Bir al-Abd: The new center of the Sinai war
 
 

On Thursday, a large explosive device blew up an armored vehicle south of the city of Bir al-Abd in North Sinai, killing and injuring two officers and eight soldiers, according to a statement by the military spokesperson. A security source told Mada Masr that the attack occurred when a military convoy of tanks was passing near the village of Tofaha south of Bir al-Abd. The Interior Ministry issued a statement on Sunday saying that its forces killed 18 militants while targeting an area of fighters concentrated around Bir al-Abd. 

The attack is one in a series of operations near Bir al-Abd that have become more frequent since mid-2019. Since then, the city, which lies approximately 80 kilometers west of Arish, found itself in the throes of a battle between the Armed Forces and the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai. This is relatively new for Bir al-Abd: Previous major operations between the two adversaries over the past eight years were centered instead on a triangle of the cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish.

Bir al-Abd and the surrounding villages became targets of Province of Sinai operations after the Armed Forces focused its campaign on Arish during Operation Sinai 2018. Since then, the Armed Forces has constructed a barrier blocking Arish from the south, established a safe zone around the airport, and set up roving checkpoints south of the city. These measures made it harder for the militant group to move in and around Arish, and it began directing its operations toward Bir al-Abd instead.

On April 9, residents of Bir al-Abd woke up to a document circulating on social media that threatened the beheadings of 38 city residents, including government employees, and described them as “spies who cooperate with the military and police.” At the top of the document is written “Province of Sinai – Bir al-Abd Security Agency.” The document was signed by an individual named “Abu Mana’e,” who is known to head the Province of Sinai’s security agency. According to two residents of the city, two copies of the document were found on a street in the Bir al-Abd neighborhood of Zuwayedah.

The document could not be authenticated, however, and it had several spelling errors, uncommon in statements released by the Province of Sinai in previous years. Additionally, the document did not feature the group’s logo, which is usually found on top of its released statements.

However, dumped documents with threats to behead specific individuals were found several times in Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah in 2015 and 2016, the first years of war between the Egyptian military and Province of SInai. Residents found handwritten documents in front of mosques and around local markets. And while it remains unclear who is responsible for these documents, they had significant resonance and led individuals named in the documents, including prominent city figures and the chiefs of tribes, to flee with their families. 

Bir al-Abd has seen the killings and beheadings of residents in the past year. On March 4, 2020, the group declared responsibility for the beheadings of two Dawagra tribe members a few days after kidnapping them.

The group posted a short video clip showing two young men of the Dawarga tribe confessing to receiving requests from a government official in the village of Nagah to report any locations where militants appear. According to the clip, one of the two men reported a location, which was then identified by a drone and bombed by the military a day later. The same government official tasked the other young Dawarga man with monitoring motorcycles carrying militants and reporting one to the Egyptian authorities. The end of the clip shows the two young men lying on sand in the middle of an olive tree farm. Two masked men carrying knives stood behind them and beheaded them after one of them gave a warning to other “spies.”

The killing of the two Dawarga men was the third act of its kind that the Province of Sinai has declared responsibility for near Bir al-Abd this year. In January, the group published photos of a young man’s beheading and a boy shot to death in a desert area south of Bir al-Abd. The group described them as “spies” working for the military. The same month, the Province of Sinai published photos showing the killing of a former government employee named Othman Moussa, whom the group described as a spy for the Egyptian military. The group killed him because as a former director of the supply department in Bir al-Abd, he implemented security directives not to sell large quantities of food products to residents to prevent the provisions from reaching the militants. It was the first time the Province of Sinai had killed a civilian because he was a government employee. In July 2019, the group beheaded three young men on the road between the cities of Arish and Bir al-Abd.

Kidnappings and beheadings have recently reached deeper into Sinai to villages beyond the desert hinterland south of the city, most notably Gifgafa, Hema and Baghdad. These villages are home to dozens of Tarabin tribe members, which in 2017 formed armed groups that cooperate with the Armed Forces in the war against the Province of Sinai militants under the name the Union of Sinai Tribes.

On April 22, the Union announced that the Province of Sinai had kidnapped families from the villages of Hema and Baghdad and published their names. Two days after the kidnapping statement, the Union announced the death of one of its combatants, who was killed after he exchanged fire with members of the Province of Sinai who tried to steal his car in the Wadi al-Hema region.

And on April 8, militants attacked the Maghara area south of Bir al-Abd and kidnapped four members of the Tarabin tribe, according to local sources. Their fate is still unknown.

In the most recent attack against Tarabin tribesmen near Bir al-Abd, militants attacked on April 27 a pickup truck owned by a Maghara-area resident who was distributing jerry cans of water to military checkpoints deployed across the area, according to a security source and a resident.

In late 2016, the Province of Sinai launched several attacks targeting notable tribe members. The confrontation reached its peak in 2017, then subsided following the group’s large July attack against Thunderbolt Battalion 103’s checkpoint in the Barth area, a Tarabin stronghold. Meanwhile, the union announced several times that it had killed and captured Province of Sinai combatants and published videos of their confessions.

The Armed Forces launched a citywide military campaign in March, surrounding the city for several days and inspecting homes and detaining dozens of citizens, most of whom were released days later. During the citywide campaign, shots injured a boy in the Qasrawet area. He was taken to the Bir al-Abd hospital’s intensive care unit, according to a medical source. The campaign was ignited when militants opened fire on March 14 on a car belonging to the city’s police station chief in front of a pharmacy, inside the city’s residential bloc. The attack killed the conscript driving the car. The police chief survived, having left the car just minutes earlier, according to local sources, including a medical source who spoke to Mada Masr.

Two days after the attack in the city center, the Interior Ministry announced that it killed six militants following an exchange of fire in the Abu Shala area near the city’s coastal road.

Since Bir al-Abd became part of the battlefield between the Armed Forces and the Province of Sinai, armed operations have been confined to the city’s eastern end between the villages of Toloul and Sadat, and around the village of Tofaha south of the city. But in March, operations extended past the city center and reached villages situated to the city’s west – most notably, Nagah, Negila and Balouza. 

Meanwhile, on April 9, the Province of Sinai declared in the Islamic State-affiliated newsletter Al-Naba responsibility for several attacks that targeted the Armed Forces. The attacks focused on Qasrawet and Tofaha, as well as other areas south of the city. The group claimed it blew up several military vehicles, including a tank and Hummers, in addition to attacking roving checkpoints. The newsletter announced these operations under the title “Bir al-Abd swallows military vehicles.” The military spokesperson did not release any statements about the attacks. 

The current situation in Bir al-Abd and its surrounding villages has forced many families to emigrate to other, safer areas, according to local sources.

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