It’s been nearly five years since an attack by militants on Egyptian Security Forces announced the start of a brutal insurgency in earnest. A series of military operations followed that promised to bring the problem to a swift close, yet here we are; Wilayat Sinai has proven and continues to prove that it is incredibly resilient and deadly.
For the most part, analysts of various colours either use the situation to criticise the Elsisi regime or attempt to push a narrative of an Egyptian state in total control and a terrorist organisation on its last legs. However, both fail to provide a comprehensive analysis of the situation.
Operations in the peninsula are predominantly limited to four areas. Egyptian Rafah, Sheikh Zewaid, Arish, and Central Sinai. As previously outlined, each area has its own strategic value and provides its own unique challenges.
Structurally Sinai Province is highly decentralized, with cells working independently of each other for the most part but often congregating for mass attacks. This means that Sinai Province’s chain of command is hard to determine and, as a result, snuffing out one cell is unlikely to lead to the next.
This is partly why the initial Egyptian response, Operation Eagle, did not have the intended effect of dealing a one time decisive blow to what eventually became Ansar Beit Al Maqdis. Up until late 2015, Security Forces were far more focused on the periphery targets of personnel rather than effectively attempting to dismantle their organisation or target their logistical tail. Egyptian offensive operations were on the whole rather predictable in terms of both timing and execution, thus liable to militant exploitation.
Confrontations for the most part were always initiated by militants with mass casualty attacks successfully overrunning Egyptian defensive positions throughout the years. This was seen as embarrassing and indicative of systemic failings in training, armament, and equipment; although for the most part strategically unimportant.
For the majority of 2012 to 2015 the Egyptian Armed Forces and Interior were fighting on the enemy’s terms. For many familiar with the Egyptian Armed Forces in particular this was not a surprise. Their inability to adapt to the situation was in part down to an arrogance in conventional firepower which they believed would overwhelm the enemy.
The opinion that militants are unwilling to engage Security Forces directly in a conventional manner because of their cowardice is one that is repeated by many commentators, as well as former and current military personnel. This insinuates that the militant’s ability to be successful against Egyptian forces is a result of them being bad sports rather than fighting on their terms.
This line of thinking is entrenched in the Egyptian psyche. Perhaps the most eye opening example of this mindset is public cheers for former Defence Minister Tantawi rebuffing his US counterparts over urges to invest in counter insurgency capabilities, something we should point out he is still celebrated for today.
Current strategy revolves around two priorities. The first being military operations against the Sinai Province and the second being the development of Northern Sinai. This marks a change from the beginning of the conflict where military operations dominated the entirety of the strategy.
This is a point that escapes many commentators on the conflict and Egypt at large. While they are right to criticise political rhetoric which calls for “brute force” and decisiveness, their attempts to pin that to actual strategy falters with any attempt to look beyond the surface of these statements.
There has been no credible explanation as to how rhetoric has translated into strategy or into the daily routine of operations. Egyptian forces are regularly accused of employing scorched earth tactics but there has been no explanation as to what those tactics are or how they manifest.
Are pundits referring to the widespread detention of suspected militants and allegations of abuse whilst in detention, instances of misconduct which include extra-judicial killings, or mistakes made by forces that have yet to adequately adapt their TTPs* for a counter insurgency?
Perhaps all of the above. However, that mistakes what is considered business as usual in Egypt for directed strategy.
The Bad and the Ugly
It is true however that these instances of abuse and misconduct create an environment which incubates and exacerbates terrorism. But as of yet there has been no attempt to accurately document how widespread these abuses are, seeing as claims often rely on footage leaks, anecdotal evidence, and unreliable witness statements. While they should be taken very seriously and are likely indicative of serious systemic problems within the Security Forces, they do not provide a solid enough base for analysis.
Some continue to argue that the Sinai insurgency is a response to local grievances whilst downplaying the religious significance of the Peninsula – and Egypt – to Jihadis. The point is that although the government has played a role in pushing individuals towards extremist organisations, the Sinai is a case in which global terror networks have imposed themselves on to local grievances – not the other way round.
Prison and Thought
Egyptian prisons have played a massive role in creating an environment which promotes extremism. However, while much focus is given to radicalisation in detention centres, little is written on the role of ideology. The case of Ibrahim Halawa was widely reported on, his descriptions of the contest between the Islamic State and Muslim Brotherhood for recruiting members has typically been described as one of radicalisation.
However, we would contend that Islamism can never be anything other than radical. It’s an ideology that provides its own vision of the state, laws, social contracts, and governance. As such it seeks to turn what we currently recognise to be a nation state on its head, whilst pushing dialogue that is bigoted, sectarian, xenophobic, sexist and violent.
The prison race is not to radicalise those who are already radical. It is a battle between revisionist Islamism and Salafist Jihadism over which can deliver an Islamic State. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in power is just as much – if not more – of a factor in members jumping ship, or reviving the Ikhwan’s secret apparatus.
It is a situation that mirrors that of decades gone past. Yet, lessons are still to be learned. Egypt has already been through several Camp Bucca moments, the last of which was during the 2011 uprising. Members of the Tawhid Wal Jihad went on to re-establish their connections and networks within the Sinai. The very same forces that had once bombed Southern Sinai beach resorts began what has eventually come to be Wilayat Sinai.
It is perplexing how an organisation with deep roots in the Global War on Terror is often seen as a result of repression alone. Yes the residents of Sinai (if not the entirety of Egypt) have been neglected and abused for decades. But to simply state that those who have been wronged will ultimately end up supporting or joining Wilayat Sinai is a rather shallow reading of the situation.
It also ignores that those who have been wronged would then go on to target a wide cross-section of the local population, Wilayat Sinai’s campaign against civilians has been incredibly brutal. Whilst analysis of political rhetoric after the Rawda massacre panned the efforts of Egyptian Security Forces as heavy handed, most relegated the abuses of the Wilaya over the past five years to a footnote. In doing so simultaneously stripping the people of Sinai of their agency and ignoring that the majority of locals support the Egyptian state despite the demolitions, extra judicial killings, forced detentions, and abysmal governance.
Change in IS Strategy
Despite everything, Wilayat Sinai remains trapped in militancy. Its network-cell based structure has thus far proven resilient despite heavy losses to personnel and logistical supply channels.
However, they have shown remarkable flexibility in reacting to the Egyptian operations targeting its tail. Campaigns in Rafah and diplomatic pressure on Gaza has pushed the group Southward and Westward into areas that had traditionally seen little to no combat operations.
No longer confident in regularly taking on increasingly hardened Security Forces positions in and around North Sinai’s three major population centres, Wilayat Sinai has continually sought to take advantage of Egyptian tactical frailties and poor operational security.
Although the Rawda Mosque massacre rightly captured mainstream attention it followed a campaign of brutal intimidation that targeted Sinai’s Christian minorities, rival religious figures, tribal collaborators, and the logistical tail of developmental initiatives by the state.
A major Egyptian offensive has been in planning for months now in response to the Bir Abd attack which left over three hundred civilians dead. Whilst political rhetoric promised a “brute force” response, the intermediary phase has seen a concerted intelligence gathering effort. In part this meant the deployment of otherwise absent or new assets to the Sinai.
There appears to be greater emphasis on actively targeting individual militants alongside degrading their logistical supply. Whereas previous Egyptian offensives focused on a particular area independent of the others at any one time, “Sinai 18” appears to have finally coordinated efforts across the country.
There are doubts as to whether the Security Forces can sustain an operation of this scale for a prolonged period of time without losing momentum – as Martyr’s Right did – and without causing a great deal of damage to a local population that has effectively been cut off from the rest of Egypt.
The more important question is whether the Egyptians can effectively react to Wilayat Sinai’s response to these operations. Whilst comfortable on the front foot, the hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of the Egyptian security apparatus leaves them unable to effectively and efficiently communicate within and between organizations. In turn they cannot adapt fast enough to fluid situations.
Egyptian operations thus far have typically centred around targeting cells in attempts to dominate ground, cut supply lines, and police Northern Sinai. They have been unable to bring military or legal action against Sinai Province’s financiers at home or abroad, the organisations connections to the Islamic State proper, or its smuggling sources. Egypt’s Sinai strategy has not gone far enough in that regard.
The Security Forces’ inability or aversion to enacting organisational change hinder chances of a more effective counterinsurgency campaign. They have yet to understand that it takes a network to defeat a network.
So whilst Sinai 18 may be sound in preparation, the execution is likely to be more of the same, thus unlikely to dismantle terror networks in the Sinai or elsewhere in the short term. It is however likely to further degrade their ability to operate and accelerate their decline.
Perhaps the most important problem with Egypt’s Sinai strategy is that it is exactly that. Much like its peers who have been obsessed with “killing ISIS, driving out the Taliban, and dismantling Al-Qaeda”, Egypt has become obsessed with the “elimination of terrorism” without ever actually asking if it was any good at fighting it.
The Security Forces will likely dismantle Wilayat Sinai eventually, but the environments and ideologies that incubate these groups still exist. So, whilst Egypt may temporarily rid itself of extremist groups, it is likely to repeat the cycle, something it has done for the past half century.
* Tactics, Techniques and Procedures