The Sinai Peninsula was subject to three terrorist attacks targeting police checkpoints on Monday, two of them in Al-Masaaid, west of Arish. They took place following a long spell of calm, two days after a similar but failed attempt on a number of Armed Forces checkpoints.
In a telephone interview to ONTV talk show host Amr Adib, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said, “The events in Sinai are a challenge that Egypt is facing alone. We have succeeded in battling terrorism. Terrorist attack rates have dropped, and we have always been careful not to harm Sinai civilians."
Al-Sisi explained that the financial cost of fighting terrorism is enormous, however. In the past three years, he said, 41 battalions comprising over 25,000 troops were deployed in Sinai.
But, when Adib compared state mobilisation today to that of the six-day Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Al-Sisi objected. "The state and institutions back then spoke the same language and had the same target. We are in a real war today," Al-Sisi said. "But will the people and public opinion support this battle? The media is not the same now as it was in 1967. When we talk about the unity of the state, they think we have ulterior motives," the president continued.
"The US administration has said that Egypt is the only country in the world that is standing up to terrorism with courage and sincerity. They said that because they see what is happening in Egypt. They see that we are combating terrorism on behalf of the world. It would not be conceivable for the region to stand in the face of terrorism if not for Egypt.”
Al-Sisi also stressed Egypt's ability to secure Sinai, stating that terrorism will nonetheless not disappear overnight because of the costs involved: there are bodies that finance it heavily. “There are plans being made for Sinai and money being pumped into it by other countries. I prefer to call them 'evil forces'." Al-Sisi refused to name those countries, however, adding, “When the president speaks he can't say everything. But the people know." In the past three months, he said, 1,000 tons of explosive were found in Sinai, along with millions of pounds and dollars.
Monday's deadliest attack targeted Al-Matafi checkpoint. Seven policemen and civilians were killed, and 15 injured. According to a Ministry of Interior statement, a car bomb carrying 500kg of explosive was used. The vehicle had been reported stolen last week from an Arish cleaning company, and its driver killed when he tried to retrieve it, as is shown in a video broadcast on the Internet.
A local source told Al-Ahram Weekly that last week terrorists set the cleaning company ablaze to steal the vehicle. The terrorists, numbering around 20 according to police estimates, also targeted the checkpoint with RPGs; five of them were killed. Losses from the Al-Matafi attack are estimated to be LE940,000, according to a government committee formed by Governor of North Sinai Abdel-Fattah Harhour.
The other checkpoint targeted on Monday, also located in Al-Masaaid area, is a fixed police checkpoint that had been attacked six times before but is difficult to make mobile, according to sources from the scene, because it guards a fire station. One policeman was killed in Monday’s attack. A few hours later, terrorists bombed the area next to a checkpoint in Gesr Al-Wadi, but no one was hurt.
"Checkpoints are easy targets for terrorists in Sinai,” Ahmed Kamel, the editor-in-chief of a Future Centre for Advanced Studies report entitled "Security Directions" told the Weekly. “Although it is difficult to move the locations of checkpoints because they secure vital targets, they can be upgraded and arrangements can be made to better safeguard the checkpoint complex and prep the soldiers for round-the-clock dangers.”
Security analyst and former officer in combating terrorism in Sinai, Brigadier-General Khaled Okasha, told the Weekly that timing played an important role in Monday's attacks. The terrorists bombed the checkpoints in the early morning when the fog was heavy and it was difficult to scout the area. It happened before and it could happen again, he warned.
Abu Hager Al-Hashemi, the new leader of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist organisation, which renamed itself Sinai Province (Welayet Sinai) after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, has called on group members to target checkpoints via Al-Nabaa, a publication affiliated to the group.
Al-Hashemi is the successor of Abu Doaa Al-Ansari, explains Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamic groups in the quarterly magazine Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya, published by Al-Ahram. The army killed Al-Ansari on 4 August 2016 and now a number of Sinai Province leaders want to prove their worth by threatening the police and army, Bakr stated. Through these threats, the terrorist organisation wants to give the impression that it has been reinforced with men and equipment in both Sinai and Gaza.
But it is not only terrorist groups that are wreaking havoc in Sinai, it is believed by security experts such as General Hamdi Bekheit, a member of the National Security Committee in parliament. Other intelligence bodies are playing their part as well. "Terrorism is no longer about an organisation or an ideology. Rather, it is a war of intelligence using guerrilla elements to take control of certain locations and hit targets."
Bakr's words are in line with President Al-Sisi’s statements to Adib when he said that standing behind these terrorist operations are other countries and intelligence bodies.