An elder of the Tarabin tribe — one of North Sinai’s largest tribes — was brutally executed on Saturday by the Province of Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate in the peninsula.
The victim was a member of the Union of Sinai Tribes (UST), a federation of various North Sinai families and tribes mostly composed of the Tarabin that has worked since 2017 with the Armed Forces and security apparatus in the fight against militants.
According to the UST, the 75-year-old, who was kidnapped two months ago, was strapped to a pole and explosives were set off next to him. His body also bore marks of torture.
The incident is just the latest in an escalating series of attacks over the past month by the Province of Sinai against the UST in what appears to be retaliation for the federation’s recent plans to launch a renewed assault against the Islamic State affiliate.
The string of attacks reveal a pattern of reprisal over the past few weeks.
On June 1, Province of Sinai militants raided a rural community on the outskirts of the village of Joura in Sheikh Zuwayed, in an attempt to kidnap two brothers from the Sawarka tribe, which is a part of the UST. While the attack was thwarted by villagers, one of the brothers was killed. The other managed to escape, according to local sources who spoke to Mada Masr.
The largest scale attack to take place in the Sheikh Zuwayed area came two weeks earlier, on the evening of May 17. Province of Sinai militants snuck into Qabr Umair, a village located on the western side of Sheikh Zuwayed, disguised in military fatigues resembling those of the Armed Forces. Villagers resisted the militants who fired back, killing three people — including two members of the Ajjalin family they were trying to capture — and injuring eight others, according to local sources and a medical worker at the Arish Hospital who spoke to Mada Masr at the time.
The Islamic State assumed responsibility for the attack in its official publication, Al-Nabaa. It claimed to have killed four people, whom it called spies. The newspaper also described the militants donning Egyptian army fatigues to get past the many military encampments and checkpoints posted in the area.
The attack was the fourth of its kind on Qabr Umair, according to North Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdul Fadil Abou Shousha. During his visit to the wounded at Arish General Hospital, Abo Shousha called on the Armed Forces to set up a checkpoint to protect the villagers from further attacks.
On May 12, just five days prior, militants stormed the village and successfully grabbed a man in his forties. Local sources said three gunmen armed with automatic weapons entered the village early in the morning under cover of dense fog. They broke into the man’s house and took him away through the southern part of the village.
A day earlier, on May 11, militants entered the village of Abou Tawila east of Sheikh Zayed and left the severed head of a young man from the Tarabin tribe by the village mosque. The man had been kidnapped three days earlier along with another young man from the Roumailat tribe, who was released. It was later revealed that the decapitated man was the nephew of Ibrahim al-Ergany, a businessman and the founder of the UST. Hailed as the “supreme commander” of the federation, Ergany, who operates the central hub for UST fighters out of the village of Barth in southern Rafah, issued a statement mourning his nephew and vowing to strike back.
The recent escalation in attacks by the Province of Sinai comes in the wake of an online call a month and a half ago by Tarabin and Sawarka businessmen for people to join a military campaign by Sinai tribes led by the Tarabin against militants following Eid al-Fitr. Dubbed the “Ajraa Battle,” the campaign was to target areas in southern Rafah where the Province of Sinai operates, especially Ajraa and villages in Sheikh Zuwayed. Ajraa, which is the primary hotbed of Province of Sinai operations in southern Rafah, lies adjacent to Barth.
Recruits were promised a monthly salary of LE 5,000 and tribal sources told Mada Masr that the campaign was launched by businessmen very close to Ergany. The calls were addressed to all young men of the Sawarka, Roumailat and Tarabin tribes to join an armed campaign against the Province of Sinai in what they labeled as as the “post-Eid” period.
During the past few days, the UST’s official page, as well as other Facebook accounts that helped mobilize for battle, have been posting photos of people carrying automatic weapons and riding in four-wheel drive vehicles. They also published photos of explosive devices that they claim were planted by Province of Sinai fighters to the south of Ajraa, as well as photos of ammunition they said were abandoned by the group after a raid by the Tarabin tribe.
Leaders of the UST approached the Armed Forces to provide armored vehicles and other equipment for the campaign, according to the sources. But the military refused, leaving the leaders — largely businessmen — to resort to buying a large number of four-wheel drive vehicles.
The initial agreement between leaders of the UST and individual tribes prescribed that each tribe would focus operations in its own areas, the tribal sources said. However, the military later instructed that all forces should use the Tarabin stronghold of Barth as a central base to operate out of.
The escalation by the Province of Sinai against the Tarabin tribe has not been confined to Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed in the far northeast. A bout of similar attacks also took place in the heart of the peninsula. On April 22, the UST 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 UST announced the death of one of its combatants, who was killed after he exchanged fire with Province of Sinai militants. However, the Province of Sinai did not claim responsibility for either operation.
Yet most of the attacks have specifically targeted Tarabin members, particularly armed fighters who are part of the UST and work with the Armed Forces in locations in North Sinai where military operations are ongoing.
On May 29, two Tarabin members of the UST, Salim Abo Nuqaiz and Eid Muslih Abo Masouh, were killed while carrying out a sweep of a site in cooperation with the Armed Forces, the federation said in a statement.
Meanwhile on May 5, the UST said in a statement that two of its members died in clashes that erupted in Marba’at al-Turshan, an area close to Barth, the UST’s primary base of operations, and Ajraa, one of the Province of Sinai’s active strongholds. The two slain fighters shown in pictures, identified as Jazzaa al-Bahbah and Mohamed Ahmed al-Alawin, appeared to be minors.
This was not the first time minors have been shown to be involved on both sides of the war in North Sinai. A young member of the UST appeared in footage released by the Province of Sinai in July 2018. He was branded by the group as a “spy for the Awakening Councils of Barth” and forced to dig his own grave in a desert area while chained at the leg before he was beheaded.
In January 2020, the Province of Sinai released footage of the execution of two people in Bir al-Abd: a young man who was beheaded, and a boy who was shot. The group labeled both as “spies” who worked for the military south of Bir al-Abd. One of the group’s own members, on the other hand, was announced dead in January 2017. Nicknamed Haydara al-Ansari, he appears in a photo published by the group to be a young boy.
Meanwhile, news has been circulating about an agreement between tribal elders and security agencies to encourage the former to reach out and persuade tribesmen who fought with the Province of Sinai to turn themselves in. Under the deal, they would be granted amnesty, although they would have to submit to extensive interrogation by the security forces.
A tribal source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, corroborated the news saying that a security agency reached out to him and asked him to put them in touch with the families of men who have been involved with the group.
According to the source, 23 now-former members of the Province of the Sinai have handed themselves over to security forces. Their surrender was mediated by tribal elders, primarily from Sawarka and Roumailat. The 23 were allowed to meet their families “as a gesture of goodwill.” They were then escorted to security headquarters outside the peninsula for interrogation. The security apparatus promises to release them in a few months.
Aside from the spate of kidnappings and killings that have plagued Sheikh Zuwayed recently, the area has also seen a resurgence of errant shelling on villages and urban neighborhoods that remain inhabited, albeit by a thinning number of residents. Explosions heard from the Kawthar neighborhood were later found to have been caused by two shells: one that fell on a house, and another on a plot of vacant land next to it. There were no casualties, according to local sources, but a part of the ceiling collapsed and some of the interior sustained damage.
To the far south of the city, in the village of Dhahir, a young Sawarka man was killed by a bullet from an unknown shooter while walking down the street on May 22. Another member of the Sawarka tribe was killed by a falling shell while grazing sheep near al-Hebaidy Mosque in Joura. A local source told Mada Masr that the man, a shepherd who worked near the village, was dismembered by the bomb.