In 2013, there were seven known militants from the village that Ahmed Abu Deraa comes from in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula. Today, that number has jumped to about 60, says Abu Deraa, an independent journalist who sometimes works for NPR. All of them are with Sinai Province, the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State.
The Sinai’s militants are all gathering under the ISIS umbrella, Abu Deraa says. But what they’re fighting for isn’t some grand regional cause.
“We’ve reached to a point where it’s about vengeance,” he says, “because your father was killed or your brother, because your house was destroyed.”
For the most part they’re only targeting Egypt’s security forces, or people they accuse of aiding the military. Meanwhile, Egypt is facing a growing insurgency in its northern Sinai Peninsula. It’s been brewing for years. As violence has increased in recent months, Egypt has intensified a wide military crackdown to quell the unrest.
Analysts say that’s part of the problem: The mass crackdowns likely are driving more people to join the militants.
“The crux of this policy is two things,” says Omar Ashour, a Middle East politics and security expert at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and Britain’s University of Exeter. First, he says, “is heavy-handedness, a hard crackdown on dissent and all forms of suspected militant activity.” The government is also trying “to coopt some of the tribal leaders to provide information, either by intimidation or by incentives.”
‘A Full-Fledged Insurgency’
It’s a policy that’s been going on for more than a decade, Ashour says.
The Sinai long has been an underdeveloped region, with few services for its largely Bedouin community. And it’s seen a decade-long cycle of sporadic militancy and massive state crackdowns.
“Now you have a full-fledged, mid-level insurgency with significant support in some areas,” Ashour says. “You are having really Egypt’s most powerful, armed non-state actor ever.”
And now the militants have a regional backer in ISIS.
But unlike ISIS, the Sinai militants are largely from the area, and for the most part are targeting government security forces — not civilians, say Ashour, residents and other analysts.
Ashour says the militants’ arsenal has also grown to include anti-aircraft weaponry, mortars and small and heavy artillery. And their tactics are more sophisticated.
‘It Creates More Terrorism’
After attacks on July 1 that killed at least 21 Egyptian military personnel, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el Sisi was defiant. He traveled to Sinai and declared it not just “under control,” but “completely stable.”
The government is calling this a war on terror. It blames the unrest in Sinai, along with many other things, on the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Southern Sinai is still home to tourist resorts and the Red Sea beaches, but much of northern Sinai, the focal point of the conflict, is barred to outside journalists.
Sherif Mohy el-Din, a researcher on Sinai for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a civil liberties and human rights organization, says the region won’t be pacified through military might alone.
“It creates more terrorism,” he says.”So I think rather than just using the security policy, we should make it more social, pro-human rights — not use of collective punishment.”
Residents from the area of Sheikh Zwayed, one of the Sinai’s focal conflict points, are fleeing by the thousands since the coordinated attack July 1 on military checkpoints, mainly because of Egyptian military strikes and a lack of water and electricity.
Om Yousef is one of the women who fled. Speaking by phone, she asked to be identified by her nickname for fear of retribution.
“The army has made many mistakes,” she says. Her own home was struck by military bombs earlier this month and her father was injured. That’s when she fled to another part of the region.
The area is becoming unlivable, she says, and militants have planted landmines on many of the roads.
Still, she says, the militants try to spare civilians. “The terrorists are organized,” she says. “If they want to target the army, they target them only — and we are not harmed.”
Near the town of Sheikh Zwayed in northern Sinai, home to some of the heaviest fighting, “we’re in the middle of a war,” says Abdel Moneim al-Rifaie.
He’s a leader of the Bedouin Riyashat tribe. He describes rocket attacks and airstrikes in his neighborhood, but says he’s not sure who is firing what weaponry.
“We are citizens who need to be secured by our forces,” he says. But people feel unsafe, so they’re running away — despite the military calling from loudspeakers in local mosques for them to stay home.
There were 40,000 people in al-Rifaie’s tribe living in Sheikh Zwayed and the surrounding area last month. Now, only 2,500 remain in their homes.
Twenty-five people from his tribe have been killed so far in clashes this year, though he wouldn’t specify whether it was the military or the militants that killed them. Seven others were beheaded by extremists, who accused them of working with the Egyptian army.