This story is part of a special reporting project, “What Lies Beyond.” It is featuring students across 6 universities, reporting in-depth features and investigations on many of Egypt’s current events and issues.
By Toqa Ezzidin
Ongoing manoeuvres have been taking place between military forces and extremists in North Sinai. A total of 32 attacks by four terrorist organisations were executed in Egypt in the period from 28 June to 2 July, according to the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS).
At least 17 soldiers died in a heavy attack by extremists targeting army checkpoints earlier this month, which was considered one of the heaviest attacks ever executed in North Sinai. Mohammed Samir, the military spokesman, said in an official statement on Monday that the clashes in North Sinai since the beginning of July left 241 militants dead. According to the statement, 33 were arrested, of whom 29 were suspects.
Through a Daily News Egypt investigation on extremists’ emergence in North Sinai, based on the accounts of citizens living there of varying affiliations, some citizens said extremists are well aware of every military campaign before it sets off. Conversely, others say that extremists are not recognised in North Sinai, and what is depicted in the media is not entirely true.
In all cases, the warring parties in the struggle both claim the upper hand.
A North Sinai citizen who pledged allegiance to the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis militant group that rebranded itself as “State of Sinai” after pledging allegiance to “Islamic State” (IS), said that, since he was a child, he was inspired by “fighters”. As he grew up and became more aware of the situation in the country, especially after the 2011 uprising, his ideological support increased for them and he became more eager to learn more about their activities.
His interest grew to the point that he was offered help by acquaintances to start “supporting” them. However, he refused to disclose whether or not he actually supports them. Nonetheless, he grew up in North Sinai where they emerged, and claims to be acquainted with their daily lives and alleged fighting strategies.
As for the rules of establishing a group of extremists, the citizen said it is not preferable for the militants to form a large group, to avoid suspicion; one group usually consists of three members at least, including only one leader between them. This leader should be well aware of the Islamic doctrines and have a good physique, and is responsible for leading the group, who are expected to follow with no objections to his decisions. Also, the leader should recruit a deputy, in case of his death. Each group of fighters can work separately from the jihadists, and can execute its own “terror” attacks.
When asked about the religious status of “fighting in Sinai”, Dar Al-Ifta told Daily News Egypt that Jihad is permitted as long as it is fighting foreign attacks by other countries. However, the foremost institute for issuing religious edicts stated that “what is happening in North Sinai, from vandalism and sabotage, to other groups claiming that they fight for Islam and kill other Muslims, is religiously prohibited and ‘haram’”.
“The Egyptian military has more advanced weapons than Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, but the death tolls they announce often include unarmed civilians due to random raids, because otherwise Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis would have disappeared a long time ago,” the citizen said.
In a video released in April by the militant group on YouTube, now removed, the militants stated: “If anyone wants to join us, he should go south from the Mediterranean and keep moving forward till he finds an ambush belonging to the jihadists.”
On the other hand, not anyone can join the extremists in Sinai, the citizen further explained. He said they mostly urge people they know and trust to join, through personal recommendations. If a person is approved, he is usually asked to form a group on his own, find the required weapons and execute attacks without referring back to any leadership.
Another North Sinai resident, Hassan H., said: “It is very well secured here where I live, but the geographic nature of Sinai makes it very hard to be fully secured.”
“The presence of ‘State of Sinai’ is only obvious in the media, we cannot see it. They appear for just a few minutes in the bombings or the terrorist acts; other than that they are not dominating as they always claim in their videos,” he said.
He added that they do not know any of the “militants” and are not familiar with them, and there are no attempts from the civilians’ side to recognise them.
“We mainly leave this mission to the military. However, there are a lot of people who opt to collaborate with the military, as they will not be able to move alone in Sinai,” he said.
Ahmed Abo Deraa, a renowned journalist from a Muqataa/jurisdiction named after his clan in North Sinai, said: “Extremists are mainly based in the region of the eastern borders, from Al-Arish to a distance of 40km, and they are mainly centred in seven villages, which include Al-Toma, Abou Al-Aaraj, Al-Lofaitat, Al-Jumaii, Al-Mokataa, Al-Mahdeyya and Al-Hosaynat.”
“The armed forces have around five checkpoints in a space of 165km, with an average rate of one checkpoint every 30km. Also, in the area between Al-Arish and Rafah, there are around 18 checkpoints, in a space of 45km. This is where most of the military actions take place,” he explained.
He added that some of the extremists are known in the village and their families are aware of their involvement in “State of Sinai” operations. Most of the people involved in such attacks are from North Sinai, along with few fighters from Delta and Upper Egypt, in addition to foreign countries, mainly Palestine.
Following the clashes that occurred in North Sinai, senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar previously told Daily News Egypt that Sinai attacks will have negative implications on the opening of the Rafah border.
In fact, the Rafah border has remained largely closed for several months due to unrest in Sinai. A buffer zone was implemented by the army to limit the insurgency in North Sinai and avoid the infiltration of militants between Egypt and Gaza through smuggling tunnels. It was reopened in June amid increasing clashes.
Moreover, four Palestinians attempted to infiltrate into Egypt through the borders earlier this year, causing the death of one of them and the arrest of the other three.
“Extremists focus on people who have lost family members, and relatives of victims in crossfire and explosions. They consider them easy prey to join by enhancing the idea of revenge for them,” North Sinai resident and freelance journalist Muhamed S. said.
A random raid took place in 2013 without previous warnings to families, which led to the death of many unarmed civilians, and consequently resulted in increasing the rate of people becoming extremists “in order to retaliate”, Muhamed said.
Meanwhile, he added: “Anyone who is proven to work with the armed forces is killed and too many people abstain from doing so in order to save their lives, especially as there are no identities for the families of victims and hence, they are not rewarded whatsoever. Those attempts to help the military are rather undertaken very anonymously.”
Khaled Okasha, former police Brigadier General and military analyst, confirmed to Daily News Egypt that big cities in North Sinai are well-secured and the security has recently increased under the current leadership of Lieutenant General Osama Askar.
He also said that “extremists” try to enter these cities from the southern region, and the emergence of these groups is because of the geographical nature of North Sinai, which makes the mission of securing the region more difficult. Yet, militants are confined and cannot move freely.
According to Okasha, claims that the checkpoints set by the extremists are taking over Sinai are untrue. “This is a media war and they want to implant wrong ideas and facts to prove that they are a strong element and to spread fear,” he said.
Security unrest in North Sinai is not a recent development; it is part of the peninsula’s geographical nature, surrounded by the Rafah border and Gaza Strip, the Sinai’s location makes it notoriously susceptible. Measures to control security were weak during the last two decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, which opened the door for extremists to emerge, and publicise their radical ideas across several areas there.
Followed the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters’ sit-ins, extremists in North Sinai upped their game. After ongoing strategies to target Israel and bombing gas lines, they started executing terror attacks in North Sinai, and released a statement in which they accused military and police forces of “blasphemy” in 2013.
One month after the dispersal in September 2013, severe military raids were launched against Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, and there was random bombing across some regions in Sinai, which led to a thorough destruction of some villages, such as Al-Hosaynat.
“Most of the streets are blocked all the time; we cannot find water to drink or even salty water to use. The prices are extremely high and the transportation means are no longer affordable. Not to mention that we have to put up with all these things, along with the continuous fear of the surrounding events and the bombings everywhere,” a resident concluded.