South Sinai returns to scope of militancy after period of calm

Adham Youssef
7 Min Read
Saint Catherine's Monastery (Photo from Wikipedia)

A militant attack on a checkpoint near Saint Catherine road in South Sinai left on Tuesday night one lower ranking police officer dead and three other security personnel injured—a move that returns militancy to the once calm and secure southern part of the restless peninsula.

According to the official narrative, the Interior Ministry said that “a number of militants” opened fire from an elevated mountainous area opposite the checkpoint on the Saint Catherine Road, which is near the Saint Catherine Monastery.

The Saint Catherine Road extends from the city of El Tor in western South Sinai and extends to Nuweiba in the east.

The ministry added that the police forces stationed in the checkpoint returned fire and injured some of the attackers, who later managed to flee.

A Bedouin tour guide at Saint Catherine told Daily News Egypt that the attackers used motor bikes to execute the attack, saying that the area is rarely a scene of similar attacks. “These checkpoints mainly handle checking IDs, narcotics, and liquor, as well as arresting fugitives, but never engaging with militants,” he added.

He said that after the attack, the army took to the roads in South Sinai, along with the intelligence apparatus of the police. He added that two people were detained and are currently being interrogated.

Meanwhile, at the time of print, state media reported that police forces killed one of the perpetrators allegedly involved in the attack.

After the attack, the security director of South Sinai, general Ahmed Al-Tael, told privately-owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that casualties resulted after one police conscript shot “by mistake” four other members at the checkpoint.

After the official narrative was reported, Al-Tael confirmed that it was an attack.

Currently, forces from the Egyptian third field army are securing the main entrances and highways of the area. Similarly, the prosecution has started investigating the incident.

A state of confusion dominated information about the attack amid reports that the monastery was attacked. However, Father Gregory of the monastery told local media that the attack didn’t affect the monks or the priests living in the area.

Hours after the attack, the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq News Agency claimed responsibility for the attack. Usually, when militants from the group execute attacks outside of North Sinai, either Amaq News Agency or the “Islamic State in Egypt” publishes statements to claim responsibility for the attacks.

But when attacks take place in North Sinai, statements with the watermark of Sinai Province are published to claim the attacks. The group considers Sinai as part of a bigger “Caliphate”.

The militant group is rarely active in South Sinai.

The latest attack prior to this one, which was not claimed by the Islamic State, took place in January 2016 in Hurghada in the Bella Vista Resort, where two militants entered the hotel and stabbed three tourists, one Swedish, and two Austrian nationals, none of which were killed. The two militants were arrested and sent to trial, where they received a life sentence.

In February 2014, militant group Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, who would later pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, claimed a bomb attack on a tourist bus in Taba, killing two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver. It was a suicide attack. The militant group said that the attack, which was the first to take place after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, was aimed at “raging an economic war” against what they called a “regime of treason”.

On 7 October 2004, three bombs ripped through tourist hotels in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 34 and injuring 171. One of the bombs went off in Taba, which claimed the lives of 31 and caused ten floors of the hotel to collapse. A majority of the victims were Egyptian.

Dahab, also in Sinai, was struck by three bombs on 24 April 2006, killing at least 23 people. Again, a majority of the victims were Egyptian.

Last week, the Israeli government renewed its calls that all tourists in the Sinai region leave immediately, citing intelligence that attacks are imminent.

Egypt’s security forces have been trying to stop the flow of militancy from North Sinai to South Sinai.

In a January interview with Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Tael said that police and army forces are doing their best to “enhance a buffer zone” between the two governorates to prevent the leakage of militants from the north to the south of the peninsula. He added that the security apparatus is relying on the Bedouins and tribesmen of South Sinai to secure and guard caves and underground passages.

Since January, the sophistication of the military operations by Sinai Province has relatively decreased, leading the group to rely on single targeting, such as attacking Coptic civilians, drive-by attacks, assassinations, or random improvised explosive device (IED) bombings.

According to officials’ statements and assertions by the military, operations in North Sinai have succeeded in limiting the activity of the group; however, on an almost weekly basis, casualties have been reported because of the group’s operations. The army and several pro-state media outlets launched a campaign to highlight the army operation in Jabal Halal, citing sweeping victories and announcing the near end of the extremist group.

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