The terrorist attack on the Masoura military checkpoint, while officers and soldiers were breaking their Ramadan fast, was barbarous in every sense of the word. Medical examiners found 30 bullets in the head of one of the victims, and the others were in a roughly similar state. I cannot imagine what was going on the minds of the murderers as they pulled the trigger, or in the minds of their prey, who must have seen their killers in that split second before the guns rang out. But what we can assume is that a group of "holy warriors" were inspired by certain ideas that they would call "Islamic" and that were sufficient to convince them that this Muslim solider, who was a native of some Egyptian village or city and who was conscripted into the army in accordance with our national recruitment laws, was personally responsible for the failure to apply "God's Law" in Egypt which, to the killers' minds, was therefore a godless state. The fact that Islam is the official religion of this state and the principles of Islamic law are its primary source of legislation, and that the recent elections brought to power Mohamed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, did not matter.
Actually, I was not surprised by the incident, not one bit. However, I still feel the shock of that display of inhumanity that can overcome a group of people and turn them into predators more horrifying than anything one would encounter in a science fiction or horror film. We have seen similar atrocities in the Lebanese civil war, in the Zarqawi phenomenon in Iraq, in the vicious war waged by radical Islamist militias in Algeria, in the mutilation of corpses in northern Mali today, and in Somalia at all times. This time, the massacre was in Egypt, and after perpetrating it the killers commandeered a couple of armoured vehicles and sped off toward the Israeli border where the vehicles were intercepted and the gunmen were killed by Israel forces, in spite of the mortar fire that was serving to cover them.
Soon afterwards the facts began to emerge and the Egyptian and Arab satellite networks were awash with commentaries that, more often than not, seemed liked they were lifted from CD recordings that could be pulled out and fitted to all occasions. The first fact was that Israeli security authorities had advanced knowledge of the attack and had sufficient information to take the necessary precautions and to deal with the invading force after it had eliminated the Egyptian officers and soldiers. In addition, the Israelis had passed this intelligence on to the Egyptian authorities, in accordance with the security cooperation arrangements between the two countries. Egyptian security authorities circulated this intelligence among their various branches and, perhaps, took some precautions. However, they did not take into consideration the possibility that the attack could take place at the time when people were breaking their Ramadan fast. Naturally, this gave rise to talk that might make one think that our security agencies have been dealing with problems in the Sinai on an ad hoc basis, rather than in the context of a security situation that has been deteriorating for more than a decade, ever since the process of building tunnels began on the border between Gaza and Sinai.
It was not long before the media squads began to talk of "the conspiracy" that led to 16 dead and seven wounded Egyptian soldiers. As usual, the commentator would assume a stately air of authority and inform us that in any crime one must ask cui bono (who benefits?) and conclude that since Israel is always the beneficiary of any calamity that befalls us it must be responsible. The cleverer commentator will add "directly or indirectly," so as to broaden the scope to include the possibility that Israelis recruited a group to carry out the mission. The proof, as we are told by Youssef Abu Marzouq and a host of other commentators, is that on the day before the attack Israel warned its citizens to leave Taba. From this "proof" it was established that Israel masterminded a plot in order to embarrass the Egyptian president or to drive a wedge between Egypt and Hamas, both of are which ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood. This plot entailed a massacre of Egyptian soldiers after which the perpetrators would flee to the Israeli border where they would be picked off one by one by the Israeli army, thereby burying crucial evidence. If you were so unwise as to point out that Israel had notified Egyptian authorities of the impending attack, the answer was ready to hand: Israel had to do that in order to cover up for the warning it issued to its citizens in the Sinai. Presumably the idea is that Israel should have kept its citizens in the danger zone in order to prove to the conspiracy theorists that this was not an Israeli conspiracy. Apparently, too, Israel should have been kind enough to leave a few of the assailants alive, as though Israel is famous for its mercifulness.
But let us note some facts that have been conveniently overlooked and that the Egyptian authorities already knew without Israel's help. The tunnels, as we have said, have been there for over a decade. As we learned from Egyptian sources following the incident, they increased during this period from a mere handful to more than 1,200 tunnels perforating the 14 kilometre long Egyptian-Palestinian border. That's 85 tunnels per kilometre. The authorities also knew that jihadists had begun to gather in small groups in the Sinai even before the January 2011 Revolution, but that since the revolution these groups had proliferated exponentially and had grown increasingly conspicuous, organised and assertive of their God-given authority. Today, Sinai is teeming with members of the Army of Islam, the Islamic Jihad, and a host of Al-Qaeda affiliates and would-be affiliates. What they have in common is their militant Salafist outlook, which they share with counterparts from Mali to Iraq, passing through North Africa, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. Another thing they have in common is an abundant supply of weapons that derives from such plentiful sources as the collapsed Libyan state, which was brimming in them; Sudan, which is now divided after decades of civil war; and the failed state of Somalia. This weaponry has come in very handy in an area that has simultaneously seen a marked rise in organised crime, drug trafficking, gang-like warfare and intimidation, and murder.
In addition to the tunnels and jihadists, there was an influx of reinforcements hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egyptian prisons, which flung open their doors during the revolution to release their jihadist inmates, among others. From this point forward, operations carried out in Sinai delivered their explosive messages. The bombing of the natural gas pipelines, of which there were 15 instances, were not just a protest against sending fuel to Israel, fuel that was also destined to Jordan, Syria and Spain. It was also a message to the Egyptian state, telling it that it had no place in Sinai and who knows where else beyond. The activity through the tunnels brought a group bearing the same message, while assaults against the Arish police station and other police stations, and armed robberies of banks and post offices were carried out to the cries of "God is Great!" as though heralding the victory of a latter-day Islamic conquest.
With all that already existing and known to the Egyptian authorities, what possible need is there for a conspiracy theory? In fact, why should anyone be surprised at all at an assault against the military checkpoint in Masoura or anywhere else, for that matter? Surely some 50 separate paramilitary attacks against military sites should be a sufficient wake-up call, not just for the military authorities but also for civil society, which had long seen all talk about national security just as another bugbear that the former regime used to keep its hold on power.
Published in Al Ahram Weekly's Aug. 16-22 issue