Showdown in Sinai: Egypt army confronts terrorism

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 9 Feb 2018

Ahram Online republishes this report from October 2017 on the army's fight against terrorism in north Sinai

Army tank
File Photo: Egyptian Army soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle backed by a helicopter gunship during a sweep through villages in Sheikh Zuweyid, North Sinai (Photo: Reuters)

A series of terrorist incidents rocked North Sinai this week. One attack on Sunday targeted the Karm Al-Qawadis checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid, killing six security personnel. A second attack took place a day afterwards in Arish, where terrorists staged a two-pronged assault killing three policemen and three civilians.

Monday’s attack unfolded when militants drove into the centre of Arish in the morning and split into two groups. One group exchanged gunfire with the guards outside the Church of Saint George, unused for months following a surge in attacks on Christians in the peninsula. The second group shot and killed the guards at the local branch of the National Bank and then stormed in and emptied the safe.

Though no group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, it bore all the hallmarks of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group, which has changed its name to the Sinai Province.

Military spokesman Tamer Al-Rifaai said in a statement that law-enforcement forces operating in the framework of the Martyr’s Right Operation had “succeeded in intercepting an attempted terrorist attack against security points in Al-Qawadis, killing 24 terrorist operatives, wounding another, and destroying six four-wheel-drive vehicles. Six members of the security forces were killed. A combing operation of the area is still in progress.”

Subsequently, photographs of the terrorists who were killed were published, along with video footage of the incident. The presidency issued a statement praising the efforts of law-enforcement forces in the Sinai in the fight against terrorism, and the authorities sealed the Rafah crossing in the wake of the incidents.

A later report stated that about 100 terrorists had taken part in the attack against the Al-Qawadis checkpoint and security forces, using dozens of four-wheel-drive vehicles. This checkpoint is strategically situated between the Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid sector and Arish.

Informed sources relate that the Al-Qawadis assault was intercepted within the space of eight minutes, during which about a quarter of the attacking force was taken out. However, the two incidents in Arish triggered an outburst of criticism against the security plans in the city, especially in view of the fact that the bank robbery had succeeded and several police and civilian lives were lost. The assailants also managed to break through three police checkpoints in the area. 

 “The current security plans do not change and develop as they should in Sinai,” said MP Hossam Al-Rifaai, parliamentary representative for North Sinai, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. He noted that in spite of repeated incidents, the plans were still flawed and needed to be revised. “There is nothing sacred about them that prevents revision, as long as the primary aim is to safeguard Egyptian national security,” he commented.

 “Monday’s incident on 23 July Street proves that the security plans are not working in the present form. An armed bank robbery took place in broad daylight at 8:45am after penetrating three checkpoints around the site in a 100-metre area. We have said time and again that these checkpoints are a target. And that is what happened in this case,” Al-Rifaai said.

“The policemen did not have the flexibility needed to block the attack. If the security plans had realised their objectives and prevented such incidents, we would not have reached the result we’ve been experiencing on the ground for four years.”

Asked where the attackers and vehicles had come from, Al-Rifaai said that in the past such incidents were attributed to the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza, but that now that the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was being put into effect and Hamas was coordinating with Egypt, it was more difficult to ascribe responsibility to Hamas. 

Khaled Okasha, a terrorist affairs expert and member of the National Council for the Fight against Terrorism, responded to the question by saying “I have no answer. A fog has descended over the situation. There may be wings of the movement in Gaza that are angry about the reconciliation.”

 “Cairo has succeeded in concluding a reconciliation agreement with Hamas leading to a number of security arrangements. One is the construction of a buffer zone on the Palestinian side of the border, parallel to the broader buffer zone on the Egyptian side. The border tunnels are under full control from both sides, and Hamas has also taken action against attempts to infiltrate the borders on the part of terrorists from the Islamic State (IS) group and a Palestinian organisation in Rafah called Nour Eissa,” he said.

Charges of shortcomings on the part of the security services are countered by charges of shortcomings in Sinai society. Critics point to the reluctance of the peninsula’s Bedouin communities to deal with security and to a social environment that nurtures extremist elements. However, this view was rejected by both Al-Rifaai and Salah Salam, head of the North Sinai branch of the Doctors Syndicate and a member of the National Council for Human Rights.

 “Sinai is a part of Egypt,” Al-Rifaai told the Weekly. “We cannot separate what is happening in Sinai from what is happening in the rest of the country. Extremist thought proliferated in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s and infiltrated Sinai in the 1980s. We have to ask whether Al-Azhar has performed its role and whether the Ministry of Waqf (religious endowments) and Ministry of Culture have performed theirs,” he commented.

“Have these agencies taken appropriate actions against the wave of extremist thought that has led to terrorists controlling mosques in entire areas like Rafah? We had pinned our hopes on development after the territory was recovered. But development plans in the past were riddled with corruption, and we are paying the price for this today in Sinai.”

 “As for claims regarding an environment that nurtures extremism, we are working hand-in-hand with the Armed Forces in the area to fight terrorism. Many Sinai people know that they are also targets of the takfiris and many of them have paid the price.”

 “The sight of a mother receiving 16 bullets in her back while holding her son is enough to realise who is paying the price. Terrorism had been confined to Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. Now it’s in the centre of Arish. Why? Because it moved with the people who were evacuated from the border areas. This is enough to suggest that there is a deficiency in intelligence and that plans need to change,” Salam said.

 For his part, Okasha remained adamant that the Sinai environment was conducive to terrorism and that the government’s reluctance to admit this was part of the problem.

 “We can’t say that the terrorists somehow dropped out of the sky. Most of them are from an environment that rejects the presence of the government in any form. Even when they came to say that they wanted to defend themselves and take up arms in the fight against terrorism, we discovered that it was to promote their own interests,” he said.

However, all the sources agree that changes need to be made in order to ensure a more effective campaign against terrorism in Sinai and that these should begin with a new strategy to narrow the confidence gap between the people of Sinai and the government and security apparatus.

 *This story was previously published in Al-Ahram Weeekly

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