A number of tribes in northern Sinai have taken up arms in the battle launched by the Egyptian military against Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State's (IS) Sinai affiliate. Their involvement followed an April 29 statement by the Tarabin tribe in which it called on the tribes in the northern Sinai governorate to unite against the extremist organization.
In its statement, the Tarabin proclaimed, “Facing the terrorist and immoral invasions of the Islamic and Arab nation, targeting our people and the entity of our state and violating all human and moral standards and traditions of Islam, strife is knocking on our doors that were once safe, and deceit is stealing the lives of our youths and depriving our tribes of their financial and moral assets in [northern] Sinai.”
Days later, on May 3, the Tarabin announced the killing of eight members of Wilayat Sinai in clashes in the area of Ajraa and the capture of three others, including Asaad al-Amarin, a non-Egyptian leader in the organization. Amarin had been responsible for the organization's supplies and funding and had recruited a number of people to the group.
Sameh Eid, an independent researcher focusing on Islamic movements, told Al-Monitor, “It is dangerous that tribes in Sinai are carrying arms. This will have momentary gains only. In the long run, civilians bearing arms will jeopardize the state’s stability. Arms should only be in the hands of the army and police.
“If the tribes want to face Wilayat Sinai with arms, they must join the Egyptian army rather than acting independently. If the state approves of tribes using arms, it would be legalizing killing outside the law.”
Eid also stated, “The international community supports Egypt in its war on terrorism, but civilians taking up arms gives the impression that crimes are being committed in Sinai. The state must reject this and allow youths in the tribes to enlist in the army.”
Moussa al-Dalah, spokesperson for the Tarabin, asserted in a May 4 interview on the Masa DMC television show, “Not one person from Sinai tribes has raised his weapons against the state or the army. Sinai tribes have faced injustice, but none of them used their weapons against the state.”
Dalah also remarked, “Eighty percent of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militants are foreigners, and only a few hail from Sinai, and they are the worst of people.” In November 2014, some members of the extremist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to IS under the banner of Wilayat Sinai.
Discussing part of the danger posed by Wilayat Sinai, Dalah claimed, “We have confessions from people planting bombs. They receive $1,000 to carry out this mission, and if a policeman is injured, the mercenary is paid more.”
Hussam al-Rifai, member of parliament from northern Sinai, told Al-Monitor, “The tribes in Sinai did not want to carry arms at first, but the violations of Wilayat Sinai against them … increased. So, the Tarabin tribe picked up its weapons against the group, and the other tribes followed suit.
“The tribes are well aware of the danger of carrying arms and believe that the army and police are the only ones who should bear arms to face outlaws. But the savageness and spread of infidels pushed the tribes to face the terrorist group in coordination with the army.”
Rifai emphasized, “The tribes will not take up arms against the state because they want to restore the stability that IS shook.”
Arms possession is permitted with a license in Egypt, but tribes in Sinai typically have unlicensed weapons. The army has demanded that they hand them over, but only a few tribes have complied.
On May 5, the united Sinai tribes, some 30 of them according to Rifai, called on youths who had joined Wilayat Sinai to reconsider their actions. “I warn all men who are being lured by IS to be careful and run away,” a statement by the tribes read. “Return to your families, tribes and loved ones before it is too late. The person who hands himself in before being caught red-handed will be safe. But the deceivers have only themselves to blame. God willing, we will watch you like hawks, and only those who learn from others’ fate will be satisfied.”
Mohammad Nour el-Din, former deputy interior minister, told Al-Monitor, “Civilians are not allowed to carry arms. This is a crime that tribes should avoid if they want to cooperate with the state to defy Wilayat Sinai in a lawful manner.
“The tribes in Sinai coordinated with local armed forces, but the retaliatory measures of Wilayat Sinai and the killing of tribal sheikhs and members for cooperating with the army pushed the tribes to step back from their support for the state. But due to the violent and erratic blows of Wilayat Sinai against the tribes, the Tarabin tribe announced armed confrontation against the terrorist organization.”
Wilayat Sinai has conducted several operations against tribes and others in Sinai. Among them, members of the group abducted a woman from her house in April 2015, claiming that she had cooperated with the Egyptian army. In November 2016, Wilayat Sinai announced the execution of two tribal sheikhs. Media outlets revealed that one of them was Suleiman Abu Haraz, a Sufi from the Sawarka tribe. The organization published photos of Abu Haraz's execution, further angering the tribes. The group has also recently targeted Christians, leading to mass displacements as Copts flee their homes to save their lives.
Underlining the importance of forcing the tribes to hand their weapons over to the police or armed forces, Nour el-Din, agreeing with Eid, remarked, “Egypt is a sovereign state, and security institutions are the only ones that should carry weapons.”
The Egyptian military has not officially commented on the Tarabin’s call to arms and announcement of killings. If the tribes continue to challenge Wilayat Sinai, it could encourage other civilians to do likewise, and in the long run that would also make it more difficult for the state to control the situation should the battle between the tribes and Wilayat Sinai worsen.