Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Security imperatives in Sinai

As the terrorist insurgency worsens, security forces are stepping up their response. Ahmed Eleiba reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week’s attacks in North Sinai, which claimed the lives of 24 soldiers, six policemen and 14 civilians, mark a qualitative shift in actions mounted by terrorist groups in the peninsula. Several targets were attacked at the same time, during the broadcast of a football match between Egypt’s most popular teams, Ahli and Zamalek.

Knowing the Egyptian commitment to watching football, the terrorists were apparently hoping to find security levels compromised.

Different methods were used against the targets. Bomb-laden vehicles were driven by suicide bombers into the Kilometre 101 headquarters and the security directorate building in Al-Arish. At checkpoints in Lafi, Hossan and Sidot, portable missiles and automatic rifles were used.

Not so long ago, the activities of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), now renamed as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS), were restricted to weekly attacks on the trans-Sinai gas pipeline. Later, it began targeting police and military buildings and security personnel.

Its aim was to drive the army out of the areas it operated in, especially the Rafah-Gaza border zone, which it needed to control to communicate with its allies in Gaza. A secondary goal was to make it appear that the army was incapable of dealing effectively with the terrorist threat because of the provisions of the Camp David agreement.

When ABM became affiliated with IS changes occurred across its activities, in the nature of the weapons it used and in the planning and execution of operations. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who on 26 July 2013 secured a massive popular mandate to confront terrorism, announced that Egypt was facing “the largest underground organisation in the world.”

In more recent speeches he has been more explicit about elements of the organisation. He claimed that there are links between the Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai extremist groups. Al-Sisi has also said that foreign powers are helping the militants with intelligence, and the planning and funding of operations.

The creation of a new military command for Sinai and the Canal Zone, under General Osama Askar, is one of several new measures put in place to counter the terrorist threat. Askar was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and General Mohamed Abdullah appointed commander of the Third Army, which oversees operations in South Sinai and Suez.

The changes raised questions about security arrangements with Israel. A senior source told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Egypt is free to shape its army as it deems fit” and its actions “are of no concern to other parties.” He stressed that the new command headquarters could be established anywhere — in Ismailiya, Suez or even Cairo.

He continued, “The idea is to create a single point into which all relevant intelligence, from defence and police agencies, can flow. The changes are more concerned with organising intelligence gathering and processing than with field operations. There is no overstepping of Camp David.”

A Sinai source told the Weekly, “For years our borders have not been properly secured. We still need far tighter security along the borders. Measures to safeguard them are still in progress.”

At least one military expert argues that a 5-km-wide strip along the border is necessary to end the operation of cross-border smuggling tunnels. He also says security along the northern coast is compromised, though surveillance equipment recently purchased from Italy and France, due to arrive soon, will help plug the gap.

He stresses that there is broad agreement with Israel on the need to increase troops in threatened areas and a tacit agreement that additional troops can be deployed on a temporary basis to accomplish specific missions.

Last week’s court ruling designating the Ezzeddin Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, as a terrorist organisation reinforces the measures being taken to fight terrorism in the Sinai, he says. “The Qassam Brigades have been involved in everything that has happened in Sinai. They furnish logistical support to jihadist salafist operatives and shelter operatives that have carried out attacks against Egypt.”

Sheikh Nabil Naim, a founder of Egyptian Jihad, one of the most violent of Egypt’s homegrown extremist groups before it renounced violence a decade ago, has no doubt the Muslim Brotherhood is connected to the attacks in Sinai. The Brotherhood’s engagement in street violence in mainland Egypt, he says, betrays a philosophy happy to embrace armed confrontation as a means to achieve the group’s goals.

Organisations such as Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), which emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood following the 30 June Revolution, have planted bombs near schools and in parking lots. They clearly do not care who they maim or kill, says Naim.

“How is it possible for Muslim Brothers to meet with foreign intelligence agencies seeking to undermine Egypt and not have a connection to what is happening?” asks General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Armed Forces Centre for Strategic Studies.

The latest attacks, says Ezzeddin, show that military operations against terrorism are succeeding and terrorist groups are on the back foot and becoming increasingly desperate. He added that the recent attacks also show “that groups operating in Sinai are now acting as instruments for foreign powers.”

While the army must deal firmly with the takfiris, it faces the problem of doing so without unduly restricting the freedom of movement of civilians and thus feeding discontent among Sinai’s inhabitants, says Ezzeddin.

Conditions in Sinai are creating growing unease among the peninsula’s inhabitants, one local resident told the Weekly. “Counterterrorism operations, and the restrictions they put in place, threaten the relationship between the army and the Bedouins,” he warns.

Among the most unpopular measures, he says, is the destruction of olive groves that the army says are being used as hideouts. As well, young Bedouin men taken to police stations for questioning are immediately branded by the wider community as police spies and become targets for the extremists. And then there are the more routine hassles.

“It takes a day to travel between Al-Arish and Sheikh Zoweid because of the military roadblocks. And in inhabited areas the checkpoints make daily life increasingly difficult, to the extent that it is sometimes impossible for children to go to school,” he says.

“Some younger Bedouins have begun to see the army as their enemy. Takfiri groups are exploiting the situation to try and attract recruits. They have also given money to people being evacuated from their homes by the army in order to win support. There are many problems that need to be urgently addressed so as not to undermine unity between Bedouin tribes and the army.”

Salah Salem, head of Sinai Unit of the National Council of Human Rights, told the Weekly a team is now at work assessing the situation on the ground.

“President Al-Sisi summed up the problem in his speech following the latest terrorist attack when he cautioned against injustice. Fighting terrorism should not involve trampling the basic rights of citizens,” says Salem.

“The president senses that some injustice has already been done. There is the curfew, for instance, which makes any semblance of normal life impossible. And then there are the roadblocks. Along one 90-km stretch of road there are 12 of them.

“The efficacy of these measures needs to be assessed. There are alternative routes that the terrorists know and use. The fact is that the roadblocks are a target for the terrorists, and the majority of attacks happen during curfew times.”

General Ezzeddin defended the army’s actions. “The government has paid the largest compensations in the history of the state so as to clear the border zone, in spite of the fact that the people being moved had no legal title to their properties but occupied them on the basis of squatter rights,” he said.

“Some restrictions on movement are inevitable and must be tolerated. The army is not on a picnic in Sinai. Soldiers are being killed daily in terrorist attacks.”

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