Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

New operations in Sinai

The Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist group carried out further attacks in Sinai this week, prompting a determined response from the Armed Forces, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Egyptian military’s counter-terrorist forces are engaged in extensive operations at a number of levels in northern Sinai and particularly in the area of Sheikh Zuweid. Military sources affirm that the scope of ground operations has been broadened and that these have been furnished air cover in order to enable the immediate pursuit of mobile targets.

The intensification comes in the wake of an attack last week by the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group targeting five army checkpoints simultaneously, killing 18 conscripts and wounding 34 people among whom were civilians. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis declared itself to be an affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) group, or Daesh, last autumn.

According to army statements, more than 100 Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis members were killed in various offensives, among them at least five field commanders. The armed forces also succeeded in thwarting an RPG missile attack against the Sheikh Zuweid police station.

In an interview with the Weekly, a source from Sheikh Zuweid described the climate of alarm and panic that swept the city during the operations which occurred during non-curfew hours. The pursuit of takfiri elements continued for hours, he said, during which there were constant exchanges of gunfire in residential areas.

In addition, the central electricity station was bombarded, causing a blackout in the city as well as in parts of Rafah.

Judging by how it was carried out, the latest Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis attack was probably intended to send the message that counter-terrorist operations in Sinai, now in their second year, are still at square one.

Gazi Abu Farag, a resident of Sheikh Zuweid who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, said he believes that there are problems with the military operations. “Nobody can convince us that the situation is going to change. In fact, the security conditions are going to get worse,” he said.

Abu Farag said that he and other young men from the area had gone to the security agencies where they had applied to form a contingent of Bedouin forces to take part in military operations.

This “National Guard”, as they suggested the contingent be called, would be under the command of the army which would train and equip it. When the mission was completed, its members could be rewarded with a job or a pension, he said.

“Of course the request was turned down by the security agencies,” Abu Farag said. “I believe that the armed forces will continue to face the same crisis as long as they refuse to allow the Bedouin to take part in the battles or, at best, remain mere informers.”

One senior military source involved in the situation in Sinai said that “it is difficult to accept volunteers for recruitment or offers to create a military contingent outside the recognised recruitment framework, whatever these people’s aims.”

He added that this applied even more in Sinai among local tribes as it could generate too many complications. “I have noticed inclinations among the youth to form military cells to avenge their kin killed by terrorists. But this is the role of the Armed Forces,” the source said.

 “What advantage would be gained through such recruitment? There is no advantage. On the contrary, it would add complications, especially as it would encumber the armed forces with a huge burden in the event of tribal problems and with everyone with a gun in their hands wanting to form revenge fronts between the tribes.”

 “We deal with these requests as expressions of good and patriotic intentions. However, when it comes to the field of battle we cannot respond emotionally as there are other military factors to be taken into account,” he said.

“While the concept was acceptable during the preparations for the 1973 War, this was because the number of forces then was insufficient. But it is important not to minimise or scorn cooperation with the military agencies by the Bedouin in the realm of intelligence. Information is more important than anything.”

The source noted that compensation had been paid to all civilian victims of the military operations and that this had not been limited to the people of Sinai.

He added that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was resorting to deception in its fight against the armed forces. “Its operatives put on military uniforms or hide among civilians. They steal ambulances, and they use women and children as smokescreens.” According to the source, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis operatives had managed to target Ahmed Wasfi, former commander of the second army in Sinai, by claiming there was a child in their car in need of urgent medical care.

The source had no doubt about the progress of the military operations, and he said that the fact that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis leader Kamal Allam had taken part in several of the organisation’s operations was proof that the operations had been successful. “If he were interested in raising morale among the members of the group, he would have led them only once. But instead he has been leading them many times,” he said.

 He also explained why it might appear that progress was slow. “If we had only 1,000 terrorist elements, we would be speaking of taking out five to 10 on average in every offensive. This would mean that it would take 100 to 200 raids to catch them all. When the great care that is being taken not to target civilians, especially women and children, is added to this, it is easy to see why the operations are taking some time.”

 “This is a war of attrition. The army receives new recruits every three months. The military colleges produce graduating classes every year. The state is funding the operations. As a result, when we calculate the balance of forces we are certainly not worried.”

An expert source in Sinai agreed regarding Allam’s appearance at the head of the terrorist operatives. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis images transmitted via the “IS Sinai Province” Twitter account showing Allam at the head of the militia had indicated that the group was shrinking and was in the grip of a major crisis, he said.

However, there were still questions surrounding how the group obtained its weapons and had the ability to recruit, he added.

According to local Sinai sources, there is evidence that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis recruitment activities are ongoing and that the group continues to receive support from abroad in the form of money and weapons.

The same sources maintained that the sealing of the border with Gaza had only obstructed smuggling operations through the tunnels but had not entirely severed supply lines to the organisation even if the number of weapons it received had been considerably reduced.

One Bedouin from Al-Mahdiya in Sheikh Zuweid, an Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis stronghold, familiar with developments on the ground, told the Weekly that “it is certain that Allam is in command of the organisation. It has not been announced who is leading the organisation from the top, and most likely it won’t be. But we know Allam took over from Shadi Al-Maniei who used to lead the military wing of the organisation but fled abroad after being wounded in a battle with the Armed Forces.”

The source agreed the terrorist forces were shrinking. “It is difficult to recruit from outside Sinai at present or from outside the borders,” he said, adding that there were no foreigners among the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis militia at present.

“Recruiting activities take place among the Bedouin by appealing to desires to take revenge against the army and security forces for relatives killed in the operations. However, it is certain that recruitment has shrunk considerably,” he said.

The involvement of the Egyptian military in the Arab coalition’s activities in Yemen has raised the question of whether these operations might have a detrimental impact on the operations in Sinai.

Most military experts believe they will not, and Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Armed Forces Strategic Studies Centre, told the Weekly that “the army has many diverse tasks and each contingent has its own particular role and function. It is well known that there is an internal and an external role in play to protect the country when need dictates. There are forces designated for each role, and there is no link between them,” he said.

According to a former high-level intelligence official, “it is obvious that there is no link from the point of view that there are forces that have been lent to the work of the coalition. But the link will come in the context of concerns over a ground intervention, should that take place, in Yemen.”

“Then, it will be natural to have concerns because there will be forces fighting and risking casualties at home because they are engaged in battles with terrorist gangs. At the same time, there are fears of casualties abroad since there too there is a gang, the Houthi militia, and a Yemeni army that has disintegrated or is no longer a national army at all.”

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