What exactly happened in North Sinai today?


[UPDATED: please scroll] Violence erupted in North Sinai early on 1 July 2015. The attack is widely attributed to the local ISIS faction. The below account is of the developing situation with live fact-checking based on open-source intelligence (OSINT).

With the coming celebration of the military takeover of power in Egypt, terrorist attacks have intensified. Or this is at least what some claim. I am not exactly sure how much this is true. Others seem to doubt it as well. Another reason why I doubt the July 3 anniversary is THE reason is because of recent encouragements by ISIS to intensify attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. ISIS was coming anyway, Morsi or not Morsi, Sisi or not Sisi; and its horrors are not restricted to Egypt.

Anyhow, the question in this situation is hardly one’s capability to speculate about what the reason is behind these fierce attacks by ISIS-affiliated terrorists. Instead, I figured there is—perhaps a bit more than usual—too much of rumours and beefed-up images and numbers. And as the great people from reported.ly are a bit busy with the Greek euro crisis, I decided to sum up a few findings from this morning.

Quick timeline of events

Around 9:15 am CEST, I spotted a tweet by SkyNewsArabia saying that 30 Egyptian Army personnel have been killed and injured as North Sinai militants attack Sheikh Zuweid. Muhamad Sabry, Egyptian photojournalist based in North Sinai, had reported this even earlier.

This was alarming as militants had already fired rockets at the direction of an airport in Sinai used by the multinational peacekeeping forces on 9 Jun 2015 (see the report by Turkish Hurriyet Daily) and after recent deadly events in both Egypt and the MENA region. If confirmed, this morning’s attack in Sinai would be the first major one since January 2015 after the ISIS affiliate there, Wilayat Sinai (“The State of Sinai”, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis), launched terrorist attacks killing tens of people.

Today’s attacks were quickly described as “gun fire” and “car bombing”. The number of casualties was unconfirmed for quite some time, with conflicting reports. Thus, the Egyptian Army spox first announced 10 soldiers dead or injured, and 22 assailants dead. According to Egyptian daily Al Ahram, there had been no official death toll because ambulances had trouble reaching the injured and killed for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Then, things like this surfaced:

A suicide bomb car had exploded inside military checkpoint Abu Rifai, located near Sheikh Zuweid. Things then escalated quickly as multiple IEDs were reported along with militants besieging Sheikh Zuweid’s police station and Egyptian army F-16 jets started overflying the area.

Meanwhile, Mohannad Sabry, Cairo-based freelance journalist, reported on the conditions in Sheikh Zuweid:

First assessments of the situation in North Sinai

According to Army officials, two checkpoints were completely destroyed, one by the aforementioned suicide car bomb blast and the other by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. About 70 fighters have simultaneously attacked these several targets.

Local news agency in Sinai also reported an Apache helicopter has been hit by militant fire and withdrawn (also reported by an “IS fanboy” eyewitness). The terrorist militants have also planted landmines in different streets in Sheikh Zuweid to prevent military vehicles from advancing. Civilians will suffer the most once the dust will have settled down…

The aim of the terrorists is apparently to have full control over Sheikh Zuweid and to “to eradicate the military’s presence in Sinai” before the attacks (ISIS fanboys have said that on Twitter, sorry for not sourcing but won’t give more visibility to these accounts). The militants were said to have overtaken two military tanks, but I have not been able to confirm this. The second captured military checkpoint is Abu Higag.

Given the way the whole attack seems to have unfolded—suicide car attack on multiple locations, RPGs on rooftops, IEDs and mobile weaponry (incl. four WD vehicles with mounted machine guns) on various places in a 60,000-inhabitant city,—the assault is not a randomly led attack but a highly coordinated attack. The violence has spread to Al-Arish, North Sinai’s “capital” city, and to Rafah where explosions occurred, as per reports.

What do the terrorists want?

Current reports at the time of writing (3:30 PM CEST) indicate that at least 35 people have been killed in the ongoing attacks. Israel has closed down Nitzana and Kerem Shalom shared border crossings with Egypt. Some ISIS fanboys are also cheering “we are coming for the zionists” and “Sinai will be Jewish cemetery” (again, not linking to the tweets, no need to give these sick people more visibility).

And then, around noon CEST, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsability for the attack saying that its militants had mounted 15 simultaneous attacks on military sites, including “martyrdom operations” on Al-Arish’s officers club and two checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid “in a blessed invasion”:

Wilayat Sinai claims, North Sinai attacks. Image from Twitter
Wilayat Sinai claims, North Sinai attacks. Image from Twitter

The statement also highlights that “eleven checkpoints and a police station in Sheikh Zuweid were attacked by militants using missiles”. A second statement was issued shortly after the first one, claiming that Wilayat Sinai “had besieged Shiekh Zuweid’s police station”. Also, Ahram Online reported they have also “destroyed two military tanks and attacked four checkpoints using mortar rounds”:

Wilayat Sinai second declaration on Sheikh Zuweid. Image from Twitter
Wilayat Sinai second declaration on Sheikh Zuweid. Image from Twitter

A local woman and her 15-year-old daughter are dead, and five people from a single family injured in the ongoing clashes. People from Sheikh Zuweid also report that cars and militants with ISIS flags are roaming the streets. Locals having witnessed the attacks, report:

There were reports about Egyptian Army soldiers being taken hostages by militants; but I could not confirm them. Policemen are however trapped in beseiged police station. In addition to the scale and coordination of the attack, there is another ‘new thing’: Wilayat Sinai seems to attempt to hold land rather than just raiding the area. From the reaction on Twitter, with the Arabic hashtag for #SheikhZuweid trending, the operation is also a huge propaganda win for Wilayat Sinai and, vicariously, for ISIS. Yet, if reports are accurate, they militants have also gotten hold of major arms caches and soldiers as prisoners.

Fake imagery spreads during the evolving situation

I have done quite some sourcing and verification of content in other real-time crisis situations (some examples from previous work).

Tabloid Youm7 chose this awful moment to spread fake images of the attack:

They apparently decided that because people were reporting terrorists firing RPGs from a building’s roof in the area, they should put a picture of a suspiciously looking bearded man high up on a building. I checked it out and 3 minutes later, these conclusions came up:

Then, super handy, a video emerged entitled “(VIDEO) Moment car bomb explodes in military post in North Sinai, Egypt”:

Screenshot from fake video from Sheikh Zuweid attack on 1 Jul 2015.
Screenshot from fake video from Sheikh Zuweid attack on 1 Jul 2015.

It was a fake: the video has been first released back in 2013. Egyptian outlet El-Balad had posted a screenshot of it on 12 September 2013; the description is of a failed suicide car bomb attack against a military checkpoint in Al-Arish, North Sinai. El-Balad added that the car belonged to a bank and has been stolen three days before the attack. Lastly, the video itself was apparently first published by user ‘GlobalLeaks News’ on YouTube back in 2013.

And while we were all following the dreadful and shameful conflicts over the exact death toll, @JanusThe2 (Twitter bio: “Middle East & North Africa (MENA) threat analyst covering all things extremist-related, particularly IEDs and drones. Tweeting in a personal capacity.”) tweeted an image said to be from the attack (the tweet has since been removed, I could not archive it on time).

Sigh. There are many occurrences of this image, as seen from the Google search, most of them from 12 Nov 2014:

Other sites where the IEDs appear, dated 2014
Other sites where the IEDs appear, dated 2014

Friendly warning: do not click on these links if you happen to find them online. Images along with the one of IEDs are extremely GRAPHIC.

Egyptian media giving in disinformation

Youm7 strikes again, quoting SkyNewsArabia on the “60 martyrs from the [Egyptian] security forces” with this image:

It happens that this image is from a piece listing the “30 Most Powerful Private Security Companies in the World” from 11 Jan 2014. The image, ill-sourced back to a Russian website, relates to a PMC named the Northbridge Services Group.

It is also Masrawy’s turn to go through a swift verification process. They posted this tweet and the piece with it:

So, the image from the tweet is not really one from today’s attack. This remains unclear, however, since I could not find much on it:

Presumably, fake fighters image from North Sinai.

The image Masrawy used in the piece bears a caption along the lines of “Security services impose curfew in Sheikh Zuweid”. Actually, it is from 2013 (at least, as seen at this Iranian online outlet):

Image from Masrawy's piece on curfew in Sheikh Zuweid.
Image from Masrawy’s piece on curfew in Sheikh Zuweid.

Elsewhere in Egypt today

In Cairo, reports indicate that Fast Reaction Forces and Central Security have been deployed “in preparation for any acts of violence”. Another attack occurred this morning, in the Fayyoum governorate, where two bombs exploded. No human losses reported.

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