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‘A Taliban mentality'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 07 - 2013

The scope and scale of terrorist attacks in the Sinai have expanded over the past two weeks, targeting military personnel and civilians. According to military sources and observers on the ground the escalation had been anticipated. One source told Al-Ahram Weekly that military and other intelligence sources had identified 50 terrorist groups in mountainous areas and olive groves. The army has moved in on these using Special Forces and aerial fire from fighter helicopters. There have been good results in taking out the targets, which will be revealed at a later date, the source said. He added no time limit has been set on military operations.
Speaking to the Weekly from Sheikh Zuweid, Ahmed Al-Swereiki, a member of one of the largest and most politically involved Sinai tribes, said that he is very worried by the situation on the ground. Terrorist groups, he says, are active in the area stretching from Al-Masa'id on the outskirts of Al-Arish to Rafah. According to Al-Swereiki, one of the main reasons the terrorist situation is worsening is because many tribal elders in the area are reluctant to cooperate with security services because of their past treatment. In addition, some tribal members concluded arms pacts with terrorist elements during Mohamed Morsi's year-long rule and the financial returns lured them into the network of vested interests that benefit from increaded violence in Sinai.
Another elder from the Sowarka tribe in Sheikh Zuweid said the strategic reserves of terrorist groups far exceed military estimates. He learned this from a number of individuals who had participated in meetings on behalf of a sovereign agency that hoped to reach a formula to halt the violence and convince fighters to turn in their weapons rather than resort to a scorched earth strategy. Although the source said he had certain reservations with respect to details regarding the quantity and types of weapons in the groups' possession, he was very disturbed by the determination of these groups to sustain their fight against security forces, and the police in particular. He added that now the army had made it clear it was equally resolved to eliminate them the only possible scenario was war.
A high-level military expert in terrorist operations warns there are many problems to be encountered in the unique security environment of the Sinai. “This is a moment in which we need to be frank with the nation and say that we need a special kind of strategy in order to overcome this crisis and it could take a long time.” He explained that there are large arms caches in secret tunnels in the Sinai. The weapons come from many sources, Libya chief among them, and include advanced weaponry that was used in the battle to overthrow the Qaddafi regime.
The source confirmed information that the Weekly obtained from eye-witnesses in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah that militias in the Sinai were using type 107 mm Multiple Rocket launchers. He added that other sources of arms are Sudan, Iran via Yemen, Syria via Lebanon, and sometimes Jordan or Tabouk on the Saudi-Jordanian border, a convergence point for illicit arms shipments.
“The main problem in this regard is that the Sinai peninsula has a very long coastline. It's open and difficult to keep under constant surveillance. Ordinary helicopters on routine half-hour long patrol sorties cannot do it. Also, most smuggling operations take place under the cover of darkness and our ability to monitor the coast at night is very modest. We do not have, for example, the capacities available to Israel which uses pilotless aircraft. On patrol around the clock they are capable of detecting any movement on the ground.”
The antiterrorist expert also mentioned that terrorists in the Sinai have been using four-wheel drive vehicles carrying Grad 2.5 missile launchers and anti-aircraft missile launchers. In addition some terrorists carry portable missile launchers.
Earlier on Tuesday Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon delivered a lengthy statement in which he noted that Egypt could not increase the size of its forces in the northern Sinai without Israel's approval. Commenting on Yaalon's statement, the source said, “We understand the security nature of the Camp David protocol but there is no need for Israeli officials to bring this subject up all the time. They are benefitting from the operations being undertaken by the army.”
To what extent does the security situation in the Sinai reflect the political situation in Cairo where the Muslim Brotherhood has dug in its heels and seems determined to escalate protests and fuel violence in the streets? It is a “natural mirror of how the Muslim Brothers are behaving in the capital,” says the source, and only to be expected given the ties the Muslim Brotherhood leadership had with some of the jihadist groups in the Sinai whose presence, organisation and structures were strengthened during the year of Brotherhood rule.
While a Muslim Brotherhood source among the Freedom and Justice Party leadership did not deny a relationship with some of the groups in the Sinai he said there was no connection between the situation in the Sinai and that in Cairo. The same FJP leader told the Weekly in an earlier interview that, prior to 30 June, extremist Islamist leaders in the Sinai had urged the Muslim Brotherhood to respond to the opposition with force.
Asked to comment on Ahmed Al-Swereiki's observations concerning the network of interests between Bedouin tribes and militant groups military affairs expert General Gamal Mazloum said that the “army is fully aware of the networks of interests which have increased beyond imagination”.
Muslim Brotherhood members, including some senior leaders, are caught up in the web of interests which, says Mazloum, they have exploited for personal gain.
On operations in the Sinai, Mazloum said that while the armed forces could easily bomb 5,000 to 7,000 militants it was aware that such a course would cause a great deal of collateral damage and it was unwilling to endanger innocent lives.
Mohamed Al-Osta, a native of the Sinai from El-Arish, told the Weekly that the Muslim Brotherhood members who rallied in Al-Nasr square, the centre of that city, had lost all sympathy among the public and among the tribes. “Everyone is talking about their sympathy and support for terrorism,” he said.
Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements, offers an illuminating take on the relationship between militant groups in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There are sympathisers who signed up with the jihadists but the general rule is money. There are mercenaries there. There are also groups that are identical versions of Palestinian groups. Before 30 June Hamas had been working with the Muslim Brotherhood regime to variously strengthen ties between these groups, or separate them, with the aim of keeping them under control. One worrying thing is that there are religious fanatics who believe they are fighting secularists who have overthrown an Islamic faction. It is a Taliban mentality and the army must be firm in confronting it.”


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