack

Mohamed Diban, son of a tribal sheikh from Beir Al-Abd, says the terrorist attack occurred 40km outside the town, “in the direction of Nakhl and Jaal” meaning towards central Sinai.

The area has generally been regarded as “safe and stable, which is why no one had imagined that it would experience an attack of this sort,” Diban said. On the demographics of the area and the possibility of terrorist connections, Diban said.

“The area is not populous. There is no agricultural or farming activity. It is sparsely inhabited by Bedouins and, for the most part, the local Bedouins have the reputation of being calm and peaceful. Some are employed by local cement factories and quarries and there is probably some trafficking in drugs and illicit arms. The social environment is not one noted for religious extremism. Even where extremism exists, it cannot be compared to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid,” Diban said.

Such information makes the location of the attack even more striking. This is the first time the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has launched a major operation outside Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish. It suggests the organisation retains support bases, structures and the ability to mobilise.

A new front

The site of the attack indicates the group retains some capabilities despite the attrition it has sustained since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. Security expert Khaled Okasha believes the attack reveals the old triangle of drugs, arms and terrorism entering a new dynamic.

Okasha argues that these are “keys” that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis uses − smuggling arms and drugs for profit, involving local inhabitants and then redirecting the criminality it thus establishes for its own purposes. 

The shift in the location of operations the attack represents has created a new front for counter-terrorist operations and demands a wider deployment of security forces.

“One of the hallmarks of success in the fight up to now was that it had succeeded in keeping the organisation surrounded and restricted to Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish. The shift to a new area means redeployment and a heavier security burden. Even when some elements managed to enter the Nile valley area − there was always the possibility of infiltration − they were very small cells that were easily neutralised,” says Okasha. 

New place, old techniques

“The technique used in the Beir Al-Abd attack was the same as in the Karm Kawadis attack and in other attacks against stationary checkpoints that resulted in large numbers of casualties, ” says Ahmed Kamel, a security studies researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“This means the group carrying out the operation had undertaken surveillance and intelligence gathering in advance," Kamal believes.

"They surveyed the terrain and conducted reconnaissance in the immediate vicinity. This entails two types of monitoring, one performed by specialised teams from within the group and the other performed by people from outside the group. These outsiders may be recruited locally but there is also the possibility of security infiltration. A month before the latest terrorist incident two police conscripts from the Arish first precinct police station were arrested on suspicion of leaking information to terrorists in exchange for money," says Kamal.

Kamel also believes Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis conducted its reconnaissance activities at a time when the security agencies’ own intelligence gathering on the group was at a low.

“Even if they had information indicating movements or that something was happening they were not able to deliver a pre-emptive strike. The security services will need to reassess their sources. Either they need to recruit new sources, which is difficult given Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has killed a number of Sinai residents whom it thought were informers, or they can try to plant moles inside the organisation, which is even more difficult,” Kamal added. 

Is the organisation restructuring itself?

Expert sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly say Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has been seriously undermined.

“What we are now facing,” says one Sinai-based military source, “is an organisation desperate to show it still exists and is capable of mounting attacks.” 

“The military delivered a critical blow in the first week of August this year, eliminating the organisations’s leader Abu Doaa El-Ansari and destroying its communications systems, machinery and the like. However, in Sinai, reorganising and rearming are relatively easy regardless of the security agencies’ efforts to halt arms smuggling operations.” 

Regional context

For several months it had been thought that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was moribund, as appears to be the case with the mother organisation in Iraq and Syria, especially given the operation to liberate Mosul which began this week and ongoing anti-IS operations in Syria. But experts now fear a new crisis as IS members scatter across the region. 

The visit to Cairo this week by the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk should be seen in this context, says Okasha. 

“There is the spectre of a renewed [jihadist] returnees’ crisis and, in light of the coming confrontation to eliminate such organisations from Syria altogether, it is feared the crisis will explode in neighbouring countries. The purpose of Mamlouk’s visit was security coordination and intelligence exchange."

"Cairo has also made its position clear with respect to its national security strategy and its relationship with Syria. It is coordinating with Iraq and Jordan, both of which are alert to possible developments following the collapse of IS in the course of the ongoing military campaign against it.” 

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.

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