A year and a half ago, compelled by economic hardships, a 26-year-old heavy truck driver left his job moving shipping containers in the East Port Said Port to transport cement for the military-owned El-Arish Cement Company in North Sinai. Little did he know that the worst was yet to come.
On the evening of September 27, the driver, originally from the Daqahlia governorate, was on his way to load a new batch of cement so he could pay an upcoming installment on his vehicle. He was driving to the east of the Suez Canal, and decided to take the road carving through the central Sinai mountains.
He crossed through the Khatimeyya area and then Mashaba, and made his way toward Homa Valley.
As he reached Homa, he found himself face to face with eight militants blocking the road. The driver tried to speed past them, but was forced to stop when a barrage of bullets punctured the tyres of his truck. The militants forced him out of the vehicle and ordered him to get on his knees, shooting at the sand around him. After some time, the militants stopped three other trucks attempting to use the mountain pass, and forced the drivers onto the ground. The unidentified gunmen confirmed that the truck drivers worked for the Armed Forces cement factory, doused the vehicles in a flammable fluid and set them alight.
The militants held knives to the drivers’ throats and ordered them to recite the Islamic declaration of faith. They were saved when, by a stroke of luck, headlights appeared in the distance and the militants fled, thinking it a police truck.
“All of this happened in just seconds, but I still see it, even in my dreams. I won’t forget it until I die,” says the driver, who recounted the story to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
Armed militants carried out a series of similar attacks across Sinai in September, targeting equipment used for projects overseen by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority such as the construction of a road to the south of Bir al-Abd, in North Sinai, and another road linking north with South Sinai. The Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for these attacks through the Islamic State’s online news agency Amaq.
Another similar attack took place on August 14, a source speaking on condition of anonymity told Mada Masr, when militants intercepted trucks near the Baghdad district in central Sinai. Although they were transporting cement from the Armed Forces’ factory in the area, the trucks were all owned by civilian contractors. The militants handed out printed statements asserting that the factory is a legitimate target for militant groups, and warned the drivers, who were all citizens of other governorates, against working in Sinai or collaborating with the Armed Forces.
There are two cement factories in central Sinai: Sinai Cement, which is owned by businessman Hassan Rateb, and El-Arish Cement, a subsidiary of the Armed Forces National Service Projects entity, established in 2011. Both factories are located in the Gebel Lebni area to the South of Arish and on the Arish-Rafah International road, which crosses central Sinai’s most prominent cities: Nekhal and Hasna.
According to the driver, a large banner was recently hung in the military-owned factory cautioning drivers against taking the road through central Sinai, and telling them to use another, more secure road with several security checkpoints.
“We followed their instructions, but we were still attacked on the military road before the Homa checkpoint. There were eight militants, all wearing camouflage and bulletproof vests and carrying Motorola wireless devices. There were more on the sides of the road, and up in the mountains,” he recalls.
He and the five others — three drivers and two assistants — had tried to convince the militants that they were not collaborating with the military. “They shot at the sand so close to where we were kneeling that the impact shook us off the ground. I tried to explain to them that we were just chasing work anywhere we could find it, and were not a party to their conflict. But they were not convinced,” the driver says.
He told them to take his cellphone and money, but the militants told him “We are not here for cellphones.” Instead they burned the vehicles. The truck was the driver’s only source of income, and he is left with a heavy financial burden: “Each month I pay an installment of LE12,000 for the truck, and now I’m staying at home with no work.”
The area between the road to the South of Bir al-Abd and the outskirts of central Sinai saw similar attacks when militants destroyed more construction equipment on September 17. According to eyewitnesses speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the area looked like a warzone with remnants of over 40 heavy construction vehicles including bulldozers, dump trucks, and asphalt mixers littering the sides of the road.
Asking to remain anonymous, a heavy truck owner recounts another similar incident from August 28, when militants attacked a construction site in Bir al-Abd and that the workers were also against returning to work in the area or collaborating with the Armed Forces on any of its projects. He says he collected his equipment and left, despite protestations from other contractors who labelled him a coward.
By mid-September, the militants had followed through on their threats. On the evening of the 14th, they attacked the site and, according to a supervisor from a nearby site, burned five dump trucks and a loader. Three days later, unidentified militants attacked four other sites on another main North Sinai road, burning all the equipment they could find.
A supervisor from one of these sites, asking to remain anonymous, confirms that the targeted sites were all involved in the construction of a new road between north and central Sinai, headed by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority.
He says that there are two military checkpoints on the road to and from the sites, which are closed daily from 7 pm to 7 am, and, aside from an attack in October last year that killed 12 soldiers, the area hasn’t seen any recent militant activity.
The supervisor describes the day of the attack, recalling that three trucks carrying dates and young men and children approached the site after sunset. The young men jumped off the truck and took out machine guns hidden under the dates and ordered the workers to get on their knees. They then set fire to the equipment on the site.
“Then they collected the cellphones of those who were on the site and took us all into one of the sleeping tents. A man with a long beard and long hair came in and started speaking to us, as if preaching in a mosque, but none of us were listening as we thought we are about to get killed. Afterwards, they forced out of the tent and burnt it too. They made us walk a long way from the site before letting us go,” he continues.
Another man from Arish, who owned paving equipment used on one of the construction sites, says that he tried to escape with a truck when the militants attacked. The militants caught him, tied him to a tent and set the truck on fire. Other young men who tried to escape with equipment were caught and beaten, he recounts.
“It’s hard to see your property, the result of your lifelong hardwork, set on fire in front of your eyes knowing you can’t do anything to stop it,” he says.
Another supervisor was able to escape one of the militants attacks. He was on-site when several trucks sped past, warning the workers that militants were burning construction equipment being used to build the road. He and the other workers collected their equipment, he recalls, and hurried to the nearby village of Jafafa.
“We spent a very difficult night there. We were expecting to be attacked at any moment, and in the morning the workers returned to Arish, while the construction company moved the heavy equipment outside of Sinai,” he says.
One of the contractors, originally from Giza, says he returned the next day and found his equipment still smoldering. “I could not look at it,” he says. “This is my money, my children’s money and the source of our livelihood. I am still paying installments on the burnt equipment, our households have been ruined. It was quite a blow.”
He adds that the apparent goal of these attacks was realized, which is to force contractors to withdraw from military projects. The contractor says that a lot of them moved to the west of the Suez Canal and most of the projects have been stalled.
He estimates the losses incurred by the attacks on sites and the destruction of equipment to be worth approximately LE70 million.
Upon the request of the Armed Forces, the burnt equipment has remained in place until specialized committees complete inspections. Meanwhile, the owners of the equipment are asking for compensation so as to make a fresh start.