Egyptian Ground Forces have been battling with the Egypt-based terrorist group Wilayat Sinai, or Islamic State (IS) in the Sinai, for control over a village close to the Suez Canal for two weeks.
The village of Gilbana, near the city of Bir al-Abd in northwestern Sinai, is part of the Suez Canal province of Ismailia. According to Al-Monitor, battles continue to rage there between the two sides, with a number of Sinai tribes – organized as the Sinai Tribes Union – aiding the Egyptian troops.
The IS-affiliated group overran Gilbana in early August, taking several vehicles, including a food truck, from the villagers. The terrorist group planted explosives along the roads leading to the village, and local residents, mostly farmers, were wounded during the raid.
“It feels like a nightmare,” a female villager was quoted as saying by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, a local human rights group. “These people are not coming here to stay for a day or two.”
According to Al-Monitor, the actions of Wilayat Sinai in the village of Gilbana signal an escalation of its operations in the larger area, where it has been planting explosives for weeks.
The Sinai Tribes Union has published videos that show Egyptian army helicopters bombing areas in Gilbana; one of its chiefs expressed the hope that the army’s efforts might finish off the organization.
“IS terrorists are all gathered in Gilbana now,” tribal chief Ibrahim Elian told Al-Monitor. “This will make it easy for the army and the tribal fighters to get rid of them once and for all.”
The Egyptian army has tens of thousands of troops in Sinai that are involved in battles against the terrorist group.
According to Al-Monitor, the Egyptian army’s efforts have succeeded to considerably reduce the terrorist group’s range of activities over the past two years. The Armed Forces have eliminated the group’s supply routes, including by cracking down on the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
“Coordination between Egypt and Hamas has led to protecting the shared border between Sinai and Gaza in a great way,” Muneer Adeeb, an independent specialist in Islamist movements, told Al-Monitor. “But it is important to note that this coordination has not eradicated terrorism altogether.”
Some of the active terrorists in Wilayat Sinai, including among the group’s senior leadership, are Gazan recruits. On Aug. 16, the Sinai Tribes Union published a photo of the remains of Gaza-native Hamza Adel Mohamed al-Zamli, who had been a senior I.S.-Sinai leader.
According to Al-Monitor, the army’s success has led to a “noticeable drop in IS operations against army troops and policemen in different parts of Sinai, especially its northeastern part.”
“The army has succeeded in dealing painful blows to IS in its traditional strongholds in northern Sinai in the past period of time,” Adeeb said. “IS dreams of controlling Sinai, but this is a dream that is not to be fulfilled easily.”
While the army’s apparent success in reducing the presence of the terrorist group in northeastern Sinai is significant, experts warn that as long as the group receives funding, its terrorist acts will continue.
“The army has succeeded in imposing its full control over these areas,” retired army Gen. Hossam Suweilam told Al-Monitor. “It is important to note that terrorism will continue to be present so long as its funding sources remain intact.”
There has been concern that the battles in Gilbana could threaten the Suez Canal, as the village is only 20 kilometers away from the important water source. Nevertheless, Al-Monitor says military experts have downplayed those fears, saying that the canal is strongly guarded against attack.
“There cannot be any threats to navigation in the canal that is appropriately guarded by the Egyptian army,” Suweilam said.