The July 1st attack in Egypt’s north Sinai has signaled a change in strategy from the previous attacks launched in the region, adopting a strategy used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria forcused on taking and holding territory. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, Egypt’s most active militant group in the Sinai, swore allegiance to ISIS in November 2014 becoming Sinai Province. The attempt to fly the ISIS flag in Sheikh Zuweid failed due to the Egyptian Armed Forces repelling the attack, killing over 250 terrorists with operations still continuing.
Dr. Abdel Monem Said Aly, Director and Chairman of The Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), noted the differences between this attack and previous ones in an interview. “Other times they [terrorists] attack military posts, and try to inflict the largest number of casualties of soldiers and officers. Usually they have a pattern of getting into the post with suicide bombing and explosive vehicles,” he said.
“They usually use big cars like ambulances, water trucks that will blow up. They attack the area and then mine the roads for the people that are coming to the scene of the attack,” he explained.
He noted that usually the terrorists work to maximize the number of people killed in attacks: “That was the usual pattern of attacking people in Sinai, in Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Al Arish. This time they did something differently.”
“They wanted to do something like they did in Iraq and Syria, take cities and places. So they attacked Sheikh Zuweid and made simultaneous attacks inside Zuweid,” he said. “It was like a crescent attacking the city. Using large number of forces, different kinds of high caliber weaponry. They even have anti-tank aircraft weapons.”
He stated that they were much more sophisticated and weaponized than before. “They did some of the things before like making suicide bombing explosives and mining the road. However, they were mistaken on many issues,” he stated. “Number 1: how the Egyptian posts will behave. They thought they could overrun it quickly but it didn’t happen. So they withdrew and concentrated on the town itself.”
He said that the local forces in the town resisted and the Egyptian Army used Apaches and F-16’s very successfully to hunt them, and prevent them from taking over Sheikh Zuweid, and “posting the flag announcing the Islamic State in Zuweid like in Derna or Ramadi.”
He stated that the tactics were usually to attack the place and mine the roads targeting the first responders to the scene. The Army at the beginning would rush to the scene, which they no longer do– they instead start to take the explosives out. “It is a tactic taken from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“This time, using the Egyptian Air Force, they were able to stop the posts from being taken over by ISIS, they didn’t take the posts, or town, and there was a big chase,” he noted.
“Half of the causalities of the terrorists were from when they [terrorists] were on the run from the Apaches,” he remarked. He said the Egyptian military was able to take captives that will help in providing information.
Speaking with a senior Egyptian security official, he described the events that occurred on July 1st as a complex operation conducted by 250-300 terrorist elements. “The main objective of the operation was to announce the establishment of extremist Islamist province in the town of Sheikh Zuweid.” Sheikh Zuweid is symbolic because it controls the routes that join both Rafah and AL-Arish, the capital of North Sinai governorate.
He said that the Egyptian security forces acted valorously and prevented “such a terrorist organization from flying their banners and flags at our checkpoints.”
The operations in North Sinai are still ongoing, with the latest report of over 250 terrorists killed since July 1st by Egyptian security forces. President Sisi visited North Sinai last Saturday, saying the situation there is stable and under control.
Egypt launched a large-scale operation after Islamist president Morsi was removed from power by a popular uprising of the people in the Sinai to eradicate terrorism from the area closing over 85% of the tunnels leading to and from Gaza and the Sinai province.
When asked why ISIS was not able to gain a foothold and control territory in the Sinai as they have done in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, the official explained that Egypt has a “civilization that goes back to 7,000 years ago. This is a fact and not a slogan or word,” he explained.
He referred back to February 2011, when thousands of Egyptian police disappeared from the streets after Mubarak stepped down from power. “All the citizens took to the streets in order to defend their money, their property and to prevent any criminal acts or sabotage to the economic firms or institutions,” he explained.
“We have the souls in the Egyptians as an early alarm system and in the critical times the Egyptian people are quite united and integrated with the security services. They defend their country,” he said.
He told the story of a recent attack in the Sinai where the terrorists tried to force their way to the top of a Bedouin’s home to either gain higher access to launch attacks on the Egyptian military, or to fly the Daesh flag. The Bedouin refused to allow the terrorists in his home and he was killed for doing so. “This example applies to 90 million Egyptian people, short of the .5% of those who support the Brotherhood.”
He said in addition to the Egyptian people playing a role in defending their country, the Egyptian Armed Forces are a united force and are not a tribal or sectarian military. “That is why this military was able to stand up and was not defeated,” he said. “It has three dimensions of power in addition to man power. All these powers make the military able to foil plots that are being planned to bring down the country by means of terrorist groups or other offensive attacks.”
He explained how only 1% of the total percentage of the Egyptian military is assigned to counterterrorism operations in North Sinai and how they could “completely rid the Sinai of terrorism,” but they abide by their combat doctrine of preventing collateral damage and preventing civilian casualties. “This is why we use selected power. If we allow ourselves to harm a single innocent civilian deliberately, we will never meet God-if we are stained in blood of even single innocent civilian,” he noted.
Tera Dahl is Executive Director of the Council on Global Security.