Sinai: New Tricks Old Habits

Operation Sinai 18 is the latest in a long line of “decisive” military operations by Egyptian Security Forces against terror groups in the restive Sinai Peninsula. Launched in February, and petering out in May, it is the longest Egyptian offensive in contemporary military history; as well as being part of Egypt’s longest war.

The operation came as a response to a Sinai Province massacre that slaughtered over 300 worshipers in the Central Sinai town of Bir Abd. It was described in Western press as a sectarian attack against a Sufi minority, yet, more significant is that it was also an attack against a population that had rejected the Province – a form of collective punishment.

Shortly after the massacre, Egypt’s incumbent authoritarian President Abdelfattah Elsisi gave the Armed Forces a three month deadline to “eradicate terrorism”, claiming Egyptian Security Forces would use “brutal force” from that point forward. The promise was to take off the kids gloves in a war that was already blighted by accusations of abuses and the use of scorched earth tactics.

Iron Fist

These statements were followed by widespread criticism across the free press within Egypt and elsewhere. Many believed that the President’s declaration would result in an all out assault on a region which had already suffered six years of heavy-handed security operations.

Privately, however, expectations were realistic and rhetoric was tempered. The Armed Forces realised that Sinai 18 would be a step towards dismantling the Wilaya rather than its end, and that the three month deadline set by the President could never be met.

One week into Sinai 18, Staff Major General Yasser Alisrigi of the Armed Forces’ Operations Authority would go on to say that military action would continue as necessary until objectives [the eradication of terrorism] were met. He also attempted to reassure the press that measures were being taken to protect civilians.

The Press Offensive

In a move that was rather unexpected and public, the military had distanced itself from the President.

Reporting on, or from, Northern Sinai had been banned. Despite this the Armed Forces was losing the media war. Its reports of the situation from the area were few and far between, mostly focusing on exaggerated successes or downplaying embarrassing routs.

Reporting on the Sinai without the consent of the Armed Forces is risky. Ismail Alexandrani (an expert on militant groups) was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The first couple of weeks of Sinai 18 saw a drastic change in protocol. Daily videos with updates on the situation were released and the Egyptian Armed Forces’ media Spokesman held weekly conferences with credentialed journalists for the first time since the political violence of 2013. Reporters from Egyptian publications (most, if not all, government mouthpieces) were imbedded with forces deployed to the area.

This hands on approach would give analysts insights they could never obtain before, and, as a result, the Armed Forces’ media department had a tight grip over information circulated about the Sinai.

Despite the new approach, old methods of reporting remained. Daily videos provided exaggerated statistics without context. Viewers were left with little knowledge as to what was actually being achieved by the new operation, or if Sinai Province was being weakened.

Embedded journalists spoke of heroic and holy soldiers – showcasing the excellence of Egyptian martial power – but writing little more than puff pieces.

Much like the ground campaign, the media offensive eventually ran out of steam. Daily videos turned into a short update every fortnight and the press conferences were no longer held.

Same But Different

The ground campaign launched without warning. In anticipation for the operation, Sinai’s schools were shut indefinitely and its hospitals received warning orders to prepare for mass casualties.

Areas of operation were segregated by dozens of checkpoints on main roads and movement of civilians was limited or outright stopped. Overnight, the three largest cities in Northern Sinai were cut off from each other and the rest of Egypt as their populations braced for the coming assault.

What came wasn’t all that different form what the region had previously seen. Extensive air strikes by the Egyptian Air Force, a large ground campaign, and naval patrols. For many observers this seemed like a rehash of Martyr’s Right. The most common question about Sinai 18 was “what’s different this time?”.

In short, the Egyptians deployed new capabilities that were outside of the scope of normal operations and coordinated offensive actions across the country, whereas previous offensives would focus on a singular and particular area independent of others.

Perhaps the most important change was the involvement of the Egyptian Air Force’s electronic and communications surveillance aircraft to develop targets. Once the operation launched, Egyptian forces were regularly capturing Sinai Province signals and communications equipment; making it difficult for cells to conduct collective action.

Surveillance flights are an essential asset in counter insurgency operations.

The Province’s media publications took a nosedive too – although this may be due to trade craft as well as disruption. Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and sniper claims that would normally be issued daily were often published weeks after the fact. The Islamic State’s weekly Al-Naba magazine took a hit as well, with Sinai stories becoming increasingly sparse in detail or focusing on public issues. Better intelligence as a result of more sophisticated surveillance operations also targeted the group’s Sinai based logistic infrastructure.

The discovery of IED factories and ammunition dumps resulted in a marked decrease in IED attacks and a drop in overall sophistication of the devices, continuing a trend from Martyr’s Right. It is also likely that attacking these networks resulted in the elimination of the Vehicle-Borne IED as a tactical weapon for the Wilaya. A lack of explosive material would be a reasonable explanation for the disappearance of the VBIED and their new reliance on Inghimasi Person-Borne IED attacks.

After predetermined targets were cleared Egyptian forces returned to a pattern of aimless large scale security sweeps.

That being said, the scope of the operation and the sheer amount of combat forces involved in Sinai 18 challenged Egypt’s logistical capacity. Keeping near 70, 000 troops from all arms in a fight for more than three months is taxing for any military. By April, the Egyptians were facing supply and ammunition shortages. War is an expensive enterprise and the cost of Operation Sinai is rarely talked about.

Tactical Frailties Undermine Sinai 18

Despite Sinai Province being under pressure, it has had some success against Egyptian forces during the operation. In little over three months it has killed close to 100 Egyptian personnel, including several senior security officials.

Egyptian forces in the Sinai are tactically inept and poorly equipped.

Of particular concern for Egyptian Security Forces is the ability of Sinai Province to infiltrate Battalion HQs and their recent deliberate targeting of area commanders.

The Province’s ability to successfully attack and overrun Egyptian positions isn’t exactly new. What is new is that on two occasions they infiltrated these locations unopposed and detonated suicide vests; one of these locations [Battalion 101 Border Guards HQ] had previously been the site of a multiple VBIED mass casualty attack.

The deadliest attack of the campaign killed 22 Egyptian soldiers and Officers in Central Sinai, including the Battalion Commander responsible for the region. Another IED attack on the route of a Interior Ministry convoy managed to seriously wound the Commander of Central Security Forces (a law enforcement paramilitary organisation) for Northern Sinai.

The IED remains the most prevalent threat to Egyptian forces despite gains. This APC was the personal vehicle of Major General Nasser Hussein, commander of Central Security Forces in Northern Sinai

Taking the recent attempt on the joint Defence and Interior Ministers’ visit to Arish into account, it is hard to imagine these events being coincidental. Poor Operations and Personal Security continue to endanger personnel and undermine progress.

Business As Usual

The most important talking point of Sinai 18 however is the effect the operation had on the civilian population. Not only in regards to cuts in supplies but also due to allegations (which are often founded) of scorched earth tactics, mass detentions, and extra judicial killings.

During the operation, Human Rights Watch released a series of reports warning that a humanitarian crisis was on the horizon as a result of security operations severely curtailing the movement of goods.

Whilst the Armed Forces attempted to alleviate the burden by distributing rations, it failed to properly address the situation, the programme was undermined by corruption and a lack of reach. Much of the suffering caused by this is due to negligence and poor planning on the part of the Armed Forces rather than some malicious will to collectively punish the people of Sinai.

Thousands of cartons were distributed to a population of over half a million.

There is often an inability to see alternatives to certain tactical decisions that affect the population negatively and attempts at compensation fall short of what is required. So although the actions of the state in some areas should not be seen as malicious, they are very much negligent.

This is in part due to a culture that is convinced that the civilian population suffering during a conflict is an unavoidable consequence of military action; a price to be paid as the end result will be achieved through current actions.

What is malicious, however, is the continued policy of mass detention and misconduct of Army units. Sinai 18 was different, but the trend of random arrests during large scale security sweeps remains. Thousands were detained, most for merely being in general vicinity of troops.

Worse is the continued presence of extra judicial killing allegations. During Sinai 18, a video leak appeared to show Egyptian Army forces executing a detained minor. whilst the video could not be dated, it showed how Egyptian units often act with impunity across the area.

End Game

Sinai 18 is another step towards dismantling the Wilaya, but Egyptian forces still face multiple challenges. Although significant gains have been made, the leadership of Sinai Province remains relatively intact.

From an organisational and doctrinal standpoint, the Egyptians have proven unwilling to adapt to counter-insurgency operations. Heavy handed tactics and strategies have exacerbated feelings of distrust between the state and locals.

Hopes of long term stabilization in Sinai are now firmly pinned on the promise of ambitious development projects. But in a country where life is already hard, and independent thought is being snuffed out, minor economic gains are unlikely to wash away decades of grievances.


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