Military operations in Sinai have shifted to a third phase in the fight against terrorist and jihadist groups there, Ahmed Eleiba reports
Government forces are now systematically combing the area in pursuit of terrorists following a successful second phase in which the army succeeded in delivering debilitating strikes against 118 hideouts, seizing three major arms depots, and destroying 33 vehicles armed with middle to heavy weapons which the militants had used to attack army and police targets in Sinai. Prior to this there had been a preparatory phase in which the army undertook deployment and control operations and tightened security around vital strategic locations.
Part of the current phase involves the creation of a three-kilometre-wide buffer zone along the border with Gaza. According to sources in Gaza, this operation has been stepped up. But in tandem with the military operations, authorities are also reviewing plans for the development of Sinai. Already LE188.5 million has been earmarked to meet the urgent needs of the populations of the North and South Sinai governorates. Contingency plans have been drawn up to resolve any issues that arise while priorities have been identified for the various towns and villages in the two governorates. According to Minister of Local Development General Adel Labib, LE100 million would be allocated to North Sinai of which LE18.4 million would be allocated to the development of electricity networks and public lighting, LE49 million to paving roads, LE8.5 million to environmental improvement, LE4.4 million to support local security, traffic and firefighting agencies, and LE20 million to fund the urgent needs of municipalities. The remaining LE88.5 million is destined for South Sinai. Of this LE35 million would be invested in road works, LE16 million in the development of electricity networks and public lighting, LE6.8 million in environmental improvement, LE13.4 million in security, traffic and firefighting equipment, LE7 million to support health, educational and cultural services, and LE10 million to support the needs of local municipalities.
On the third day of the combing operations this past week, North Sinai security forces arrested 10 jihadists in raids that covered Al-Mahdiya, Nagaa Shaban and Goz Abu Road. Some of those arrested are experts in manufacturing locally made explosives. In addition, 48 armed vehicles and 11 houses were destroyed during the raids. Official sources report that security forces seized four large sacks filled with TNT. They also report that two soldiers were killed and three others were wounded in two separate confrontations with gunmen.
According to the same sources, security forces also unearthed a number of Sam-7 missiles and mortar guns belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Security experts regard this as a significant development as it is the first time that weaponry belonging to that organisation has appeared in the field. Investigations are currently underway as to the extent with which it may be involved in the violence in Sinai.
In a tangential development, as some security observers had anticipated, the Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt last week on Interior Minister General Mohamed Ibrahim. Ibrahim, who survived the attack unscathed, subsequently announced that 200 takfiri elements in Sinai had been arrested and that he had issued orders to tighten security at all crossings and entrance points in Sinai in order to tighten the noose around these groups.
In a special interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Samir Ghattas, director of the Middle East Forum, said that he anticipated that, after a series of difficult phases that had totally altered the environment of Sinai so as to turn it into one attractive to international and local terrorists, the Egyptian army would soon succeed in imposing a new reality in the peninsula. Ghattas, who is also an expert on Palestinian militant movements, identified three major phases in the evolution of the jihadist map there. The first unfolded during the Mubarak era and began with the notorious Sharm El-Sheikh bombings in 2004 and lasted three years that brought intermittent attacks on various national occasions. Security forces, at the time, did not acknowledge that they were facing Al-Qaeda elements, he said. The second phase began immediately after the 25 January Revolution with the storming of Egyptian prisons while the third proceeded in tandem with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to and assumption of power.
Operations to lay the foundations: It is important to focus on the operations that were launched on three national holidays in 2005, 2006, and 2007, Ghattas said. The first attack, in Dahab in 2005, was carried out by a group led by Khamis Al-Malahi, but the evidence indicated that he had been in contact with regional and international parties. In 2006, the bombing of a tourist resort was undertaken by the Central Combat Group in Gaza, headed by Ayman Noufal who was arrested upon entering Egypt in 2008 in a car that was booby-trapped with explosives. A Hamas operative known as Mohamed Abdel-Hadi was arrested together with Noufal who had remained in detention in Abu Zaabal prison until after the revolution when he was smuggled out together with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, most notably Mohamed Morsi.
Also during that period, Ramzi Mowafi, an Egyptian doctor who served as Bin Laden’s physician and who had been recruited into Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia, was infiltrated into Sinai. Mowafi, who goes by the nickname “Dr Chemical” in Al-Qaeda because he specialises in the manufacture of dirty bombs, is known to have trained some jihadist elements in Sinai where he is still active. He is the leader of the Ansar Al-Sharia organisation, a regional group affiliated with Al-Qaeda with branches in Syria and Iraq. He was sentenced in absentia to 33 years in prison. This operation also involved the Hizbullah cell that infiltrated into Sinai and that was headed by Sami Shihab who subsequently fled to Sudan and from there moved back to Lebanon.
The tunnels beneath the Gaza-Sinai border were integral to laying the foundations for an environment favourable to terrorist groups, said Ghattas. Following Hamas’s coup and seizure of control over Gaza, tunnel construction picked up pace and expanded in quantity and quality. “Egypt turned a blind eye to this development and the responsibility for this lies with former director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman. But there is a background to this. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, introducing new regional arrangements that included the opening of seven Israeli representation offices in Arab states such as Tunisia, Algeria, Oman and Qatar, Mubarak sensed a threat. He believed that this was the beginning of the first peace treaty leading to the expansion of Israel’s influence in the region and he feared that this would strip him of his cards as a regional player because of the competition he would encounter from Arab rivals in the management of the Palestinian question. As he could not confront Israel or the US directly over that expansion, he would do this indirectly via Hamas which could play the role of threat to Israel.”
The tunnels were a means to support this, but eventually they were turned to smuggling everything from subsidised Egyptian products, to people and arms. The weapons were chiefly smuggled in from Sudan where the Jerusalem Corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards operates a weapons factory. “Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir has actually admitted that the Ababda tribes were involved in those smuggling operations. The weapons themselves were used by Hamas against Israel whose brutal response compelled all those countries to close the Israeli representation offices, apart from Qatar.”
Ghattas relates that the first terrorist operation after the January Revolution took place on 17 August 2011 when a unit of the Popular Resistance Committees of Hamas’s Al-Nasser Salaheddin Brigades slipped into Egypt through one of the border tunnels disguised as Egyptian soldiers. With the help of terrorist groups and Bedouins they crossed the border into Taba where they attacked an Israeli bus and killed seven of its passengers. Israeli forces succeeded in killing eight members of the unit while others escaped into the Egyptian interior. The following day, Israeli forces killed an Egyptian soldier, thinking that he was a terrorist cell. The incident triggered large protests in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo culminating in the storming of the embassy premises. Soon afterwards, Israel eliminated Abu Samhadana, the military official. Israel did not turn over to Egypt the corpses of the attackers it had killed on 17 August because they were not Egyptian.
Ghattas then turned to what he described as two important junctures. The first coincided with the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution which was when the army began to destroy the tunnels by flooding them with sewer water. Documents had come to light proving that $250 million had been transferred to Khaled Meshaal by then prime minister of Qatar in order to fund the creation and equipment of Hamas militia units to intervene in Egypt in the event of mass unrest. The army released a statement describing Sinai tunnels as a threat to Egyptian national security and commenced the tunnel closure operations.
The second crucial turning point was the kidnapping of the seven Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. Ghattas recounts, “I read the transcripts of the investigations in which Hamada Abu Shita said that he had met two of his Palestinian friends who had been involved in the first Rafah attack. Thus, there was a thread leading to the details of this operation. However, Abu Shita attempted to bury that point by claiming that he had been blinded during a confrontation with a policeman in prison. Which brings us to the third stage which is the kidnapping of the seven Egyptian soldiers.” Ghattas continues, “It was very odd that Morsi, at that time, spoke of his desire to avoid shedding a single drop of Egyptian blood, whether that of the victims or that of their kidnappers. That had to have been a precedent in political history. In all events, the army refused to release Hamada Abu Shita.
The director of the Middle East Forum, a Cairo-based think tank, holds that the terrorist environment in Sinai is fed by three tributaries. The first is the Al-Prins smuggling network for money, arms and other goods. The second is the Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliated groups that are drawn to Sinai, and the third is formed by the connections with militant groups and factions in Gaza. “These three tributaries gave rise to an environment in Sinai that was totally different to the previous one whose boundaries we had been familiar with. By means of the tunnels there emerged mercenary groups that amassed exorbitant amounts of wealth and all this wealth was covered by a cloak of religion.”
The terrorist map of northern Sinai consists primarily of five major groups. The oldest and most dangerous of these is Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad which was responsible for the attack against the second district police station in Arish. That attack was led by Hamada Abu Shita and his brother Hani whose arrest led to the kidnapping of the Egyptian soldiers. This group is closely associated with the Abu Hafs group, which is known to have a regional dimension and to have been involved in terrorist operations in Mali and Algeria. Then there are the Ansar Al-Sharia and the Maglis Shura Al-Mujahideen Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, which is actually an umbrella organisation for a number of small takfiri jihadist groups. Finally, there is the Furqan Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the RPG attacks in the Suez Canal. This is also an international organisation with branches in Gaza, Iraq and Yemen and it has sent some 400 of its members to fight in Syria.
Strategic aim of the takfiri and jihadist groups in Sinai: Ghattas observes that in spite of all its anti-Israeli propaganda Al-Qaeda has yet to register a single strike against its avowed enemy. In like manner, “the takfiri and jihadist groups in Sinai claim to be working against Israel, but their missiles have no practical effect in the face of Israeli defences, while Al-Qaeda there is actually working to advance the interests of its counterparts in Gaza who, for their part, claim to be working against Hamas on the grounds that it is trying to prevent them from confronting the Israeli enemy. But when these groups transferred their operations to Sinai, it was not to engage in battle with Israel. That enmity towards Israel is only propaganda to win popular support.” Ghattas adds that, on the one hand, these groups in Sinai are a force that can be used to act on orders when needed, as is the case now, but on the other hand they have an infantile Islamist bent and are set upon inaugurating an Islamist emirate in Sinai in the manner of that in Gaza.
In Ghattas’s opinion, one of the worst consequences of the current Sinai environment is the destruction of the traditional tribal structure there, a process that was accelerated by the wealth and influence that Sinai youth could accumulate through the tunnel trade and smuggling networks. He explains that Sinai youth who worked in those tunnels became vastly rich and built up large personal arsenals by keeping for themselves quantities of the weapons that pass through their hands in the arms smuggling operations that they control. “At the same time, these youths have become self-styled preachers. As a result, tribal elders have lost their traditional status and prestige to the extent that they are now forced to rely heavily on the younger members of their tribes as a basis for strength and for financial support. Money and brainwashing have decimated the tribal structure.”
Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the emergence in Northern Sinai, in Arish in particular, of “Sharia courts” which have been gradually superseding conventional tribal courts and modes of arbitration. “One building there features a huge sign proclaiming itself a Sharia Court which claims to arbitrate in accordance with Islamic law. An official in that building boasted that the court had 600 militiamen at its disposal to carry out its rulings.”
The Muslim Brotherhood connection: There is nothing in the Muslim Brotherhood record to indicate that it condemned those groups in Sinai or their activities while there is much to suggest that this organisation could tolerate them very well especially during its period of “empowerment.” This applied in spite of the vehement criticisms that had once been levelled against the Muslim Brotherhood by some of those groups. But, as Ghattas puts it, if those groups sometimes inveighed against the Muslim Brotherhood for its heresy in not applying Islamic law for recognising Israel or for serving Washington, there was nevertheless “love under the table.”
Ghattas describes this period as “the phase of major paradoxes.” He explains, “these groups were occasionally used by Hamas in order to help the Muslim Brothers escape from prison during the January Revolution. This was the first instance of their deployment in the field. Then they emerged again during the ‘Kandahar’ demonstrations in Tahrir Square in which Al-Qaeda banners featured prominently and which the Muslim Brothers pretended not to see. Subsequently, telephone calls of the same substance were monitored between Hamas leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau.” Ghattas adds, “what concerns us here is that this confirms the connection between the Hamas groups and the Bedouin groups from Sinai, as has come to light in the course of the judicial hearings on the case of the storming of the prison that led to the release of Morsi.”
With respect to Morsi’s year in office, Ghattas said that during that year, 28 officers and soldiers were killed in the five to eight attacks that were launched since the first Rafah attack. “Not once did Morsi give the order to pursue the criminals,” he said. He continues, “In the first attack, on 5 August 2011, SCAF, which was still present, announced that missiles had been fired from Gaza to cover up the operation. Then Moussa Abu Marzouq of the Hamas political bureau issued a statement denying this, after which Morsi’s presidential spokesman emerged with a message saying that Egypt had no intention of closing the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. If this tells us anything it is that the security agencies and the presidency were working in two different directions and, as it turned out, ‘Rafah I’ became the instrument to oust SCAF. Subsequently, the presidency never took any serious action in response to a terror-related incident or disaster.”
What Morsi did do in his one year of power was to issue a blanket amnesty for all the jihadist and Al-Qaeda elements in Egyptian jails. Prime among these were Mohamed Al-Zawahri who never denied his affiliation to Al-Qaeda and who was involved in numerous operations, the most famous being the abduction of police officers in which Al-Zawahri asked for a mandate to act as intermediary. There were many other prisoners released in the amnesty, all returnees from Afghanistan and Albania and most having wended their way to the Sinai where they engaged in training and paramilitary activities. “The Muslim Brotherhood invested in these people for a chief mission, as Al-Beltagi himself admitted, which was to sap the army in confrontations or to force it into an embarrassing face down with Israel. The ultimate aim was to empower the Muslim Brotherhood and place the reins of the armed forces in its hands.”
The scheme was doomed to failure.Mf