North Sinai: A new focus
Ahmed Eleiba reports on the latest deadly attack by Islamist militants in
North Sinai on security forces
Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 21 Oct 2016
The recent terrorist attack at Beir Al-Abd, 80km from Arish, which
resulted in the deaths of 12 Egyptian soldiers and officers, brought to mind
similar attacks against security checkpoints in Karm Kawadis, Al-Safa and
It had been thought the killing of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis leader Abu Doaa
El-Ansari and other members of the terrorist group in April had delivered a
debilitating and long-term setback to extremists’ attacks in North Sinai.
In an official communiqué Egyptian army spokesman General Mohamed Samir
reported that 12 “heroes of the armed forces” died and six were wounded in
an attack by “an armed group of terrorist elements on Friday morning against
a security checkpoint in North Sinai, using four-wheel drives.”
Samir added that in the exchange of gunfire that occurred between the
soldiers and the attackers 15 terrorists were killed.
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which began calling itself the Islamic State’s Sinai
Province following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in
November 2014, claimed responsibility for the Beir Al-Abd incident. The
Egyptian army retaliated by targeting terrorist hideouts identified on the
basis of intelligence reports.
“At dawn on Saturday 15 October, several air force units undertook a
reconnaissance of the target areas and, after ascertaining the coordinates
carried out intensive air strikes that lasted three hours,” said an official
statement issued by the Armed Forces General Command last weekend.
The “Revenge for the Blood of the Martyrs”, as the statement named the
operation, “resulted in the destruction of areas where terrorist elements
were concentrated, as well as the destruction of collection points for arms
and ammunition and of seven four-wheel drive vehicles.”
The statement added the armed forces were currently targeting “a number of
takfiri elements who carried out criminal operations and the elements that
aided and abetted them.”
The interior ministry also issued a statement reporting it had thwarted “two
attempts to smuggle large quantities of weapons and ammunition into North
Sinai from a farm located on the border of Sharqiya and Ismailiya
governorates and from a weapons cache in the governorate of Beni Suef, south
According to the statement, police arrested a “group of terrorist elements”
after confiscating hundreds of rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of
Location of the Beir Al-Abd attack
Mohamed Diban, son of a tribal sheikh from Beir Al-Abd, says the terrorist
attack occurred 40km outside the town, “in the direction of Nakhl and Jaal”
meaning towards central Sinai.
The area has generally been regarded as “safe and stable, which is why no
one had imagined that it would experience an attack of this sort,” Diban
said. On the demographics of the area and the possibility of terrorist
connections, Diban said.
“The area is not populous. There is no agricultural or farming activity. It
is sparsely inhabited by Bedouins and, for the most part, the local Bedouins
have the reputation of being calm and peaceful. Some are employed by local
cement factories and quarries and there is probably some trafficking in
drugs and illicit arms. The social environment is not one noted for
religious extremism. Even where extremism exists, it cannot be compared to
Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid,” Diban said.
Such information makes the location of the attack even more striking. This
is the first time the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has launched a major operation
outside Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish. It suggests the organisation retains
support bases, structures and the ability to mobilise.
A new front
The site of the attack indicates the group retains some capabilities despite
the attrition it has sustained since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Security expert Khaled Okasha believes the attack reveals the old triangle
of drugs, arms and terrorism entering a new dynamic.
Okasha argues that these are “keys” that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis uses −
smuggling arms and drugs for profit, involving local inhabitants and then
redirecting the criminality it thus establishes for its own purposes.
The shift in the location of operations the attack represents has created a
new front for counter-terrorist operations and demands a wider deployment of
“One of the hallmarks of success in the fight up to now was that it had
succeeded in keeping the organisation surrounded and restricted to Rafah,
Sheikh Zuweid and Arish. The shift to a new area means redeployment and a
heavier security burden. Even when some elements managed to enter the Nile
valley area − there was always the possibility of infiltration − they were
very small cells that were easily neutralised,” says Okasha.
New place, old techniques
“The technique used in the Beir Al-Abd attack was the same as in the Karm
Kawadis attack and in other attacks against stationary checkpoints that
resulted in large numbers of casualties, ” says Ahmed Kamel, a security
studies researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“This means the group carrying out the operation had undertaken surveillance
and intelligence gathering in advance,” Kamal believes.
“They surveyed the terrain and conducted reconnaissance in the immediate
vicinity. This entails two types of monitoring, one performed by specialised
teams from within the group and the other performed by people from outside
the group. These outsiders may be recruited locally but there is also the
possibility of security infiltration. A month before the latest terrorist
incident two police conscripts from the Arish first precinct police station
were arrested on suspicion of leaking information to terrorists in exchange
for money,” says Kamal.
Kamel also believes Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis conducted its reconnaissance
activities at a time when the security agencies’ own intelligence gathering
on the group was at a low.
“Even if they had information indicating movements or that something was
happening they were not able to deliver a pre-emptive strike. The security
services will need to reassess their sources. Either they need to recruit
new sources, which is difficult given Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has killed a
number of Sinai residents whom it thought were informers, or they can try to
plant moles inside the organisation, which is even more difficult,” Kamal
Is the organisation restructuring itself?
Expert sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly say Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has
been seriously undermined.
“What we are now facing,” says one Sinai-based military source, “is an
organisation desperate to show it still exists and is capable of mounting
“The military delivered a critical blow in the first week of August this
year, eliminating the organisations’s leader Abu Doaa El-Ansari and
destroying its communications systems, machinery and the like. However, in
Sinai, reorganising and rearming are relatively easy regardless of the
security agencies’ efforts to halt arms smuggling operations.”
For several months it had been thought that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was
moribund, as appears to be the case with the mother organisation in Iraq and
Syria, especially given the operation to liberate Mosul which began this
week and ongoing anti-IS operations in Syria. But experts now fear a new
crisis as IS members scatter across the region.
The visit to Cairo this week by the head of the Syrian National Security
Bureau Ali Mamlouk should be seen in this context, says Okasha.
“There is the spectre of a renewed [jihadist] returnees’ crisis and, in
light of the coming confrontation to eliminate such organisations from Syria
altogether, it is feared the crisis will explode in neighbouring countries.
The purpose of Mamlouk’s visit was security coordination and intelligence
“Cairo has also made its position clear with respect to its national
security strategy and its relationship with Syria. It is coordinating with
Iraq and Jordan, both of which are alert to possible developments following
the collapse of IS in the course of the ongoing military campaign against
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.