SHEIKH ZUWAYED â€" In front of a house located in this bedouin town in the North Sinai, a masked man sits next to his companions, each of whom are holding a weapon. The man proudly speaks about their "Death Squad," the name they have given to their armed civilian troop. The residents of the area call it Battalion 103.
"There are areas the Armed Forces cannot enter alone without collaborators among us. We are the ones who know the families and the geographical distribution of the tribes," says the masked man, who refuses to disclose his name or show his face. He fears retribution from Province of Sinai militants, who have assassinated other military collaborators.
"Our name is Death Squad because we face being killed by the Islamic State at any moment. But we have dedicated our lives to the nation and to the Armed Forces and are ready to welcome death at any moment," the masked man adds.
Death Squad appeared on the streets of Sheikh Zuwayed last year. With time, residents coined the name Battalion 103 to refer to the armed civilian groups, differentiating them from the Armed Forces, whose largest military base and operations in Arish are known as Battalion 101, and the Province of Sinai, which has declared its allegiance to ISIS and who have become known as Battalion 102.
The masked man asserts that his men are present all over Sheikh Zuwayed in "smaller groups, each of which consists of five individuals who have among them a leader who is the contact with an Armed Forces officer." The structure has been established to mediate between the civilian forces and the official military bureaucracy, according to the man, who states that the group "cannot deal with military leadership directly."
While the formal lines of cooperation are marked by distance, the Armed Forces does supply paramilitary groups with arms and ammunition, with the Death Squad member claiming that his battalion has received its weapons from the military. "The Armed Forces gives a number of us the right to use weapons, only when necessary, when the situation calls for it," he says, "but I cannot tell you the number of weapons." He adds that the military keeps a record of the daily number of rounds discharged.
Battalion 103 have carried out "special operations" inside Sheikh Zuwayed, according to the masked man, most of which have entailed arresting people who are wanted by the Armed Forces from their homes. "Tanks and armored vehicles are not suitable for all operations. Sometimes silent, secret special operations are better to target specific goals," he says, giving an indication of the nature of the groupâ€™s involvement in these operations.
Before being deployed on the streets of the city, civilians cooperating with the military were mostly housed within military camps, where they assisted in interrogation procedures. In other instances, civilians had accompanied Armed Forces campaigns in raids of villages in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah.
However, in an indication of the difficulty the Armed Forces has faced in advancing its ground campaign against militants, civilians have begun to carry military weapons and patrol the streets of the city in the last year.
Civilians have also been deployed at military checkpoints tasked with identifying wanted individuals. This role has earned them the title abu esbaa, or "the man with the finger," describing the way they would silently point out suspects passing through a checkpoint.
The Province of Sinai has issued a number of statements to Sinai residents, including members of certain tribes and inhabitants of areas in Arish, warning them against collaborating with the Armed Forces. These statements usually include death threats and injunctions that collaborators repent.
In a statement distributed to residents of Sheikh Zuwayed that Mada Masr gained access to, militants threaten residents and proclaim their own strength. "To any person who worked on, participated in, blessed or accepted the killing and decapitation of heads, you have seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears what happened to those who took this path, the path of treason and betrayal. Take the example of others and donâ€™t become an example for others. You have seen what we did to the army of apostates despite its strength, its tanks and airplanes. By God, we have men who are ready to die and fear no one in their belief in God," reads the statement.
There have been a litany of retributive killings.
On Oct. 3, 2015, militants killed Ahmed Salma close to his house in the city of Arish, claiming that he had been working with the Armed Forces. Less than two weeks later, militants ambushed a vehicle close to Sheikh Zuwayedâ€™s central hospital, shooting and killing three individuals: Mohamed Salama al-Danadsheh, Ramzy al-Batin and Ramy Shwaitar. They then burned the vehicle and took their weapons.
Near the end of January, militants slayed two Rafah citizens â€" Salama Soliman al-Salaima and Wael Mahmoud al-Shaer â€" whom they suspected of collaborating with the Egyptian military and intelligence services.
On March 1, militants killed Rady Soliman Nasser and shot his son in Arishâ€™s Fawakhreya Square, while last April the Province of Sinai killed Raed Youssef Said for collaborating with the military. On July 8, Awad Abu Ali al-Sawarka was killed by militants close to the sea in Sheikh Zuwayed.
Around the beginning of August, armed men kidnapped Mohamed al-Khalafat from the Goura area, south of Rafah. His decapitated head was found later the same day in Doheir area, south of Sheikh Zuwayed.
Local residents say that the Province of Sinai have killed many others since civilian troops began to increase cooperation with the Armed Forces.
Accordingly, Death Squad members live in constant fear of having their identities exposed. While some are known through earlier dealings, most remain unknown to the residents of Sheikh Zuwayed, until the Province of Sinai publishes their names after killing them.
Residents say that anyone who carries a military weapon from the Shawatra, Batin and Gorairat tribes is surrounded by suspicion of having collaborated with the Armed Forces, with some families in the Sawarka tribe being similarly implicated.
A former collaborator â€" who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity and asked to be referred to as no. 14 â€" says that that he worked with the military for eight months before stopping when his brother was killed along with three soldiers last year in an explosion that targeted the armored vehicle they were driving in south of Rafah.
"More than 60 collaborators with the Armed Forces have died over the last two years â€" slain or shot â€" but they continue to collaborate with the military without regard for how the situation develops. All of them are working with the Armed Forces out of love for homeland and to avenge militant operations against the Armed Forces and its soldiers," he says.
No. 14 believes that the Province of Sinai does not have difficulty in identifying the names of civilians allied with the military. "When they arrest a collaborator among us, they interrogate him first, to know all the names of Armed Forces allies affiliated to Battalion 103. Then, after the interrogation, they kill him and leave his head at a village entrance or shoot him, depending on the severity of the interrogation."
Due to danger, many military collaborators have moved outside of Sheikh Zuwayed or into military camps, according to no. 14.
Many senior collaborators, whose names have been widely disseminated by the Province of Sinai and whom the Armed Forces see as invaluable, have been instructed to live outside Sinai. However, those whose identities are known and that have remained in the area live in one of several protected areas â€" the Galaa camp in Ismailia, Battalion 101 in Arish or the Sohour camp in Sheikh Zuwayed â€" where they are used in interrogations. They do not venture out into the larger Sheikh Zuwayed area except during major military campaigns for fear of falling in the hands of the Province of Sinai.
But militants are sometimes able to reach collaborators even after they move to other governorates. Sayed, a resident of Sheikh Zuwayed, who has a relationship with several military collaborators, recounts how militants managed to located Sayed al-Qadud in the Salheya area of the Sharqiya Governorate last month but failed to arrest him.
Sayed worries about those who choose to continue to live in urban area, especially younger collaborators, whom he says "have no experience in confrontations and self-protection."
As a result of the assassinations, the Armed Forces have turned to less qualified armed civilians to fill the gap, according to Sheikh Ibrahim al-Menei, the head of the Sinai Tribes Union.
Residents of Sheikh Zuwayed hold different opinions about the deployment of armed civilians allied with the military on the streets of their city. Some think their presence is a guarantee of safety, serving as a protection against militant infiltration, while others complain of abuses of power.
A Sheikh Zuwayed woman speaking on condition of anonymity tells Mada Masr that the civilian forces have safeguarded womenâ€™s liberties. "Those army-affiliated groups prevent restrictions on female students and nurses, protecting them from harassment when they are stationed in front of schools or the city hospital," she says.
Meanwhile, some of the city centerâ€™s shop owners complain that Death Squad members use their weapons for intimidation. Whoever opposes them can be arrested, they say.
The collaborators are indeed rendered more powerful. No. 14 recalls that during his work with the Armed Forces, he received a monthly wage, in addition to a financial and in-kind honoraria after special operations. "We used to get everything we needed: food, drinks, mobile cards, transport from a place to another. We carried personal IDs stamped by the Armed Forces and intelligence to facilitate traveling through checkpoints and executing special operations without delays on the roads."
No. 14 also admits to abuses of power. "Although the Armed Forces takes good care of its collaborators, ensuring that none of them would easily fall and while it trusts its collaborators, some individuals have abused this trust and authority and engaged in smuggling and have accepted bribes to release detainees. Lately, they have begun to settle disputes with members of their families," he says.
Sayed, who traffics cigarettes into the North Sinai Governorate, also admits that military collaborators have participated in activity considered to be illegal under Egyptian law, explaining to Mada Masr that "smuggling in Sheikh Zuwayed is not a secret, and collaborators help us to get the merchandise through checkpoints because they have power. We pay them in exchange. But sometimes the Armed Forces foil our attempts and confiscate the merchandise.
However, abuse of power is not limited to financial benefit. In some cases, residents say that they have been subject to personal abuse.
Aziza is a resident who lives in a building in the Zohour neighborhood, most of whose inhabitants are either divorcees or widows. She recalls how the Armed Forces raided the neighborhood a few days before the last Ramadan to search for wanted individuals. "Our building was searched, but since then, they have raided this building in particular several times, until we discovered that collaborators working with the military deliberately raid this building to harass women during the house search, especially with most of us living without men. I saw with my own eyes and heard the masked spy asking for the phone number of my neighbor and verbally harassing her. Nobody can challenge them. Who can we complain to?"
The Armed Forces has displayed an effort, at least at times, to contain the increasing tendency among the armed civilian groups it has allied with to abuse of their authority.
A resident of Sheikh Zuwayed who asks to be called Abu Mohamed tells Mada Masr that the military was responsive to formal complaints. "We submitted more than one complaint to the Zohour military camp in Sheikh Zuwayed over the past months regarding the armed civiliansâ€™ actions and the way they deal with the population. The Armed Forces responded to our complaints and stopped five of its allied deputies. Then, we found a military checkpoint inside the city distributing leaflets apologizing for the misbehavior on the part of the collaborators."
No. 14 also says that the Armed Forces has gradually stopped dealing with collaborators who abuse their power in an attempt to mitigate the damage incurred to their image.
Contrary to the organization structures of the Sunni Sahwat tribe of Iraq from which they hail, the civilians supporting the Armed Forces in Sinai are not accountable to the heads of tribes and families.
According to Menei, the head of the Sinai Tribes Union, their actions have also not been condoned by the tribal leaders. Menei says he has always been reserved about civilians joining the military in the fight against Province of Sinai militants, as he fears it may draw them into a civil strife. For him, responsibility of security in the city falls entirely within the purview of the Armed Forces.
Recounting the history of military-civilian collaboration, Mohamed al-Rayashi, who works in trade, speaks of earlier military campaigns and, before that, the wars with Israel, when the Armed Forces sought aid from the heads of well-known families who came to be known as the mujahideen of Sinai. However, those who have assumed this role today mostly do not have the respect of residents, he says.
Influential tribal figures have remained absent from the scene in protest of the arming of civilians, with the Armed Forcesâ€™ decision to neglect tribal power structures and align with the most useful figures has eroded trust and the possibility of collaboration with many of the larger tribes, according to Rayashi.
"By arming civilian allies in the city, the Armed Forces has created a state of fear and violence instead of a state of law," Rayashi says.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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