A suicide bombing at a checkpoint near Rafah has killed several members of one of North Sinai’s most prominent tribes. Islamic State-affiliate Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attack, which marks the most recent development in ongoing tensions between the Tarabin tribe and Province of Sinai.
The tribe members were stationed at the checkpoint when a bomber drove a car carrying an explosive device into it. Eight were killed and wounded in the attack, according to Facebook news page Sinai 24. While the Associated Press reported that four were killed, and others wounded, an official statement issued by Province of Sinai one day after the attack claims that at least 40 were killed, and even more injured.
The militant group identified the bomber as Abu Qudama al-Sinawy, writing that the operation targeted a group of vehicles, destroying 12, which belonged to Tarabin militiamen who they assert are loyalists of the Egyptian military.
Sinai 24 denied the exaggerated casualty count, and claims that armored personnel carriers or vehicles with military-grade modifications were in the possession or service of the Tarabin tribesmen stationed at the checkpoint, stating that the ambush targeted several standard four-wheel drives and a Nissan.
Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism, told Mada Masr that relations have become increasingly strained between the Tarabin tribe and militant Islamist groups in North Sinai since 2014, due to the former’s involvement in several contractual engagements with the state. According to Awad, Province of Sinai in particular has targeted the tribe’s trade links and commercial interests in both central and southern Sinai.
He asserted that the tribe retains close links with the Egyptian state, “The businessman Ibrahim al-Argani, who belongs to the Tarabin tribe, is among the largest, if not the largest, financiers of the 103 Squad — which includes a group of military collaborators.” Awad added that the Province of Sinai has previously carried out attacks on Argani’s property, leading to heightened tensions between the tribesmen and the militants. The crisis has continued to escalate.
Relations have become increasingly strained between the Tarabin tribe and militant Islamist groups due to the former’s involvement in several contractual engagements with the state.
“The Tarabin tribe has a lot of weapons, but the weaponry in possession of Province of Sinai is much more sophisticated,” he said, adding that due to the lack of direct military support from the Armed Forces, the tribe may suffer defeats at the the hands of Islamist militants, similarly to how tribes hostile to the Islamic State group have been targeted in both Iraq and Syria. Awad referenced the Shuaittat tribe, located in the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zor, which has witnessed the execution of some 700 tribesmen by the Islamic State.
Prior to the Tuesday attack a group called the the Association of Sunnis and the Sinai Community issued a statement on April 22, calling for a truce between the Tarabin tribesmen and Province of Sinai. The statement reads: “Fighting is not a proper solution to any dispute, and falls outside the bounds of our tribal habits, which are characterized by harmony and unity.” It emphasized the importance of withdrawing weapons from the territory, decommissioning checkpoints and resorting to a legitimate judiciary, deemed satisfactory by both parties, to settle disputes.
Awad told Mada Masr that the association is one of the remnants of Al-Qaeda in North Sinai, associated with the group known as Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), which operated as one of its armed affiliates in the governorate until 2015. Awad believes that such Al-Qaeda remnants are trivially small and have no real power, but poses that this may represent an attempt by the group to exploit the ongoing conflict in North Sinai to reassert their presence.
Following the Tuesday attack graphic footage of a man set on fire was circulated on social media. Some users claimed that he was a Province of Sinai militant detained by members of the Tarabin tribe for a week, who set him on fire in retaliation for the attack on the checkpoint. Mada Masr was unable to verify the authenticity of the video.
Islamic State-affiliated media also circulated graphics and posters threatening further violence against the Tarabin tribe and other supposed military-aligned militiamen in the wake of the bombing.
Popular anger with Province of Sinai has grown significantly in North Sinai, particularly after two Fawakhariya elders were kidnapped, allegedly by militants, earlier in April. following the kidnapping of Sheikh Hamdy Gouda — the foremost elder from the Fawakhariya tribe — hundreds of youth from the tribe blocked roads in the governorate’s capital Arish on April 20 in protest. The authorities have revealed no information about the incident, or the identity of the kidnappers, and no group has officially claimed responsibility for the abduction.
Local sources told Mada Masr previously that the kidnapping of Sheikh Gouda was followed by the kidnapping of businessman Mohammed Sahmoud, also an elder from the Fawakhariya tribe, under similar circumstances. The sources posed that the two kidnappings may be related to the men’s business ties and contractual agreements for construction works with the Armed Forces. Several of members of the Fawakhariya tribe are known for the involvement in business contracts with state authorities.
Translated by Jano Charbel