Egypt’s approach to threats in Sinai: What’s really going on?
The killing of 12 army personnel in an attack that targeted a checkpoint in Sinai was as shocking as other similar attacks
The killing of 12 army personnel in an attack that targeted a checkpoint in Sinai was as shocking as similar attacks that took place in other parts of the peninsula for it proved that the threat is far from over and raised questions about when it possibly could be. The air strike by Egyptian Armed Forces on extremist strongholds in Sinai, aimed at “avenging the martyrs” as the official statement put it, was met with considerable relief, yet still raised more questions about the lack of preemptive strategies on the part of the Egyptian state and did not assuage the fears of as many Egyptians as it was expected to.
Khaled Daoud, official spokesman of al-Dostour Party, criticized what he termed lack of transparency as far as the situation in Sinai is concerned. “The attack was not the first of its kind and the same apply to the retaliatory airstrikes, but we never get to know the facts,” he wrote.
“For example, none of the relevant officials tell us about the magnitude of the terrorist threat in Sinai, the number of terrorists there, where the ammunition comes from, and the reason why they’re still there despite all the military operations against their strongholds.”
Daoud blamed the new anti-terrorism law that makes the Armed Forces that only entity to report on developments in Sinai. He also expressed his surprise at the way news of the terrorist attack was handled. “The Armed Forces statement started with telling us the number of terrorists killed in the skirmishes then dropped the bomb about the 12 soldiers, adding that they fought courageously before dying, as if this makes it any better.”
Human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali argued that the authorities should be taken to task for the death of the soldiers. “The strategies adopted by the state and the measures taken towards their implementation should be investigated so that we know what went wrong that led to the death of those soldiers,” he wrote. “Instead, the state is bragging about its operations against terrorists.” Ali said that the last attack leaves a number of questions that need to be answered, on top of which is the retaliatory operation. “If terrorists’ strongholds and ammunition warehouses are already known, then why have they only been bombed following the attack?” Like Daoud, he criticized the mystery that shrouds the war on terror, which has been ongoing in Sinai for the past three years, and why no information is available about when Sinai can be declared safe, bearing in mind the extreme measures taken to achieve this end. “Residents of Rafah and Sheikh Zowayed were forcefully evacuated and their houses were demolished as part of a plan to counter terrorist. Did this work?”
For journalist Ahmed Ould Mabrouk, the Egyptian army has been committing a number of mistakes that makes it easier for terrorists to target soldiers. “Security checkpoints in Sinai are stationary and not moving, which makes it much easier to watch the soldiers and know their numbers, how armed they are, and when they change shifts,” he wrote. “Also, most checkpoints are in exposed desert areas and are not protected by aircraft.” Mabrouk added that soldiers in these checkpoints are not experienced in combat, especially in comparison to their attackers. “The army sends young conscripts that do not know enough about the geography of the place and are not trained to engage in confrontations.”
Khaled Okasha, director of the National Center for Security Studies, explained that the attack took place for a number of reasons, all pertaining to the element of surprise. “Militants went back to a tactic they had abandoned for the past year, which is direct confrontation as opposed to planting bombs and ambushing security personnel. It had been hit-and-run for a while,” he said. “They also changed the site of the operations as they took it away from the most restive areas such as al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zowayed in the north, where their past operations were carried out and where security is extremely tight at the moment. Instead, they went south to an unexpected target at the heart of the desert in central Sinai.”
Journalist Gamil Afifi attributed the length of the war on terror to combat principles adopted by the Egyptian army. “The army will never bomb areas populated by civilians even if terrorists are hiding there,” he wrote. “The army is working very cautiously as if with a scalpel to make sure no house is demolished and no civilian is hurt. Militants take advantage of this and intentionally hide among residents.” According to Afifi, security forces once received intelligence about a meeting held by terrorists and helicopters took off to bomb the location, yet when finding out they were using residents as human shields, the operation was cancelled. “Had it not been for this, the army would have been able to cleanse Sinai of terrorism in less than eight hours.”
General Nabil Abul Naga, expert on countering terrorism, said that security forces are always on the receiving end and that is why their operations are always a reaction to attacks carried out by terrorists. “This is in the best interest of terrorists,” he said. Abul Naga added that the army also needs to reconsider placing checkpoints in fixed locations and in quite a conspicuous manner. Abul Naga argued that the army has to come to terms with the fact that it is fighting a guerilla war, in which airstrikes do not yield the desired results. “Every single house in Sinai needs to be searched and all residents have to present their identification papers to security forces. All mountains and caves in the peninsula have to be combed and the areas around suspected terrorist strongholds should be besieged,” he explained. “It is not an offence to the army to reconsider its tactics.”