The Dueling Narratives of the Islamic State and the Egyptian State

St. Catherine's Monastery in South Sinai (via Wikimedia Commons)

When President Donald Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi at the White House earlier this month, Trump applauded Sisi’s efforts to fight terrorism in Egypt as Sisi boasted about his success.  Since those meetings, however, the Islamic State is actively challenging his narrative through its intensive attacks and media campaign this month. The Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, Wilayat Sinai or Sinai Province, released last Tuesday its newest piece of propaganda, dubbed “Thunderbolts of the Hearts.” The 17-minute video comes amid a flurry of media attention on the Islamic State affiliates in Egypt, with the Islamic State having claimed yesterday an attack near St. Catherine’s Monastery in South Sinai province and its mainland branch claiming last week’s suicide bombings on Palm Sunday at churches in Tanta and Alexandria. Despite the relative mediocrity of the production, the video and its message are both well thought-out and presented and deeply humiliating to the military, especially when compared to the hollow message of videos produced by the Ministry of Defense’s Office of Morale Affairs.

The propaganda video opens with a brief commentary, with narration from a voice familiar from other Islamic State videos produced for Syria and Iraq, and a nasheed (Islamic chant), with the remainder featuring a narrated series of segments showing Wilayat Sinai snipers shooting about three dozen army personnel.

The way in which the video’s producers frame the attacks creates an interesting juxtaposition. The video portrays Wilayat Sinai’s fighters as confident and comfortable, firing at soldiers from various angles, even with obstructed fields of view, and calmly and patiently executing shots. The narrator offered insight into the group’s stringent training regimen: “[Wilayat Sinai] snipers are subject to intense, comprehensive training before graduation that focuses on Islamic sharia, and physical and tactical aspects of combat.” At the same time, military conscripts are portrayed as inferior and weak, unkempt and poorly dressed, and at times firing aimlessly into the air. Many of the targeted soldiers are in the confines of shelters or guard towers, protected with armor, nestled inside armored vehicles or behind barricades. Compare these images to segments showing Wilayat Sinai snipers maneuvering across desert terrain in ghillie suits, communicating by hand signal; an instructor offering a presentation on calculating range to targets; and fighters walking down a road in formation. Despite not having the resources of the Egyptian military, Wilayat Sinai fighters are framed as professional and disciplined, methodical, and at ease, while army personnel are framed as amateurish and lacking finesse, even with their heavy numbers and advanced weaponry.

Another contrasting element is the apparent psyche of military conscripts compared to that of Wilayat Sinai fighters. The hardship of being deployed to Sinai combined with the military’s general policies of mandatory conscription and poor treatment of soldiers make esprit de corps comparatively weak, measured against Wilayat Sinai’s contingent of volunteer fighters. The narrator hits home that “the lives of soldiers are cheap for the army.”

One might reasonably argue that this video is pure propaganda and not representative of Wilayat Sinai’s true capabilities. Maybe they aren’t disciplined fighters. Maybe they aren’t great marksmen. Maybe they don’t wear pressed uniforms in the battlefield. Maybe the military is more competent than it is made out to be. Those arguments, in our opinion, are all valid. And, indeed, the video is one of dozens of examples of the group exploiting the government’s media restrictions in Sinai to forge a reality that caters to them. For example, Wilayat Sinai has on a number of occasions boasted of its ability to set up and man “checkpoints” in areas dominated by police forces, releasing images of fighters checking papers and distributing leaflets. These so-called checkpoints may in fact be nothing more than quick photo opportunities that skew the security dynamic in these areas, but we have no way of telling. Through a number of repressive measures implemented under the guise of countering terrorism, the Egyptian government has snuffed out essentially all independent media in Sinai, crafting its own version of reality and leaving the only remaining non-military narrative to be filled by those who are least deterred by its legal prescriptions. Even for researchers like us who follow these groups around the clock, we have no way of discerning what is and what is not reality, as farfetched as some of the group’s (or the military’s) claims may sometimes be.

But even with all of this uncertainty, Wilayat Sinai is without question a formidable fighting force. According to data collected by The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s Egypt Security Watch, Wilayat Sinai has claimed responsibility for more than 700 attacks in North Sinai since its pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in November 2014. With the attack yesterday at St. Catherine’s—the Islamic State’s first claimed attack fully executed in South Sinai, with the exception of the October 2015 downing of a Saint Petersburg-bound commercial aircraft over central Sinai—the group has effectively extended its reach throughout the Sinai Peninsula. From these attacks, 378 security personnel were reported killed and another 367 wounded. Put differently, on average two security personnel became casualties each day in 2016. We can also say with a fair degree of confidence that the counter-terrorism campaign that has been waged in Sinai over the past few years has fallen far short of bringing security to the Egyptian people. Despite the hundreds of alleged militants killed and the more than 300 operations reported across the Sinai Peninsula last year alone, of which the state officially claimed only a few dozen, Wilayat Sinai has maintained its momentum. Even with the $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the United States and the billions of dollars in arms deals made with other countries, including Russia and France, Cairo is hard-pressed to rid the country of terrorism.

The government’s effort to lock down the narrative and tell the tale of great success in Sinai, while placing restrictions on independent media, is destined for failure. As demonstrated in “Thunderbolts of the Hearts,” Wilayat Sinai has a proven ability to make and sell a compelling story and it has the operational track record, even if exaggerated or misrepresented, to back it.

Jake Greene

Jake Greene

Jake Greene is a Senior Research Associate at TIMEP, where he has researched and written on security issues in Egypt and Libya. He received a Master’s in Global Affairs from the American University in Cairo, and his research interests include nonproliferation, geopolitics, and geostrategy. Jake's commentary has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and other publications, and he has been interviewed by the Associated Press, Mada Masr, and Vocativ. You can follow him on Twitter: @SinaiWonk.
Dr. Nancy Okail

Dr. Nancy Okail

Nancy Okail is the Executive Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. She holds a Ph.D., with a focus on power relations of foreign aid, from the University of Sussex in the UK. Prior to joining TIMEP, she was director of Freedom House’s Egypt program. She has more than 13 years’ experience in promoting democracy and development in the Middle East/North Africa region, and is a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Okail has worked with the Egyptian government as a senior evaluation officer of foreign aid and has managed programs for Egyptian pro-democracy organizations that challenged the Mubarak regime. She was also one of the defendants convicted and sentenced to prison in the widely publicized case of 43 nongovernmental organization workers charged with using foreign funds to foment unrest in Egypt.
Dr. Nancy Okail

@nancygeo

Executive Director (@TimepDC), Defendant #34 in #ngotrial
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