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Sinai security stymied by continued terrorist attacks

Security forces in Egypt seem to be ineffective in defending the peninsula against terrorist attacks, and may be investing too little in their military defense.
Egyptian residents and emergency personnel gather at the site of a car bomb explosion that targeted a police station in North Sinai's provincial capital of El-Arish on April 12, 2015. The bombing came hours after a roadside blast targeted an army vehicle killing at least six soldiers and wounding two in the peninsula, where security forces are battling an Islamist insurgency. AFP PHOTO / STR         (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

EL-ARISH, Egypt — The terrorist organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Wilayat Sinai) carried out two large attacks on April 2 and April 12 that resulted in heavy losses among the security forces. The attacks killed 35 members of the armed forces and the police — including officers and soldiers — in addition to eight civilians. They also wounded 100 members of the security forces and 40 civilians, as confirmed to Al-Monitor by a medical source. On the other hand, five of the terrorists who carried out the attacks were killed. This led to a state of controversy and bewilderment among the Egyptian people, as terrorist attacks are becoming more aggressive despite the positive statements released by the military regarding the elimination of terrorism.

A researcher on Sinai Peninsula affairs and armed groups, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said, “The bewilderment at the success of the terrorist attacks in Sinai is misplaced, because the army has not changed its plans. The latter are defensive and [involve] attempts to repel attacks and close holes, rather than being offensive plans to target and root out terrorism.”

He said, “The army forces in Sinai operate in a routine manner reminiscent of daily functional duty, without making any strategic or forward-looking changes to eradicate terrorism. When terrorists attack army bases with car bombs, the army closes the roads surrounding the bases. They think that by doing this it will stop attacks. Yet, the terrorists change their strategy and attack with improvised explosive devices, so the army turns to changing roads and moving randomly through irregular desert roads. And when the terrorists attack army bases and camps with showers of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, the army moves to strengthen its camps and headquarters externally using additional piles of sand.” 

The researcher added, “The terrorists are always planning according to the latest developments and preparing for attacks based on new gaps. One of the biggest mistakes made by the army is to place checkpoints and fixed military positions on the roads, which make it easy for the terrorists to make surprise plans and carry out attacks, as these are fixed targets that have no back-up protection in the desert land.” 

After each big attack in Sinai that results in significant losses among the army and security forces, the government immediately has the leadership of the military council make changes in army commanders and officials in charge of military campaigns and the war on terrorism. They also introduce new, more deadly weapons on the battlefield.

One of the sheikhs of the Sawarka tribe, one of the largest tribes in Sinai, said that the changes in leadership that have occurred over the past two years are merely changes in names. Meanwhile, he said that the same failure continues in fixed military plans on the ground, which are not suitable for defeating a smart terrorist enemy such as Wilayat Sinai that takes advantage of everything around it to implement large and deadly attacks.

The sheikh, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said, “The military plans in Sinai are not changing, aside from an expansion in the circle of suspicion and more suppression of civilians. This results in the army losing its popular support and information [sources] in the regions of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. When it loses [the support of] civilians as a result of these arbitrary measures, the battle becomes more difficult and terrorism will continue for many years.”

Around 5 a.m. on April 2, terrorists from Wilayat Sinai carried out a large attack against the Obaidat base west of Sheikh Zuweid, one of the army’s most fortified military bases in the region of the war; it lies between el-Arish and Rafah.

Looking at the targeted base, it is clear how difficult it is to penetrate the surrounding military fortifications. There is a full military unit with infantry and armored vehicles, located on an elevated sandy region surrounded by piles of sand and an M-60 US-made tank, two US-made armored personnel carriers, surveillance units equipped with night-vision goggles, heavy machine guns, in addition to 120 mm mortar guns. It is a situation similar to that of the base at Karam al-Kawadis.

We contacted a defector from a Salafist jihadist organization in Sinai to learn how terrorists succeeded in carrying out the attack. He said that the main reason it succeeded is that the terrorists relied on the inaction of the military forces.

The jihadist — who severed tied with Salafi jihad in Sinai but still adheres to jihadist thought — spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, and explained, “There is a military unit in the Wilayat Sinai organization called the monitoring and planning unit. Its job is to monitor military positions and bases at different times and intervals. Based on the information it collects, large attacks are carried out.”

He added, “There are many gaps in the military locations that are heavily fortified. The military forces in these locations are convinced that they are safe, and thus a state of laxness prevails. Members of Wilayat Sinai then rely on this lax security to develop precise plans and they train well for them. Training for the storming of the Obaidat base began ever since the army became preoccupied with securing the economic conference [held in Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-March 2015], when the organization failed to carry out attacks to derail the conference."

Regarding how such a complex attack is carried out, the jihadist said, “Over the past few months, Wilayat Sinai had typically carried out attacks via explosives-laden cars and suicide bombers. Yet, the army forces closed all the roads leading to their headquarters with piles of sand, thinking that this would stop major attacks. They felt assured that they would not be surprised with clashes from a close-by point.”

He added, “But when it comes to terrorism wars, which rely on deception, the biggest mistake the government forces can make is to have expectations and be reassured. As long as there is terrorism, the forces must be on alert and cautious at all times. This is because terrorism relies on gaps, surprise and constantly changing plans, with methods of hit-and-run at different periods.”

The jihadist explained how the attack was carried out, saying, “It was a multifaceted attack. As usual, it began with a plan to deceive, whereby shots were fired at five [army] positions in various cities at the same time — in el-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. This was aimed at providing a cover for the main operation and confusing the army command, while the main attack was carried out on the Obaidat base. In the beginning, militants carrying light Kalashnikovs and hand grenades infiltrated behind the sand dunes placed by the army. They took advantage of [the dunes] as a [security] gap to avoid being seen. Then, others fired rocket-propelled grenades at the base from another direction to confuse [the army], while heavy gunfire was directed from another position. All of this was aimed at providing cover for the members who infiltrated and used hand grenades and machine guns. Thus began the battle, which ended easily in favor of Wilayat Sinai. The group killed forces stationed at the position, seized two armored personnel carriers and captured a soldier.”

The jihadist noted several factors that helped facilitate the mission. First was choosing to attack at 5 a.m., as it is a time when the soldiers are not alert. This is evident in the photos published by Wilayat Sinai, in which the soldiers are in a state of inaction that does not suggest they are at war. The second factor involves exploiting military fortifications, using them for the opposite of their intended purpose. The militants took advantage of the sand piles placed by the army to protect against car bombs as a cover to infiltrate into the base without being seen, engaging in clashes from inside with total ease.

Ten days later, at noon on Sunday April 12, it happened again. A car bomb attacked the police station in el-Arish. Similarly, the jihadist confirmed that timing was of a great significance. The operation took place while the police officers were having lunch, and to divert the attention of the security officers, volleys of bullets were fired in the sand piles, in the opposite direction of the car bomb.

However, according to the jihadist the most surprising thing is that the security forces fired at the car bomb before it reached the gate, but this had no effect. This is because Wilayat Sinai had fortified the car using steel armor removed from the armor personnel carriers seized from the Obaidat military base.

The jihadist expects the group to disseminate a video in the coming period, documenting these operations and the moment the tank fled the clashes so as to play on the psyche of the Egyptian people. For their part, the activists and people of Sinai believe that the area will remain a hotbed of violence and bloodshed for many years to come.

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