Sinai has seen the return of carefully planned terrorist attacks with the goal of causing significant casualties, as recent ambushes on security forces have left many dead and others injured. After several quiet months, militants have not only been able to set up these attacks, but establish checkpoints where they conduct surprise searches of citizens, and even abductions.
Last Friday, armed militants ambushed Abu Zakdan, near Bir al-Abd, in four-wheel drives and shot live ammunition at soldiers, killing 12 people including two officers and wounding eight others.
Two days later, sporadic clashes broke out between the Armed Forces and militants leaving three police officers and five soldiers dead, and injuring 11 others. The clashes affected three separate areas, Abu Tawila, Sheikh Zuwayed and Jura, a village neighboring the city of Rafah.
Former Assistant Interior Minister Major General Abdel Latif al-Bediny says that attacks in Sinai in 2005 were easier to confront. “At the time, they were stationed in the Mount Halal area, which limited the scope both of attacks and investigations. The operations that started in 2011 were more hit and run in nature. The terrorists do not control specific areas and they know very well that there is no possibility of controlling territory. Their operations depend on sudden attacks and escapes.”
“In this context it is unfair to criticize the police or the Armed Forces,” he adds “because these groups’ efforts are continuous. The confrontation needs more time, especially for national security and military intelligence efforts.”
A local source from Sheikh Zuwayed speaking on condition of anonymity says that operations characterized by more targeted killing changed after an attack in March when armed militants staged an ambush in Safa in South Arish with rocket-propelled grenades killing 13 police personnel, among them two officers. “After this incident they tried to attack the gate to Sheikh Zuwayed using car bombs and laid an ambush in Rafah. However, security forces managed to thwart these attacks by blowing up the cars before they could reach their targets. After these attempts the militants adopted hunting style attacks, where they set up fixed ambushes and improvised explosive devices. These are the types of attacks that returned on Friday, and then during Sunday’s attack.”
Aly El Raggal, a politics and sociology researcher specializing in security studies, emphasizes the importance of monitoring the disappearance and return of these large-scale operations.
“The Armed Forces succeeded this year in dealing severe blows to extremist organizations in Sinai,” he explains. “This forced militants to change their operations, adopting methods like setting up surprise checkpoints to ask citizens if they are smoking or wearing the hijab. Or in the most recent development, abducting citizens and accusing them of collaborating with the army and killing them.”
Raggal stated that these types of organizations should not be examined superficially, and warned against overestimating their strength.
At the same time, however, he affirms that these new types of operations should not be ignored. “The operations may be an attempt to restore the previous pattern of attacks, but they are not separate from what is occurring regionally,” he says, adding that “terrorist organizations do not operate in isolation from each other. The Islamic State is facing a significant threat in Iraq, since the Iraqi military officially began the battle to liberate Mosul. It is also not too far from Syria, where there are international talks on whether Jabhat al-Nusra should be classified as a terrorist group. In short we can see the operations in Sinai as the reopening of an old front at a time when other fronts in the region are exposed to intensive military and political targeting.”
Raggal also puts the attacks into the context of a political crisis between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Egypt’s changing relationship with Russia, pointing to the recent announcement of Egypt and Russian joint military exercises in Egyptian territory, adding that the “main fight against terrorism will play out in a desert environment.”
“This may seem like a conspiracy theory, but that is not the intention,” he says. “I think that linking what happens in the local surroundings to global politics is vital to understand what motivates these movements and attacks.”