The State of Sinai (III): Refuge for Hardliners and Outlaws

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Egyptian security forces stand by their Armored Personnel Carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula on 8 August 2012. (Photo: AFP - Stringer)

By: Yousef Abdel Rahman, Muhammad al-Arabi

Published Thursday, August 23, 2012

The non-existence of the state’s presence in Sinai means the region has long been dominated by various rogue forces, from Islamist militants to human traffickers.

There are many reasons why the rise of religious extremism in Sinai seems a logical outcome or perhaps even an inevitability, prime among them being the absence of the state in all its forms. This has turned this part of Egypt into a fertile ground for any group that competes with the state over its sovereignty.

Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty at the same time that the confrontation between the state and armed Islamist groups was escalating.

Prior to the Israeli occupation and subsequent return of Sinai to Egypt, a traditional Sufi mood was prevalent among the residents of this region for decades. Salafism, however, began to seep in from many directions.

Initially, violence was exercised by followers of various schools of Sufism against followers of the novel Wahhabi ideas.

Said Aatik, member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Sinai, explains that after the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution and the collapse and withdrawal of the Ministry of the Interior, security agencies in Sinai disappeared. So armed groups appeared to take over their role and they used the help of hardline Islamist groups to establish security in the cities of Sinai, including Sheikh Zuweid. They made deals with them to protect facilities, thus turning them into a new player in the equation.

The importance of these groups became evident after the 29 July 2011 Friday when Islamists alone demonstrated in Tahrir Square. The strength of Islamist movements, prime amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and their political dominance added to the influence of these groups.

Aatik says that when the MB took power, it sought to turn Sinai into a site for its competition with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in order to send a message to the world that it is able to impose security and provide stability for Sinai and Israel. Another factor that strengthened the hand of Salafi groups was Hamas’ decision to cleanse Gaza of these groups and expel them from the Strip.

Ismail Alexandrani, a researcher in political sociology, believes – based on his field study of Sinai – that the Jihadi and Takfiri groups are creatures of security agencies that spiralled out of the control of intelligence agencies.

A number of observers maintain that there are no al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Sinai. There are, however, some groups that are trying to emulate al-Qaeda and its practices, and the socio-political environment there, particularly along the northern border areas with Israel and Gaza, is susceptible for the growth and propagation of such ideas.

The Black Banners Organization, that comes from the city of Sheikh Zuweid, is considered one of the most well-known organizations present in Sinai and its surroundings in Gaza along the Egyptian border. Targeting Anwar Sadat’s statue and police station number two in al-Arish and killing a number of army and police officers towards the end of July 2011 are some of the acts that have been attributed to it. So is blowing up the Shrine of Sheikh Zuweid three times.

Salafi-jihadists, Takfir wal Hijra, Ansar al-Jihad, Tawhid and Jihad, Beit al-Maqdis and the Mujahideen Shura Council are some of the groups that have also emerged in the area. The last two groups are thought to hail from the Gaza Strip. They announced two months ago that they carried out an operation targeting an Israeli bus and blew up the gas pipeline.

Writer and activist from Sinai, Massaad Abu Fajr, argues that one reason behind the presence of weapons in Sinai is the policy of some security agencies to support organized crime for their own ends.

According to recurrent reports, weapons would come through land routes from Sudan and be buried in the desert until a buyer is found, be they tribes which need weapons primarily because of the geographical and demographic nature of the area, or the Gaza Strip – controlled by Hamas since 2007 – or smugglers.

Smuggling weapons was so prevalent that Israel hit a caravan going from Sudan to Egypt. It was said at the time that the caravan was on its way to Hamas from Iran. The tribes of al-Rashaida and al-Sawarka are believed to dominate the arms trade in Sinai, especially in the north.

The major source of arms used to be east Sudan and the conflict zones there, but after Gaddafi’s fall, Libya became an additional source of arms. There are many kinds of weapons in Sinai, all the way from Kalashnikovs to anti-aircraft weapons and RPGs.

Alexandrani classifies the weapons found in Sinai into several categories. The first is the regular weapons found with the Egyptian armed forces and they differ in each of the three areas – A, B and C. They use less powerful arms in area C and more powerful in area A. The second kind is light personal arms used by the multinational peacekeeping forces present in area C and on the border with area B. The third is traditional weapons used by tribes and clans and is not subject to any agreements. It is small and medium arms like those found among families in Upper Egypt and is called for by the nature of the area.

The fourth is personal arms found in all homes including blade weapons or light arms for protection. The fifth is commercial arms subject to the law of supply and demand by tribes, smugglers and others. The sixth is resistance arms which intersects with commercial arms. But the two differ in terms of motives and goals. This kind is not related just to the Islamic resistance but to all kinds of borderland resistance or resistance against Israel and even against smugglers and violent and takfiri groups.

Alexandrani also talks about the presence of arms used for hardline ideological and non-ideological purposes by Takfiri groups and organized crime gangs. These arms do not pass through areas inhabited by truly nationalist tribes along the border who oppose any internal arming except for tribes present in border areas. Arms for criminal use are like the traditional arms except there is a level of professionalism in their offensive though non-defensive use which maintains the balance of power among forces such as tribes.

To understand the most important spatial center in the events in Sinai we should know about Jabal al-Halal – the site of the most recent operations by the armed forces after the incident at Karem Abu Salem Crossing.

Jabal al-Halal, that falls in the middle of Sinai, 60 kilometers south of al-Arish, had previously been a target of attacks and operations by security forces.

Jabal al-Halal is a rocky mountain far from the valley that was always a refuge for hardline groups and outlaws. Israeli occupation forces were never able to control it throughout Israel’s presence in Sinai. It is from Jabal al-Halal specifically that several operations were launched by the Egyptian al-Saika and the fedayeen among the Bedouins.

This mountain is very rugged and its entrance and exit points are complicated which made it a place of refuge and a launching ground for armed groups and outlaws.

Jabal al-Halal, which is 40 kilometers wide and 60 kilometers long, consists of rocky hills that are 2 kilometers in altitude, and is inhabited by al-Sawarka tribes in the north and al-Tarabin and al-Tayaha in the middle. Even though the mountain is rocky, it is rich in pasture and grass. The cattle in this area are known as “halal” – the name source of the mountain whose people work as herders.

After the Taba bombing in 2004, a security campaign was launched by the police in a desperate attempt to blockade the mountain in order to pursue armed groups that were accused of involvement in the incident.

The blockade lasted for several months and lead only to the killing of the leader of the Tawhid and Jihad organization, Salem al-Shanoub, and the arrest of hundreds of suspected tribespeople from Sinai. The same scenario was then repeated after the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing in July 2005.

In the wake of the security vacuum in Sinai after the January 25 revolution, armed and hardline groups operated in Jabal al-Halal which turned into a center for their operations and their presence in the middle of Sinai and along the borders with the occupied Palestinian land and Israel.

Egyptian security accused these groups of carrying out the bloody attack on police station number two in al-Arish on 29 July 2011, killing five people.

Jabal al-Halal returned to the forefront, becoming the target of the armed forces. These forces bombed and combed it several times as part of operation Nisr (Eagle) 2, carried out by the army following the Rafah and Karem Abu Salem Crossing incidents. The operation targeted terrorist groups suspected of involvement in the killing of Egyptian border guards.

Activists believe, however, that this campaign, just like previous security campaigns, will not be fruitful even if they deploy the air force because they will not accurately distinguish between terrorist and civilian targets that exist side by side in this rocky mountainous region.

Hardline Islamist groups are not the only target of the Egyptian authorities in Sinai. There is also the phenomenon of organized crime that has exerted Egyptian border guards and led to the diffusion of arms and human smuggling into Israel. Human smuggling is one of the most profitable illegal trades and it involves gangs from Sinai that are able to take advantage of the absence of inspection along the porous Egyptian-Israeli borders.

Immigrants come from African countries that suffer from wars and famine like the Niger, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. They manage to cross into Egypt and head to Sinai which for them means a path to Israel.

There are smuggling lines that begin at the Suez Canal where infiltrators cross the Martyr Ahmed Hamdy Tunnel as smugglers wait for them with a guide on a road parallel to the northern cities all the way to Rafah. Among the other roads that immigrants take is Kobri (bridge) al-Salam where there is no heavy security presence. After the armed forces began to exercise tight control over these exits, smugglers started bringing immigrants on small boats across the canal.

The smuggling routes are concentrated around the city of Rafah and in the border villages neighboring Gaza and Israel where there are camps for Africans.

The Africans who are fleeing the hell of famine and war in their countries often fall victim to merchants of human organs. Traders bury the bodies of these victims in mass graves known as the Africans’ Graves while others are subjected to kidnapping and torture.

Reports point out that some security officials turn a blind eye to this internationally-banned trade because they profit from it. After all, the smugglers and guides are known to the security forces and the tribes. The tribes are appalled by this illegal trade and look in shame at tribe members who are involved in it.

In recent years, human smuggling has involved predominantly people from Africa while in the past decades it involved mostly Ukrainian, Russian and Georgian women. It goes without saying that there is criminal coordination between the gangs in Sinai and their counterparts in Israel.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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