On March 19, 2016, a terrorist attack on a checkpoint in the Safa neighborhood in southern Arish city resulted in the death of 15 police personnel. The victims were two police captains, a first lieutenant, and 12 conscripts. A police officer and two conscripts are still missing after the attack and the whereabouts of the three "missing" police officers are still unknown. Egyptian security forces killed five of the terrorists after violent clashes that lasted for two hours.
This attack is the last among a series of terrorist attacks that have targeted army and police centers in the Sinai Peninsula. The attack was the biggest in Sinai this year and the deadliest since July 2015. It could mark the return of Wilayat Sinai (Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis) to large-scale coordinated attacks after a period of limited operations against checkpoints and security personnel.
Wilayat Sinai has claimed numerous deadly attacks in the region recently, targeting mainly security forces. Earlier this week, an Egyptian soldier and police officer were killed during two separate attacks in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Gunmen affiliated with Wilayat Sinai shot and killed the officer outside his home in el-Arish. A soldier was also killed by a sniper in Sheikh Zuweid, which is not far from el-Arish.
The terror attack was carefully organized, suggesting it had long been planned. Wilayat Sinai surveillance personnel had probably observed the checkpoint for some time and that automatic weapons and an RPG were stashed nearby.
The checkpoint was close to a valley and olive farm, providing ground cover that the terrorists probably used to crawl undetected on the ground as they hid their weapons. When the suicide bomber struck, his cohorts were then able to fire on any survivors using their cache of weapons.
According to the prosecutor-general, the incident took place at 6.30pm on Saturday (March 19). Prosecutors say checkpoint personnel were subjected to mortar and RPG fire. Ambulances attempting to reach the scene of the attack also came under heavy gunfire.
Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility
The Wilayat Sinai, which is affiliated with the Islamic State group, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement on Twitter, the group said the attack was "part of a series of operations in response to the humiliation and searching of Muslim women at checkpoints."
The statement said a suicide bomber – Abul-Qaaqaa Al-Masri – drove an explosive-laden car into the security force and detonated it. The statement threatened more attacks in the future.
The response of the Egyptian security forces
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi held a security meeting attended by the ministers of interior and defense, the army chief of staff and senior army and police commanders. Presidential spokesperson Alaa Youssef said Al-Sisi ordered the army and police to coordinate fully in the field.
Security forces were placed on high alert, and the decision was taken to continue targeting terrorist and criminal dens while simultaneously prioritizing the safety and security of civilians.
Egypt's North Sinai prosecution began investigations into the attack. The prosecution has inspected the site of the attack and will later listen to the testimonies of eyewitnesses and officials in the checkpoint, judicial sources said.
A few days later, Egypt’s army executed an operation to get revenge for the army and police martyrs. The forces destroyed a number of militant hideouts in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid cities in raids. An Egyptian Army spokesperson has said that 60 Islamic State group militants were killed after fighter jets targeted the group's positions in North Sinai.
In a Facebook post detailing the outcome of the operation, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir said, "counterterrorism units backed by the air force" had "killed 60 terrorists, wounded another 40 and destroyed 27 four-wheel (drive) pick-up trucks south of Rafah and Sheikh Zayed."
Egypt's war against terror
A new report of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) think tank, shows Egypt suffered more than 100 attacks on average per month from January to August 2015, compared to around 30 attacks per month in 2014.
The attacks are also spreading around the country. Until June 2013 violence was mostly contained to North Sinai, but after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi by Egypt’s military, reports of militant strikes are coming in from all over the country. In particular, Greater Cairo (the provinces of Giza and Cairo), Fayoum and Sharqia have seen a spike in incidents.
The insurgency in North Sinai has transformed into near-daily attacks, often with use of advanced weaponry. Civilians account for the majority of casualties in these strikes.
Another report of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies – the Cairo index of stability, confirmed that terrorist organizations in Egypt in 2015 have become more aggressive than ever before. The number of terrorist attacks reached 617 in 2015, compared with 349 in 2014. According to the same index, Sinai’s statistics are among the worst in Egypt, as the number of terrorist attacks there reached 90 in 2015.
Yet details of the index confirmed there was a crackdown on terrorist organizations following the attacks on Sheikh Zuweid (July 2015): The total number of terrorist attacks in Egypt from August to December 2015 dropped significantly to 64, compared with 170 in the same 2014 period. The escalation in the attacks in recent weeks indicates that Egypt’s efforts to eliminate terrorism in Sinai has not been successful.
According to Maha Abdel Azim (Egyptian streets, March 13, 2016), an estimated 2100 people were killed in North Sinai in 2015, including roughly 1800 described by the military as terrorists, 150 civilians, 40 police officers and conscripts, and 140 military personnel. Many civilians are direct victims of militant attacks or are killed by often unidentified shelling. Others were killed in the crossfires during clashes between the military and militant groups. The estimate is a roundup based on statements by the military spokesperson as well as reporting from Aswat Masriya and Ahram Online.
In January 2016, Islamic State wrote in its weekly magazine Naba', which runs news from the group's various branches, that the Sinai branch had killed 1,400 people – members of the military and police as well as collaborators and tribal fighters – in the previous 15 months. The Egyptian military has disputed this figure and said only 69 military personnel were killed in that period.
Egyptian forces are grappling with an Islamist insurgency based in North Sinai governorate, which spiked following the 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. The insurgency has killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces, while the armed forces have said their operations have killed Thousands of militants in the area.
One of Wilayat Sinai’s largest attacks came on July 1 ,2015, when car bombs targeted security checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid. According to a statement from Egyptian army officials issued shortly after the attacks, 17 soldiers and more than 100 militants died.
The challenge of the ongoing terror attacks in Sinai demand a comprehensive response of military and civilian counter measures. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced last year to spend 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.28 million) on developing the Sinai Peninsula. Additionally, the current government has said that it recognizes the need to work with the local population and provide a development program for the region.
Egypt urgently needs to come up with proper long-term social, political, and economic strategies. Only a well-coordinated plan of dialogue with the local population, social and economic development and military and security crackdown on terrorism will return security and stability to the Sinai region.