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 Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth — have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are taking their fight closer to Cairo.
“The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter,” said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village. “Even when the army’s armoured personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks.”
Many residents say the military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.
The fight against militant Islam is a key test for the interim government in Cairo. Sinai-based militants stepped up attacks on police and soldiers last year, soon after Egypt’s army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and tried him on a wide range of charges. The violence has left 300 people dead and hammered Egypt’s economy.
The army and the government say they are beating the militants. In an attempt to stop the illegal flow of arms, Egyptian authorities have destroyed thousands of tunnels that ran under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which borders North Sinai. Almost every night, Apache helicopters fire rockets at suspected Islamist militant hideouts in the houses and farms of the largely lawless peninsula.
Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to become Egypt’s next president, owes much of his popularity to his ouster of Morsi ’s Muslim Brotherhood and his tough stance against the militants. Sisi has described the Sinai operation as an ongoing security campaign to rid the region of extremists and criminals. The Sinai, he has said, is a top security priority.
So far, though, local residents say the military is making little progress. The army’s blunt tactic of rocketing suspected hideouts is failing, they say, because the militants have mastered the terrain. They move around villages using alleyways where it is difficult to spot them from the air, and mix with civilians or hide in olive groves. The effort to stop the flow of weapons is also a struggle, they say, in large part because smugglers are bringing in weapons from Libya. Residents say the number of fighters has decreased in the past few months, partly because many fighters have moved towards the Nile Valley.
“The army has entered a war, but it is not specialised in this type of war, which requires special counter-insurgency forces, not an army,” said Mussab Abu Fajr, a Bedouin leader in the Sinai’s main city of al-Arish.
Standing beside two olive trees outside the village of al-Lafitaat, a senior militant who would be identified only by his initials, SA, set out the way the groups’ tactics have changed. “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. 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.”
SA 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.
The threat of roadside bombs has prompted the army to cut mobile phone networks and the Internet during daylight when military vehicles move around.
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 Morsi’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.
Aside from responding to calls for holy war, militants are given worldly incentives, according to residents and security officials. They say leaders offer young recruits wives, money and homes in return for a commitment to carry out suicide bombings. “They have the good life for a few months and are promised it will only get better in paradise after the operation,” said Bishady, the head of security in North Sinai.
Egyptian security officials say combatants include Egyptian fighters as well as some from Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, and from Afghanistan. They believe some of the Egyptian fighters spent time in Taliban-controlled areas in Pakistan, returning after the election of Morsi in 2012.
The big fear is that the conflict is spreading. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the best-known Sinai-based militant group, has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks in Cairo in recent months, including a suicide bombing that failed to kill the interior minister last September. The group also said it shot down a military helicopter in January, killing five soldiers.
An army official in Cairo said the Sinai militants had made a strategic move to shift operations to other places in Egypt. If Sisi becomes president, the attacks are most probably going to increase as, in militants’ eyes, Egypt will be “officially run by a military regime,” he said. “This will be the biggest challenge to Sisi’s rule.”