UMM AL QATEF, egypt // It was just after dawn on August 31 when several Bedouin men noticed a strange object on the edge of this intersection deep in the desert of Sinai. A severed head, washed of blood, was perched atop a bush.
According to local accounts, the executioners had left no tracks, walking on rocks to place their grim warning within view of all who passed by. The rest of the body was found 30 kilometres away.
"It was a message to all the tribes: do not come against us or we will kill you," said Mostapha El Atrash, 23, a member of a youth activist group that advocates for Sinai concerns in the city of Sheikh Zuwayed and who has spoken to witnesses of the scene.
The killing - along with the assassination of a tribal leader last month - marked an escalation in the battle for power in North Sinai.
The situation has long been characterised as a struggle between Bedouin tribes and the Egyptian security apparatus, which used informants and brute force to repress the people of the region and keep track of the machinations of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Since last year's uprisings that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a volatile cocktail of competing ideological, religious, geopolitical and tribal groups has surfaced.
There are now blood feuds mixed in with government clandestine operations in the desert and political battles with vows of jihad.
Several new Islamist extremist groups have announced their formation. There have been dozens of attacks on checkpoints and on a pipeline that pumped natural gas to Israel and Jordan.
The beheaded man, it turned out, was Manazil Bereikat. The Islamist extremist group Jamaat Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis alleged he had co-operated with agents from Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, in the assassination of Ibrahim Oweida last month.
Oweida had been a member of Jamaat Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis, according to an announcement from the group, which also detailed its investigation into Oweida's death. The group had earlier said it was responsible for an attack on the gas pipeline.
The decapitation came just three weeks after a senior leader of the area's largest tribe the Sawerka, Khalaf Al Maney, was gunned down in his car along with his son after leaving a conference of tribal leaders, They were discussing how to oppose militancy in North Sinai.
The most violent incident of late came on August 5, when unknown assailants killed 16 Egyptian border guards. Several of the attackers stole an armoured personnel vehicle and attempted to storm into Israel for a presumed second attack, but were killed by an Israeli air strike.
The Egyptian Army has responded with "Operation Eagle" to re-establish security in North Sinai, but it has yielded few tangible results. In a press conference on Saturday, the army said it had destroyed 31 smuggling tunnels and killed 32 "criminal elements".
Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian military spokesman, told reporters yesterday that 38 people including "non-Egyptians" had been arrested.
"The operation will continue until its goals have been achieved ... These are not just military goals but also developmental goals for the Sinai," he said.
Residents of North Sinai look sceptically on the boasts of success from Cairo. While army helicopters scan the sparsely populated desert and mountains, they feel their society being twisted and torn. The feeling is that Sinai has become an arena for proxy battles between global powers each manipulating groups to attack others.
Ali Frige Rashid, 60, the head of the regional office of the Arab Party for Equality and Justice, said that Iran, Israel, the US, and other countries all support factions that oppose one another because it was in each one's interest to have control of the sensitive border region.
All the while, residents say, the Egyptian government is only making the slightest efforts to increase development in the impoverished region.
"The whole system in Sinai is upside down," said Mr Rashid. "These killings of tribal members are something new for us and it means things are getting worse."
Mr Rashid described the situation in North Sinai as a consequence of three decades of neglect. Without jobs, clean water, electricity and land rights, many Bedouins of Sinai were forced to enmesh themselves with criminal networks to be able to provide for their families. Others turned to extremism through groups such as Takfir Wal Hijra - "Excommunication and Exodus" - who reject Egyptian society as un-Islamic and have launched attacks on government officials.
Smuggling has become a way of life for many. The Gaza Strip largely depends on supplies and fuel sent through underground tunnels administered by Bedouins in Rafah near the border. African refugees enter Israel through the desert border of northern Sinai, assisted by professional smugglers based in the Hallal mountain region.
"Mubarak never put much effort into helping the people of Sinai," Mr Rashid said. "The only ministries that dealt with us were the intelligence and the security services, not housing, electricity or water."
Mr Atrash of the tribal youth group said that the execution of Manazil Bereikat was "accepted" in the system of tribal justice. The group that said it killed him had first received permission from the Bereikat tribe after it produced evidence of his involvement in the assassination of Ibrahim Oweida.
His involvement with Mossad had rendered him "out in the sun", meaning no longer protected by his family and tribe.
But the killing of Khalaf Al Maney and his son in the village of Kharrouba had far larger ramifications. Under tribal traditions, men from five generations of the tribe are sworn to take their revenge. The system is known as the "five bloods", according to Mr Atrash.
"No condolences are received until justice is delivered," Mr Atrash said.
One of the men who have vowed revenge is Abu Ashraf Al Maney, 50, a Sawerka businessman.
"It is said around town that the killers were from an Islamist extremist group," he said. "But our investigation is continuing and we will not announce anything until we find the truth."
He said that Sinai had become "open to everyone, fertile ground for the intelligence agencies from around the world".
If the army, intelligence and security agencies of Egypt did not cooperate with the tribes, there would never be security in Sinai, he said.
"We are the only ones who can protect this land," he said. "But no one in Cairo has realised that yet."
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse