By the close of 2020, the Armed Forces and security forces had successfully dislodged Province of Sinai militants from the areas south of Bir al-Abd in North Sinai.
Residents of villages located in the southwest of Bir al-Abd were forced to flee their homes at the end of July 2020 when Province of Sinai occupied Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih following an attack on a military camp in the village of Rabaa. Residents began a rocky return in October, coming home to find rigged explosives littered about their villages and homes left behind by militants, who still occasionally appeared on the outskirts of villages.
Residents in several other villages in the Bir al-Abd district have seen their lives return to normal, while others are still trying to piece together a community life and infrastructure completely decimated by fighting that has gripped the area since late 2019.
With the security situation in Bir al-Abd more stable, the Armed Forces have tried to clamp down on its eastern front, establishing several new checkpoints and establishing a de facto siege on the Province of Sinai’s strongholds in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, prompting several militants and their families to surrender due to hunger.
However, the success for the military sits beside new challenges, as militants have opened up a new front at the western edge of the peninsula near the Suez Canal, pushing into other administrative districts.
In the last quarter of 2020, Egypt’s Armed Forces managed to expel Province of Sinai militants from the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen, and Merih. The militants have been consistently losing ground in territories in which they inserted themselves in late 2019 when they began expanding their presence in Bir al-Abd villages, especially Tofaha, Fatir, and Ard al-Kheir, which are located south of Bir al-Abd.
In response to the intensified Armed Forces strikes in and around these villages, militants stretched their operations farther afield in North Sinai, targeting areas that have more strategic weight due to their close proximity to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.
The militants began to take up activities on the western edge of the governorate, conducting several attacks in December against battalions and reconnaissance checkpoints of the Egyptian Air Defense Forces, a military branch that has been far from involved in direct clashes between the Armed Forces and Province of Sinai militants in recent years. While no official statements were made on these attacks, the civilian-led armed group Union of Sinai Tribes announced via their Facebook page on December 11 that Air Defense Forces Major Mahmoud Reda had been killed without clarifying the situation surrounding his death. Later, local news outlets published pictures of Reda’s funeral.
The Air Defense Forces battalions are largely situated on the western edge of North Sinai. The camps are exceptionally abundant in the Romana and Balouza villages near Eastern Qantara on the governorate’s border with Ismailia, which has jurisdiction over the villages.
The expansion of the militants’ operation reached Sahl al-Teina and Gelbana regions, which are both located in Sinai geographically but fall under the administrative jurisdiction of Port Said and Ismailia respectively.
In December, the Islamic State published a clip showing the execution of a Sahl al-Teina resident named Gomaa al-Sayed Rayyash at the hands of the militants after he confessed to cooperating with security forces.
In the video taken before he was executed, Rayyash said that a National Security Agency officer visited him in September 2019 with a man named Saqr al-Massoudy, whom Rayyash described as “the agent who was assassinated.” Massoudy and the NSA agent asked Rayyash to inform on three militants who were customers in a supermarket he owns. Rayyash agreed, and the security forces set up an ambush in which they killed the militants.
In October, Massoudy was killed by militants in front of his home in the village of Gelbana. The Province of Sinai did not claim responsibility for the assasination at that time.
Local sources said that with militants’ emergence in these strategic regions at the end of 2019, security forces and the military have coordinated to put in place unprecedented security measures, conducting inspection campaigns, interrogating residents and stopping and frisking citizens.
Residents return to Tofaha, Qasrawet, while casualties from rigged explosives continue
As militants were pushed out of the villages south of Bir al-Abd and into the western edge of North Sinai, displaced residents have been returning to their villages. Two months after residents of the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih returned to their homes in October, residents from other villages in Bir al-Abd returned to their homes, including those from the villages of Hamieda, Hamiesa, Ard al-Kheir, Fatir, and Qasrawet. At the beginning of 2021, residents of the village of Tofaha were allowed to return to check their homes and farms.
Sources from the villages affirmed to Mada Masr that the Province of Sinai’s presence in their villages had been wiped out, adding that the return of residents, electricity, and running water had brought life back to normal in Qasrawet, Fatir, and Ard al-Kheir.
Residents of Tofaha, however, found that their village had been decimated, returning to find the village’s infrastructure destroyed as a result of clashes and airstrikes.
One of the village’s residents described the situation as “mass destruction.”
“All the farms have dried up. Trees have died and become more like dry wood that can only be used as kindling,” the resident says, adding that the absence of electricity due to the destruction of several electricity towers and the damage to most electric transformers has left the village’s internal electricity network in tatters.
Residents of Tofaha were displaced over a year ago after militants carried out an attack on a military checkpoint located on a bridge leading to the village above the Salam Canal in September 2019. Poultry farms and agricultural lands in the village, which is the main source of food production for the greater Bir al-Abd area, were completely destroyed, residents told Mada Masr. Orchards and agricultural land were no longer suitable for planting even palms which are known for their resilience, as they had been felled or burned.
In an attempt to prevent more of the death and injury residents suffered who returned to the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih in October, tribal elders and senior Armed Forces officers briefed residents on how to avoid and spot rigged explosives left behind by Province of Sinai militants.
Nevertheless, the instructions did not prevent casualties.
On January 8, a rigged IED detonated in a family home, killing one person and injuring another. Three days later, another explosive device detonated during an attempt to defuse it, killing two Armed Forces personnel and a civilian named Nagy Nasser, witnesses and medical sources in the Bir al-Abd area told Mada Masr. Another local source told Mada Masr that Nasser was trained to spot and defuse explosives and regularly accompanied military units that had been combing the villages of Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih during the last few months.
The IEDs on a residential property and IED attacks on military vehicles patrolling around the villages were not the only traces that the Sinai Province militants left behind in the villages. On December 10, the body of a Qatiya resident abducted by militants months ago was found on his farm.
On December 22, militants also abducted three residents, two brothers and their cousin, from Romana. The militants released the two brothers. However, their cousin’s fate remained unknown. According to local sources, the three residents work as fishermen in Bardawil Lake and were abducted on their way home after work.
At the start of December, the Armed Forces and armed civilian groups from the Union of Sinai Tribes (composed of armed civilian groups whose core membership is drawn from the youth of the Tarabin tribe) and other groups from the Sawarka tribe, conducted extensive raids inside the village of Mokataa, located to the south of the city of Sheikh Zuwayed, which has long been the main base for the Province of Sinai since its inception: first as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Beit al-Maqdes and then as the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai.
Fighting resumed on the East Sinai front of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed last year alongside the Province of Sinai’s attempt to recenter the fighting around its core territories given its losses on the western front in Bir al-Abd and its surroundings.
The village of Mokataa, located to the southeast of Sheikh Zuwayed near the border city of Rafah, has been considered the capital of the Province of Sinai. Most of the militant group’s early leaders came from the village which is a stronghold for the Province of Sinai in northeastern Sinai, according to local sources and a source close to the Union of Sinai Tribes.
On Facebook, the Union of Sinai Tribes published clips allegedly from inside Mokataa, showing tunnels, hideouts, explosives, motorcycles, firearms, and an underground shelter that the page alleged served as a prison for civilian captives. The association’s page also published documents that include marriage certificates and national IDs belonging to militants, and stated that the tribe had captured two Province of Sinai militants.
The union put out a LE2 million bounty in an exchange for information on Province of Sinai leadership figures and called on militants to surrender after their strongholds had been infiltrated.
To further constrain the Province of Sinai in Mokataa and to protect the the remaining residential blocks in the center of Sheikh Zuwayed city and the small communities inside and around the villages of Zahir and Gora south of the city, the Armed Forces have constructed a series of checkpoints, which have prevented logistical support and food supplies from reaching militants.
Hungry and without supplies, militants attempted to infiltrate residential civilian communities for food.
In the last days of December and the early days of 2020, Province of Sinai militants made three attempts to infiltrate the Kawthar neighborhood of Sheikh Zuwayed, one of the few residential areas in the city located near the Province of Sinai’s strongholds in Matalla and Husseiniyat.
On December 23, a few days before these attempts, military personnel evacuated the Military Hospital checkpoint, which is the last security point among a series of heavily fortified checkpoints on the eastern side of Kawthar. This left the area overlooking Rafah’s evacuated villages open to militants, a local source told Mada Masr. The evacuation was coupled with the onset of a heavy fog in the area, providing militants with cover to raid houses.
After militants successfully infiltrated residential areas for the first time, security forces redeployed to the Military Hospital checkpoint, but the fog allowed militants to infiltrate twice more, on January 2 and 3.
According to the source who spoke to Mada Masr, each time militants made their way into residential areas, around 15 men entered the area on foot at around 4 am, taking with them sacks of wheat, canned food, and sugar packs from the homes and markets in the area. According to the source, the militants offered to pay for the food supply. Some residents took the value of the supplies, while others rejected but the militants left money anyway. Those who refused to give food items were assaulted by the militants before they forcefully took the supplies.
A fourth infiltration took place on January 4, but on the outskirts of the village of Gora south of Sheikh Zuwayed. A group of militants reached a small supermarket, destroying its gate and stealing some food items before retreating from the area after they were outed to the youth of the Sawarka tribe, who are responsible for protecting civilian communities around Gora.
The siege, and perhaps hunger, also resulted in the surrender of a number of militants alongside their families in December. The first time took place in mid December when around 11 militants, all from the Romailat tribe, surrendered themselves to security forces, according to a source close to the security authorities in North Sinai who spoke to Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity. The group was part of the Province of Sinai militants taking shelter in a village overlooking the west of Rafah. According to the source, the surrender came as part of the initiative put forward by sovereign security authorities, giving tribal leaders the greenlight to try to convince the youth from their tribes who joined the Province of Sinai to surrender. In exchange, those who surrender would be moved to a security interrogation center before being released. This arrangement was relayed to Mada Masr by tribal sources in July 2020.
The source added that the handover was mediated between militants and their families and representatives of the security authorities with the designation of a security checkpoint in the area.
The families of several militants also handed themselves over to security.
A source close to the Union of Sinai Tribes told Mada Masr that three women accompanying 11 children handed themselves over to security in mid December at the Gohnieyen checkpoint, which is manned by a joint force made up of the Armed Forces and the union and is located in the Akour area to the southeast of Sheikh Zuwayed.
During their interrogation, the women stated that they are from the families of militants who are based in Mokataa village. The women told the interrogation team that the leaders of the Province of Sinai had allowed them to surrender to security forces, after their repeated complaints that their children are thirsty and hungry.
According to the source, the women said that their daily meals in the few days before they handed themselves over consisted of a teaspoon of sugar every few hours.
Three armed civilians working alongside the Armed Forces were killed in December.
On December 22, the Union of Sinai Tribes announced the death of Yasser Abu Gaber during “operations in North Sinai” without specifying the conditions or location of his death.
A source close to the union told Mada Masr that Abou Gaber was from the Garadat branch of the Roumailat tribe and was part of an armed group that was recently formed under the Union of Sinai Tribes that is composed of fighters from the Romailat. This group is known as the Haytham Knights, an homage to Haitham Ayad Abou Garad, who was killed in clashes with Province of Sinai militants in July last year near Mokataa.
Mohamed Mansour al-Awaydah and Hussein al-Baly, both from the Sawarka tribe, were also killed in December. According to a local source from the village of Gora, Awaydah and Baly were not fighting under the Union of Sinai Tribes but were rather part of the groups responsible for securing village communities south of Sheikh Zuwayed around the villages of Gora and Zahir, which are inhabited by families from the Sawarka tribes.
According to the source, Awaydah, who was an expert in spotting and disarming explosives, died on December 28 during an attempt to defuse a rigged explosive in Mokataa village. Baly was killed a few days before Awaydah’s death during a campaign to comb the village of any booby traps and explosives.
However, the Armed Forces and Province of Sinai are keeping a tight lid on the number of their casualties. On December 18, 2020 and January 2, 2021, the Associated Press reported that six Armed Forces personnel had been killed and 18 others were injured during separate attacks in Bir al-Abd, Sheikh Zuwayed, and Rafah, where military vehicles were targeted with explosives. On the other side, four militants were reportedly killed in airstrikes.
While the Armed Forces’ spokesperson has not released a statement during this period, local news outlets have reported on the funerals of 16 military personnel who were killed while “performing their national duty in North Sinai” without specifying the conditions of their death. Here are their names: Major Mahmour Reda Al-Sayed Aly (Alexandria) Major Ahmed Bahgat Mannaa (Beheira), Captain Ahmed Mahmoud al-Maraaz (Gharbiya), Captain Mohamed Abdel Khalek Atwa (Qalyubiya), Sergeant Mostafa Mohamed Abdalla (Beheira), Sergeant Mohamed Ahmed Metwally (Sharqiya), soldier Tamer Abo Khesha (Monufiya), soldier Reda Ahmed al-Shinnawy (Gharbiya), soldier Abdel Ghany al-Zeeny (Port Said), soldier Noor Nasser Abdel Wareth (Qena), soldier Aly Hassanein Rayan (Assiut), soldier Amr Ahmed Kersh (Beni Suef), soldier Mahmoud Hanafy (Beni Suef), soldier Refaat Nageh Aly (Sohag), soldier Mahmoud Farag Mahmoud (Sohag), and soldier Mohamed Maher Mubarak (Sohag).