After launching an attack in the south of the peninsula earlier this month, the Province of Sinai officially announced that it will expand operations into the heavily securitized South Sinai.
The statement from the Islamic State affiliate tops a week of developments in Sinai that includes the state’s attempt to mobilize a higher voter turnout to sparsely populated polling stations in North Sinai. The governorate also continued to see long lines for gas stations and ATMs.
Province of Sinai extends operations to south, the Union of Sinai Tribes mourns fallen fighter
Following several Province of Sinai attacks in the southern half of the peninsula, the group officially announced that its operations have extended into South Sinai in this week’s issue of Al-Nanaa, the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter. The group also warned civilians in North Sinai to avoid security headquarters and police facilities because those sites are targets.
The principal evidence of the group’s expansion is limited to an April 12 attack on the Ayoub Moussa checkpoint, which is 60 kilometers away from the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel connecting north and south Sinai. In claiming responsibility for the attack, the group listed the men behind the attack as Abu Adnan al-Ansari and Abu Mohamed al-Muhager. A post by the Union of Sinai Tribes said Muhager was of German origin. The Union of Sinai Tribes is a group of tribes from North Sinai, including the Tarabin tribe, which has been cooperating with the state in its efforts to combat Islamic State-affiliated militants in the peninsula.
Although there were no casualties reported in the attack, it is significant in that it occurred in South Sinai, considered a heavily fortified area. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which is based in Israel and tracks the activity of militant groups, described the Ayoun Moussa checkpoint attack as “unusual” and said that it conveyed a message to the Egyptian regime that the Islamic State has the ability to carry out operations in areas of strategic importance.
For years, the South Sinai governorate has been of great importance to the Egyptian state as a main tourist area. In the newsletter published by Al-Nabaa, a photo of Abu Mohamed Al-Muhajir shows him on an olive tree farm. However, these farms exist only in the coastal area of North Sinai, providing evidence that al-Muhajir successfully breached security measures between the north and south of the peninsula to enter South Sinai. This would be significant, as the border between the two governorates is considered heavily fortified.
The Province of Sinai has previously carried out three attacks in South Sinai since it became operational. The first occurred when the group was known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and it targeted the South Sinai Security Directorate with a car driven by a suicide bomber in October 2013, which left three dead and injured more than 45.
Almost a year after, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and it claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane. Although the crash took place in North Sinai, the breach took place in the Sharm el-Sheikh Airport in South Sinai.
Another attack took place in April 2017, when Province of Sinai gunmen targeted a police checkpoint 800 meters from the St. Catherine Monastery.
Footage of the deadly suicide bombing on police in a Sheikh Zuwayed market was also published by the Islamic State this week. The video included a speech by the suicide bomber identified as Abu Hajir Al-Masry and the process of preparing the suicide belt. He concluded the video by warning North Sinai civilians to stay away from military and security headquarters, as they are targets for the militant group.
Meanwhile, the Union of Sinai Tribes published a statement on Sunday April 12, mourning one of its tribesmen. In a statement published by the union on its Facebook page, the group said Ahmed Ayed Abu Ounka was killed in an IED explosion in the Agra district south of Rafah. The attack was claimed by Province of Sinai in a statement on The Amaq News Agency, the media arm of the Islamic State. The attack targeted a four-wheel drive vehicle carrying “pro-Egyptian state militia”.
Abu Ounka is the third fighter the Union announced to have been killed in the past several weeks. In March, it announced the death of three others: the first, Salman al-Mawany, was killed in a landmine explosion in Agra, while the other two, Abdallah al-Shetwy Ibn Gamry and Ayesh Salmy Abu Nada, were killed in a landmine explosion on the outskirts of land owned by the Tarabin tribe.
According to local sources, gunmen kidnapped five people near Rawda, west of Arish, on Saturday April 20. It was not clear if the Province of Sinai was responsible for the kidnappings; however, social media accounts known to have ties with the group mentioned that militants belonging to the group were the perpetrators. It was reported that the five were kidnapped and interrogated about their alleged collaboration with security forces, but were released after eight hours.
Four civilians were injured on Wednesday west of Arish after militants planted an IED to target security vehicles. According to a security source, the IED exploded as a security convoy passed along the Arish-Qantara International Road west of Arish. A nearby civilian car was hit by the blast, injuring four people. The source added that the security convoy was left unharmed.
The explosion is the second attack to occur on Arish-Qantara International Road with civilian casualties. The earlier blast hit a family of three on April 9 after two IEDs exploded near a security convoy, killing a man and his son. The boy’s mother was gravely injured.
Limited turnout in constitutional referendum, officials vowed to award village with top number of votes as curfew continues to be imposed
Constitutional referendum polling stations in North Sinai witnessed a low turnout during the three days of voting, especially in Arish, where most of the governorate’s 263,157 eligible voters reside. For the first time, turnout in the first few hours of the referendum was higher in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah than in Arish. The capital city has been on high alert since April 15, when Arish was temporarily shut down after police received information that militants had infiltrated the city center. The Egyptian Cabinet has extended the curfew in North Sinai for another three months.
The original curfew was instituted in October 2014, when the government announced a three-month curfew in North Sinai after an attack on the military checkpoint in Karm al-Qawadees in which 30 security personnel were killed. The curfew has changed several times since it was first applied. It is currently in effect from Arish to the Midan checkpoint in the west from 1 am to 5 am. In Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, a curfew is imposed from 7 pm until 6 am the next morning.
By the end of the first day, the general operations room, set up to follow up the referendum, announced that the city of Nakhl in central Sinai had the highest voter turnout in the governorate. Nakhl is the smallest voting bloc in North Sinai, with only 2,599 voters.
The low turnout within the governorate led executive bodies to launch a voter drive urging citizens to go to the polling stations and participate in the referendum. On the first day, the governorate of North Sinai announced the availability of free buses to transport displaced citizens from Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah who currently live in Arish and Bir al-Abd to their polling stations, and to transport them back to their villages. On the third day, the governorate announced in an official statement that all residents in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah would be allowed to vote in any polling station within the governorate. In addition to the free rides, the governorate announced in a statement on its Facebook page an unspecified financial reward for the village with the highest voting turnout in the referendum.
In the past few years, hundreds of families have been displaced from Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah due to the ongoing conflict between the military and the Province of Sinai, as well as the implementation of the security buffer zone in the city of Rafah along the Gaza Strip. This has led to the total evacuation of some villages and neighborhoods and the displacement of residents.
Lines for ATMs and fuel stations
While the turnout at polling stations was low, Arish saw kilometers-long lines at the city’s only fuel stations. Most of the customers were taxi drivers.
The crisis of gas-powered cars has not ended in North Sinai, despite the efforts of officials to regulate the mechanism for the distribution of fuel, gasoline, diesel and gas.
Taxi owners cited several reasons for this problem. The first is that there is only one fuel station for all the taxis in Arish, as well as the short operating hours and low staff at the station.
The most important reason, taxi owners told Mada Masr, is the frequent rotation of the military officer in charge of the station. According to the eyewitnesses, every 15 days the officer changes. When the officer understands the situation, the station is fully operational, the drivers said. However, some officers are less understanding and put restrictions on the work of the station, resulting in the long queues of cars.
According to local sources in Arish, the queues in front of the fuel stations stretched for about five kilometers along Assiut Street to the international coastal road.
The ATM queues began after government employee salaries were disbursed. The queues are yet another crisis taking place every month in North Sinai due to the small number of functional ATM machines. The high demand on a low number of machines quickly depletes the ATMs, forcing residents to wait until the next day to withdraw their money.
A source working in one of Arish’s banks told Mada Masr that the deteriorating security conditions in the governorate prevent the maintenance of the ATM machines.
He said that only the manufacturer can maintain the machines. He said that almost a year ago, the company sent the maintenance team from Cairo, but one of the workers was shot by unknown assailants, prompting the company to stop sending maintenance crews to North Sinai.