What Scares the Sinai Bedouin: the Rise of the Radical Islamists

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Holly Pickett / Redux

A destroyed armored personnel carrier sits outside of Quseima's deserted police station, attacked on July 30 as violence spread across the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

In late July, two men in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zweid got into an argument. It wouldn't have been such a big deal, says Mahmoud, a local resident, if one man hadn't later shown up at the other man's house with an entourage packing dozens of guns. There, the men piled out of their trucks and fired round after round of bullets into the air, before driving away. The goal was intimidation. "It was an exercise to show their numbers," says Mahmoud. "The one guy was just a regular guy. But the man with the gang was a member of Takfir."

Takfir wal-Hijra is the kind of organization that makes even some of the Sinai Peninsula's most hardened arms smugglers shudder. A loosely organized extremist group, that allegedly has ties to al-Qaeda, it defies local customs of tribal law and lineage. "There are no tribal distinctions," says Mahmoud, whose uncle is a Takfir member. "They say they're all the same." The group views most of the world's population as infidels — including fellow Muslims — for failing to follow their strict interpretation of Islam. "They feel it's fine to steal from others because they consider people outside Takfir non-Muslims," says Mahmoud. "Even their relatives, even their brothers."

That has made Takfir largely unpopular in the Sinai, where family trumps all. And yet, here in Egypt's most lawless corner, local residents say Takfir wal-Hijra is making a come back.

On July 29, less than a week after the incident in Sheikh Zweid, and on the same day that Islamists held marches across the country calling for the implementation of Islamic law, a mob of armed men launched a mid-afternoon attack on a police station in the North Sinai capital of al-Arish. A witness told TIME that the men were dressed in black, their faces masked; and they carried black flags with the words "There is no God but God" written on one side and "Revenge" written on the other. They carried machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and hand grenades, he said. They were well organized, and many were from the area. By the time the assault ended nine hours later, according to the witness, five people were dead, including two security forces, and more than a dozen injured.

Later, the head of North Sinai security General Saleh al-Masry told CNN that Takfir wal-Hijra had been involved. "We arrested 12 assailants including three Palestinians," he said. "I guarantee there is no al-Qaeda presence in Sinai but the Takfiris are in the thousands." CNN also reported that Takfiris had distributed fliers, demanding Islamic law, in al-Arish earlier that day. On the handouts, the group called itself "Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula."

Takfir wal-Hijra isn't a new threat, but its revival is. "Before, most of them were either imprisoned or making mandatory visits to state security, so they had no space to breath," explains Ahmed Abu Deraa, a journalist in al-Arish. Takfir was a prime suspect in the string of terrorist bombings that ravaged South Sinai tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006, leaving nearly 150 people dead. And that has given them an "unwanted" status among Sinai's majority, Abu Deraa says.

But the winter uprising that ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak also opened a security vacuum in areas of the Sinai along Egypt's border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, where other extremist groups have found a foothold. Bedouin smugglers report that Palestinians now cross easily between the two sides via the tunnels, further subverting Egypt's grip on area security. And without a police force to keep watch, Takfir has started holding quiet weekly meetings at mosques in the border town of Rafah, Abu Deraa says.

Unlike a rival Islamist group, "Dawa," which has enjoyed a large local following in recent months, Takfir aims to take control of the territory, some residents say. And that's not something that tribal leaders and smugglers — who have stepped in to fill the security void left by a retreating police force — say they're comfortable with. "If their numbers grow large, they'll kill people," says Mahmoud. "And if that happens, we'll arrest all of them." He doesn't specify how. But Mahmoud's friend Mohamed, an arms smuggler, nods: "We'll do it under the table, above the law."

"Under the table" has been Sinai smugglers' protocol for some time. But with the police force now entirely absent from parts of the Sinai, a loosely organized tribal justice system known as Urfi often takes its place. If security conditions stay that way, tribal leaders say that Urfi law will be the only way to block Takfir's rise. "Every day there is a new problem," says Saleh, another smuggler, of the spiraling security situation. "For example, problems between tribes: how they treat each other. Land disputes. Mostly, the conflicts are financial." The Sinai was never a stage for real justice, Saleh says. But the police presence used to keep family disputes from erupting into serious violence. The Takfir showdown in Sheikh Zweid would have been a rare occurrence six months ago.

Now, when conflicts arise, the male generational heads within a family meet to decide how to act, explains one Sawarka tribal leader, Abu Ahmed. Sometimes that decision translates into armed attacks on other families, or roadblocks that halt traffic and commerce for days. "They're old disputes, because of old problems," says Ibrahim, Abu Ahmed's son. "But [the increase] is because of the anarchy."

In a still unsolved case of local intrigue, there have been five attacks on the major Sinai gas pipeline in the past six months. The latest came just a day after the attack on the police station. The pipeline moves Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan. And in a country where most Egyptians are furious at an allegedly corrupt gas deal (signed under Mubarak) that yielded gas sales to Israel at discount rates, just about anyone is a suspect.

Some residents have been quick to finger Takfir. But in July, several powerful Bedouin leaders who TIME spoke to also lamented the fact that the Bedouin had not yet been paid to guard the pipeline, in the way that some companies operating in the area have paid tribesmen to guarantee security for other projects. "Until the government solves the problems between them and the people, there could be more explosions," warned Mosaad, a Tarabin leader in North Sinai who pockets a steady paycheck to keep the peace around a major cement factory.

Indeed, shortly after the fifth attack on the pipeline on July 30th — the third in that month alone — local authorities said they would hire Bedouin to guard it. "I think that criminal elements are those who really control the situation in the Sinai now, not Takfir," says General Essam al-Bedawi, the head of media affairs at the Department of Homeland Security (formerly State Security). "This business of the [smuggling] tunnels brings in billions of pounds, so a lot of people have interests in it, and they have interests in stopping any police presence there."

Answers won't come easily when the country's military leaders look for ways to solve Sinai's creeping crisis. Nor will inclusion in Egypt's burgeoning democracy offer an obvious solution. "Bedouin are no good for political parties. They're like the FARC gangs in Colombia," says Saleh, who doesn't plan to vote in the country's upcoming elections.

But for all their worries about administering justice, many here say they'd like to retain some degree of autonomy in the future. "I'll vote for Sinai's independence," laughs Mosaad. Others want a system of local, tribal based governance similar to that of the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Ahmed, a leader of the Sawarka tribe, has threatened police with death if they set foot in the border towns before meeting a fresh set of Bedouin demands. But even he believes that the Sinai will ultimately require some law and order. When elections roll around, Bedouin will vote for fellow Bedouin, he says. That's because the residents of Sinai want what they've always wanted: people to represent their needs. "If there's no development, no growth, no learning, no better treatment, then there will be problems," he says. "Sinai is not like any other place in Egypt."