Seven soldiers were killed and another seven injured in a coordinated attack by Province of Sinai — the Islamic State affiliate in the peninsula — on three army checkpoints in North Sinai on Sunday.
According to a security official who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the attacks were launched simultaneously on the “Zilzal” series of checkpoints located near the village of Gawra, south of the city of Sheikh Zuwayed.
The main attack targeted the “Zilzal 15” checkpoint where a fierce firefight broke out before the militants succeeded in storming the checkpoint. All seven soldiers killed were stationed at Zilzal 15 and included the captain who commanded the checkpoint, two officers, and a first lieutenant, the source said.
The militants — some wearing explosive belts — arrived in four-wheel-drive vehicles and pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons and were armed with sniper rifles and RPGs, according to the source. The attacks on the other two checkpoints worked to divert security forces during the coordinated assault.
After the attack, the militants retreated to the desert hinterland behind the checkpoints, a rough terrain, marked by sandy hills and some farms.
The Spokesperson for the Armed Forces announced the attacks on his official Facebook page late Sunday night. “Due to the vigilance of security forces, soldiers at the checkpoint managed to confront the terrorist elements and engaged with them, eliminating 10 terrorist individuals and destroying a four-wheel-drive car used by the terrorist elements,” the statement said.
The statement also mentioned that “as a result of the crossfire, two officers and another five of varying ranks were injured and martyred,” though it did not clarify the total number of dead and injured.
Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement published via Amaq News Agency statement, the Islamic State’s media arm. In the statement, the group said four of its fighters were killed, describing them as “inghimasiyeen” (a term referring to special forces-style suicide fighters who carry small arms and explosives). According to the Amaq statement, two of them had the moniker “al-Ansari,” indicating they were from Sinai, while the other two had the moniker “al-Ghazawi,” indicating they are from the Gaza Strip.
Local sources told Mada Masr that fighter jets belonging to the Egyptian Air Force were flying at low altitude over the area from around noon until late evening on Sunday. Residents of Sheikh Zuwayed also said they heard explosions coming from the region’s southern areas in the early hours of the evening.
The attack against the Zilzal checkpoints came only a few days after fierce clashes between the Armed Forces and Province of Sinai gunmen in an area also close to Gawra. The clashes left five soldiers dead, including one officer, and three injured.
According to a security source, the soldiers were trying to set up a new checkpoint in the area, which would have been called Zilzal 16. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy cargo vehicles carrying rations and equipment to fortify the checkpoint came under attack by the militants on Tuesday. The army was forced to retreat after they came under heavy attack, including sniper fire and heat-seeking missiles, one of which hit an M60 tank, killing its crew.
Province of Sinai declared responsibility for that attack in a written statement and a short video, that appears to depict the clashes and features the voices of the group’s fighters as they issue instructions over the radio. The video concludes with masked militants standing in front of a destroyed military vehicle threatening additional attacks on security forces.
Over the past few years, the Armed Forces have surrounded Sheikh Zuwayed with a series of fortified military checkpoints that were established in Province of Sinai’s main areas of activity. These checkpoints have significantly altered the geography of the battle between security forces and Province of Sinai. The security presence at the checkpoints limited the militant group’s movements in its main strongholds south of Sheikh Zuwayed, forcing them to push further westward toward the cities of Arish and Bir al-Abd.
The most important of these deployments are the Burkan series of checkpoints between the areas of Khorouba and Karm al-Qawadees and the Zilzal checkpoints around Gawra, where Sunday attacks occurred. The deployments also include the Thaaleb checkpoints, manned by the Second Army along the Arish-Awja International Road; the Fahd checkpoints, manned by the Third Army and extending from the Om Shihan area to the Awja border crossing; and the Ghazal checkpoints on the Arish-Rafah International Road.
These series of checkpoints shifted the battle ongoing between Armed Forces and Province of Sinai from the middle of Sheikh Zuwayed to the city’s desert hinterland and prevented the group’s fighters from penetrating the city and some of its adjacent villages. The last major attack there was in late 2017, which targeted one of the Burkan checkpoints.
According to local sources, Province of Sinai has managed to penetrate a number of areas in recent months that it wasn’t able to reach in the past. In an October attack on the village of Abul Arag, two young men were kidnapped and a third was injured in a raid by dozens of militants. In December, a man was kidnapped, and three others were injured in Qabr Umayr. Days later, Province of Sinai posted a video featuring the hostage being executed after supposedly confessing to informing an intelligence officer of militant operations. Two weeks earlier, dozens of gunmen attacked the home of a civilian in Gawra, who was allegedly cooperating with security forces, and burnt it down.
According to local sources, in these incidents the militants had prior information and targeted specific people in their homes, indicating they had recently managed to establish a network of informants.
The repeated militant assaults may have prompted the Armed Forces to set up new military positions last week and extend the Zilzal series of checkpoints to cover areas that were vulnerable to attack. Province of Sinai appears to have successfully prevented the move by launching the attack on Zilzal-15 and forcing the military to withdraw.
The recent violence was not limited to Sheikh Zuwayed with the North Sinai capital of al-Arish also coming under attack. A reserve officer in the Corps of Engineers and three other soldiers were killed last Thursday when they tried to dismantle an explosive device east of Arish, according to a security source.
The spate of attacks in North Sinai came soon after a visit to Arish by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohamed Farid Hegazy, according to the Armed Forces spokesperson. The visit included an inspection of a number of security checkpoints and the security measures at the military’s main base of operations in Arish, the statement said.
During the past few days, local news websites have reported on a number of funerals of members of the Armed Forces who were killed in multiple incidents in North Sinai: conscripts Hossam Adel Ahmed, Hani Ahmed Mahrous and Hossam Hassan Aboul Seoud , Sergeant Mohamed Samy Selmy, First Lieutenant Ahmed Salah Abdel Baseer and Captain Fadel Salem.
Following the attack on the Zilzal 15 checkpoint, news websites also reported on five funerals for five soldiers, including an officer: First Lieutenant Ahmed Reda Abou al-Fotouh and conscripts Rabie Fathy Mohamed, Gomaa Reda Gomaa, Ahmed Gamal al-Bahnasawi and Mohamed Mamdouh Abd al-Hameed.
Gas pipeline blown up
On February 2, militants bombed a gas pipeline east of the city of Bir al-Abd, near the village of Amouriya, with flames rising high above the site. The explosion came nearly two weeks after Israel began exporting gas to Egypt, as per a deal between the Israeli firm Delek Group, American firm Noble Energy Inc., and Egyptian firm East Gas Company, which is mostly owned by the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, according to a report previously published by Mada Masr.
The attack on the pipeline east of Bir al-Abd was the first pipeline attack since January 2016. After 2011, the gas pipeline in North Sinai was attacked close to 30 times. The most recent attack targeted an area some distance from previous pipeline explosions, which were centered around Arish — either close to the village of Midan west of the city, or in the Taweel area to the east. This time the explosion occurred in a village in Bir al-Abd, approximately 45 kilometers west of Arish.
Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the pipeline attack. The group had withdrawn to a great extent from the area around Arish after military checkpoints were established, the building of a wall south of the city, and the clearing of farms around the airport. The security measures forced the group to move further west, which may explain its targeting of the pipeline in the area near Bir al-Abd.
The North Sinai Governorate released a statement saying that the exploded pipeline was a subsidiary the one coming from Port Said, adding the attack did not affect the flow of gas to homes, gas stations, factories and a power plant in the area.
On the other hand, Delek Group and Noble Energy, which jointly own the concessions in the Leviathan and Tamar Israeli gas fields, released a statement denying that the oil pipeline connecting the Israeli city of Ashkelon and the Egyptian city of Arish sustained any damages, saying “gas is flowing naturally from the Leviathan field to Egypt.” Province of Sinai claimed it had attacked the gas pipeline connecting Egypt and Israel.
The explosion occurred nearly a week after websites affiliated with the Islamic State published a statement by Abi Hamza al-Qorashi, the group’s new leader following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death. In the statement, he demanded that the group’s affiliates close to Israel target “the Jews and their interests with all types of weapons and capabilities.” He singled out Province of Sinai for its particular proximity.