Sinai terrorism picks up but Egyptians still see end in sight
Cairo - Coordinated attacks on security and army checkpoints in northern Sinai on July 1st resulted in the deaths of 17 soldiers and more than 100 militants dead and scores of others wounded.
The attacks were staged by more than 100 militants who fired mortar rounds and detonated three suicide car bombs against checkpoints in the North Sinai province city of Sheikh Zuweid, setting off clashes with the army as military reinforcements arrived.
The attacks, which were claimed by Sinai Province, a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), alarmed the public and ushered in wider speculation on the future of confrontations between the army and militants in Sinai.
“By looking at the performance of [ISIS] in the past few weeks, one can easily notice that the group was badly in need of a media victory through its local agents in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait and France,” Abdel Monem Halawa, an expert on Middle East affairs, said.
“We also need to notice that [the July 1st] attacks in Sinai come only hours after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi threatened to implement death sentences handed down by the courts to Islamist figures, including ousted Islamist President Muhammad Morsi himself.”
The July 1st attacks in Sinai come amid a surge in violence across Egypt. Chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat was killed by a car bombing June 29th and several Egyptian provinces were rocked by bomb attacks June 30th.
The Egyptian Army has been cracking down on Sinai militants for almost two years. Militants stepped up attacks following Morsi’s overthrow by the army in July 2013 but Egypt’s military and terrorism experts point to what they describe as the “success” of the army in the battle for Sinai.
“Just do the maths and you will discover that this group is no longer capable of staging major attacks against the army in Sinai,” said Hossam Sweillam, a retired general. “Now, the group’s terrorism is limited to the planting of explosive devices here and there, but the army is more capable of dealing with them.”
Though this does not apply to the July 1st attacks, a survey of Sinai violence may prove Sweillam’s view at least partly correct.
In 2013, ISIS carried out four major attacks, including one on the security directorate in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. The group also tried to kill former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim with a booby-trapped car.
In 2014, the militant group mounted six major attacks, including one on a North Sinai army checkpoint that left scores of army personnel dead. It also shot down an army helicopter, killing five people.
In January 2015, ISIS staged twin attacks on an army hotel and camp, killing 32 military personnel and civilians.
However, Nabil Naeem, a former jihadist-turned-terrorism expert, warned of the ability of the militant group to attract recruits. He said ISIS, which follows a line of thinking that considers “infidels” all rulers who do not act along the ISIS viewpoint of the teachings of the Quran, continues to appeal to some disaffected young Egyptians.
“They mainly address ignorant youths who have a superficial understanding of the Islamic religion,” said Naeem, who spent time with leaders of the group in Egyptian jails. “These uneducated youths are ready to believe anything said to them by the leaders of the group.”
Mohamed Abu Samra, a former jihadist leader who heads the Islamist Party, said ISIS’s ideology appeals to a large segment of the youth. He was quoted by the Arabic language daily al-Tahrir in April as saying that that a large number of Muslim Brotherhood youths had joined the militant group soon after Morsi was toppled.
Egyptian authorities have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood since Morsi’s downfall, accusing members of the group of being behind Egypt’s turmoil.
Naeem said, however, that there is much more to the appeal of ISIS to youths than just talk about the aspired caliphate and “infidel” rulers. He said former members of Sinai Province have told him about the enormous financial resources the group possesses. He said the group continues to receive huge amounts of money through tunnels on the border between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptian Army has demolished hundreds of border tunnels and is trying to create a buffer zone along the border with Gaza, evacuating hundreds of families and razing hundreds of buildings. There have been reports that the army is digging a huge trench along the Gaza border to deter tunnel digging.
Addressing tribal leaders and public figures on June 24th, Sisi said the demolition of homes on the border with the Gaza Strip was his only option.
Sisi’s fight against Sinai militants gained a new impetus a few months ago when tribes in the peninsula publicly turned against the militants and vowed to help the army battle them. This shift happened soon after Sinai Province militants targeting tribal leaders and civilians they accused of cooperating with the army.
The tribes had been cooperating with the army — by providing information — against the militants for a long time than this public show of belligerency, according to a former army general.
He said he expected the alliance between the tribes and the army to have far-reaching effects on the ability of the authorities to end Sinai terrorism.
Nevertheless, the militants are still capable of staging painful attacks in Sinai. On June 25th, they killed a resident of the North Sinai city of al-Arish, kidnapped another and set a water tank on fire. Explosive devices planted by the militants on main roads in Sinai also continue to claim military lives.
One of the challenges that faces the Egyptian Army in eradicating militancy in Sinai was that the military force was only trained to fight conventional wars.
Sweillam says, however, that with every passing day Egyptian troops acquire valuable experience in confronting terrorists.
“This is a war that will surely come to an end because as an army, we have patience, the thing the terrorists do not have,” Sweillam said. “This means that we will end the war in our favour one way or another.”