AL-LAFITAAT, Egypt: Egypt’s army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region’s villages and towns, a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in the northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world’s biggest army and are nowhere near defeat.
Residents say the militants – a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth – have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.
“The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter,” said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near Al-Bars village.
Many residents say the authorities’ military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.
The fight against militant Islam is a key test for the interim government in Cairo. Sinai-based militants stepped up attacks on police and soldiers last year, soon after Egypt’s army toppled Islamist President Mohammad Morsi. The violence has left 300 people dead.
The army and the government say they are beating the militants.
In an attempt to stop the illegal flow of arms, Egyptian authorities have destroyed thousands of tunnels that ran under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
Almost every night, Apache helicopters fire rockets at suspected Islamist militant hideouts in the houses and farms of the largely lawless peninsula, a 61,000 square kilometer area wedged between the Suez Canal to the west and Israel and Gaza to the east.
“We are doing an extremely good job but that does not mean we have completely ended terrorism,” army spokesman Ahmad Ali told Reuters. “It is a vicious war because the terrorists have light and heavy weapons. The lives of the people in Sinai are of great importance for the armed forces and they are seen as the foundation for national security in that area.”
Army chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to become Egypt’s next president, has described the Sinai operation as an ongoing security campaign to rid the region of extremists and criminals.
So far, though, local residents say the military is making little progress.
The army’s blunt tactic of rocketing suspected hideouts is failing, they say, because the militants have mastered the terrain. They move around villages using alleyways where it is difficult to spot them from the air, and mix with civilians or hide in olive groves.
The effort to stop the flow of weapons is also a struggle, they say, in large part because smugglers are bringing in weapons from Libya.
“The army has entered a war, but it is not specialized in this type of war, which requires special counterinsurgency forces, not an army,” said Mussab Abu Fajr, a Bedouin leader in the Sinai’s main city of Al-Arish.
Maj. Gen. Samih Bishady, the head of security in North Sinai, said that the army had “killed and arrested many of the wanted in Sinai.” He put the number of active militants remaining there at just 80.
Standing beside two olive trees outside the village of Al-Lafitaat, a senior militant who would be identified only by his initials, S.A., explained the way the groups’ tactics had changed.
“At the start of the fighting, we used to hide in mountains, but now we are present in the villages among residents, because it is safer there,” he said. “When we were in the mountains it was easy for the army to strike us with helicopters. But as long as we are with the people, it is hard to reach us.”
S.A. said that he and his fellow fighters used simple homemade bombs such as jam jars stuffed with dynamite. The devices are hidden in olive trees or on the side of road, with desert sand covering detonation cords. He said the militants wait on hilltops for military convoys to pass and then detonate their bombs by remote control, using cellphone identification cards.
“We use cooking cylinders and water jugs, and we will pack them with explosives and connect them to timers and a SIM card, and we plant them on roads we know are used by the army,” S.A. said.
The threat of roadside bombs has prompted the army to cut mobile phone networks and the Internet during daylight hours when military vehicles move around.
“The militants are dealing with us in haphazard primitive ways and they have entered a dirty war with us,” said a military official in Sinai who declined to be identified.
In an effort to evade the attention of the military, many residents are now hanging several Egyptian flags on their homes as a gesture of loyalty to the state.
Ahmad Abu Gerida, who lives in Al-Bars village, said militants sometimes hide in civilians’ houses to avoid detection.
“They hang up women’s clothes, including bras and underwear, because they know the army will hesitate to approach Bedouin women,” he said. “One time soldiers entered one of these homes and found a storage place for explosives and blew up the house.”
Airstrikes, launched almost daily since Morsi’s fall, have hammered villages like Al-Lafitaat, where all 12 single-story cement houses have been destroyed or heavily damaged over the past few months.
Some were reduced to a few beams, while others were burned out, their ceilings collapsed. Residents fled, leaving behind a handful of sheep.
One woman named Niimaa stood next to the remnants of her house with her two children, after returning a few days earlier to retrieve her belongings. She collected a pillow, a mattress, some dishes and a small stove and placed them in a pickup truck. She said the army killed her husband, who she said was not a militant, four months ago.
“We want to go to a safe spot with my children. As you can see, a rocket destroyed half of my house, and I will not wait until the other half gets destroyed.”
Residents have become familiar with the rituals of the conflict. Every day at 4 p.m. the army closes the main streets in every village. At night, a buzzing noise overhead is a sign that rockets may follow.
The Egyptian military says it does not target civilians. A military officer at a checkpoint in Al-Masoura village said the army only attacked villages that were occupied by militants.
“Some innocents die but at the hands of terrorists not us.”
But residents say the military campaign is fanning resentment in a population that already felt neglected by the central government. The Bedouin population has long accused the Egyptian authorities of neglecting the Sinai region, failing to provide basic services and jobs.
“The military operations hit the wanted and unwanted,” said Mona Barhouma, who lives in Rafah and complains that innocent people are regularly killed.
Even residents who are opposed to militants say they are scared to cooperate with the army, which has appealed for tips to find the fighters.
Sheikh Hasan Khalaf, who heads the Sawarka tribe in Sinai, said 35 residents who gave the army information on militants had been shot dead in the past three months. The army confirmed the shooting but not the numbers involved.
Many people feel trapped between both sides.
“We are between two fires. If we report the terrorists to the army, the militants will kill us the next day,” said Subayha, a Bedouin who said that she and her children struggle to sleep because of army shelling in her village of Al-Mahdiya.
For safety, they sometimes sleep outside the gates of a building that houses international peacekeepers, she says.
“If we remain silent, the army considers us allies of the terrorists and can start attacking our villages,” Subayha said.
Aside from responding to calls for holy war, militants are given worldly incentives, according to residents and security officials.
They say leaders offer young recruits wives, money and homes in return for a commitment to carry out suicide bombings.
“They have the good life for a few months and are promised it will only get better in paradise after the operation,” said Bishady, the head of security in North Sinai.
Egyptian security officials say combatants include Egyptian fighters as well as some from Hamas and from Afghanistan. They believe some of the Egyptian fighters spent time in Taliban-controlled areas in Pakistan, returning after the election of Morsi in 2012.
Bishady said that during Morsi’s rule he saw presidential vehicles transport officials to meetings with Islamists. Army officials also say those talks took place.
Khalaf, the Sawarka tribal leader, said he saw Mohammad al-Zawahri, the brother of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, in a presidential car. Sinai police were not allowed to approach the convoys or meetings, said Khalaf.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood official Mohammad Saleh told Reuters: “There is no evidence of this. It is all lies spread in an attempt to hurt the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood. We have never associated in our history with any groups that hurt Egypt.”
Wael Haddara, a senior adviser to Morsi while he was president, said Morsi’s public “efforts to reach out to bona fide tribal elders and leaders” might now be “cast as a meeting with terrorists.”