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Egypt's Wild East - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Palestinian Hamas security guards stand near an Egyptian watch tower on the border with Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, July 5, 2013. (AP /Hatem Moussa)

Palestinian Hamas security guards stand near an Egyptian watch tower on the border with Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, July 5, 2013. (AP /Hatem Moussa)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the Sinai, one could easily kill a large number of Egyptian security officers armed with nothing more than an AK-47 and a motorcycle, before disappearing without a trace. The suspected Islamist militants operating out of the strategically important Sinai Peninsula have been able to carry out a number of devastating hit and run attacks on Egyptian security forces, evading capture by disappearing into the rugged landscape, not to mention the 60 km residential area that extends along the Gaza border from Rafah to El-Arish.

Area C

Today there are reportedly thousands of jihadists armed with sophisticated weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, present on the Sinai Peninsula. These Islamist militants aim to establish an Islamic emirate in the territory located between Rafah and El Arish known as Area C. While the Egyptian military has found its hands tied in terms of combating this threat as according to the Camp David Agreement, the Egyptian army is not permitted to operate in this area.

However additional security forces and army reinforcements were dispatched to the Sinai Peninsula after Egyptian security and government establishments in the governorate of North Sinai came under increased attacks following the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi. Egyptian Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs) and tanks were deployed to El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah. Sources within the Egyptian security establishment informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Tel Aviv had agreed to the deployment of Egyptian military forces to Area C. Despite this unprecedented Egyptian military deployment, the security forces have yet to make a tangible impact on the Islamist militias operating out of the region.

Khaled Hirka, a former member of the recently dissolved parliament who represented North Sinai and who has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood party, stressed: “If things remain as they are, it will be increasingly difficult to resolve the situation in the Sinai”

Who is behind the attacks?

There is much speculation regarding just who these Islamist militants are, and where they have received their arms, funding, and training. The attacks have been increasingly linked to the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi, after Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed El-Beltagy said that the attacks would cease when Mursi was restored.

Talking with the various groups present in Sinai yields no verifiable insight as to who exactly is behind the violence. Some hold Hamas responsible, claiming that the Palestinian group is seeking to restore the presidency of Mohamed Mursi. Others allege that the followers of Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah official, are the true culprits; however both Hamas and Dahlan have denied any connection to the attacks on Egyptian state apparatus. While others claim that international intelligence agencies are behind the unrest, pointing to the CIA or Mossad.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an Egyptian security officer present in northern Sinai said: “It’s all very simple, we are facing terrorist groups, composed of local fugitives from the Sinai, elements from the so-called Palestinian Army, and jihadists from Yemen, Palestine, and Libya.”

Police, court, and security records gathered over the past decade reveal that a variety of organizations and individuals have settled in Area C. Radical jihadists who fled from Fayoum and Beni Suef during the security crackdowns of the 1990s settled in Area C, operating throughout north and south Sinai. When the organization known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad fractured in the late 1990s, the most hard-line offshoot—Takfir wal Jihad—fled to the Sinai. Furthermore drug and human traffickers and arms dealers are known to have made Area C their home.

Terrorism is a sensitive topic to Sinai residents who are quick to assert that their kin are in no way linked to the attacks. Former Sinai MP Hirka told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We deplore the killings. These are our children, whether they are from the interior ministry or from the military.”

He added that the killings and attacks in the Sinai began before the revolution of January 25, 2011, saying, “Two or three of our soldiers were killed each month without any announcement being made at the time.”

Hirka said that he cannot be certain that Islamist militants are responsible for the attacks, stressing that “radicals normally choose more prominent targets, such as the UN peacekeepers who are present at the airport near El-Arish…however this airport has not been attacked.”

As the sound of live gunfire erupted from the direction of El Arish outpost No. 3, the former MP told Asharq Al-Awsat: “No one has attacked the thousands of military officers who are demolishing the tunnels on both sides of the Sinai-Gaza border. Killing foreign peacekeeping forces is a priority for the ultra-radicals, however from what I have seen, the killings in the Sinai have exclusively targeted Egyptian civilians. A rocket killed two people from the Al-Bakir and Nakhlawi families. Whoever is behind the killings is being paid, and has orders to foment chaos across the country and drag the country into civil war.”

It is difficult to confirm just who is behind the attacks, and it is a puzzle that the Egyptian intelligence is currently trying to unravel. When asked to speculate, Hirka fell silent for a few moments, before telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “Strange things are happening in these lands.” He ultimately laid the blame for the violence that has engulfed the strategically important peninsula at the feet of Islamist Jihadists.

However adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists in the Sinai blame Dahlan for the violence, rumoring that 500 Palestinian militants operating in Area C in conjunction with members of the Shabiha and Egyptian outlaws.

An Egyptian security source, talking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that the majority of Palestinians in Area C have no association with Fatah or Dahlan, but that they can be roughly categorized into three separate trends each emanating from the Gaza Strip.

The first group is affiliated with Hamas and oversees weapons smuggling through the border tunnels, targeting specific security points in order to secure this trade route. The second group is the jihadist movement that is concentrated mainly in Rafah, which includes the Palestinian militant group Army of Islam. The third is a mixture of jihadists that includes Ansar Al-Sunnah Aknaf Beit al-Muqaddas and other groups who fly black flags in the style of Al-Qaeda.

2012 Border Guard Attack

The Egyptian military source revealed that immediately following the Islamist militants’ attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards in August 2012 near Rafah, groups who are believed to be associated with a certain Palestinian group abandoned there camps and residencies. He added that 30 to 40 of the leaders of that same group were seen returning to Area C, especially Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish.

After a new wave of terrorist attacks struck the region following Mursi’s ouster, the Egyptian military source told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We now suspect these groups are involved. The security forces should pursue them.”

He added that the terrorist organizations operating out of the Sinai Peninsula do not necessarily need to subscribe to the same doctrine, however they are certainly cooperating with each other to protect their people who are all operating out of Area C and the mountainous terrain south of the area where Mount Halal is located.

The militants’ arsenal includes missiles that once belonged to the Libyan army, and just a few days ago several missiles struck the homes of a number of El Arish citizens. According to Haj Mohammad, who runs a shop in the center of town, black market arms deals have become a commonplace occurrence in the post-Mubarak Sinai Peninsula.

Like many in the Sinai who speak to the media, Mohammed fears for his life. He said that the Islamist militants have tried to impose their own morals and world view on the Egyptian landmass, preventing the sale of cigarettes and smoking shisha.

Haj Mohammad told Asharq Al-Awsat: “They come into town on motorcycles flying black flags that read ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God’ and then open fire on the people before fleeing. The Sinai is overflowing with guns. Money can get you anything. Whatever you want to do, you can do it.”

Since the attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards in August, links have been revealed between the developments in the Sinai, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian army. Leaks revealed that following the attack the presidency prevented the army and the security forces from pursuing terrorists in the Sinai and obstructed the army operation known as Operation Eagle.

When Mr. Beltagy linked the cessation of attacks in the Sinai with the restoration of Mursi to power, speculation reemerged surrounding the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with Hamas and the military operations in the Sinai. However former Sinai MP Hirka stressed, “Neither Mr. Beltagy nor anyone else has control over the militants in the Sinai.”

Egyptian Security Presence

As for the status of the security forces, Mr. Hirka informed Asharq Al-Awsat that approximately three weeks after the attack, “The intelligence operatives shut down, as did the security forces. No security forces attempted to reach Mount Halal. Security officials locked the doors to their offices and locked themselves in their homes. The interior ministry in the Sinai is full of informants: when an officer is en route, gunmen intercept him and try to kill him.”

“There are no troops stationed anywhere between Rafah and El Arish. If the security situation continues as it is, then resolving the problem will become difficult, even if the security services use aircraft. Aircraft is useless in these circumstances, they conduct flybys and nothing else, it’s all for show. Only God knows what is going on in that area. The security forces’ presence does not cover more than one percent of North Sinai,” he added.

Security sources say that the security situation in the Sinai started deteriorating after Islamist militants arrived, and that they are composed of people from the Sinai, Palestine, and Lebanon. They announced their arrival with the attacks on the holiday resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba, and Dahab in 2005 and 2006. The investigations that ensued treated thousands of Sinai residents as suspects, resulting in mass arrests, which only served to turn the Sinai residents against the Egyptian state.

Mubarak-era Crackdown

Solomon Ayat, a political and media activist in North Sinai, said that more than six thousand Sinai residents went missing after the Sharm El-Sheikh bombings during the reign of former President Mubarak.

“This created an atmosphere of hostility between security forces and those who were detained at that time for periods ranging between two and three years, sometimes more.”

However Mr. Ayat blamed Israel for the recent events in the Sinai, pointing out that Israel stands to gain from instability there. He said that the travel warnings Tel Aviv issues to its citizens from time to time which advise against visiting the Sinai are telling evidence of this, since it usually warns its citizens a day or two before attacks rock the Sinai. He also blames, international intelligence agencies who have a stake in destabilizing the Sinai.

Mr. Ayat, who served as a media adviser to the now outlawed National Democratic Party, blamed Israel for the violence. He said that most of the attacks are concentrated in the area that stretches, “From Rafah to El-Arish on through Sheikh Zuweid, and the south towards Lehfin.” This region is mostly densely populated farmland which helps the perpetrators avoid government pursuit, while its proximity to El Arish could also allow access to the Gaza Strip.

The former government official said that the Mubarak regime had sent additional units to Sinai to help enforce emergency law, but these forces were recalled following the revolution.

He said: “When a militant sees a helicopter or APC, he will not carry out any operations, but instead be content to bide his time, search for a more vulnerable target, and plan out an escape route. This type of combat is debilitating to regular armies, and requires a proactive intelligence apparatus that can uncover and prevent these plans before they can be carried out; a reactive approach will not suffice. Sinai has been contested for more than 15 years now and even before then. Chaos reigns supreme over the Sinai.”

“I was the media secretary of the National Democratic Party and I would continuously write about the public’s perception about the state of the Sinai, but no one made a meaningful effort to change things during the ten years that preceded the January 25 revolution. This implies that there are significant security lapses in the Sinai. The drug trade is wide open; smuggling is openly condoned; anything goes as long as you can pay the commission. Arms trades are all but conducted in the public marketplace. What is happening there today did not come to be overnight. It is the result of advanced planning on the part of international intelligence agencies. No one group is responsible, and what Mr. Beltagy said does not reflect reality.”

Al-Qaeda Presence

Some blame Salafist jihadist group which have links to Al-Qaeda. Members of this group have carried out operations against Israel, such as repeatedly bombing the gas pipeline that leads from the Sinai to Israel and Jordan. But Mr. Ayat told Asharq Al-Awsat that he doubts that this group had a hand in the recent attacks, saying, “These are professional sniper operations. Just two days ago one of the outposts was exposed to sniper fire. The police and army have been exposed to approximately 11 sniper attacks. These attacks are an attempt to provoke the Egyptian army into clashing with the various gangs of the Sinai. It is well-known that this form of asymmetrical warfare is very taxing on regular armies. Look at NATO, despite all its might and weaponry, it could not eliminate the Taliban.”

“Those well-versed in guerrilla combat usually choose the best place and time to attack a stationary army. A cell will suddenly appear and disappear, and the army mobilizes its aircraft and heavy equipment. This requires money that even the most powerful countries are not willing to pay, as was the case in Afghanistan and before it Vietnam. Therefore the people of the Sinai say, ‘Security requires national reconciliation and a re-evaluation of security reality so that the lapses may be addressed,’” he added.

A local official in El Arish told Asharq Al-Awsat:, “Despite the reinforcements that arrived and the checkpoints established, the strikes continue, however the army has not mobilized, nor have troops gone to Mount Halal. Helicopters circle over Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and El Arish. In El Arish there was war on the streets. No one knows the strategy of the army. What is known is that the war on terrorism is based on the collection of information and quick maneuvering, not on tanks and armored vehicles. I do not think that there is sufficient intelligence regarding the militants of the Sinai. Some shoot while riding motorcycles through the narrow streets and take cover behind the trees and escape under the cover of darkness. The army needs light forces so that they can move quickly.”

A local community leader in El Arish, who spoke on condition anonymity, confirmed that there was an escalation in the activity of jihadist groups in the Sinai following the ouster of former President Mohamed Mursi. He said that these attacks are carried out by more than one organization, and that, “This is a tribal area. It is difficult for a stranger to operate here without being noticed. There are pro-Mursi groups, including jihadist groups. Jihadist ideology exists among the tribes. There may be a small Palestinian Jihadist Salafist presence, but Hamas has no people here; those two groups have a blood feud between them.”

“As for the Dahlan story, it is baseless. And as for the estimates that approximately 8,000 jihadists are based in the Sinai as some reports claim, I doubt that. The armed groups’ numbers are not this high. In the Sinai, jihadist ideology is prevalent, and runs contrary to tribal allegiances. The tribes themselves are no longer as they were; they have disintegrated. You ask me whether they follow Al-Qaeda or if they have a leader…nothing is certain. The region has been void of sovereignty since Camp David. All of these strange groups appeared in Area C, where an army presence is prohibited, and over the years they have taken on different forms, all of them working to undermine the Egyptian state.”