Sinai: Point of no return

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 18 Aug 2013

The Egyptian army is mounting a major operation against terrorist cells in the Sinai, warning they will not spare anyone 'who shelters terrorists.' Analysts suggest Sinai insurgents part of network connected to Libya, Yemen

Egyptian army near Al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula (Photo: Reuters)

Counter-terrorist operations in Sinai underwent a qualitative shift last week. For nearly five weeks militants had attacked military targets, causing casualties among army ranks, while avoiding any open battle. Now it appears that the tables have been turned in favour of the army as it mounts a major offensive against terrorist cells.

‪Second Army Commander General Ahmed Wasfi stresses that the military command did not take the offensive decision until it was sure it had the intelligence needed to proceed and after all possible precautions were in place to prevent the killing of innocent people. He said that military intelligence had held extensive meetings with tribal leaders, both to reassure them that the operations would target terrorists and proceed in accordance with the law and also to warn them offering any tribal backing to the terrorists.

“‪We would cease our pursuit of terrorist elements the moment they took refuge with and were hidden by their families,” an operations officer in Sinai told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We also encountered difficulties in dealing with arms and terrorist smuggling operations because the pursuit would lead to a home in Rafah in which the entrance to the tunnel was located in the bedroom of the owner of the house. Now we no longer operate with these limits. We have instead issued numerous warnings to the effect that the confrontation will not spare anyone who violates the law and shelters terrorists.”

‪The shift in strategy began to be put into effect in Sheikh Zuweid which, together with Rafah, is a hotbed of terrorist activity in Sinai. The region has been transformed by new tribal leaders into a patchwork of zones of influence. These new leaders emerged following the 25 January Revolution, their new found wealth culled from the arms trade and the trade of goods via Sinai-Gaza tunnels. They call themselves “independent sheikhs” and display their economic and political clout through the construction of lavish villas and by engaging personal militias.

‪It was obvious that an understanding had been reached between these new sheikhs and emergent terrorist groups in Sinai. Ibrahim Al-Manei, who heads the “independent sheikhs”, admits as much. In an interview with the Weekly he said, “it was understood that there would not be a confrontation against the government unless the government tried to confront [the terrorist groups]. An agreement was reached in the days of Muslim Brotherhood rule under which they pledged not to point their weapons at the army but rather at Israel.”

‪Al-Manei acknowledges that a front exists that will form militias to confront security forces, particularly the police, when they persist in their confrontations against certain tribal elements. Al-Manei went on to display a curious estimation of the military might of the state. He said, “if the Souwarka tribe joined forces with the Tarabin tribe, they would be able to form an army that could take on the government.”

‪The Weekly met with this tribal leader after the new phase in the military operations began. He refused to discuss these operations apart from to say, “Sinai is about to turn into hell.”

‪In the course of a lengthy interview Al-Manei said that the provisions of the Camp David peace treaty had protected the tribes from the “tyranny” of the government. What he meant, a military expert explained, is that “groups took refuge and proliferated in Area C on the assumption that the Egyptian army would not be able to move against them because it would be restricted by the protocols in Camp David.” He then pointed out that the army has recently eliminated these restrictions through a series of security coordinations that effectively put the protocols on hold in order to fight terrorism.

‪The expert offered a brief history of the rise of terrorist operations in Area C.

“‪The first terrorist group that confronted the state was managed by tribal members with jihadist connections. It started after police killed a Bedouin drug trafficker in the vicinity of Dar Al-Salam in retaliation for his murder of a police officer. The situation escalated into a war between the two sides in March. Three weeks later the group took revenge by kidnapping six Egyptian soldiers, most of whom were from Central Security and only one of whom was a military conscript.”

‪The Weekly obtained further information in this regard from interviews with a number of tribal members in Sheikh Zuweid. It seems clear from these narratives that the presidency, at the time, sought to prevent the army from confronting these new tribal leaders because they were closely connected to a narrow circle of the Muslim Brotherhood with links inside the presidency. The Muslim Brotherhood had also sought to assert its influence over the new groups to use them as leverage against the state.

‪Sheikh Zuweid now has fixed and mobile check points at every entrance. The terrorists have taken refuge in olive groves and, after nightfall, the army sets its crosshairs on any moving target it spots there. Security at the Risa checkpoint has been tightened because it has been subject to repeated attacks — at least 40 in the past year. The checkpoint is situated at a major entrance to Sheikh Zuweid.

‪Another point of confrontation is in Al-Toma, the focal point of events last week when 25 militants were killed according to an official army statement. Al-Toma was a major base for jihadist groups that, according to a military source, operated on behalf of both domestic and foreign parties whose aim was to embroil Egypt in a confrontation with Israel.

‪According to Ahmed Abu Diraa, resident of that area, the military ceased its operations there after killing four jihadists who were about to fire Grad rockets at Eilat. The militants had made their way by motorcycle to the vicinity of Ajra on the border with Israel. There they set up three missile launchers but were apprehended before they could fire the missiles. Abu Diraa told the Weekly that everyone in the area believes that it was an Israeli drone that bombed the militants. A military spokesman denies this categorically.

‪Around midnight on Monday members from the same terrorist group, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, launched another attack from the same area. They fired three Grad missiles, one of which landed in a vacant area and the other two of which were intercepted by Israel’s “iron dome” antiballistic shield.

‪According to another source in Sinai, the Muslim Brotherhood has been circulating a rumour that Israeli aircraft penetrated the border in order to kill the four militants. He stressed that the rumour, the purpose of which was to tarnish the image of the army, was false and that there had been no Israeli penetration. On the other hand there is security coordination and it is clear that Israel was informed in advance that an antiterrorist operation would take place. It was an Egyptian Apache that killed the four terrorists although Israel was ready to take action to prevent terrorist elements from penetrating the border into Israel. An Israeli plane did fire missiles, though these landed inside the Israeli border and their aim was to trap and confuse the militants. Although some exponents of the Israeli press, such as Haaretz, have voiced scepticism over the Egyptian account, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Yaalon confirms it. He insists Israeli aircraft did not violate Egyptian airspace.

‪Speaking to the Weekly by phone Jackie Khouri, Egyptian affairs expert for Al-Shams radio and Haaretz, said that the general impression in Israel is that the operation was carried out by the Israeli air force with Egyptian approval. Yaalon has stressed repeatedly, since the beginning of counterterrorist operations in Ramadan, that Israel has no desire to cross the border into Egypt. Khouri, who is of Palestinian origin, added: “The news that it was an Israeli operation went viral. The report was attributed to the Israeli press whereas it actually originated with a report in the Palestinian Maan news agency citing an anonymous source.”

‪On 10 August, 120 vehicles bearing Al-Qaeda banners made their way through the streets of northern Sinai, near Sheikh Zuweid, in the funeral procession for the four Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis members who had been killed the previous day. One of the four was Younis Al-Jormi, suspected of involvement in the murder of Egyptian soldiers in Rafah in August 2012. His name had also surfaced in the course of investigations into the kidnapping of Egyptian soldiers in March. An official Armed Forces statement briefly mentioned that the previous day’s operation had targeted terrorists involved in those incidents. Al-Jormi was among the leaders of the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, an umbrella organisation for jihadist Salafist groups that had operated from Gabal Al-Halal until they were expelled by the army’s Operation Eagle. He was 23 and a resident of the Nasr district in the Rafah border area.

‪According to several sources, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis is the latest branch of Al-Qaeda to be established in Egypt. Formed following the January Revolution, it received the blessing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri who, since the death of Osama bin Laden, has directed most of his messages towards Egypt. Al-Zawahri’s brother, Mohamed, is believed to be involved with the organisation. Although it is not clear what his role is, he is reported to have acted as a mediator between it and the Muslim Brotherhood via members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. One of the members is believed to be Tarek Al-Zommor, a frequent visitor of Morsi at the presidential palace. This group succeeded in persuading Morsi to release 25 Al-Qaeda members who had been sentenced to death or life imprisonment in Egypt including Hassan Khalifa, Ahmed Abdel-Kader, Shaaban Harida, Gharib Al-Shahat, Sayed Saber and Shawki Salama. It was rumoured that the General Intelligence attempted to intervene to prevent the release of the group.

‪According to some political activists in Sinai, many of those who received presidential amnesty under Morsi have been instrumental, openly or behind the scenes, and sometimes with the support of the presidency, in measures taken to keep jihadist Salafist groups beyond the reach of the army.

‪Mohamed Abu Shaar, a journalist and researcher from the Palestinian side of Rafah, told the Weekly that Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis was originally founded in Gaza. During the period of the Morsi government Hamas tried to assert its control over the group. It failed, though it did succeed in striking up a mode of collaboration. According to Abu Shaar, the Hamas government hoped to place such organisations at the service of the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps to help protect weapon supply lines for the Qassam Brigades from Sinai. It is certain that Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis counts among its members Palestinian militants trained in Gaza, although it is not certain whether there are also Al-Qaeda members coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and if so whether they were actively recruited or infiltrated the organisation’s ranks. Abu Shaar believes that the group must be heavily financed from some quarter in view of the huge quantities of arms it possesses.

‪According to an Egyptian source, Kamal Allam and Shadi Al-Manei from Sheikh Zuweid were instrumental in creating the Sinai branch of the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis which Younis Al-Jormi and his brother Youssef subsequently joined. This source believes the group began to receive sizeable injections of funding from sources in the Gulf after the Tawheed and Jihad group had proven ineffective. 

‪While the sources involved in tracking the movement of jihadist elements may prefer not to disclose their knowledge with respect to where these elements originated, they have revealed some information pertaining to the movement of weapons. These, they say, come from Al-Qaeda bases in other countries in the region, the largest being Yemen and Libya. General Gamal Mazloum, military affairs advisor at the Naif Academy for Military Sciences, suspects that militant elements trained in Yemen may be among the ranks of terrorist groups in Sinai, and is certain that Yemeni sources supply these groups with arms.

‪Abdel Hakim Al-Mayouni, a Yemeni researcher, agrees. In a telephone interview he stated, “the support exists and the contacts are clear. Even the suspicion of a connection between these elements and the Muslim Brotherhood surfaced when they issued their first statement following the military overthrow of Morsi. What remains unclear is whether there have been major movements from the [Al-Qaeda] organisation in Yemen to Sinai, though one would suppose the movement of arms was followed by the movement of Al-Qaeda elements as well.”

‪As for Libya, Saleh Tarfaya, a specialist in jihadist movements, has no doubt that Al-Qaeda in Libya is equipping its Egyptian counterpart. He says there has been a constant stream of communications between the Libyan and Egyptian branches and that the Libyan jihadist Abu Yehia Al-Libi, a returnee from Afghanistan, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for these communications and supervised contacts with the group in North Africa.

“‪Al-Qaeda in Libya is a jihadist Salafist group like its counterpart in Sinai. It is based in eastern Libya, close to the borders with Egypt, in Benghazi and Al-Beida, which are close to the Gabal Al-Akhdar, a major refuge that one might compare to the Kandahar mountains. These groups have tribal and organisational extensions that reach into Egypt from Marsa Matrouh to Alexandria. Sahel Al-Bardi is the point from which arms are exported. A makeshift popular port, it is located about seven kilometres from Matrouh on the Libyan side of the border. Small fishing boats are used to transport the arms. It is a central juncture for smuggling. The Madinet Nasr cell was one of the major links between Al-Qaeda branches in Libya and Egypt.”

‪Do the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adaweya in Madinet Nasr and in Al-Nahda Square in Giza fit into the picture, as some politicians and observers in Egypt believe? Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Rabaa, spokesman for the Salafist Front Khaled Said voiced his opposition to military operations in the Sinai which, he said, were targeting Egyptian citizens. “We are not an occupying power,” he said, adding, “Our position is clear. Weapons must be aimed against the Zionist enemy. For this reason we must apply logic and reason, especially given that Sinai is Egypt’s eastern front, which we must safeguard from that enemy.”

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