NORTH SINAI, Egypt — The 9-year-old girl was standing in her family's kitchen when it happened. A rocket smashed through the outside wall, narrowly missing the child and obliterating everything in its wake. Her father, Ibrahim, a farmer in the North Sinai village of el-Mehdiya, watched powerless from afar. "I saw the helicopter hovering above my home," he said. "The next moment, I watched the building collapse.… They call this a war on terror, but are my children terrorists?"
As Cairo braces for the partial suspension of U.S. military aid -- including halting the delivery of Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, and M1A1 Abrams tanks -- following the removal of President Mohamed Morsy and the subsequent campaign of repression against his supporters, the Egyptian military is in the midst of a separate struggle to erase militancy from the restive Sinai Peninsula, a problem, ironically, that the U.S. and Israeli governments have long called on the Egyptian government to address.
In that campaign, the Egyptian military claims to have achieved targeted success. Yet a visit to the patchwork of desert villages where it has unleashed the bulk of its firepower reveals a very different picture. What have been billed as targeted attacks have resulted in extensive collateral damage: Hundreds of homes stand shattered and charred across the northern part of the peninsula. In the village of el-Muqatta, rockets punched ragged holes in the walls of a neighborhood mosque. Nearby in el-Mehdiya, rubble fills the space where a local tribal leader's house once stood.
Sinai has long been a source of consternation for Cairo. The triangular peninsula forms a strategically important buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip, with a demilitarized zone running along the border. Decades of government neglect, however, have encouraged a toxic merger of Bedouin resistance and Islamist militancy, one that has occasionally boiled over into massive bloodshed, as was the case in the 2005 and 2006 bombings of seaside resorts.
Since Morsy's ouster on July 3, however, the threat emanating from Sinai has felt more acute. Near-daily attacks on security installations in North Sinai have killed over 100 personnel, according to Egyptian officials. Cairo has also been targeted. In early September, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim survived an assassination attempt outside his east Cairo home. A Sinai-based jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for the attack.
One month later, the city was struck again. This time, the Furqan Brigades, another Sinai-linked militant group, claimed responsibility for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a satellite dish in the upscale suburb of Maadi.
The Egyptian Army's response has drawn mixed reactions. In Cairo, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt's armed forces and the country's de facto leader, has won widespread plaudits for tackling the jihadi threat. But on the front line of this "war on terror," Egypt is attracting condemnation from neighboring states as well as local communities.
An attempted cross-border rocket attack on the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat in August -- the subject of competing claims of responsibility by jihadi groups operating in Sinai -- strained relations with Israel and allegedly prompted a drone strike in response. More predictably, in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has been frustrated by the destruction of between 80 and 90 percent of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza; Hamas's lost revenue amounts to an estimated $250 million since the operation began in July.
In the village of el-Mehdiya, a short distance from the border with Gaza, residents say the military campaign is failing to differentiate between militants and the civilians who surround them. A helicopter and tank strike on Sept. 7, for example, destroyed the home of an Egyptian businessman named Said, who used to ship construction materials to Gaza before the tunnels closed. Inside the remains of his home, jagged glass carpets the floor. Two walls have been punched out by military shelling. According to Said and his neighbors, the house was struck first from the air and later by tank fire.
felt like a completely random operation," he told Foreign Policy. "There was
nothing to unite the men whose houses were hit, apart from their tribal
identity. They came from different backgrounds, worked in different jobs, and
most were not militants. Why is it that the only time we see the hand of our
government, it's a fist striking against us?"
In a September news conference, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali said the North Sinai operation is achieving "our highest rates for successfully achieving our targets." He did not respond to Foreign Policy's request for comment on allegations that the current military campaign has adversely affected civilians.