Hundreds of Egyptians, who reside in northern Sinai along the eastern borders with the Gaza Strip, are being forced to abandon their homes which the army plans to demolish as it hunts down armed groups responsible for countless attacks, the latest of which killed 33 soldiers.
The attack, which is the worst in a cycle of violence that has largely targeted security forces for over a year, has earned pledges by the country’s military to intensify its chase in the restive Sinai Peninsula. The campaign which kicked off last August, did not succeed in stamping out armed fighters.
With anger spreading among people in Sinai over the evacuation, and attacks continuing despite a months-long clampdown on the region’s residents, questions are raised on how effective the military operations have been, and how useful a tighter grip will be to root out assailants.
Ismail Alexandrani, a researcher at the Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative and an expert on Sinai, spoke to Al Jazeera about military groups based in the Sinai and the Egyptian authorities’ achievements in their “war on terror”.
Al Jazeera: Which armed groups are currently active in the Sinai Peninsula?
Ismail Alexandrani: Right now, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABAM), or Champions of Jerusalem, is the only active group in Sinai. The group was a Salafi jihadist organisation loyal to al-Qaeda but moved to embrace a takfiri doctrine (Muslims who accuse others of apostasy) after massacres were committed against Islamists in the July 2013 coup. There are now two branches of the group in dispute, one remains loyal to al-Qaeda and another loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
As for the ‘Mujahideen Shura Council – the Environs of Jerusalem’, it first came into existence in the peninsula in 2011, but has disappeared from Sinai since August 2013, and is believed to have withdrawn to Gaza, where they solely focus on Israeli targets.
There are also other ideologies in the Sinai Peninsula that can be more extreme than ABAM, but do not, ironically, use weapons against a community and state they claim are infidels. They deem themselves vulnerable and are not fit for jihad.
Therefore, ABAM now rules the scene in Sinai. Its fighters number less than 200, but the group is efficient in recruiting and mobilising new members from inside and outside Egypt.
Al Jazeera: How is the spike in attacks connected to regional developments and how much cooperation is there between Sinai-based militants and others in the region?
Alexandrani: It is important to note that ‘local’ and ‘national boundaries’ bear no importance to Salafi jihadists, and that, for them, matters and developments are looked at from the perspective of the umma, or the Muslim nation.
For them, borders are temporary piles of dust, and therefore, progress achieved by one group resonates across the region.
So, ISIL advances not only boost the confidence of ABAM fighters, but also draws new members from Egypt to join jihadists, which also means attracting new elements to Egypt-based armed groups. This exchange of support was made obvious when ABAM spokesman Abu Osama al-Masry hailed ISIL’s advances.
There is no confirmed organisational unity linking these groups together, however, it is safe to assume that there is technical collaboration, exchange of data, and logistical liaising between the various groups. This does not necessarily mean sharing the same ideologies.
Al Jazeera: How did these attacks evolve recently, especially the past three years?
Alexandrani: The first attack carried out by ABAM was in the summer of 2010, and targeted the gas pipeline feeding Jordan and Israel.
It was not claimed by them, but throughout 2011 and 2012, the group did nothing within Egypt but repeatedly bombed the same pipeline to disrupt its flow.
It only targeted people inside the occupied territories of Palestine. In fact, in August 2012, when the first Rafah massacre took place and 16 soldiers were killed, ABAM put out a video condemning the attack against soldiers they described as ‘Muslims’, indicating that the group, at the time, had had not yet embraced the takfiri ideology.
But since the military coup in 2013, they have been targeting policemen and military forces, killing hundreds, especially after the onslaught against the largely Islamist backers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Their attacks initially began with Sinai, but have gone deeper inland, to hit several cities along the delta, as well as the capital. This spread outside Sinai was normal, since the founder was not originally from Sinai, but was deployed by al-Qaeda to the peninsula and therefore expansion beyond the region was a goal.
The spike in violence was a response to the brutality of the regime’s clampdown on dissent. The group’s grip in Cairo weakened when its leader in the capital was arrested after being injured when a bomb blew up by mistake.
This happened, however, after the group reached the peak of its success in the January attack on Cairo’s police headquarters.
Now a former officer in the elite forces, Hesham Ashmawy, was made head of the group’s operations, and a person with such military experience and in depth knowledge of the ins and outs, will surely boost the group’s progress.
Al Jazeera: How many military operations have been carried out in the region since 2011? How efficient have these operations been?
Alexandrani: There have been three operations in the peninsula since the revolution. The first started after July 29, 2011, called ‘Falcon’ and had no impact whatsoever.
A year later, the second campaign, dubbed ‘Falcon II’ began, immediately after the first Rafah massacre. The outcome was minimal amid a weak security performance. The army managed to take on the cell that has targeted the gas pipeline over 20 times.
Then came the third operation, launched on September 7, 2013, and has being ongoing since. Called ‘The War’, the operation witnessed several war crimes committed against Sinai residents, including arbitrary arrests, random air strikes, kidnapping and torture, and the killing of dozens of civilians. Collective punishment was inflicted on all residents of northern Sinai.
Still, every month or so, armed groups succeed in accomplishing a milestone attack. From an assassination attempt targeting the interior minister, to the assassination of high ranking police officers and army personnel, and the downing of an air force helicopter which was the first time an Egyptian army aircraft was downed by the fire of a group other than an army.
There is also access to army data. How else would the most recent attack happen just as senior officers were visiting the checkpoint, and resulting in such a death toll? According to reports, several high-ranking officers in the Second Field Army were wounded in the attack.
All in all, the operations did nothing but trigger more fury and possibly drive more people into the arms of ABAM.
Right now, there is an unconstitutional forced evacuation of residents in northern Sinai, without an alternative, without assistance.
What is being implemented right now is in no way different from the US-Israel proposal that a buffer zone be set up in Sinai to tighten the grip on Palestinian resistance.
Alienating the people of Sinai is definitely not the answer to terrorism in Egypt.
Al Jazeera: Is there an exit strategy?
Alexandrani: The solution must be a political one. The solution must also have an economic, social and security side to it. As the majority of ABAM fighters are Egyptian, the government needs to address their grievances to stop more fighters joining its ranks.
For instance, ABAM offers members of Egypt’s security forces a chance to “repent” by taking off their military fatigue and becoming one of its fighters. Egyptian authorities should also encourage fighters to leave such armed groups, reassured that they will not face death.
Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter: @Dee_Kholaif