Citizens of the North Sinai capital lived through two nights of terror this week as Province of Sinai militants launched a series of coordinated attacks on six checkpoints, including some securing routes leading into downtown Arish and one guarding the Mar Mina Church west of the city. Nine residents in west Arish were also killed on Wednesday night when a missile struck two homes.
The Province of Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate in the peninsula, claimed responsibility for the attacks yesterday through the Amaq News Agency. It included a detailed statement about Tuesday’s attacks in downtown Arish.
The attacks capped a week of violence that has seen a surge in militants targeting civilians.
On Tuesday night armed militants launched coordinated assaults on three checkpoints in residential areas in southwest Arish. Seven police officers under the authority of the Interior Ministry were killed, according to a security source who spoke to Mada Masr.
On Wednesday night, according to the source, checkpoints came under fire along the Arish-Qantara International Road and in Masaeed, Arish’s westernmost neighborhood. Local sources said gunfire was clearly heard.
The security source said two soldiers were injured in Wednesday’s attack, one at the checkpoint protecting the Mar Mina Church in Masaeed, and the other at the Palm Plaza checkpoint. The source told Mada Masr that security forces immediately closed off the international road to traffic and brought in reinforcements.
Masaeed residents confirmed that security forces evacuated some streets in the neighborhood and prevented foot traffic near the checkpoints. They said gunfire continued for about half an hour after the initial attack.
As the military mounted a counteroffensive roughly an hour after the Wednesday attack, two houses near the Kilo 17 checkpoint west of Arish city were struck by a missile, killing nine civilians inside. Those killed were all members of the Sawarka tribe, who originate from south of Sheikh Zuwayed.
According to a medical source, ambulances took the nine bodies to Arish General Hospital.
Local sources heard an explosion west of Arish at around 10 pm last night. A local source told Mada Masr that the incident took place minutes after two of the residents went inside a guest house. Those residents had been held captive by Province of Sinai since Ramadan, and were released near Kilo 17.
The source said that these two residents sought shelter with families in the Saleheen area, who received them in a guest house adjacent to one of the houses. As soon as the two entered the guest house, however, the house was struck by a missile, said the source, who believes it was most likely a drone. The sound of the strike could be heard 25 kilometers away in the center of Arish.
The source said that the two, who were killed in the strike, were part of a group of eight civilians abducted by militants from the village of Mazar, which is near Rawda, before the end of Ramadan.
This is not the first time civilians in Sinai have been killed in airstrikes. While neither side has ever claimed responsibility for an attack on a civilian house, a local source previously told Mada Masr that an Armed Forces fighter jet was likely responsible when two missiles struck a residential property on May 27, killing five civilians. The source said the jet appeared in the sky minutes after the house was hit. Two civilians were also killed in August 2016 when a missile of unknown origin hit a house south of Sheikh Zuwayed.
Between July 2013 and mid 2017, 621 civilians were killed and 1,247 injured by stray bullets and shelling from unidentified belligerents, census data from a North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate document obtained by Mada Masr shows.
The effect of the violence could be seen in Arish’s markets and main streets on Thursday, with many residents staying indoors and a greater police presence. According to local sources, security forces encircled the neighborhoods surrounding the Rabea Police Station behind Rifai Square, conducting home raids and questioning residents. Security forces also closed off part of Rifai Square and Esaaf Street.
First night of violence
Tuesday night’s attack struck the heart of downtown Arish, marking the first large-scale attack in a residential area there since October 2017, when militants targeted the city’s National Bank of Egypt branch.
Such attacks came to a halt with the start of the military’s Operation Sinai 2018 in February 2018. Since then, militant activity in downtown Arish has been limited to assassinations.
The Tuesday attack targeted three checkpoints, according to the source. The first on a bridge over the Arish Valley that leads to a new bus station, the second at the entrance to a cemetery south of the city, and the third a security station responsible for securing the North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate building behind Rifai Square.
Militants provided cover fire as others attempted to overrun the checkpoints. Security forces killed three in the assaults on the checkpoints, added the source. A fourth militant was killed when he detonated his explosive vest inside one of the checkpoints. The attacks left seven police personnel, including an officer, dead. Seven other police were injured, the source told Mada Masr.
The death toll was confirmed in a Wednesday statement from the Interior Ministry, which also stated that police had confiscated improvised explosive devices and machines guns from the militants killed.
The assault on the checkpoints led to a firefight between police and militants on the streets of Arish, with bullets hitting residential houses.
These clashes took place at around 9.30 pm, with the most violent playing out near Rifai Square close to the checkpoint securing the North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate building, in what is considered a lively part of downtown Arish, according to local sources.
Local sources told Mada Masr that they heard the sound of two large blasts during the firefight, and that there was a general air of panic.
As soon as the clashes began, police evacuated the two main streets of downtown Arish, 26 July Street and 23 July Street, which both lead directly to Rifai Square, local sources said.
Nonetheless, civilian casualties ensued.
An armored security vehicle opened fire on a car behind the new bus station, setting the car on fire, one eyewitness told Mada Masr, adding that they assumed the car belonged to the attackers. It was later discovered that the two people in the car were local residents, however.
Two people suffering severe burn wounds were transported to the Arish General Hospital alongside a woman who had been shot in the leg, a medical source told Mada Masr.
One man died from his burn wounds, while the other’s arm was amputated.
The Islamic State-Province of Sinai then claimed responsibility for the checkpoint attacks via the Amaq News Agency.
Security forces have been building fortifications to separate the residential area from the nearby desert, considered a dangerous area in which Province of Sinai militants are concentrated. The most important new security enhancement is a wall running along the south of Arish, which is being built to run along the ring road, with new checkpoints manned by troops aiming to prevent armed militants’ infiltration into downtown.
Two of Tuesday’s targets, the cemetery checkpoint and the new bus station checkpoint, were among those new reinforced points.
This is the second time Province of Sinai has sent suicide bombers to a populous North Sinai neighborhood in recent months. The first time, a suicide bomber attacked police in front of the Sheikh Zuwayed police station on a crowded downtown marketplace.
The attack left eight dead: five police and three civilians. Thirty more were injured, including three police. At the time, the Province of Sinai said the city was filled with informants and plain-clothes police.
Military-contracted workers building security wall attacked
Before the checkpoint assaults, an attack at the weekend targeted one of the security forces’ construction sites on the southern outskirts of Arish.
A security source said gunmen opened fire on two trucks carrying civilian workers, hired by the military to build the security wall along the city’s southern edge, as they drove along the Arish-Qantara International Road near the Arish Airport on Saturday, and then set them on fire.
The early morning attack, claimed by the Province of Sinai on Monday, left four people dead and five injured, according to the source.
Two eyewitnesses driving south along the International Road toward central Sinai told Mada Masr that they saw two burnt-out trucks very close to Arish International Airport.
Local sources said that two workers who were killed were of the Fawakhariya tribe.
The sources said the attack took place in an area said to be under tight security near the Arish airport. A 5 km buffer zone was established around the airport on the orders of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in January 2018 following a December 2017 missile attack on the airport targeting a plane carrying former Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy and former Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.
This weekend’s attack is the fourth to target civilian workers involved in the barrier wall since construction began in mid 2018. On October 12 of last year, militants pursued a group of workers returning from a construction site, shooting and killing four near the Samran neighborhood on the ring road. On October 25, militants detonated an IED near a pickup truck carrying workers on the ring road. Two workers were killed and ten injured in the blast. On March 21 a similar attack left two dead and three others injured, according to a security source who spoke to Mada Masr.
The Province of Sinai’s attempts to obstruct construction of the Arish security barrier and surrounding checkpoints have not been limited to these incidents. According to a source working on the project who previously spoke to Mada Masr, workers are periodically targeted by sniper fire. The sites have also been vandalized, and militants kidnapped a group of workers last September for several days. The militants said that if they returned to the construction sites and worked with security forces again, they would be killed.
The Armed Forces continues constructing the barrier and surrounding security checkpoints regardless, although Province of Sinai claims it has forced them to cease through repeated attacks.
When the barrier and its security fortifications are completed, accessing Arish city will be significantly harder for Province of Sinai militants, who are therefore trying to prevent construction at all costs.
The Armed Forces began building the barrier, which stretches west in the direction of the industrial zone and east in the direction of Tawil, Arish’s easternmost village, in June 2018. It is considered the largest security measure taken to protect Arish residents from the desert interior since the battle between the military and Province of Sinai began in 2014. The desert is seen as the governorate’s most dangerous area because Province of Sinai militants use it as an assembly and mobilization point for attacks.
Security apparatuses will fit the Arish barrier, which will eventually encircle the city from all sides, with 15 security checkpoints behind the ring road, according to a security source. The source affirmed that the checkpoints will be heavily guarded and fortified with reinforced concrete to block access to the road from all directions, and equipped with watchtowers and surveillance cameras overlooking the surrounding areas.
One hostage released, two await ‘trial’
In addition to the two civilians released and then killed in the unclaimed airstrike on Wednesday night, a civilian kidnapped on June 12 was released Friday, local sources said. Ahmed Hamid Hammad was kidnapped with 10 other members of the Sawarka tribe when Province of Sinai set up roving checkpoints on the international road outside Rawda. The group also seized three vehicles.
Three of those kidnapped — Sayed Abdel Wahab Aroj, Adel Mohamed Hamdan Abu al-Haj, and Ahmed Abd Mustafa al-Kashef — were released on June 14.
The Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the kidnappings in its weekly Al-Nabaa magazine, describing those detained as “suspected agents of the security forces . . . among them two lawyers.” The lawyers, Mahmoud Said Lotfi and Kamal Mohamed Awad, will stand trial in front of the Province of Sinai Court for enforcing a “blasphemous constitution instead of the noble Sharia law.”
After the magazine’s report, the brother of kidnapped lawyer Mahmoud Saeed Lotfi published a statement asserting that Lotfi does not work as a lawyer in Egypt and that he “emigrated to Saudi Arabia two years ago and worked there with an Islamic law firm as a consultant whose reference framework is the Quran and the Sunnah.” The family statement added that Lotfi came to Egypt to visit his sick mother and receive treatment for heart problems.
In a separate incident, gunmen recently kidnapped Ahiyat tribal elder Mohammed Abuqardoud and his son from their farm in the village of Bir al-Abd, according to a social media post from MP Saad al-Awaydiah.
Province of Sinai sends messages to 8 Nasr Salt Company officials, renews allegiance to Baghdadi
A source at the El Nasr Salt Company, located in west Arish, said an employee of the company was among the individuals kidnapped outside Rawda village in early June by Province of Sinai. The source said the employee was released carrying a message to eight company leaders from the militant group: “We don’t want blood. Do not deliver from Sabika again.”
The company mines salt in Sabika, which is then transported to Arish Port. The state-owned El Nasr Salt Company is one of the largest salt producers in Egypt and the Middle East, with factories in Alexandria and Arish. The company is a subsidiary of the Holding Company for Chemical Industries.
The source said the company has since announced that it is not liable for employees’ safety, and that they travel to the company’s headquarters at their own risk. Its director has asked to be transferred to any other branch outside of Arish, the source added.
Work at the Arish plant has been halted since January 2018, when Province of Sinai threatened the trucking companies that take the salt from the mines to the port. Militants have threatened the El Nasr Salt Company and stormed its facilities several times, kidnapping staff and security guards.
Province of Sinai released a video titled “A Blessed End is for the Pious,” featuring a masked man speaking in a distinct Sinai accent, who was identified as Abou Gafaar al-Ansari. Behind him stood men holding automatic weapons. One held a Strela 2 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft gun, the same weapon allegedly used by the group to attack the Batal 14 checkpoint in early June.
The six-minute video also included archival footage of Province of Sinai training exercises and combat footage from Islamic State attacks outside Egypt.
It ended with a renewed pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State.
The video appears to have been recorded earlier this year, as it explicitly mentions that the group’s last attack in Sinai targeted Gouda 3 checkpoint in Arish, which left 15 soldiers dead in February. The video also showed footage related to the marketplace suicide bombing in Sheikh Zuwayed.
Arish Port reawakens the specter of eviction for residents
Egypt’s Cabinet issued a decree last week to allocate 371 acres in Arish to the Armed Forces for the purpose of expanding and developing the city’s port.
According to the decree, the Suez Canal Economic Zone will finance, develop and operate the port.
In October 2018, committees from Arish city council examined the Raysa and Abou Sakal neighborhoods close to the port. Houses to be demolished to make way for the port development plan were identified and residents given 30 days to evacuate, but the deadline passed with no follow up.
Now that the port has been officially consigned to the Armed Forces, discussions have resurfaced among Arish residents about possible forced evictions, especially as no official announcements have been made about any compensation for their homes.
The Cabinet decision came a few days after Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, revealed to Reuters the economic components of his Middle East peace plan, billed by Trump as “the deal of the century.” According to the plan, US$9 billion will be dedicated to establishing projects in Sinai, including infrastructure, trade services, and the expansion of ports near the Suez Canal.