On 7 May, a terrorist attack struck a military checkpoint near a water pumping station in the Eastern Suez Canal Zone, killing an officer and 10 soldiers, according to a statement released by the Armed Forces military spokesman. The following day, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, convened to discuss the incident and review the measures being taken to pursue and apprehend the perpetrators. Al-Sisi instructed law enforcement agencies to press ahead with the work of clearing North Sinai of terrorist and jihadist elements and to take all the security measures necessary to eliminate terrorism.
According to a statement released by the presidency after the meeting, the president praised the Armed Forces’ efforts to uproot terrorism in Sinai “in cooperation with the honourable people of the area”, and lauded the army’s progress in carrying out the national mega-projects in collaboration with government institutions.
The Egyptian people fully appreciate the sacrifices members of the Armed Forces and police make to safeguard the security of the nation, said Al-Sisi.
A North Sinai security source believes that the attack was carried out by a handful of operatives determined to attract media attention. According to the source, the state’s recent call for dialogue with the opposition, and the release of a number of opposition figures, may also have been a motive, with the attack intended to re-focus the state’s attention on military/security issues rather than on a political track from which the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded.
Some observers also believe that recent Ramadan television serials targeting extremism and Islamist groups may have influenced the timing of the attack, while others suggest its purpose is to create the image of a government buckling under multiple pressures during a particularly difficult economic time.
The Islamic State (IS), through affiliated websites such as Naba Sinai, claimed responsibility for the attack. This was expected, given the terrorist organisation is attempting to reassert its presence after the US eliminated IS leader Abdallah Qaradesh (Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi) in Syria in January.
Qaradesh’s successor Zeid Al-Iraqi (Abul-Hassan Al-Hashemi) who has been eager to prove himself in various theatres. IS attacks have been on the rise in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the African Sahel. Nigeria has seen a number of attacks recently, and IS is reported to be repositioning itself in southern Libya. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has also resurfaced and staged a number of attacks, suggesting that, though IS is the most capable of doing so, terrorist organisations in general are determined to reassert themselves.
In his speech at an official Iftar banquet on 26 April, President Al-Sisi said the he did not want to officially declare that the Armed Forces had fully eliminated terrorism. There were still tasks to be completed, including clearing Sinai of explosive devices that continue to pose a danger to both service personnel and civilians.
The government’s statements and actions reflect an understanding that the success of counter-terrorism efforts can never be absolute but must be measured in terms of the elimination of terrorist commanders, networks, cells, infrastructures, and logistics. This was implied in the SCAF statement regarding the pursuit of the terrorists who remain at large, an implicit recognition of the possibility sleeping cells may exist.
It should be borne in mind that the terrorists chose an isolated area and an essential civil facility — a water pumping station: the operation could have been intended to deliver a double message, targeting not just military personnel but a facility essential to the development of Sinai which has made immense progress in recent years.
Last week’s attack is unlikely to mark a significant resurgence of terrorism in Sinai for, in addition to the hunt for the perpetrators and ongoing combing operations, the Armed Forces continue to carry out the other antiterrorist measures.
And just as important, the Sinai development plan, a major element in the fight against terrorism, is forging ahead. The Sinai development process has proven successful not just in eliminating the conditions which facilitated terrorist recruitment, but is wholeheartedly supported by Bedouin tribes who have become a great asset in the drive to uproot terrorism in the peninsula.
A source from one of the tribes in the Beir Al-Abd area in Sinai confirmed that the elements that carry out terrorist attacks are individuals on the run from security agencies who hide in remote mountain areas and have no known tribal connections. The tribes, he added, fully support the government and Armed Forces in the fight against terrorism, not just because of the threat they pose to national security but also because of the threat Islamist radicals pose to Sinai society and the role of Sinai’s tribes. Indeed, terrorists have increasingly targeted tribal leaders in recent years though, as the Federation of Sinai Tribes announced immediately after the terrorist attack, this will not dissuade them from continuing to cooperate with the Armed Forces.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.