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Meet the newly remade Union of Sinai Tribes, the force taking over the fight in Sinai

Since its inception, the Union of Sinai Tribes has relied in large part on members of the Tarabin tribe to swell its ranks in its fight alongside the Armed Forces in the conflict in North Sinai. However, March and April saw other influential tribes — once mistrusted by the military as many of their members had joined the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai — join the frontlines, allowing the union to score several victories and expand its presence in key hotspots in eastern North Sinai.

The influx of new forces into the union’s ranks has been significant for two reasons. First, it comes at a time when the Armed Forces are taking a step back from the front lines, confining their role to intelligence support and supervision of the operations of the tribes. And second, beyond the additional fighting force, the inclusion of members of the Sawarka and Roumailat tribes, whose tribal strongholds became Province of Sinai command centers, allowed the union clout and knowledge in areas that it had failed to win back.

Even as the Province of Sinai has been able to rebound from significant setbacks in recent years, the militant group now faces a new challenge amid an unprecedented level of tribal mobilization. Hundreds of new tribes members have joined the frontlines, all with significant geographical knowledge and the legitimacy of state support.

While a spate of Province of Sinai attacks in the peninsula over May might suggest desperation on the part of militants or that the Armed Forces’ troop drawback is not without issues, the military’s push to bolster the union and move it to the forefront of the conflict runs parallel to the heavy losses that security forces have suffered in Sinai since 2013, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put during the Egyptian Family Iftar at the end of Ramadan at 3,277 deaths and more than 12,000 injured.

In this report, Mada Masr unpacks the recruitment drive and early days of the newer, stronger tribal union, whose organization, knowledge and fighting prowess the state is betting on to win the war in Sinai.

The early days: A union with only few members

The Union of Sinai Tribes was formed in 2015 following an attack on the village of Barth to the south of Rafah. The village was a Tarabin stronghold and a rallying point for the tribe to play an outsized role in the new union.

The pro-state paramilitary group developed other tentacles later on: the Magmoat al-Nokhba (Elite Group) was led by Badr al-Manaey al-Sawarka and the Forsan al-Haitham (Haitham’s Knights) was led by Abou Khaled al-Roumaily, a member of the Gaza-based branch of the Roumailat tribe.

At the same time, youth from the Sawarka tribe formed a group outside the Union of Sinai Tribes that worked with the Armed Forces to protect the villages of Jura and Dahir, both located south of Sheikh Zuwayed. Families from these villages were not displaced and remained in the area near the military camp in Jura.

The Province of Sinai retaliated against the union in April 2015 by bombing the houses of the union’s founders: businessman Ibrahim al-Argany al-Tarabin in Sheikh Zuwayed and Abdel Magid al-Manaey in Rafah. Maniey was the most prominent Sawarka to work with the military.

In May 2017, the Province of Sinai assassinated 11 people from the leadership of the union, including Salem Lafy al-Tarabin, who acted as the union’s defense minister. A few months later, the militants launched one of their biggest attacks on the Barth checkpoint, which is located near the historical stronghold of the Tarabin. This attack resulted in the assassination of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansy, who is rumored to have been one of the architects of the union under Tarabin leadership.

Indigenous to the land

However, there was never really a full integration of the Sawarka and the Roumailat into the pro-military fighting force.

Sources from both tribes told Mada Masr that the Armed Forces initially rejected the idea of allowing both tribes to carry arms. This came down in large part, the sources say, to the Armed Forces’ lack of trust in both tribes in this early period, as members of the Sawarka and the Roumailat had swelled the ranks of the Province of Sinai.

The tribes increasingly developed an anti-military sentiment due to this lack of trust. The security forces often harassed Sawarka and Roumailat members at checkpoints and greenlit their forced displacement from villages. Members of both tribes left Sinai en masse to settle in other governorates.

However, the strained relations between the military and those indigenous to the land created problems.

Roumailat land is largely located north and west of Rafah, specifically the villages of Mutala, Husseinat, Wefaq, Kharafin, Tayra and Gouz Abu Raad. And the Sawarka hold influence over the largest swaths of land around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. Their control extends from south and west of Rafah around the villages of Mahdia, Shibana and Agraa, and villages to the south and west of Sheikh Zuwayed, of which the most important are the villages of Jura, Dahir, Abul Arag, Moqatta, Tuma, Kharuba and Shalaq.

Starting from the last quarter of 2020 and over 2021, combat conditions began to shift. As the Province of Sinai suffered heavy losses, the militant group was no longer able to defend the territories it controlled around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. The Armed Forces’ strategy of cutting the Province of Sinai’s supply lines, which was launched in 2018, began to pay off as militants surrendered themselves due to lack of food. A few militant leaders also followed suit. Those that remained, retreated to a few villages: Moqatta in Sheikh Zuwayed, historically under Sawarka influence, and Mutala in Rafah, historically under Roumailat influence, in addition to Tuma, Ganoub Zawaraa, Mahdia, Shibana, Sabat, and Mazarea Selim, according to a source from the Sawarka tribe.

Senior members of the Sawarka and Roumailat tribes played an important role in convincing tribal youth fighting alongside the Province of Sinai to hand themselves over to the state in exchange for amnesty after being interrogated and remaining in custody for six months, according to a senior figure from the Sawarka tribe and another source from the Roumailat tribe who were tasked with communicating with fellow tribesmen involved with the Province of Sinai and coordinating their surrender to the Armed Forces.

These efforts proved how useful the neglected tribes could be in the redoubled push to tamp out militancy in the peninsula, paving the way for the formal entrance of the tribes into the conflict on a larger scale.

The Sawarka enter the field

At the close of 2021, the Armed Forces began to allow the displaced residents of some villages in Rafah and the west of Sheikh Zuwayed to return home as Province of Sinai retreated from these areas. The majority of these villages historically fell within the Sawarka’s sphere of influence.

These returns were mostly facilitated with a security entourage made up from the union’s Tarabin members, a few residents who returned to their homes told Mada Masr.

However, the continued presence of militants in some areas near these villages prompted the Armed Forces to task a number of residents, largely from the Sawarka, to carry arms in order to provide protection to the returning residents. Sources from the Sawarka tribe told Mada Masr that the Armed Forces were arming four to six individuals in each area. The same strategy was deployed with the residents of villages in the western region of Bir al-Abd, who were allowed to return home two years ago, sources who spoke to Mada Masr at that time said.

Allowing the tribe’s youth to carry arms to protect residents returning to their villages served as a green light for the Sawarka to raise arms and begin forming their own paramilitary groups to defend their villages and territories and to expel militants in the remaining areas, similar to what the Tarabin did eight years ago.

Abdel Megid and Moussa al-Menaey, both senior Sawarka figures with close ties to the security apparatus, especially the Armed Forces and its intelligence agency, are credited as the architects of the rapprochement between the tribe and the military, a source from the Sawarka tribe told Mada Masr.

According to the source, the Armed Forces asked senior leaders of the tribes to provide armed youth groups with the necessary logistical support on the ground, whereas the military would provide weapons. In turn, senior tribesmen purchased a number of four-wheel vehicles to outfit the new fighting force with added capacity.

Arrangements for the Sawarka to enter the fight began in March.

Tribal youth scattered across Egypt were brought together at meeting points in locations owned by senior Sawarka figures, where they were provided with food and other subsistence materials before they were transported to North Sinai in four-wheel caravans. Once they arrived at the 101st Battallion headquarters, they were provided with weapons and ammunition. Now armed, they were transported to the command center in Jura in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, which served as conduit to the frontlines.

Roumailat: The five kilos come first

While the Sawarka entered the frontlines in March, whether the Roumailat would join the Union of Sinai Tribes was still in doubt.

The main issue? The contentious buffer zone around the Egyptian city of Rafah that the military had put in place in 2014, displacing the tribe from their lands. According to a source from the tribe, a disagreement broke out between youths and elders over whether they should condition the taking up of arms on being allowed to return to the buffer zone in Rafah, five kilometers from the border with Gaza.

The Roumailat tribe has been hit particularly hard in the war in Sinai. While the Sawarka, Tarabin, Riyashat, and Akour tribes lost large swaths of their land after their members were displaced during the war, some began returning to their villages recently. But in addition to war and displacement, the Roumailat lost territory to the five-kilometer deep buffer zone that stretches for 13 kilometers along the Gaza border, and which civilians are prohibited from entering.

In order to resolve the disagreement within the tribe, tribal elders promised the youth that they would study a proposal that would allow them to return to within 1.2 kilometers of the Gaza border, according to the source within the tribe. The proposal was met with mixed reactions, especially as much of the area in question had been completely razed.

Faced with this impasse, tribal elders decided to target youth from areas outside the buffer zone for recruitment, especially from the villages of Mutala and Husseinat. This proved more successful, and the first batch of Roumailat youth arrived in mid April, taking up headquarters in Rafah.

Early success

Since the Sawarka joined the union in mid-March, the pro-military tribal fighters have succeeded in expelling Province of Sinai militants from the villages of Sabat, Mozahlef, Mahdia and Shibana. In addition, several of the roads connecting the villages have seen normal traffic return, having been controlled by Province of Sinai militants for years.

Several tribal sources say that it appears Province of Sinai militants were present in these areas until very recently. Union fighters found tunnel-linked trenches and basic subsistence materials, such as blankets, food and water. Medicines and other medical supplies were also found in Bedouin rainwater wells. Other discoveries included a variety of ammunition and mortar shells, and cattle that were left behind after the militants retreated from the villages.

Tribal fighters also found sacks filled with snails, similar to finds the union says it has made in other liberated villages. According to a source from the union, militants have likely resorted to subsisting on snails after the Armed Forces cut access to food supplies.

In the last week of April, the new tribal alliance achieved their most significant victory yet, pushing into the Province of Sinai’s stronghold in the northeast of the peninsula: the village of Moqatta.

According to sources present during the operation to take the village, the infantry assault by tribal union fighters was preceded by a barrage of military tank shelling of targets within the village. Once within the perimeter of the village, the union’s fighters combed for explosive devices left behind by the militants.

The union faced staunch resistance from militants defending the village, despite their reduced numbers with the military having squeezed their supply lines, according to sources. Twelve tribesmen were killed and 12 more injured, mostly due to IEDs detonating as they combed the village. In turn, five militants were killed in the assault, including a leading member.

A day after the campaign, 11 women and children surrendered themselves to the Armed Forces. A source from the Sawarka Tribe says that the 11 are likely to be family members of the five militants killed during the assault.

Province of Sinai: from offense to defense

Amid a state of debilitation in their ranks in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, the Province of Sinai has switched to defending their territories, conducting only limited attacks against tribesmen. In a video released on April 25 — disseminated with the message “Do not think we are weakened. We will fight you until the last breath” — the militants claimed they had burned a Sawarka four-by-four.

Before this video, the Province of Sinai published pictures of what it called “diaries of the [Caliphate] militants in Sinai,” showing meal preparations that included beef, pies and juice. These propaganda videos have become common, in an effort by militants to discredit news that their members are surrendering due to hunger.

In what appeared as an attempt to alleviate pressure on their fighters in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed, the Province of Sinai announced it carried out several attacks against the Armed Forces and the union along the Rafah coast and north of Sheikh Zuwayed between the end of March and early April: a sniper attack against two union members, a mortar attack on an Armed Forces checkpoint, and the kidnapping of a man from a farm in the village of Sakadra in the north of Sheikh Zuwayed. He was released a few hours later.

Militants also attacked the village of Hamisa in the south of Bir al-Abd in early April and assassinated a person they claimed was a “collaborator” with the Armed Forces. Three people from the coastal village of Mosafaq were also kidnapped. A few days later, one of those kidnapped was released. The militants announced that the other two captives had been executed, releasing a video showing them to be confessing to working with the military.

Other than these scattered attacks, Province of Sinai militants tried to launch a media offensive targeting the Sawarka tribe. In a video released by the militants on March 27, seven days after the tribe entered the fight, a Sawarka member is shown being executed as “punishment for cooperating” with the Armed Forces. A local source told Mada Masr that the person in the video is Ahmed Mousa Abu Garir, who was kidnapped from his home in the village of Tawil in the southwest of Sheikh Zuwayed over a year ago.

The Union of Sinai Tribes said that Abo Garir was kidnapped more than two years ago, contending that the release of the video at this time shows that the Province of Sinai is on the retreat.

On May 7, about a month after the tribes joined the fight, Province of Sinai launched its bloodiest attack in two years, targeting an Armed Forces position at the Aram 2 water pumping station less than 30 kilometers east of the Suez Canal and claiming to kill 17 soldiers. While this attack took place at the western edge of North Sinai, far from the battle being waged between the tribal union and the militant group on the eastern side of the peninsula in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, it is directly attributable to the latest tribal enlistments. Hours after the attack, Province of Sinai claimed they had launched it “to avenge the Muslim women being held captive in Rafah,” in reference to to those 11 women being detained with their children in Moqatta village in Sheikh Zuwayed.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, intermittent casualties recur among the ranks of the union, including some senior figures from the Sawraka and Roumailat, which, a tribal source tells Mada Masr, is pushing the two groups to recruit even more youths to join the fight.

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