Hani Ayesh, a resident of al-Arish, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was on his way to work when his bus was struck by a rocket or missile launched by militants targeting a nearby army vehicle.
Three people died and 22 were injured that morning, on 15 July. Ayesh’s hearing was still impaired when IRIN met him three months later; 40 pieces of shrapnel were still embedded in his skin.
Another civilian died in October from a militant attack on a police bus travelling from Rafah to al-Arish, security sources told the media.
Residents of North Sinai - a sparsely populated desert area along the border with Gaza and Israel - say they are increasingly affected by an insurgency against Egyptian security forces.
“Militants used to not threaten civilians, only the security forces and those who collaborated with them,” said a resident of the Egyptian border town of Rafah. “Now there are random killings. People have started fearing them as much as the military.”
According to an IRIN count, based on interviews with residents, at least 10 civilians were killed by militants between July, when the insurgency gained strength, and October, when IRIN visited the region, including the three victims of the bus attack.
Residents say they can be targeted for collaborating with the police, for refusing to let militants place improvised explosive devices (IED) in front of their houses or even for wearing T-shirts in support of Egypt’s military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Others are simply caught in the crossfire when the army and militants clash.
Armed militants have waged a low-level insurgency in Sinai for years.
They include: local Bedouin with grievances against the state for years of neglect; jihadists from mainland Egypt or with ties to Gaza; and, more recently, small numbers of foreign jihadists looking for refuge in what has become an even more lawless region. The lines between them have blurred as jihadists play upon local grievances to garner support.
“Not all the people who fight the security forces are religious extremists,” says army spokesperson Ahmed Ali. “Some are simply criminals.”
From 2004 to 2006, militants attacked international peacekeepers and tourist resorts in South Sinai, and there were sporadic attacks during former President Hosni Mubarak’s long-time rule. According to Egyptian authorities, radical ideology from the Gaza Strip began influencing Sinai in 2005, after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. After the revolution that ousted Mubarak in 2011, militants flourished in a security vacuum.
Attacks on state and security personnel decreased under the rule of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and increased significantly after he was deposed in a popularly supported military coup in July. Morsi belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is favoured by Islamist groups over Egypt’s traditionally secular military leaders.
The new military government has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of having links to militants in Sinai, claims that were reinforced when senior Brotherhood member Mohamed al-Beltagy said on TV in July that attacks in Sinai would stop if Morsi was re-instated. The Brotherhood insists it is peaceful and that Beltagy’s statement has been misinterpreted.
In recent months, Egyptian authorities have cracked down on the insurgency in Sinai in operations that have allegedly resulted in civilian casualties. Meanwhile, militant groups have targeted not only the security forces, but also tribal leaders who support the government and minorities such as Christians.
Faraj Abu Bekheit, a local figure in Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP), was killed last August in al-Sheikh Zuwaid town, near the border with Gaza.
Sheikh Khalaf el-Menai, one of Sinai’s main tribal leaders, was killed with one of his sons in August 2012 for his vocal condemnation of the jihadists groups. In October, another son, Suleiman Khalaf el-Menai, was also killed by gunmen who accused him of cooperating with the army.
Sheikh Naif Sawarka, an important tribal figure who had good relations with the government, was killed in May 2012.
New jihadist groups
Since 2011, several militant groups have announced their establishment in Sinai. The most well-known is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), a jihadist group that has claimed responsibility for attacks on the North Sinai pipeline, as well as attacks on security forces, “collaborators” in Sinai and the interior minister in Cairo in September.
Others include regional group Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Holy Struggle), the oldest and most organized of militant groups in Sinai, accused of the 2004-2006 bombings; al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya; Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam), which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Egyptian soldiers and a suicide attack on the army in May, as well as an attack on the intelligence headquarters in Rafah in September; al-Furqan Brigades; Ansar al-Sharia; and Taqfir wal Hijra, which announced in June 2011 the establishment of the Islamic state of Sinai. One month later, leaflets distributed in al-Arish claimed al-Qaeda had opened a new chapter in the Sinai Peninsula, though al-Qaeda’s headquarters has not acknowledged this.
Researchers estimate the total number of insurgents range from the hundreds to 5,000, including a small number of veteran fighters from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The Egyptian army says it has arrested hundreds of Egyptian militants in recent months, and more than 150 foreigners, including Palestinian, Eritrean, American, Norwegian, Romanian, German and British citizens.
According to the Egyptian authorities, they are armed with heavy weaponry, including mortars, anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
Collectively, according to David Barnett, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, they have been responsible for more than 200 attacks since July.
Christians have been singled out.
Father Mina Abud Sharubiyin, a Coptic Orthodox priest in al-Arish, was killed in early July. Later that month, according to the New York Times, Magdy Lamie, a Christian shop owner in al-Sheikh Zuwaid, was also killed, “his head severed, his torso in chains”. Another Copt from al-Arish, Hani Samir Kamel, was killed on 1 September.
Rights groups in Egypt attribute attacks on Copts - in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt - to the common belief that the Christian community demonstrated almost entirely against the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead-up to the coup.
No group has claimed responsibility for the murders of the three Copts in North Sinai, but according to Ishaq Ibrahim, a programme officer for freedom of religion with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), these are political and religiously motivated attacks.
“Sectarian attacks cannot be understood in isolation from the anti-Coptic hatred fomented by some Islamist leaders and their threats of retribution for widespread Coptic participation in protests that led to the removal of the former president [Morsi],” he told IRIN. “Nor can one ignore the lacklustre response of various state agencies to sectarian attacks, which ensures that suspects can commit crimes with impunity. The police haven’t arrested anyone for it so far.”
Many Christian families had fled the areas of Rafah and al-Arish in July or August, Ibrahim and residents of al-Arish said, but they are coming back as police say they are securing the area.
Fears and threats
But other residents say the militants do not only threaten Christians.
“Everybody who isn’t related to them is at risk,” said Walid el-Menai, son of the late Sheikh Khalaf el-Menai, “everyone who has factories, good relations with the state, all the respectable people and journalists, not only those who give information.”
Said ‘Ateeq fled Sinai with his family after receiving threats from Islamist groups.
‘Ateeq was a Sinai leader of the Tamarod campaign, which collected millions of signatures across the country as part of a petition to remove Morsi from power. The campaign ended in mass demonstrations at the end of June and led to Morsi’s ouster.
While the Brotherhood has consistently condemned militant attacks, Egyptian authorities and much of the Egyptian media say the “terrorists” in Sinai are supported by the militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, with the aim of putting the Muslim Brotherhood back in power.
“I’ll only feel safe when Hamas is toppled,” ‘Ateeq told IRIN from Cairo.
A community leader in al-Arish, who is on the board of one of the town’s mosques but requested anonymity out of fear, said his cousin was shot dead by armed groups for having links to former regime figures and to the defunct NDP. He was wearing an al-Sisi T-shirt when he died.
The community leader himself began receiving threats by phone and was accused of being a security agent. Men in long beards and short ‘galabeyas’, or traditional gowns, showed up at his mosque to check if he was regularly praying at dawn, as religiously required.
“I may be hated for my political opinions,” he said.
According to Jamestown Foundation, Egyptian security forces attempted to mobilize Bedouin tribal forces to confront militant Salafism among their own youth, but failed due to insufficient trust between both sides.
Other tribesmen are reluctant to help government security services for fear of retribution by armed groups.
“Big Bedouin leaders somehow cooperate with the security, but not normal people,” said Mohamed, a paterfamilias from al-Mehdiya Village. “I will not expose myself to danger to help the security.”
Sympathy for militants
Many residents of Sinai go further - they actually show support for the militants.
“They say all over the media that the area is full of terrorists, but it is not true,” says one man from al-Mehdiya, whose upscale house was heavily damaged by the army. “Maybe the army will catch some of them, but it will take a long time. So far, they are also killing innocents, which makes people in Sinai sympathize more and more with the militants…
“Maybe their real aim,” he said of the army, “is to frighten us to make us leave the area and turn it into an empty buffer zone.”
Some residents said they were not bothered by those deemed extremists by the state. Indeed, in some communities, experts and pro-government residents say, militants live with the quiet acceptance or even collaboration of residents.
The Egyptian authorities say, for example, that Tawhid mosque in the village of al-Moqata’a was a hideaway for jihadists. A man from the village sees things differently: “The man who built the mosque was wanted because his sons were caught in jihadist operations… But for me, I went to this mosque several times and never noticed anything unusual.”
For many Bedouin villagers, tribal loyalties supersede any obligations to help security forces find the militants among them. “We cannot cooperate with the state. It’s not an acceptable principle here,” said one man from al-Mehdiya.
Others go so far as to deny terrorism even takes place. A widely held conspiracy theory is that there are no truly dangerous jihadist groups in Sinai, but that security services fake attacks to justify a politically motivated, heavy-handed crackdown.
“I wonder what the army is doing exactly. It seems like they are never catching or killing any terrorist,” said an inhabitant of al-Mehdiya. “We live here, and we know who dies or not, and it doesn’t really match what they say on TV.”
“There is no real terrorism when nobody dies,” added a resident of Rafah. “They [the militants] are not attacking civilians, whereas the army is killing the innocent people of Sinai.”
But ‘Ateeq, the Sinai activist, says it is difficult for the army to conduct guerrilla warfare.
“These people are known to the tribes and to the security services, but we live in the desert and the mountains, which doesn’t help…
“That’s why it’s taking so long to the army to eradicate these groups.”
Also in the series Sinai: Destined to suffer?
- Civilians caught up in Egypt's counter-terrorism operations
- Economic life slows to a crawl amid crackdown in North Sinai
- Egypt's revolution brings little to underdeveloped Sinai