Sisi's self-defeating security plan

A bloody year in Sinai

The Egyptian government has intensified its military campaign in the Sinai peninsula with the aim of finally shutting down a jihadist insurgency linked to IS. Hundreds may have died, but the insurgency continues with no end in sight. By Tom Stevenson

On 24 November 2017 Egypt endured the deadliest militant attack in its modern history. In Bir al-Abed in the northern Sinai peninsula, dozens of militants belonging to the Islamic State-affiliated group Wilayat Sinai surrounded the Rawda mosque and opened fire on the worshippers inside. When the attack was over 305 lay dead, 27 of whom were children.

In response to the attack, Egypt’s president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi pledged to use "brutal force" to stamp out the insurgency, which has plagued the Sinai since 2011, and launched a military campaign, Operation Sinai 2018. Egypt’s armed forces cut off the main cities and roads of North Sinai, carried out air-strikes and naval patrols and conducted widespread electronic and communications surveillance. The armed forces claims more than 450 militants have been killed since the beginning of the campaign earlier this year.

While the Egyptian government has presented Sinai 2018 as a "decisive blow" against the jihadist militants that operate in North Sinai, critics say the campaign is just another failed attempt to force a military solution to the crisis – which has been tried and failed before.

Driving the jihadists deeper into militancy

Despite the new campaign the jihadist insurgency continues. "It has driven them deeper into militancy," said an Egyptian military analyst who spoke to about the Egyptian military campaign on condition of anonymity.

Map of Egypt showing the North Sinai region (source: Deutsche Welle)
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province: formerly known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM), Wilayat Sinai, a.k.a. ISIL-SP, is a militant Islamist group operating out of the Egyptian Sinai. The group became active in 2011 following a deterioration of security in the Sinai, focussing its efforts on Israel and the Arab gas pipeline to Jordan. Having ousted President Morsi in 2013, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi embarked on a miilitary campaign to stamp out jihadist groups in the Sinai and elsewhere. Resistance – often targeting the civilian population – has been fierce ever since

In the first two weeks of November alone, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for eight separate attacks in North Sinai. On 15 November, the group released a 42-minute video showcasing its recent operations. The images showed IED attacks on soldiers, jihadist militants operating checkpoints in North Sinai, as well as the group using a U.S.-made M60 Patton tank presumably captured from the Egyptian security services.

The Egyptian governmentʹs claims about the number of Wilayat Sinai fighters it has killed may point to why the attacks continue at such a pace. The number of fighters the government has claimed it has killed over the past six years is several times the size of Wilayat Sinai, which is estimated to field around 1000 fighters.

"Egyptian security forces tend to inflate their successes and will often attempt to cover up their failures by pointing to puffed up enemy killed statistics," said the Egyptian militant analyst contacted by "I find it incredibly difficult to believe theyʹve killed over half their combat strength."While credible statistics are difficult to come by, fighting in North Sinai this year has been fierce. Between January and June of this year, 120 Egyptian security forces personnel were killed in counter terror related operations, according to open source investigations of Egyptian army and Interior Ministry statements. The majority of those killed were operating in Sinai.

Killing top terrorists ineffective

Sinai 2018 has led to some successes for the Egyptian government, particularly in the targeting of key individuals within Wilayat Sinai. In the video it released on 15 November, the group confirmed the death of its former leader Abu Osama al-Masri in what was likely an air-strike. Al-Masriʹs predecessor, Abu Duaa al-Ansari was killed in August 2016 in an air-strike conducted by Israeli forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Sameh Shukri, Egypt’s foreign minister, give a joint press conference on 12.02.2018 (photo: picture alliance/AP/K. Elfiqi)
Human rights trumped: Western governments supplying arms to Egypt can only benefit from the country doubling down on military force. The U.S. was particularly keen to resume military aid to Egypt, re-starting Operation Bright Star, a major joint military training exercise involving the two countries, in 2017. "Egypt’s human rights record has been swept aside," says Issandr al-Amrani, director of the International Crisis Groupʹs North Africa Project. "Regional stability, countering IS and – in the case of the Europeans – migration mean that human rights issues are not brought up"

"There have been intelligence achievements for the Egyptians in high-level targeting of key leaders of Wilayat Sinai, but the question is what impact does killing the groupʹs leaders really have?" said Zack Gold, an analyst at the Centre for Naval Analyses and an authority on militancy in the Sinai.

"Does killing the top leaders really decapitate the group or affect its long term capacities? I frankly canʹt determine any difference in way the group operates after these killings – why is it still able to lay down roadside IEDs on a near daily basis?" queried Gold.

While Wilayat Sinai is still active in North Sinai, Islamic-State linked jihadists are also staging attacks in the rest of Egypt. A string of attacks, particularly on Christians, have been staged across Egypt and members of IS-linked cells have been arrested across the country.The Egyptian government has tried to show that its approach to Sinai is not purely military. On 8 November, the armed forces detailed a project to build 100 houses in the Sinai desert. However, the army has more often destroyed homes in Sinai than built them. In 2014 thousands of homes were destroyed to construct a 79-square-kilometre security buffer zone on the border with Gaza that included the North Sinai city of Rafah.

"A self-defeating security plan"

Since February of this year, the army has "vastly expanded" the destruction of homes, commercial buildings and farms in the North Sinai, according to Human Rights Watch. "Turning peopleʹs homes into rubble is part of the same self-defeating security plan that has restricted food and movement to inflict pain on Sinai residents," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Egypt’s bloody year in the Sinai also has implications for Western governments that supply large quantities of arms to Egypt, justified as support for counter-terror operations, particularly in Sinai. Since the Trump administration took office, the U.S. in particular has worked more closely with the Egyptian government, said Issandr al-Amrani, director of the International Crisis Groupʹs North Africa Project. The U.S. has resumed military aid to Egypt and re-started Operation Bright Star, a major joint military training exercise held by the two countries.

"When it comes to relations between Western countries and Egypt, Egypt’s human rights record has been swept aside," al-Amrani told "Regional stability, countering IS and – in the case of the Europeans – migration, has meant human rights questions are not brought up."

Critics of the Egyptian governmentʹs approach in Sinai say the latest military campaign amounts to doubling down on military force as the answer, a strategy that has failed in the past and one with a high cost in lives.

"How can repeating the same brute force strategy work this time when it hasnʹt before?" said Mohannad Sabry, a Sinai specialist and the author of "Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gazaʹs Lifeline, Israelʹs Nightmare", a book on the Sinai conflict. "If anything, intensifying conventional military operations is an admission by the Egyptian military that its work over the past five years has yielded nothing," Sabry said.

Most the families of the victims of the Rawdah mosque attack last year have yet to receive the pensions they were promised by the authorities after the massacre, Sabry points out. "Thatʹs a telling example of how the Egyptian regime views any approach other than brute force."

Tom Stevenson

© 2018

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