North Sinai residents who fled when the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) occupied their villages have been returning to find the group has booby-trapped their homes.
"I lost my sister-in-law and her nine-month-old baby when an explosive device planted in their home went off," said a young resident of Aqtiya village, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions.
Around 15 people have been killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) since mid-October in villages around Bir al-Abed, Egyptian security sources said.
The IED attacks that have multiplied in the vast, remote and sparsely populated region recall those ISIS launched to sow terror in Iraq and Syria.
The recent deaths have badly shaken the 1,000 or so residents who returned in October after seeking refuge elsewhere in Egypt for three months as the army continued its grinding battle to crush ISIS.
Another resident said locals found ISIS had taken over their homes, used them as hideouts and then booby-trapped them.
"They even stole our livestock," he added.
In February 2018, Egyptian forces launched a nationwide operation against militants, focused on the sparsely populated North Sinai.
The Egyptian army said Tuesday (December 8th) that since September it had killed 40 suspected militants in air and ground operations in the peninsula.
Rigging children's toys
The coastal town of Bir al-Abed lies on the edge of the barren desert.
In 2017, it saw modern Egypt's deadliest attack, an assault on the Rawda mosque during Friday prayers that killed 305 people, including 27 children.
According to the state prosecution, up to 30 militants in camouflage flying the black banner of ISIS had surrounded the mosque and massacred the worshippers during weekly Friday prayers.
ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack, but was the main suspect as the mosque is associated with followers of the Sufi branch of Sunni Islam, which the group had branded heretics.
A Sufi sheikh was among those killed, a local resident told Al-Mashareq at the time, noting that residents had received warnings from ISIS in the past.
In recent months, attacks have spiked.
The US State Department estimates that ISIS conducted 137 IED attacks last year, centred on north and central Sinai, along with "near-weekly complex assaults on government-fortified positions".
"The booby traps in north Sinai directly follow the precedent set by ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria," said Nadia al-Dayel, a Washington-based ISIS expert and head of Critica, a think tank.
She said the militants have honed their techniques, investing "considerable time and resources rigging doors, household furniture, appliances and even children's toys".
Such tactics mirror those found in Syria and northern Iraq where, three years ago, retreating and encircled ISIS militants would rig explosives to fridges, toys and even copies of the Qur'an.
ISIS also has preyed on the mentally ill, the physically disabled and children, taking advantage of their vulnerability and fragility to use them as human shields or suicide bombers.
In April 2017, Iraqi police reported that ISIS had booby-trapped a mentally ill man and pushed him towards an area where Iraqi forces were concentrated, before a sniper in the federal police forced him to retreat.
"It is likely that the tactic of targeting civilian life will not only continue but will be taken up by other violent groups," warned Dayel, regarding ISIS in Sinai.
ISIS, area's 'main threat'
Some 970 suspected militants and dozens of security personnel have been killed in North Sinai since February 2018, according to official figures.
Residents told AFP the main threat remained ISIS and its indiscriminate attacks.
The civilian death toll has continued to rise.
One resident, who also declined to be identified, said the governor's office had provided schools as shelters for those displaced after ISIS razed five villages around Bir al-Abed.
That offensive followed a deadly counter-terrorism operation in July, in which Egyptian forces killed 18 extremists in aerial and ground operations after thwarting an attack on a security complex in Bir al-Abed.
The army pursued the perpetrators, in co-operation with the air force, and besieged them at a farm and some abandoned houses.
The army destroyed four vehicles, including three that were packed with explosives, and two soldiers were killed "as they performed their national duty", an army statement said.
Dayel said that even though ISIS has been largely crushed in Iraq and Syria, North Sinai provided a fertile ground for its expansion.
"Even with limited resources, ISIS has proven to be a constant threat in Sinai," she said. "They are not going away anytime soon."
Meeting Wednesday with combatants from Egypt's 3rd field army and top military officials, Minister of Defence Mohamed Zaki stressed that maintaining high combat readiness is the real guarantee of Egypt's security and stability.
Efforts to further development and reconstruction of Sinai are key, he added, expressing his pride in the people of the peninsula and appreciation for their ongoing support for the armed forces.