Pushed out of south Bir al-Abd and facing tighter security measures in the east of the peninsula, Province of Sinai militants have been on the ropes in recent months.
A spate of attacks in central Sinai on tribes fighting alongside the Armed Forces and security reports suggest that the Islamic State-affiliated group may be regrouping in the complex terrain of central Sinai, from where it can continue launching attacks into the northern portion of the peninsula.
The potential geographic shift in the fighting between the Egyptian military, tribal forces and militants, which has been ongoing for years, sits beside other headlining events that occurred in Sinai in recent weeks, including skirmishes between the Armed Forces and smugglers across the border with Israel, which left an Israeli Defense Forces soldier injured, and fears from Arish residents that their houses may be being marked for demolition to make way for the expansion of Arish Port.
The Province of Sinai targeted members of the Union of Sinai Tribes, which fights alongside the Armed Forces, in two attacks in central Sinai on February 9 and 10 near the Maghara area, 120 km outside of Arish. In total, seven people were killed in the two attacks, according to a local source, who added that two others were wounded and one was kidnapped.
A week after the two attacks, the Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the operations, publishing photos of the group’s militants armed with light automatic weapons and riding in offroading vehicles, some of which were covered in mud, a camouflage tactic used to hide from drones in desert and mountainous areas.
The attacks were carried out in the morning and involved 19 armed militants, all of whom appeared in the photos and gathered in broad daylight before commencing the operation without being detected by either the drones that are constantly in the skies of North Sinai or military aircraft.
In its statement, the Province of Sinai said that the attack targeted a division of tribe members. However, the Tarabin tribe members who were shown in the photos were unarmed.
A local source told Mada Masr that the area in which the attack took place is close to a telecommunications tower. It is considered the only place that has cell coverage in tha Mangam area, which is close to Gabal al-Maghara in central Sinai. Citizens often travel to the tower in order to make phone calls.
The source suggested that the Province of Sinai militants were monitoring the area, and that they carried out the attack as soon as they saw members of the Tarabin tribe. According to the source, most of the area residents have left. Those who remain are mostly from the Tarabin tribe and work alongside the Armed Forces as part of the so-called Maghara and Mangam Youth Union, which operates under the leadership of the Union of Sinai Tribes and whose headquarters are in the village of Barth, to the south of Rafah.
The place and time of the attacks by the Province of Sinai suggest that they were taking revenge on the Maghara and Mangam Youth Union, which has recently been active in confronting the militant group in central Sinai, by conducting surveillance operations to identify the presence of militants in some areas or by detecting explosive devices.
Last month, some Province of Sinai militants and their families surrendered themselves in different parts of North Sinai due to an accelerating siege that prevented them from gaining access to food, tribal sources previously told Mada Masr. On January 15, the Union of Sinai Tribes announced that the Tarabin fighters took over a storage facility affiliated with the Province of Sinai in Maghara, which contained large quantities of foodstuffs and clothes.
According to MP Gazy Saad, who represents North Sinai in the House of Representatives, some of the members of the Tarabin tribe who were killed in the last two attacks were among the group that discovered the storage facility of the Province of Sinai.
Central Sinai, with its complex terrain, has become the new strategic location for the operations of the Province of Sinai, after the Armed Forces succeeded in closing in on the militants’ activities south of Sinai’s northern cities, Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed, Arish, and Bir al-Abd.
In December, the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel published a report on the war in North Sinai, which noted that the Province of Sinai has changed its strategy of fighting the Egyptian Armed Forces after the it attack on and seizure of the villages Qatiya, Iqtiya, Ganayen and Merih in July 2020, which the militant group lost control of before the end of 2020. The institute, which analyzes contexts that affect Israeli national security, added that the Province of Sinai will take central Sinai, and especially Gabal al-Maghara and Mount Yelleg, as its new center, in an attempt to create new pathways away from the grip of the Armed Forces in the north and carry out more militant operations.
The repositioning of the Province of Sinai in central Sinai has not prevented the group from conducting sporadic operations in the north in an attempt to prove its continued presence. The group staged several attacks on military vehicles in Sheikh Zuwayed and Bir al-Abd and targeted civilians under the pretext that they are working with security forces.
On January 26, an explosive device went off in a car affiliated with the Water and Wastewater Company as it was driving through the village of Tefaha in southern Bir al-Abd, and the driver was immediately killed.
According to local sources, on February 5 the inhabitants of the village of Shalaq in Sheikh Zuwayed found the body of a young boy who had been found dead and handcuffed days after he went missing. The Province of Sinai later claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing the boy, referring to him as “a spy for the Egyptian army.”
From January 15 until time of publishing, news channels have broadcasted the funerals of nine soldiers (an officer, a sergeant and seven conscripts) who were “killed while carrying out their national duty in North Sinai.” The soldiers include: Captain Mohamed Amr (Suez) and Sergeant Mohamed Hamdy Awad (al-Sharkiya). The seven other conscripts: Ahmed Mahmoud el-Nimr (Qalyubiya), Raafat Mohamed Abdelalim (Beni Suef), Khaled Hamdy al-Sawahli (Kafr al-Sheikh), Gaber Abdelfattah Mohamed (Sohag), El-Sayed Thabet El-Sayed (al-Sharqiya), Mahmoud Reda Ahmed Mandour (Port Said) and Osama Hamdy Abdelsattar (Qena).
The last statement by the Armed Forces spokesperson regarding the war in North Sinai was published on December 8, 2020, and it announced the killing of 25 militants during an airstrike and the death of two officers, four warrant officers, and a soldier as a result of the clashes.
On the Egyptian-Israeli border, an Israeli soldier suffered mild injuries on February 12 as a result of an exchange of fire between the Egyptian Armed Forces and drug smugglers, according to an announcement by the Israeli Army on the following day.
According to the Israeli army spokesperson, a smuggling operation on the border with Egypt had been thwarted. The spokesperson added that Israel had launched an operation to target smugglers on the Egyptian border via drones and that the Israeli army thwarted 60 cross-border smuggling operations in Sinai throughout 2020 and 20 more so far this year.
The Egyptian Armed Forces spokesperson did not announce any information regarding those operations. On Monday, however, the spokesperson published a statement on the achievements of the Border Guard Corps over the course of one month, which featured aggregate figures of seized items “on all strategic fronts” and the destruction of four underground tunnels in North Sinai.
Away from the clashes that have taken place across North Sinai, Arish, the capital city of the governorate, is set to undergo a second phase of development over the next few days, which will include upgrades to some of the city’s main automotive axes, such as Fatih Street and the coastal road that passes through the city’s residential block. Governor Mohamed Abdelfadeel Shousha announced that the road will be widened to include four lanes in each direction.
The governor’s announcement engendered fear among the residents that live close to the coastal road, who are worried that the authorities will order the demolition of their houses to implement the required expansion. This could soon become a reality, as a source in the central administration of the governorate office told Mada Masr that a few of the residential buildings by the coastal road in the area of Kholafaa al-Rashideen Street up to the Nafoura Square are currently being inspected to determine whether they will be removed. The source added that there is a possibility that some buildings in the city center will also be removed in order to link Assiut Street to July 23 Street, in an area that extends from Saha al-Shaabiya and the North Sinai Youth and Sports Directorate to Nasr Square.
Throughout January, the threat of demolitions has moved closer to becoming reality in the eastmost part of Arish, specifically in the areas of Reesa and Sakaska, which are close to the International Arish Port. The inhabitants of Shalehat Saad in the neighborhood of Sakaska suddenly found committees from the City Council, the North Sinai Housing Directorate, and the Administration of State Properties surveying houses.
Residents in the area told Mada Masr that they were told by members of those committees that there is a proposal to annex their neighborhood as part of the Arish Port expansion project, even though this neighborhood was not officially included among the specified area for the port development plan that was announced.
The state announced the expansion project of the Arish Port at the end of 2018, with the Official Gazette publishing the president’s decision in mid 2019. Under the terms of the project, an area of 371.46 feddans surrounding the port will be allocated to the Armed Forces, provided that the General Authority for Suez Canal Economic Zone will finance and implement the development and management of port operations.
Across several days at the end of January, residents organized several protests in their neighborhoods as committees were surveying buildings, and in some instances they prevented the committees from doing any inspection work. Officials from the governorate office and the North Sinai Housing Directorate were dispatched to the neighborhoods in an attempt to calm residents down. Residents told Mada Masr that officials said that “they were obeying orders that came from above.”
Arish MP Rahmy Bakeer announced that he has submitted an urgent briefing request in the House of Representatives to the prime minister and the finance and transportation ministers regarding the expansion of the Arish port into a legal residential area that has registered houses and is connected to state facilities. The area also has almost 4,000 families whose compensation, Bakeer added, will cost the government significant compensation.