Arish — Like many of his neighbors, Sherif was watching the Ahly and Zamalek game on the wintery evening of Thursday, January 29, when a deafening series of explosions sent him flying off his bed.
The 25-year-old filmmaker and his family had to curb their initial impulse to run out of their home in Dahya — a neighborhood in the North Sinai city of Arish — when they saw that shots were being fired at anyone in the street.
“For two hours, we saw hell. We were in the middle of the gunfire,” says Salah, who runs a telecoms service shop in Arish. His house is 30 meters away from the North Sinai Security Directorate, the target of the bombings. The door of his apartment broke in two, his windows were shattered and much of his furniture destroyed. Bullets flew into his house, he was one of many caught in the crossfire between the Armed Forces and the militants.
“We have 101 and 102, and we are caught in the middle,” says Fathy, a businessman from Arish who echoes the sentiment of many others in the city.
Battalion 101 is a central military command base in Arish dating back to the 1980s. It was one of the targets in the Dahya attacks, and most of the 30 casualties that day were from the battalion. 102 is the popular name Sinai residents coined for the main militant group operating here, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State last November and now calls itself the Province of Sinai.
Both sides of the ongoing war wave the banner of statehood — but the narratives of many area residents show that both groups act less like states. The military fails to take measures against collateral damage during its operations against the militants, who in turn fight back against the state using guerilla tactics — an attrition style of warfare designed to exhaust the army.
How the militants fight the state
Salah says that three vehicles carried out the Dahya attack, one of which was a water delivery truck that might also have been servicing the militants. This vehicle was particularly suspect because it provided a daily service for the battalion, Salah says, indicating it could have been monitoring the base on behalf of the militants.
The battalion is only a kilometer away from a military checkpoint, whose soldiers are reportedly under investigation for allowing the explosive-laden vehicles to pass through. Many in Arish question the ease with which the heavily protected battalion and security directorate were attacked.
Rows upon rows of barracks and sand bags guard both military facilities, while highly attentive security personnel are on standby, alert to any suspicious move. At night, they spend their time deterring potential attackers with warning shots and Light Bombs.
The militants were well-rehearsed for the precisely organized attack on the Dahya security stronghold. Brandishing religious signs and weapons, they’ve been organizing spectacles in the North Sinai streets to demonstrate their military capabilities. Mahmoud, a shop owner in Sheikh Zuwayed, describes one such demonstration recently performed between a military checkpoint and a police station. He wonders how these performances can happen without any state intervention.
The militants vs. the people
These performances are also a reminder that there’s a high price to pay for collaborating with the police. Mahmoud recounts how, in broad daylight, in the Sheikh Zuwayed town, the militants publicly beheaded five men who confessed to giving information about their whereabouts to security forces. One of the victims, Sameh Selim, was a school teacher and a friend of Mahmoud’s. In a video the militants disseminated earlier this month, Selim confesses to riding in military vehicles, wearing military attire and pointing out the homes of wanted militants.
“We were surprised to hear his confessions,” says Mahmoud. “But their public beheadings sent a message to the town.”
These weren’t the only beheadings. In another video released in August 2014, four men — three of whom had been prisoners in Israel — confess that they were recruited by Israeli officers. The hostages say they regret what they did and advise anyone taking the same path to hand themselves to the militants and avoid their fate.The men are then swiftly beheaded — the mark of the Islamist State’s branding on the Province of Sinai’s operations.
“Every hand that harms the jihadists, and every head with eyes that inform on them, has to be cut off,” the militants write in a message at the beginning of the video. In a softer, final message, the militants add, “Our goal is not to cut off your heads, but to stop your hands from harming Muslims. If you obey us, you will live safely among your family. But if you insist on fighting God, his prophets and his mujahideen (jihadis), we only have slaughter for you.”
Mahmoud and others have complained that the recurrent beheadings in Sinai have garnered little to no attention in the media.
The militants have also begun to adopt other mundane state postures. The main road between Arish and Rafah is usually closed to civilians, forcing them to take side roads studded with checkpoints — some manned by the military, others by the militants. Some of the militants’ checkpoints are stationed just a few kilometers away from the army’s, and are reportedly equipped with computers and internet connections to investigate any passersby.
Mahmoud describes how his friend, a schoolteacher, was stopped by the militants on the road into town.
“He’s a bodybuilder, so the militants suspected he was connected to the security. They took him, beat him up and released him after an hour,” Mahmoud says.
Sayed, who works with journalists in North Sinai, was stopped and beaten at a militant-operated checkpoint between Arish and Rafah several weeks ago. Sayed was on the road with four Egyptian journalists, and two military tanks were driving ahead of them. The tanks turned shortly before Sayed found himself faced with the militants’ checkpoint.
“I told them, ‘Be careful, there are military tanks nearby.’ They said, ‘We’re not here for them, we’re here for you’,” he recounts.
Sayed and the journalists were shot at and physically assaulted, then released. He hid his companions’ press IDs, and said they worked for the sympathetic Al Jazeera satellite network based in Qatar.
“If they knew the journalists were from an Egyptian newspaper, none of us would have made it out alive,” he claims.
This was not Sayed’s only encounter with militants — he says he frequently runs into their checkpoints. On one trip to Rafah, he says he witnessed the militants drag a journalist out of a pickup truck. Sayed doesn’t believe the victim made it out alive.
A few days ago, Sayed received a warning that he would be killed if caught taking journalists or officers to Rafah again.
Despite these fierce encounters, others say the militant checkpoints only stop people they suspect of colluding with the authorities. Fouad is a coffee shop owner who recently relocated to Arish after the army evacuated the residents of Rafah to dig a buffer zone to deter terrorists. He explains that one time the militants collected everyone’s IDs at a checkpoint, but remained respectful because they didn’t suspect anyone.
“The militants never hurt us or raise an arm in our face. They don’t scare us,” says an old woman from the village of Muqataa, a militant stronghold near Sheikh Zuwayed.
“They have no interest in alienating the other residents, because they live among them and don’t want them to turn into collaborators with security,” Fathy explains.
‘Terrorism is not a wild plant’
While no one knows the exact composition or origins of the different militant groups based in Sinai, many believe past state crackdowns on the area might have fueled their growth.
While visiting his cousin in Cairo’s Tora prison in 2005, Fathy met Kamal Allam, who would later become a key militant in the Tawheed and Jihad group in Sinai. At the time, police had randomly arrested hundreds of men from the peninsula after several tourist sites were bombed in South Sinai.
Allam was in custody on drug charges, and was limping due to injuries sustained from torture. He told Fathy, “I wouldn’t wish what I’m going through even on an apostate.”
After spending his time in prison among Islamist detainees, Allam escaped from his cell during the 2011 revolution when the police retreated from their posts. He was among the first to attack police stations in North Sinai between January 25 and January 28 of that year. In January 2014, the Ministry of Interior announced Allam had been killed in a military campaign south of Rafah.
Fathy explains that the expansion of terrorist networks in Sinai is mainly stimulated by the desire to retaliate against police brutality, and less by a deep-rooted jihadist doctrine. He and other Sinai residents assert that two years after the revolution, there were only around 100 militants active in the region. But since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in the summer of 2013, he says their growth is nearly out of control as many of those who suffered during the ongoing security crackdown were easy to recruit. Many people — especially those from the most impoverished areas in the peninsula’s center and eastern edge — are also joining the militias to make money after losing work in the stymied smuggling trade.
While some research has established a connection between certain militant elements in Sinai and foreign groups — such as those based in Gaza — the story narrated by Sinai locals still focuses on terrorism as a product of state injustice.
“Terrorism is not a wild plant,” Fathy asserts.
How the state is fighting terrorism
In fighting the terrorists, the state may be perpetuating the very conditions that led to the spread of militancy in the peninsula, locals say.
Mahmoud and other locals complain about the Kawthar checkpoint in Sheikh Zuwayed, where soldiers have been shooting any passersby they deem suspicious. Once, a car was 200 meters away from the checkpoint when Mahmoud heard an officer tell a soldier, “Shoot him in the head — no one will punish you.”
Soldiers shout “esbat” (freeze) to people trying to pass through the checkpoints. They risk being shot if they disregard the order. Youssry, a shop owner in downtown Arish, recounts that a mentally disabled man on a motorbike was shot because he didn’t understand the command “esbat.”
A young man from Rafah describes how his family of two elderly women and two children were traveling on the treacherous road to Arish when the driver found the road blocked and took a turn. The car came out too close to a military checkpoint, and they found themselves under heavy fire. The family was forced to flee on foot, returning in the morning to retrieve the car.
On their way back to Rafah, the same family saw bullets fired at the car in front of them when it took too long to park on the side of the road as a military tank approached.
But sour experiences at checkpoints are only the tip of the iceberg for residents of the villages around Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, which house most of the strongholds of the militants.
The army vs. the people
Madiha, a middle-aged widow from Muqataa, sits in the small shed she relocated to three months ago. She now lives in the Masaeed neighborhood in southern Arish, one of the few places that residents still consider relatively safe.
Muqataa was the target of some of the military’s most vicious operations. In the first raid in mid-2013, military forces stormed her house. The troops shot between the legs of her 12-year-old daughter to force her to report on the area’s militants. They then used Madiha and her three children as human shields, she claims, forcing them to walk in front of the soldiers as they ventured into the fields.
The use of civilians in this ongoing war is common. Hamdy, a shop owner in downtown Arish, recounts how security forces recruited him for a civilian committee to investigate the discovery of nine dead bodies near a local water reservoir.
“The police are scared when they receive reports like these, as it could be a trap for them,” Hamdy explains. The police were so afraid that they arrested the person who reported the bodies, he claims.
The ferocious security operations have left many residents embittered. Madiha, her sister-in-law and daughter-in-law — all neighbors in the Masaeed desert — say that drones and Apaches have been striking local homes. Security forces have burned down houses after evacuating women from the village. As for the men, the guilty and the innocent alike flee shortly before troops arrive for their biweekly raids, fearing arrest. The women say soldiers have also burned down the olive tree orchards that are their livelihoods.
“Are olives trees terrorists as well?” the sister-in law-asks mockingly.
Civilian deaths have become recurrent in these attacks, though widely unreported by the media.
“They kill our children and say they killed the terrorists,” the sister-in-law laments, echoing the sound of recurrent headlines in most newspapers and television outlets.
Mahmoud recounts that several people arrested by security forces in Sheikh Zuwayed have later been found dead in the streets.
The cost of the war on terror
Reports of civilian deaths have been corroborated by human rights groups conducting research in the area, though no reports have been published yet.
These deaths are the brutal, immediate cost of the state’s war on terrorists. But there is also a more prolonged, quotidian cost that North Sinai residents must pay.
Rafah had been under curfew since the summer of 2013, but in October 2014, the government announced a three-month curfew that stretched to Arish. On January 25, 2015, area residents gathered to celebrate the curfew’s end — only to find out it would be extended.
The streets of Arish are now lined with cafes and restaurants shuttered by the slump in business, and many workers lost their jobs when the curfew eliminated evening shifts.
Blackouts on cellular networks — to prevent SIM cards from being used to detonate explosives — have also choked people’s ability to communicate.
“It’s a collective punishment,” says Sherif, who believes these measures have become ineffective. Terrorist attacks continue to occur, he says, even after curfew and despite communication blackouts. Salah explains that militants have been resorting to other detonation methods, such as using internet access points to bypass cellular network blackouts.
Instead of bolstering a sense of security, the war on terror and increased militarization have fostered an extended state of fear in North Sinai. Dahya residents walk through their town with bated breath.
Samiha, a schoolteacher, was finishing up her shopping before curfew began at 7 pm, while muttering some inaudible words about the last string of attacks. At the sound of a minor explosion, the origin of which was unknown, she hurled a scream and dropped her shopping bags. She says she often stays fully dressed at night in case her house is struck by a bomb.
Fathy refused to appear in the street with reporters, and walked a few hundred meters ahead of the Mada Masr team until they reached their meeting point. Youssry stood guard in front of his shop door as he talked to Mada, often looking out to the street as he spoke in a hushed tone.
A matter of time?
For some, the state can’t effectively combat this guerilla warfare, hence its inefficiency at ending terrorism in Sinai and the steadily mounting civilian toll.
The state “is at war with bats,” says Salah. “It’s a guerrilla war that an organized army cannot endure. It is a war of attrition.”
Fathy also points out that military intelligence agencies are now having difficulty predicting the militants’ moves, despite their close and long-lasting ties to many notables in the area.
But Fathy, Fouad, the coffee shop owner in Arish, and others suspect that the state simply has no interest in eradicating terrorism altogether. The authorities need this powerful tool to drum up international support and to sanction their clampdown on civil liberties.
Caught in a powerless place between two battling giants, drained by conspiracy theories and frustrated by attempting to make sense of the situation, some residents have given up trying to understand or to resist their fate.
Fouad sums up their defeated spirit: “Sinai is finished — it’s only a matter of time. All we can do now is sit back and watch.”
*The names of the North Sinai residents quoted in this story have been changed for their protection.