In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world’s biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.
Residents say the militants – a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth – have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.
The article obtain testimony from an anonymous militant revealing their local strategy:
“At the start of the fighting we used to hide in mountains but now we are present in the villages among residents, because it is safer there,” he said. “When we were in the mountains it was easy for the army to strike us with helicopters. But as long as we are with the people it is hard to reach us.”
S.A. said that he and his fellow fighters use simple home-made bombs such as jam jars stuffed with dynamite. The devices are hidden in olive trees or on the side of road, with desert sand covering detonation cords. He said the militants wait on hilltops for military convoys to pass and then detonate their bombs by remote control, using cellphone identification cards.
“We use cooking cylinders and water jugs and we will pack them with explosives, and connect them to timers and a SIM card and we plant them on roads we know are used by the army,” said S.A.
The threat of roadside bombs has prompted the army to cut mobile phone networks and the Internet during daylight hours when military vehicles move around.
Local residents describe how militants infiltrate, and the response it sometimes brings from the army:
Ahmed Abu Gerida, who lives in al-Bars village, said militants sometimes hide in civilians’ houses to avoid detection. “They hang up women’s clothes, including bras and underwear, because they know the army will hesitate to approach Bedouin women,” he said. “One time soldiers entered one of these homes and found a storage place for explosives and blew up the house.”
Air strikes, launched almost daily since Mursi’s fall, have hammered villages like al-Lafitaat, where all 12 single-storey cement houses have been destroyed or heavily damaged over the past few months. Some were reduced to a few beams, while others were burnt out, their ceilings collapsed. Residents fled, leaving behind a handful of sheep.
One woman named Ni’imaa stood next to the remnants of her house with her two children, after returning a few days earlier to retrieve her belongings. She collected a pillow, a mattress, some dishes and a small stove and placed them in a pick-up truck. She said the army killed her husband, who she said was not a militant, four months ago.
These poor local people, who feel frustratingly paralyzed:
Even residents who are opposed to militants say they are scared to cooperate with the army, which has appealed for tips to find the fighters.
Sheikh Hassan Khalaf, who heads the Sawarka tribe in Sinai, said 35 Sinai residents who gave the army information on militants had been shot dead in the past three months. The army confirmed the shooting, but not the numbers involved.
Many people feel trapped between both sides.
“We are between two fires. If we report the terrorists to the army, the militants will kill us the next day,” said Subayha, a Bedouin who said that she and her children struggle to sleep because of army shelling in her village of al-Mahdiya. For safety, they sometimes sleep outside the gates of a building that houses international peacekeepers, she says.
“If we remain silent the army considers us allies of the terrorists and can start attacking our villages,” said Subayha.
And here are the offerings on responsibility:
Khalaf, the Sawarka tribal leader, said he saw Mohamed al-Zawahri, the brother of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawihri, in a presidential car. Sinai police were not allowed to approach the convoys or meetings, said Khalaf.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Saleh told Reuters: “There is no evidence of this. It is all lies spread in an attempt to hurt the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood. We have never associated in our history with any groups that hurt Egypt.”
Wael Haddara, a senior adviser to Mursi while he was president, said Mursi’s public “efforts to reach out to bona fide tribal elders and leaders” might now be “cast as a meeting with terrorists”. The Brotherhood has said it released prisoners when it was in power because the prisoners had been unfairly tried or had served their sentences.
At the same time, senior Brotherhood leader Mohamed el-Beltagy said last year after Mursi’s fall that the violence in the Sinai would stop if the army reversed what the Muslim Brotherhood calls a coup.
Zawahiri is a Salafi-Jihadi, of whom I wrote these reports, and two other previously written pieces will be posted later. From the other side, here is a report I wrote from a security source with deep experience in the Sinai.
From what I understand, Morsi did release militants, but the military council released more after the revolution but before Morsi’s presidency. Many had served their full sentence and were being held on continuing security grounds.
And additionally, Morsi did either conduct or permit several delegations out outreach to the Sinai. The point was to change the security-solution-outlook that traditionally ruled the area, into one of dialogue and reconciliation, convincing residents to give up violence on a religious basis. Perhaps other more sinister conversations took place, but the details are lost amid the vagaries of Sinai, and of Egypt in general.
But regardless, if Reuters summarized correctly, the situation is not encouraging, especially for residents. Does anyone have any solutions to propose?