The recent North Sinai attack which claimed the lives of 16 border soldiers has highlighted the issue of armed groups and weapons smuggling in the peninsula as well as the extent to which security and intelligence apparatuses in Egypt are capable of securing such a strategic location on the borders with Israel.
The attack on army soldiers and officers at the Karm Abu Salem border crossing was not the first even though previous incidents essentially targeted the police rather than the army, according to a report published by the Egyptian daily independent al-Masry al-Youm.
In the year that followed the eruption of the January 25 revolution, more than 20 armed attacks were launched against interior ministry targets, three of which took place in police stations.
Tension in the peninsula is not new especially in the light of the constant friction between the police and Bedouins, but the case was different after the revolution for the style of the attacks and the type of weapons were remarkably unusual, a matter that caused a great deal of concern.
The operations carried out by armed groups revealed that new weapons have entered Sinai, particularly from Libya which has become an open arms market following armed struggles that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
The road to Sinai is full of checkpoints but the presence of intensive security did not prevent the smuggling of weapons, usually hidden in trucks loaded with fodder and foodstuff.
The amount of weapons in the Sinai Peninsula has increased by 50 percent, said activist Saeid Ateeq, who lives in the border city of Sheikh Zowayed.
“The security vacuum that followed the revolution helped in the spread of arms in the peninsula in larger numbers and new types,” he told al-Masry al-Youm.
Ateeq explained that the weapons which came from Libya are totally different from the ones that had already been used in the peninsula before the revolution.
“The new ones are of the type used in wars and not in regular clashes.”
However, Ateeq argued that the deterioration of the security situation in Sinai has not been triggered by this recent flow of arms to the peninsula.
“Arms are not new to Sinai and even the increase in their numbers now is not the cause of instability.”
According to Ateeq, the term “armed groups” used by the government is inaccurate because all residents of Sinai are armed.
“This is part of their lifestyle and their traditions and it has never been a cause of concern before.”
As for religious groups, Ateeq explained that there is a difference between groups known as “takfiris,” who accuse other Muslims of apostasy based on certain actions that they see as contradictory to Islamic teaching, and others known as “jihadists.”
“The first group [refers to] people in poorer areas whose residents did not get an education and do not practice violence. Even if they have weapons, it is part of their lifestyle but they never use it in attacks. Jihadists, on the other hand, carry out attacks.”
Ateeq attributed the increase in the number of members of both groups to a lack of security and the government’s constant attempts to make Sinai appear like a hotbed for terrorists.
“This serves Israel because it offers a pretext for the re-occupation of the peninsula any time on the grounds that it threatens the Jewish state’s national security.”
Mossad Abu Fajr, a Sinai activist and the founder of the “We want to live” movement, which defends the rights of Sinai Bedouin, agreed with Ateeq as far as possession of weapons in Sinai is concerned.
“Bedouins have always used weapons to defend themselves and their land and they only use them against their enemies,” he told the paper.
According to Abu Fajr, several arms smuggling gangs are in cahoots with security forces.
“Sometimes gangs might kidnap security officers when there is a disagreement between them, then they return them after some deal or another is struck. This has always been the case.”
Ibrahim al-Monaei, who was arrested for his role in smuggling arms to Gaza at the time of the blockade, stressed that all the weapons that enter the peninsula are coming from Libya and that trafficking across the border has stopped.
“A large portion of those arms are kept by tribe members for personal use,” he told the paper.
A resident of Sinai who wanted to be identified only as M said the weapons enter Sinai from three places: Libya, Sudan, and Gaza.
“Arms coming from Libya are usually heavy ones like Grinov machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles 3.7 and 4.5 inches, and RPGs.”
Weapons smuggled from Sudan and Gaza, M added, are mainly US-made M16 rifles as well as several types of small machine guns.
“Gangs specializing in smuggling from different areas could meet to exchange weapons depending on what they each had.”
The border city of Rafah is the most active as far as arms smuggling is concerned, yet the poorest when it comes to security presence.
Checkpoints are only stationed at the entrance of the city and near the city of Areesh, the capital of the North Sinai governorate. The constant targeting of police stations and check points led to the semi-withdrawal of security forces from this area.
“This absence of security led to an unprecedented boom in arms smuggling in border areas,” said A.M., who lives in Rafah and coordinates the delivery of goods to the Gaza Strip through connecting tunnels.