Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After the battle

Ahmed Eleiba reviews conditions in Sinai following last week’s coordinated attack on military checkpoints

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week the army repelled the largest offensive yet launched by the IS Sinai Province. On 1 July large numbers of highly trained assault forces, many of them suicide bombers, backed by auxiliaries, staged several waves of attack in an attempt to seize control of military checkpoints. Simultaneous attacks were carried out in and around Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, the area of heaviest military and police deployment.

The attacks were eventually routed, with the terrorists retreating to hidden lairs or else heading towards the Gaza border. Military sources and security experts say that while there is no guarantee the perpetrators will not attempt to regroup and stage more attacks the losses they sustained will have made the operation’s planners abroad aware of the extent to which they had underestimated the deterrent capacities of the Egyptian army.

By the end of the day of the attacks the army announced that the situation in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid was under control and IS Sinai’s attempts to establish control of a bridgehead in Egypt had failed. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made the same point during his surprise visit to North Sinai. He also alluded to how well planned the offensive was.

After bringing the situation there under control the army began extensive combing operations in the areas in and around Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. On Monday 12 suspected terrorists were apprehended in southern Sheikh Zuweid. The combing operations also unearthed many dead. Sinai Province had attempted to remove bodies from the battlefield so reports of its losses would be lower. Military sources say the combing operation is ongoing.

According to military sources and eye witnesses the simultaneous attacks targeted ten security checkpoints — Al-Rifai, Sudra Abul-Higag, the Sheikh Zuweid gateway, Sadirot, Al-Masoura, Al-Wahshi, Gadara, Al-Shullaq, Al-Obeidat and Qabra Omeira — with heavy and mid-weight weaponry including RPG grenade launchers and booby-trapped vehicles. Starting at 7am, the counter offensive lasted ten hours.

 “It was like an army facing another army,” General Talaat Moussa, former director of military intelligence, told Al- Ahram Weekly. “It was war. There was the surprise attack, and the offensive continued in successive waves. One unit would move in to blow up a target and kill those in it. A second unit would arrive to steal equipment and then a media team would film the site and raise flags at the site.”

General Chief-of-Staff Hisham Al-Halabi, military advisor to the Higher Nasser Military Academy and a member of the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Council, says military and security circles are convinced the terrorist operation was planned and supported from Qatar and Turkey. “We are facing international intelligence agencies,” he says. “These are the parties choosing the timing, making the preparations and mobilising the operatives. The battlefield and the elements recruited were chosen for a specific mission, to confront the Egyptian state and the Egyptian army.”

On IS Sinai Province Halabi says: “The arms it uses show it is being equipped with weapons from professional armies. These are not the kind of arms found used by the groups that operate in parts of the Nile Valley and the Delta. Its members are better organised and trained. They have access to anti-aircraft artillery and highly explosive substances like C-4, ten times more powerful than TNT.”

The army’s counteroffensive claimed 22 members from the terrorists’ ranks in the first few minutes, says an official military source said. The fiercest confrontations occurred in Sheikh Zuweid at the Rafai and Sadra Abul-Hagag checkpoints where booby trapped four-wheel vehicles ignored orders to stop and were detonated.

Military sources say soldiers at some sites opted to minimise losses until air and land reinforcements arrived. At Sadra Abu Al-Hagag an artillery commander retreated only to advance later and destroy 20 enemy four-wheel drives.

The counteroffensive succeeded in eliminating some of the terrorist organisation’s commanders. According to local sources in Sinai Kamal Allam, commander of the organisation’s military wing, Basel Mohamed, son of takfiri preacher Hussein Muhareb, aka Abu Munir, and local leader Abu Iskander were killed.

 Units from Al-Zohour military camp pursued the attackers, backed, says a military source, by F-16 aircraft.

“There are areas where it is difficult for Apaches to fly over because the terrorists have concealed anti-aircraft weapons possessed by the terrorists,” he said. “F-16s were therefore used, and great care was taken to avoid bombing inhabited civilian areas.”

Sources confirm Israel provided intelligence along the border areas it monitors. The Israelis may well have feared a repetition of the Rafah attack during Ramadan three years ago when terrorists seized control of an armoured vehicle and, after killing Egyptian soldiers who were breaking their fast, drove it across the border into Israel.

Egyptian and Israeli accounts agree that Israel reacted very quickly when terrorists seized two armoured vehicles.

The Armed Forces succeeded in killing no less than 241 terrorists in five days. Yet terrorist operatives still moved in on motorcycles to remove the dead and wounded and take them to Sheikh Zuweid. And dozens of the attackers in the Sheikh Zuweid region emerged from inhabited areas. Senior military sources contacted by the Weekly all posed the same question. How could so many terrorists have been hiding in the area?

“They could only do this with tribal support,” says General Moussa.

Most of the terrorists killed in the counteroffensive were from the Sawarka and Romeilat tribes, says a reliable local source from Sinai.

Gazi Abu Farrag, a member of the Tarabin tribe, says the majority of those who took part in the attack were from the Al-Maniei clan, part of the Sawarka tribe, and came from Mahdiya village. Others were recruited from the Romeilat tribe which extends into Gaza.

Intelligence is key to the war against terrorism in Sinai yet it remains difficult to collect facts on the ground.

“There is no doubt that terrorist operatives plant misleading information,” says an intelligence expert. “And there are very significant gaps in what we know.

There are arms depots that have not yet been discovered and tunnels that are still working and being used to move terrorist elements into the Sinai from Gaza. An opening was discovered just a few days ago which could well have been used in last week’s attacks.”

As Al-Sisi appeared to confirm during his visit to Sinai the assassination of the prosecutor-general, attacks that occurred in ten governorates the day after, and the Sinai Province offensive are linked.

“Initial impressions of how the operation was planned, prepared and carried out suggest the Muslim Brotherhood was involved,” says General Moussa.

“There are clear signs of this in both the timing and objective of the operation. The Brotherhood has recently been able to reorder itself abroad and contact organisations with which it shares the goal of overthrowing the Egyptian state. These groups want to portray the Armed Forces as incapable of mounting an effective confrontation. From Turkey senior officials in the International Muslim Brotherhood coordinated with other terrorist organisations. They are all complicit in what is taking place.”

The relationship between jihadist salafist organisations in Sinai and Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood is now obvious, says General Halabi.

“The links and connections between them are perfectly clear, in terms of timing and preparations made abroad.”

Halabi says it is no coincidence that “countries that shelter these elements and whose media had begun to speak of the fall of Sheikh Zuweid faced only feeble diplomatic responses from other Arab regional powers.”
The international response to countries that shelter terrorist organisations and promote terrorism is clearly inadequate, insists Halabi. He singles out the UN for particular censure.

 “This terrorism [in Sinai] is related to [developments in] the region and the world. Why don’t the UN and Western countries take a stance against states, groups and individuals that finance and support terrorism? At the very least there is a convergence of interests between the Muslim Brotherhood and organisations confronting the [Egyptian] state and working to topple it and ring down its armed forces. The agenda is the same and there is a clear link through coordination and funding.”
Is there a Hamas connection?

Military sources say the terrorist operatives fled in the directions from which they came. Some headed for areas in Sheikh Zuweid but others made off in the direction of the border with Gaza. One source told the Weekly that the greatest number of attackers, who had targeted checkpoints in Rafah, fled in the direction of Gaza when they were pursued by F-16s. A reliable local source from the Sinai says there are still breaches in the border with Gaza.

Hamas denied involvement in the Sinai attack. Sources within the Palestinian group point to the hostility which exists between Hamas and IS. Yet Egyptian intelligence sources confirm that the Gaza continues to shelter hundreds, if not thousands, of potential terrorists.

A source from Sinai says fears are growing that IS could replace Hamas in Gaza. This, he said, was one of the reasons why Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Qassam Brigades, issued a videotaped statement denying any Hamas involvement in the Sinai operation in which he repeatedly used expressions such as “our sister Egypt and the Egyptian army”.

Yet ambiguity continues to surround the Hamas role. There have been reports that Moussa Abu Marzouq flew to Beirut last week to consult with members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hizbullah leaders over the possibility of concluding a truce with Israel given the extent of current tensions and the looming spectre of war. But there are also indications that Hamas is worried about pro-IS groups in Gaza.

“Some countries want to capitalise on the situation and turn it against Egypt, even if that is worrisome for Hamas or for those countries on its borders,” says one senior level source.

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