June 9, 2019
On the dawn of Wednesday, the first day of Eid Al Fitr, 8 policemen were killed after an ambush on the Hero 14 checkpoint, west of Arish in North Sinai. Five of the attackers were killed during the attack and the rest were tracked, with 22 killed later in two separate incidents according to statements of the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
The organisation Wilayat Sinaa, the ISIS-affiliated group in Sinai claimed responsibility of the attack, and the organisation published pictures of some of its operatives during the attack on its channel on Telegram. In one of the pictures, there were armed persons surrounding a police armoured vehicle. Another picture showed an operative holding an anti-aircraft gun; his mission seeming to target air-support jets that flew to the site following the attack, according to witnesses.
Wilayat Sinaa organisation is an extension of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group that appeared in Sinai after the 25 January 2011 revolution. The group mainly targets Israel and the gas pipeline which passes through Sinai to Israel. Since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the military doctrine of the group started to focus on the country’s security forces.
The key planner of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’ operations was Hesham Ashmawy, a former military officer, who was handed over by Libya to Egypt last month. In November 2014, Bait al-Maqdis declared its loyalty to ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, changing its name to Wilayat Sinaa.
Thereafter, the organisation received a lot of support from ISIS which was, at the time, at the heights of its power. This was reflected through the qualitative attacks the group carried out and the sophisticated weapons it used. The same time also witnessed an influx of new operatives joining Wilayat Sinaa, driven by their new loyalty to ISIS or the organisation’s desire to take revenge on security bodies that waged an unprecedented crackdown against opponents of the army which overthrew Morsi in 2013. Amongst the members joining Wilayat Sinaa were former army and police officers.
The organisation carried out dozens of attacks against the army and the police in Sinai, and tens of security personnel and officers were killed. Human causalities resulting from the most notable 14 ambush attacks in North Sinai were 150 fatalities and 122 injured from among the army and police according to current statistics.
In response, the Egyptian army implemented extended military campaigns, among the most notable of which is ‘Operation Martyr’s Right’ and ‘Comprehensive Operation’ which have been ongoing since February 2018. Moreover, the government created a buffer zone on the borders with Gaza, involving the destruction of hundreds of houses and removing thousands of trees, claiming that’s where the militants operated. In the first 11 months of Comprehensive Operation, over 530 combatants were killed, and more than 1000 “terrorist suspects” were arrested. There were also separate operations carried out by police forces resulting in the killings of tens of suspects.
A futile strategy
According to relatively old estimates, the number of Wilayat Sinaa members is between 1,000 and 1,500. Indeed, in the US TV network CBS interview with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the beginning of this year, the interviewer mentioned that the number of terrorists in Sinai is a 1,000 persons, without objection from Sisi.
Seven years ago, after the first massacre of Rafah in 2012 which caused the killing of 16 soldiers, the Egyptian state started to take the threat of militant groups seriously. Since then, Egyptian security forces waged many operations, using small arms to aircrafts and heavy artillery, yet they have not been able to eliminate ISIS elements or paralyse their ability to undertake major attacks despite their relatively small numbers.
Although attacks have significantly decreased compared to 2015, 2016 and 2017, arbitrary raids are still ongoing, raising questions about the security strategy followed by Egyptian security forces in dealing with alleged terrorists in Sinai. The ambush on Hero 14 is now a new link in the chain of continuous security ambushes without a viable securing strategy.