By Amr Khalifa
The Mediterranean turned red last Wednesday. What we know is far less than we should: eight Egyptian sailors are missing, five are injured, reported the Egyptian army, in a battle with ‘terrorists’ off the coast of Mediterranean city Domyat [Damietta], best known for its furniture.
With each passing day, professional analysts and laymen alike, collect varying tales of the battle of ‘Doomyat’ as sign posts on the road to confusion and contradiction. To gather the pieces of the puzzle, the pen must become a scalpel so that the nebulous becomes the clear. In essence, to come to a clearer picture we need to approach the attack from the angle of a crime scene investigator.
The week began with a loud bang as Egypt’s leading militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) declared its allegiance to Islamic State (IS). Shortly after, a name change was in the offing, and ABM became Sinai Province.
On Wednesday 12 November, newswires buzzed with details of a faceoff between four boats and an Egyptian navy vessel. Initially, as is often the case, there were erroneous reports of mass causalities among the attackers, little detail of navy casualties, and inaccuracies over arrests.
In the early hours of 13 November, an Egyptian army spokesman explained that five navy men lay injured, eight ‘missing’, four ‘terrorist’ boats destroyed and 32 under arrest. Who were these attackers? What were the motives? What entity is organised enough to dare attack the national navy? The missing navy men are presumed dead? Drowned?
Rather than answer questions, the army statement raised them. Information provided was merely a minute piece of an obviously troubling and bloody puzzle. State news agency MENA reported the faceoff occurred approximately 45 miles at sea. This raised the possibility of a smuggling operation gone wrong. Quickly contradicting that idea was that the assailants’ fishing boats were armed with heavy weaponry, certainly, not the modus operandi of smugglers.
Events continued to unfold in the next 48 hours and attention shifted to two avenues of terror: Sinai Province and IS. One scenario, reported by multiple news outlets, suggested that an SOS signal was sent to the Egyptian navy by three boats – reports suggested the fourth boat was standing watch nearby. When the navy boat arrived at the scene, it was greeted by a hail of bullets from the three fishing boats surrounding it.
The battle ensued, but not before leaving five injured and eight missing, though not, as yet, formally presumed dead by Egypt. Before taking heavy damage, the navy were able to touch base with their port who, in turn, deployed military planes and troops who managed to sink all four fishing boats, while killing four and arresting 32, many of whom, the reports indicated, were foreigners.
The website Egypt Independent, an English version of the popular Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, blared “military sources: terrorists tricked Egypt’s navy”. But ‘truth’ is a multi-sided coin in Egypt. Relatives and friends of some of those arrested assert, in a video-taped interview by privately owned Masr Al-Arabiya, they are ‘fisherman’ working the sea and nothing more. One woman had her husband, uncle, grandfather all arrested.
“We just want to know where our men are,” she said. Further tarnishing the government narrative, another woman exclaimed “these men have been at sea for nine days straight, why (would do they) choose to do this today?”
But who are these terrorists? This is where things take a turn for the highly interesting and onwards to potentially James Bondesque territory. Masked men, in a video recorded message on Thursday took responsibility for the unprecedented attack: “As you listen to this declaration we have taken hostage a unit of naval officers from the Egyptian army.”
The recording left no doubt as to the intent of the unknown group, identifying themselves as ‘Youth from the land of Kenanah’ (aka Egypt): a prisoner exchange. Keeping in mind, as the only official statement from the army continues to refer to the eight missing servicemen as “missing”, the possibility of capture is, indeed, in play.
On a strategic level, perhaps, more dangerous than the killing of these navy men is their capture by terrorists. No less significantly the attack is another large step taken by an insurgency that continues to make headway outside Sinai and, in this unique case, outside the limitations of land.
The Hamlet like tragedy took a turn for the cinematic on Friday, when a respected Lebanese paper AlModon alleged IS had infiltrated the Egyptian navy. The story centres on navy officer Ahmed Amer, who managed to transport five militants to the navy boat, named 6 October, and once out to sea, they killed the entire boat crew.
A shock awaited operations when it made contact with the boat identifying it by its name – the response came back: “This is not 6 October… this is an Islamic State boat.”
The paper alleges to have secured sources inside the Egyptian navy and corroborated via jihadi websites, only possible to enter if vouched for. Upon hearing that belligerent response, the navy sent out a similar boat, named 25 April, to attack 6 October but 25 April had technical issues with its guns and Ahmed Amer and the militants engaged it.
Only when F-16 fighter planes were dispatched the boats sunk, said AlModon. Based on interviews, the newspaper indicated, along the same lines as Masr Al-Arabiya, that the fishermen were innocent bystanders.
Close inspection of every story, scenario and possibility indicates contradictions and a healthy dose of question marks in each. Cemented in fact is, 48 hours after Sinai Province declared itself an IS follower, a particularly brazen, well organised, terrorist attack targeted the Egyptian navy. No small feat, this is nothing short of a minor disaster for a regime struggling to earn its security stripes against multiple groups who have chosen the militant route against the army. A central part of the dynamic at play involves the dearth of information, generally, doled out by the security apparatus and more specifically in this terror at sea.
Credibility in all relationships emanates from truth. In this regard, the Egyptian army is failing Egyptians. This has, in turn, left many Egyptians and Egypt watchers wondering what precisely transpired off the north eastern coast of Egypt this week. Based on the wild stories of the past three days, no one will know, with certainty, who bears responsibility for this attack until a video emerges showing excerpts and claiming responsibility. Egyptian memories are laden with horrific imagery from a Sinai Province video , released on Friday, but with little trust because of nearly zero info, it is likely the public will believe nothing less.
A long battle lays ahead for Egypt in its fight against the militant brand in general and Sinai Province and IS in particular. It is a battle that cannot be won without transparency by the regime lest it lose the trust of the people.
Where mystery shrouds the landscape, facts are at a premium. Conspiracy theory has become order of the day, for one chief reason: the silence of the army after a major terror attack. This strategy needs to end yesterday.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr