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Assault in Sheikh Zuweid: A turning point in Egypt’s fight against terrorism


On July 1, 2015, North Sinai saw Egypt’s most violent terrorist attack in years. Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate, claimed to have attacked 21 security facilities and checkpoints using a variety of weapons, including suicide bombings, and appears to have briefly gained control of the city of Sheikh Zuweid. The number of casualties remains unclear. According to a statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, 17 members of the armed forces were killed, while militants reported these numbers to be over 100. The Egyptian military launched airstrikes, succeeding in driving militants out of the city, and claimed to have killed at least 100 terrorists. No figures have yet been released on civilian casualties.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is publishing a special report to place yesterday’s attacks in context. These attacks are only part of an increasing wave of violence in Egypt. TIMEP has been tracking these incidents, and the state’s response, through its Egypt Security Watch Project. Initial figures indicate 127 terrorist attacks across Egypt in June, 32 of which were reported to have taken place in North Sinai. June follows a monthly average thus far for 2015 of over 118 attacks per month, and 35 attacks per month in North Sinai.

Specifically, the Sheikh Zuweid attacks also come only two days after Egyptian Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat was assassinated in Cairo when a car filled with explosives detonated next to his armed convoy. Barakat was the highest ranking official to be the victim of a successful assassination since the assassination of Speaker of Parliament Rifaat al-Mahgoub by Islamic fundamentalists in October 1990.

On the same day of the attack on Sheikh Zuweid, Egyptian security forces stormed an apartment in Sixth of October City and killed nine people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities were reported to have received information that the group was planning to carry out an attack. Among the dead was Nasser al-Hafi, a prominent lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of parliament. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on their official webpage calling for a rebellion to oust President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Although terror attacks have been steadily on the rise over the past two years, the separate high-level attacks in Cairo and Sinai in less than two days, combined with the Brotherhood’s call for rebellion, indicate a critical turning point in the level of violence in Egypt. This escalation has dangerous implications, and the Egyptian authorities will undoubtedly be required to fight back on several fronts.

The July 1 attack in North Sinai marks an important moment to review counter-terror operation strategies and their effectiveness. This special report aims to clarify the situation in North Sinai and to help the reader understand the evolving nature of terrorism in Egypt, and is comprised of two parts. The first part is a question and answer section in which Sinai journalist Mohannad Sabry, the Levantine Group’s Daniel Nisman, and Zack Gold of the Institute for National and Strategic Studies address Sinai-based terror groups’ capabilities, their connections with external regional groups, accessibility to weapons, and the potential for their expansion in Egypt, as well as the Egyptian government’s response to threats. The second part is a report, based on TIMEP’s ESW project, detailing and contextualizing the attack on Sheikh Zuweid in terms of past and future operations.

While this report mostly focuses on the July 1 attacks in North Sinai, it should be underscored that magnitude and frequency of militant attacks, and expediency of surrounding events unfolding is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. It is imperative to keep in mind that casualty numbers are inconclusive and transformative events could transpire.


Expert Q and A
The opinions and assertions in the Q&A are the authors’.


Many argue that the July 1 attacks in Sheikh Zuweid are unprecedented in scale and use of weaponry by militant groups. What is the significance of yesterday’s attacks?

Daniel Nisman: The significance lies in the scale and sophistication of the attacks, in terms of the number of fighters coordinating their assaults on numerous positions across a wide geographical area that is seemingly well-patrolled by the military. The fighters displayed an ability to use both light arms and sophisticated weaponry (including anti-tank missiles which require considerable training) to overrun and hold territory, which we had not yet seen in Sinai. 

Mohannad Sabry: Yesterday’s attack is the fiercest on the Egyptian military in Sinai in the history of terrorism in Egypt. Never before have militants been able to control a town with sixty thousand people, a military base, and a fortified security compound.

Yesterday’s attacks featured automatic rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and several car bombs, all of which have been used by militants in North Sinai in recent years. What is significant, though, is the sheer number of weapons and terrorist elements. Several sources in Sheikh Zuweid estimated the number of terrorists at between 300 and 400 people, on dozens of pickup trucks and motorbikes (though initial military statements said there were just 70 terrorists). The terrorists displayed an unprecedented level of coordination. Some groups went to the rooftops of buildings and fired on police and military compounds. Others on motorbikes deployed to plant IEDs on roads likely to be used by military vehicles, blocking the highways from Arish in the west and Rafah in the east. Streets around the military and police concentrations were blocked, and other militants targeted checkpoints around the city. As a result of this planning, government ground forces were unable to enter Sheikh Zuweid until 5 p.m., after militants retreated in the face of aerial bombardment.

Zack Gold: The attack is, first, unprecedented in its duration. Wilayat Sinai has a proven ability to attack across northeast Sinai and even to do so in coordinated, simultaneous assaults. The attacks began around 6 a.m. local time and there was still street fighting in Sheikh Zuweid 12 hours later. This was also unprecedented: the assault of Sheikh Zuweid. Of course, the group has carried out attacks in cities before. But this was the first time its objective was less to attack one or two points in the city than to set down there for the long haul.


Was this attack preceded by a warning or threat from Wilayat Sinai (WS)? 

DN: WS did not warn of a specific attack, and interestingly enough, Egypt was left out of Islamic State (IS) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s Ramadan threats. In a message marking the start of Ramadan, Adnani said that IS would be carrying out attacks in a number of countries, though Egypt was absent from the countries mentioned. This may have been done to divert attention.

More notably, these attacks were not preceded by other assaults on checkpoints in Sinai in the weeks before the attack. In Iraq and Syria, IS has conducted smaller raids in an attempt to demoralize troops before launching assaults on urban centers.

MS: During a recent visit, residents warned me that the relative calm of the past few weeks was merely the calm before the storm. But WS did not publish any direct threats whatsoever.

ZG:  Of course, leaders of the Islamic State (IS) have called for a ramping up of attacks during Ramadan, but this particular attack was not suggested by the group. Indeed, the group has previously put out broad warnings—to soldiers, to police, to judges—but has never broadcast a specific target. In terms of the assault of Sheikh Zuweid, certainly the group has slowly moved toward an IS-style modus operandi, but it was not predictable that such an attack on a civilian area would take place.


Does WS have the capacity to carry out such an attack by itself, or is cooperation with external groups a possibility? 

DN: WS requires assistance from the Gaza Strip to train and rehabilitate fighters, but even with the Egyptian military blockading its area of northeast Sinai, the group has shown an ability to adapt and survive, including by exploiting local residents. Militants still use between ten and twenty tunnels from Gaza that extend deep beyond the Rafah buffer zone. It is also likely that the allegiance to IS has given the group an ideological and monetary boost, if not a clear boost in training and operational capability.

MS: The group is apparently working tirelessly to enhance its tactics and capabilities. It is also recruiting heavily and openly as communities feel increasingly alienated from the state. We should also note, though, that the state has been proven to be weak in North Sinai in the past several years, indicating that even a militant group smaller than WS could operate with a fair amount of success.

ZG: WS has the capacity, and has proven that capacity previously. However, some of that capacity is not indigenous but comes from training abroad: Sinai and Egyptian militants that have previously fought or trained in Gaza, Libya, Iraq, or Syria. Additionally, the group receives arms from Libya, nowadays paid for by the Islamic State, and has at least in the past received weapons from Gaza.


How has the army responded to such attacks before? 

DN: The military typically responds to such brazen attacks by boosting its forces, including special forces, tanks, and air power. But these operations—at least four since 2011—have proven ineffective, as has, apparently President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi’s buffer zone, which has so far failed to eliminate all Gaza tunnels.

MS: The military has claimed to have killed hundreds of militants, and it has carried out airstrikes and ground operations to work against the militants. Despite these efforts, terrorist attacks have not only continued but increased in numbers and scale.

ZG: In the past two years, escalation from Sinai militants has been met with intense escalation from the Egyptian military. Some would say these strike are retribution, and indeed the military sometimes uses such language it its statements. However, after intense military assaults for a duration, the military tends to pull back again. By this point such cycles are quite familiar.


The size of the group has always been unclear. Does this attack reveal an estimate of their capacity in terms of numbers and weaponry? Does this attack reveal an increase in their capacity over the last year? 

DN: I do believe that WS has taken considerable hits in following numerous Egyptian military operations. The Sinai jihadist population after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall could have ranged from anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters, so even if the military was able to deplete this force by half, they still have considerable manpower. The military’s scorched-earth tactics have undoubtedly pushed more locals to join or at least cooperate with militants, though there are signs the Bedouin are becoming upset with the militants, as well.

MS: The size of the group is increasing, as each major attack reveals the group’s strength despite the military campaign—and how WS is able to use the military campaign for their own ends. There have been several reports from villages near Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah that dozens of people—criminals, moderate Salafists, victims of the turmoil—have joined WS. One source told me that, until late 2013, there were just five members of ABM in his village. After 90% of the village was destroyed by government forces in a security campaign, some 40 people from the town carry weapons on WS’ behalf. WS videos routinely show new recruits pledging their fealty to the Islamic State.

ZG: This attack, like the coordinated assaults in January, appear to be at the higher end of the group’s fighting capacity—maybe a hundred or two hundred fighters with an equal number of logistical supporters. The recently released State Department Country Reports on Terrorism estimates the group has “several hundred fighters” in Sinai, but that is higher than other estimates over the past year. It is difficult to say if this attack reveals an increase in the group’s capacity—which, indeed, has been continuously improving—but, more worryingly, increased ambitions.


How are militants obtaining weapons? Are the tunnels in Gaza—which the military continues to destroy—still functioning?

DN: As I said, the military continues to find tunnels beyond the buffer zone, some as long as 1.5-2.5 km. Weapons could still be coming from mainland Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and to an extent, Gaza. The use of advanced Kornet anti-tank missiles implies that such weapons may have come from Gaza, while the training could have come from Syria or Iraq, or Gaza-based Palestinian groups.

MS: The Gaza tunnels played a minimal role in arming militants in Sinai; the much greater effect was the exchange of skills and training. Sinai itself is full of weapons, and has even been a source of weapons into Gaza. WS has been relying on criminal weapons smugglers to resupply itself, and has been also obtaining more weapons from its military victims when they conduct successful operations.

ZG: First of all, Sinai has long been flooded with weapons. The situation became even more menacing following the revolution in Libya, especially in terms of the high-quality arms smuggled out of Libyan storehouses, such as man-portable air defense systems. WS has also gotten weapons from Gaza in the past, but the extent to which this is still happening is minuscule.


How much territory did WS capture in this latest attack? 

DN: WS captured a small amount of territory within Sheikh Zuweid, but it was able to attack numerous positions across the area between Sheikh Zuweid and Arish, essentially preventing the Egyptian military from reaching the area for several hours—a considerable achievement. 

MS: It simply captured the city of Sheikh Zuweid for several hours, before retreating under fire.

ZG: It is a stretch to say that WS “captured” territory in this latest attack. It certainly overran some military positions, but it has done so in the past as well. That said, the group really focused on infiltrating Sheikh Zuweid, a city that falls in the heart of its operational territory.


How does the–even temporary—control of Sheikh Zuweid alter our understanding of Sinai militarism? How is Sinai militarism different after yesterday?

DN: I think that both Egypt and Israel realized that they underestimated the capabilities of WS, and overestimated the effectiveness of Egypt’s current counterinsurgency doctrine. This is a watershed moment, and requires the Egyptian military to really focus on getting the local population on its side. This operation was, above all, a massive intelligence failure.

MS: WS appears to be gaining strength. Every major attack since July 2013 has revealed a new level of lethality.

ZG: The assault on Sheikh Zuweid was unprecedented and shows a continuation on a line of militancy from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) to IS. As ABM, the jihadi group was really focused on local grievances and put itself forward as a defender of the Sinai people. Since ABM joined the Islamic State and adopted the name of Wilayat Sinai, we have seen an increase in attacks on the local population, beginning especially in January 2015. The assault of Sheikh Zuweid could be viewed in line with moves by ISIS or Libyan affiliates to overrun cities.


How is the capture of Sheikh Zuweid similar to or different than Islamic State capture of cities like Sirte or Ramadi? 

DN: This is more of a symbolic victory. The Egyptian military is immense, and it is likely that WS sees this primarily as a symbolic win, but they may also be seeking to divert Egyptian military forces from more valuable economic targets in the mainland or the Suez Canal. We must remember that WS is smart enough to understand it cannot defeat one of the region’s largest armies head on. 

MS: We cannot make such a comparison, because Libya, Iraq, and Syria are in a state of war and do not have stable governments and operational institutions.

ZG: As I noted in my answer to the previous question, this assault is certainly on the path to situations like those cities. As of this writing, it is still unclear what WS’s intent was: if they were trying to capture the city, or simply draw Egyptian forces into urban warfare. It is a worrying development, but that said, Egypt is not Libya and it is not Iraq. It is a functioning state with a powerful military. Certainly, it has never had full control of North Sinai, but it’s not about to let WS take control, either. 


Why was the Egyptian Military unable to anticipate and prepare for such a strong attack on Sheikh Zuweid despite the many checkpoints and outposts there? 

DN: This shows first and foremost a lack of intelligence. Troops manning checkpoints or outposts are nothing without it. The state needs to do more to develop human intelligence—either spies within the groups, or cooperative locals who will work against the militants—and put it to use. Technology, such as drones or monitoring of communications channels, can also be effective. Furthermore, it is clear that these conscripts lack the training to strike back after sustaining a massive attack on their positions, and their officers lack the ability to be creative and adaptive to local threats.

MS: There is a long list of reasons behind this failure. Everyone involved on the state’s side—government intelligence, investigative authorities, police and military personnel, foreign intelligence, local sources—has failed to do their part.

ZG:  First, checkpoints have their limited value in stopping road travel, while most militant assaults approach by off-road movements. Second, checkpoints and outposts are only as capable at defending the area as the soldiers inside them. Egypt has a very large military, but a more limited number of well-trained forces. As threats spread in the country, some of the best trained units are called to other areas: to the Libyan border, for example.


What effect will yesterday’s attack and ensuing state response have on the ability of militants to recruit?

DN: This is really a matter of Egyptian policy, inasmuch as the state’s success in combatting the group will affect their ability to gain supporters. WS has made it very difficult for local residents to cooperate with the Egyptian military through their intimidation tactics, but on the other hand the Egyptian military hasn’t made it very appealing for locals to risk their lives to help gather intelligence. 

MS: We cannot accurately predict this until we see what the state authorities do in the next few weeks. The attack itself, despite the dead militants and the losses inflicted on them, will likely be considered an inspirational success which will encourage many more to join WS. But if the state successfully hunts down the group, WS will lose members, and (potential recruits) may be deterred from joining.

ZG: Yesterday’s attack is likely to harm local (i.e. Sinai) recruitment because of the unprecedented assault on the local population. There is a slight chance that it could increase recruitment among Nile Valley supporters of the Islamic State, if it’s framed as WS needed their assistance in establishing an emirate akin to IS-governed space. While there may not be local recruitment, I think the Sinai population may be even more wary of cooperating with the military out of fear of retribution, as yesterday may indicate that the military cannot protect local informants from WS.


Is there any hope for a peaceful solution to militarism in Sinai now?

DN: Considerable force is needed to restore order, but that is a Band-Aid. The real solution is getting the local community on your side. Scorched earth policies won’t work.

MS: The state should make efforts to reconcile with civilians who have been harmed in the fighting before they turn against the state and become terrorists. I do not think that there will or should be a peaceful solution with the militants who are routinely executing innocent civilians.

ZG: There was never going to be a peaceful solution to ending the jihadi insurgency in Sinai, as the goals of the group (such as turning the peninsula into an Islamic emirate) are never going to be reconciled. The problem is that the jihadi insurgency has meshed with a local Bedouin insurgency, which has been trying to gain attention for longstanding local grievances (mostly economic and political opportunities and reviews of in absentia sentences). It has long been in the interest of the state to address these latter grievances to separate the political militancy from the jihadi militancy.