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The Battle for Egypt’s Sinai

The Sinai as a Battlefield

The security situation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has seen some dangerously rapid and significant developments in the past weeks: A tripartite attack on security forces on October 24 resulted in the deaths of at least thirty-one security personnel—the deadliest attack on Egyptian soil since 2005. The following day, the military began what President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi promised would be a long and determined campaign to “break the back” of operatives in the Sinai. And then on November 11 Egypt’s most powerful terror group, the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State. Their declaration was validated by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his recognition of the Islamic State’s expansion into Egypt, and the group inaugurated their new Islamic State brand with the release of a thirty minute video (entitled “Sawla”) showing multiple coordinated attacks—including the October 24 massacre.

In a part of Egypt that has been experiencing an average of nearly ten deaths a month in the year before the attacks, these developments are certainly significant. Significant, but not anomalous. The late October attack may have been the most deadly, but over a year after the political violence that racked the country in the wake of former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, random attacks continue unabated. In the six weeks since the October 24 attack, 51 attacks have been carried out across Egypt; 23 of them have been in the North Sinai province.
These developments indicate the firm root that home-grown jihadist movements have taken in the country. Of these, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—now the “Wilayat Sinai,” a reference to the Sinai as an Islamic State province—is by far the most powerful, having subsumed existing groups in the Sinai Peninsula to become the strongest known organized entity in this area. The group has carried out attacks in the past in mainland Egypt and had given a nod to its “brothers” fighting as part of another Egyptian group, Ajnad Misr. Although the group has mostly focused their efforts on their insurgency in the Sinai, the group’s enduring, even strengthening, presence is an important indication in assessing Egypt’s security situation.

Months of Escalation

Attacks in the Sinai display a high degree of coordination, and militants are known to possess advanced weaponry. In the recent “Sawla” video, militants are shown shouldering rocket-propelled grenade launchers, conducting advanced tactical maneuvers encircling and attacking armed personnel carriers, and the video ends with footage of a weapons cache of mortars and rockets. While the origin of these weapons is difficult to determine, the military had regularly apprehended large shipments of weapons coming from Libya until at least mid-2013, as well as the regular interception of weapons smuggled through tunnels from Gaza. In this way, the October attack—though far deadlier than usual—represented an escalation, but not necessarily an outlier.

The state’s recent counter-terror efforts are likewise part of an intensifying trend. Plans for relocation and demolition of over 800 homes, for instance, were not developed as an overnight response to the attacks, as some reports have suggested. Similar home demolition programs have been discussed (and perhaps undertaken with little publicity) as much as a year back, and some Egyptian government authorities say that the recent evacuation was in the works for months. While the opacity of the situation in the North Sinai (reporters are effectively prohibited) makes it difficult to gauge the military’s exact operations, increases in the number and intensity counter-terror operations throughout the country have largely outpaced violent attacks. Based on official statements, in November the military claimed that it had killed 103 alleged terrorists in operations in North Sinai and arrested 506 others. The lack of independent reporting make it difficult to verify the military’s reports, and so the vast number killed does not necessarily indicate a great success on the part of the military—a fact that is made painfully obvious by the continued attacks in the province.

The Islamic State in Sinai

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ declaration of bay’a (an oath of allegiance) to the Islamic State is undoubtedly the most significant development of the past weeks. Rumors and hints of allegiance had been brewing as early as July when Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis leader, Abu Osama Al Masry, praised the Islamic State in an Eid El-Fitr sermon. The group’s recent adoption of certain tactics had also indicated a nod toward the Islamic State. There had been only one beheading reported in the North Sinai from 2010 through August 2014; since then Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has carried out eight reported beheadings, including seven that were filmed and disseminated in the manner of the Islamic State beheading videos. But the most telling evidence of the strengthening ties comes from the final frame of the group’s August 19 “Oh Soldier” video: the final frames of the video announce that the “Sawlat as-Sinai” video would be “coming soon.” The “Sawla” video features a complete rebranding and visual effects leagues more advanced than any previous Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis productions. Not only does this further confirm behind-the-scenes coordination before an official declaration, it suggests significant outside help in terms of technical resources (at the very least).

The threat of an Islamic State stronghold in Egypt is certainly a scary proposition given the tenuous situation in neighboring Libya; Egypt seemed to stand as a bulwark against the joining of the Islamic State forces from Iraq to Algeria. The establishment of a franchise in Egypt could serve as an important outpost, especially if the new Sinai franchise is able to make inroads into the mainland, facilitating the movement of weapons and fighters in the region. The potential is not lost on Islamic State supporters: a statement from jihadist Abu Musab Al Gharib that was disseminated on media forums encourages fighters to travel to the Sinai to solidify the caliphate from Libya to Iraq.

That the official declaration of loyalty came when it did, particularly after the wide dissemination of a later-refuted claim to allegiance, is particularly noteworthy and also fits within a paradigm of continued escalation. Although Egypt has yet to make an official statement on the recent declaration or the recent video, the possibility of an Islamic State presence will undoubtedly add renewed urgency to the military’s ramped-up counter-terror efforts—including likely renewed calls for financial and material support from the United States. The U.S. State Department has yet to make any statement, but that the Wilayat Sinai claimed the killing of American oil worker William Henderson in Egypt’s Western Desert is likely to add to this sense of urgency in Washington. Still focusing the majority of its ire toward the Egyptian military apparatus and its relations with Israel, the group has yet to fully embrace the Islamic State’s trademark sectarian and anti-Western ideology. The targeting of a U.S. citizen may indicate a warming to this approach.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

A trademark of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (and its forebears in the Sinai Peninsula) has been their attempts to cultivate relationships with the local population. The Egyptian military campaigns in North Sinai have destroyed farms, olive groves, and tunnels—important sources of income whether licit or illicit. And promises of development plans have been repeatedly abandoned. Although evidence stops short of suggesting that poverty breeds terrorism, the constant marginalization and, at times, targeting of North Sinai residents has provided fodder for Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ recruitment campaigns. If the citizens of North Sinai do not welcome the presence of armed militants in their midst, they have been loath to offer intelligence to a presence often viewed as equally noxious: that of the state.  That Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis declared recent beheading victims as state collaborators underscores the danger of state sympathy.

Even in its new iteration as the Wilayat Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis stops short of implementing the Islamic State’s signature modus operandi of establishing local rule. The “Sawla” video holds Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ original position, appealing to an aggrieved local population by showing brutal home evictions at the hands of the Egyptian military; the final eight minutes of the video are dedicated to leader Al Masry’s impassioned rant, listing a litany of grievances against the state—including the humiliation of women, destruction of homes, and the military’s acquiescence to Israel. In the past, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has engaged in public relations campaigns to promote their presence as the “brothers and neighbors” of Sinai residents. Their second video as the Wilayat Sinai, published November 27, shows horrific footage of local children killed by an alleged Israeli drone strike. The third, published on December 5, shows the bodies of five local men, whom Al Masry describes as local residents who were killed at close range by security forces. Their continued attempt to win Egyptian hearts and minds reveals that they are cognizant of the fact that their ability to operate depends on local tolerance to their mission.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ move toward the Islamic State may spell an eventual deterioration of any sympathy felt by a local population who is largely opposed to the military but who may not feel affinity toward foreign fighters in their midst or relish the potential for increased violence and ensuing military response. However, there is a possibility that a population already disenfranchised might welcome an influx of resources and the Islamic State’s signature “development” model, should the group capitalize on these. Either scenario should signal a crucial moment to encourage a longer-term strategy to combat violent extremism in the region. Tit-for-tat escalation has not yet been successful, and it would be wise to implement more strategic and forward-thinking plans.

Breaking the Cycle of Escalation

At a moment when policy approaches toward the region are chiefly driven by international engagement in the struggle against the Islamic State, the ongoing battle for the Sinai has significance beyond the desert peninsula. Already there is evidence of entrenched networks to facilitate the movement of goods and fighters from Libya to Iraq and beyond, through Egypt. Aside from the apprehension of weapons mentioned earlier, Egyptian fighters have been known to have fought and been killed in Libya and Iraq. While the creation of a buffer zone on the Gaza border is intended to stem illegal movement of fighters and goods from the east, Egypt’s western borders remain porous and often in the control of criminal networks. A recent attack on an Egyptian Navy ship outside the port of Damietta had been reported as the work of either smugglers or “terrorists.” Often the distinction is unclear (or simply two sides of the same coin) as the same networks and routes are accessed by both—what is understood from this attack is that criminal elements are operating in the Mediterranean between the Libyan border and Sinai.

In this sense, the United States is well positioned and should have significant interest in encouraging Egypt to combat its security threat. This should include support for a counter-terror strategy that supports the local population and does not undermine their rights both to security and to a dignified life. At this juncture, withholding of military and economic aid could maroon the North Sinai residents, leaving them at the mercy of a state bent on its campaign of “retribution” and the armed militants who will stop at nothing to combat it. And yet, continuing the no-questions-asked provision of advanced weaponry without ensuring its most effective use as part of a holistic strategy will simply maintain a status quo—a situation that has dangerous prospects both regionally and domestically.

It has been proven throughout the Sinai’s history that an exclusively security approach to combat militant violence is not effective—particularly when the violence is religiously motivated. Strategic military aid may be necessary but should be provided based on a clear understanding of the situation on the ground, new realities, and terror group allegiances. Advanced weaponry must be accompanied by extensive training programs to enhance the ability to target militants with the least damage possible to civilians and infrastructure.  Development plans to build licit economies, increased transparency on military operations, and the protection of human rights must also be essential components of a holistic strategy. Such efforts will guarantee both the ability to target militant operatives by encouraging effective intelligence networks, as well as lay the groundwork for the long-term eradication of smuggling networks and the critical local support upon which militants depend.  

[This analysis was written in conjunction with TIMEP’s Egypt Security Watch project. To subscribe to regular updates to the project, please fill out the form below.]

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