Egypt’s Counterterrorism Strategy in Sinai: Challenges and Failures

Egypt has been fighting terrorism and an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula for the past decade and a half with no sign of a decisive victory. Although the Egyptian military has conducted several military operations against radicals and extremists, it has not been able to eliminate or defeat them. Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy, particularly in Sinai, is flawed and counterproductive. Instead of eliminating and rooting out terrorism, it has created fertile ground for radical and militant groups to thrive, recruit new members, and intensify their attacks against the Egyptian military and security forces as well as civilians. This has led to the loss of thousands of lives and created instability in Sinai.

Sinai’s Dilemma

The Sinai Peninsula spans approximately 23,000 square miles and constitutes 6 percent of Egypt’s total land area. It has a small population of 550,000—out of Egypt’s total population of 100 million—and most of them (around 434,000) live in North Sinai where the insurgency is active, particularly in the cities of El-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Bir al-Abed. The population of North Sinai is composed of a complex mix of tribes and families in which Bedouins represent about 70 percent of the total population. The rest includes residents of Palestinian origin, migrants from Egypt’s mainland, and a mix of Bosnians, Turks, and other ethnicities who settled in Al-Arish during the Ottoman era (10 percent).

Over the past decades, the North Sinai region has suffered from a number of political, economic, social, and development problems. Issues of marginalization, unemployment, poor governance, poverty and, most recently, repression and displacement have alienated the Bedouin and other residents of Sinai and increased their grievances. According to some reports, the Sinai region has one of Egypt’s highest unemployment rates, with less than 50 percent of its people employed. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, poverty in Sinai reached 38.4 percent in 2018. In addition, about 70 percent of Sinai’s population does not have access to water. These problems have been largely ignored by the central government in Cairo.

Over the past decades, the North Sinai region has suffered from a number of political, economic, social, and development problems.

Furthermore, the Egyptian government has always perceived Sinai as a security threat and dealt with the Bedouin population with suspicion, treating them as second-class citizens. For decades, the Bedouin have been accused of collaborating with Israel, particularly after its occupation of Sinai in 1967, and hence, they are perceived as not trustworthy. In fact, most of the Bedouin do not hold Egyptian citizenship and have not been politically represented until recently. In addition, they are not allowed to join the army, the police, and military academies or to hold senior positions in the government. Securitizing the government’s problems with the Bedouin has turned Sinai into a security dilemma and a headache for all Egyptian administrations. Neither of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak or Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has tackled the root causes of this dilemma. In fact the opposite has been true: their harsh and brutal policies against the Bedouin and the residents of Sinai have alienated these populations. This has enabled militant groups to thrive, recruit followers, and expand their activities and influence all over the North Sinai region.

The Roots of Sinai’s Insurgency

The problem of terrorism and insurgency in Sinai has lingered for years. It began under the Mubarak regime when militant Islamists conducted a series of deadly attacks in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Dahab and in the South Sinai Governorate during 2004-2006, killing and wounding hundreds of people (and particularly foreign tourists who were visiting these cities). The attacks were carried out by a radical group called al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (Unification and Struggle) whose members included Bedouin and men of Palestinian origin in North Sinai, specifically Al-Arish district. These attacks ushered a new era of insurgency and terrorism that Egypt has never experienced before, even at the height of the terrorism wave in the 1980s and 1990s. Mubarak’s security policy in confronting militants in Sinai exacerbated the problem and created grievances among the Bedouin and local residents. For example, following these attacks, the security forces arrested thousands of the Bedouin and the Sinai residents, including women and children. The regime used them as “a bargaining chip to secure the surrender of the male tribal member—an unforgivable and unforgettable violation of tribal traditions.” While Mubarak’s security forces arrested and killed some of the leaders of the al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad group, other members remained at large and sought revenge from the regime.

After the uprising of 2011, radicals and extremists in Sinai regrouped and established different networks such as the well-known Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) group. Between February 2011 and June 2013, ABM conducted attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli border and targeted the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel several times. However, after the coup of 2013, ABM began targeting Egyptian military and security forces not only in Sinai but also in Egypt’s mainland. For example, on December 24, 2013, the group bombed the police headquarters in Cairo, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than a hundred others.

February 2011 and June 2013, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) conducted attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli border and targeted the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel several times.

In November 2014, ABM joined the Islamic State (IS), gave allegiance to former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and changed its name to Wilayat Sina. Over the past seven years, Wilayat Sina has carried out several deadly and massive attacks against the Egyptian army, security forces, and civilians which claimed the lives of thousands of people. For example, in October 2015 the group claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian airplane, which killed all 224 people aboard. It also attacked Al-Rawdah mosque in the city of Bir al-Abed, killing more than 300 people in November 2017. Moreover, media reports claim that Wilayat Sina controls five towns in Bir al-Abed’s vicinity—Rabaa, Katiya, Aktiya, Janayen, and Merih. If true, it would be a dramatic shift in the group’s tactics that would pose a serious challenge to the Egyptian government and its western allies. For its part, according to some reports, the Egyptian military and security forces have killed over 7,000 militants and arrested around 27,000 as of a year ago.

Egypt’s Counterterrorism Strategy

Since he assumed power in 2014, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi adopted a heavily militarized strategy in dealing with the insurgency in Sinai. Its aim was to eliminate the activities of militant groups, particularly Wilayat Sina, and uproot the insurgency from the peninsula. To achieve this, the Egyptian military conducted military operations in the cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and Al-Arish. These operations followed three phases: the first began in October 2014 after Sisi declared a state of emergency in northeastern Sinai that included Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish, and many villages on the Egyptian border with Gaza. The operation focused on the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, where the Egyptian military attempted to eliminate the militants’ activities there by creating a buffer zone of 1,000 meters on the Gaza-Rafah border. This military operation led to the destruction of more than 1,500 homes, the razing of hundreds of hectares of farmland, and the forced and illegal displacement of around 3,200 families of Bedouin and residents of both cities.

The second phase started on September 3, 2015 after Wilayat Sina launched a major attack using a Kornet missile attack on a navy ship. On September 7, 2015, Sisi’s regime started another military operation called “The Martyr’s Right,” described by the Egyptian media as the “largest and most comprehensive operation aimed at rooting out and killing ‘terrorists’.” As Egypt’s media amplified the operation and praised its success in eliminating the insurgency in Sinai, Wilayat Sina intensified its attacks against the Egyptian military and security forces, which resulted in the killing of hundreds of officers and civilians over the following years.

Recently, the Sisi government changed its tactics in fighting the insurgency in Sinai. In addition to the military offensive, it attempted to attract and co-opt some of the tribal leaders in order to fight alongside the Egyptian army.

Phase three began in February 2018 when the Egyptian army launched a “comprehensive military campaign,” dubbed “Operation Sinai 2018,” that aimed to “purge the country of terrorists.” Recently, the Sisi government changed its tactics in fighting the insurgency in Sinai. In addition to the military offensive, it attempted to attract and co-opt some of the tribal leaders in order to fight alongside the Egyptian army. Some media reports pointed to an agreement between the Egyptian army and some of the elder leaders of the Tarabin, Swarka, and Rumailat tribes. However, while the Egyptian government claims that the current campaign has weakened and eliminated the insurgency in Sinai, the reality on the ground does not support that claim. Over the past two years, not only has Wilayat Sinai conducted sophisticated attacks against the military and police forces but it also extended its activities to other areas such as Bir al-Abed and the surrounding villages. Moreover, it has acquired more advanced equipment and developed its guerrilla war tactics.  As Omar Ashour states, “the Sinai insurgency has grown from mainly an urban terrorism campaign of bombing soft targets … to a structured, low-to-mid level insurgency, aiming primarily for ‘hard’ targets.”

A Failed Strategy?

Egypt has been fighting terrorism in Sinai for many years with no sign of an end or of a decisive success. Therefore, some analysts argue that Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy has been focusing on containing the insurgency in Sinai rather than eradicating and uprooting it.

Despite the fact that the problem of terrorism in the peninsula began during Mubarak’s era, it has worsened under Sisi’s regime for many reasons. First, Sisi adopted a highly security-oriented strategy in fighting the insurgency without acknowledging the political, social, and economic aspects of the situation in Sinai. His counterinsurgency policies have exacerbated the challenges there and created many other problems. Second, this strategy is largely driven by revenge, collective punishment, and a pressing desire to achieve quick success against the repeated attacks of Wilayat Sina, instead of being based on a long-term vision that seeks to tackle the root causes of the Sinai problem. Third, the Egyptian military and security forces have committed grave human rights violations against the Bedouin and other Sinai residents, and these policies have fueled alienation and rage. According to a detailed and comprehensive report by Human Rights Watch, “the Egyptian military and police have carried out systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests—including of children—enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, and forced evictions” in Sinai. Fourth, the displacement of thousands of the Bedouin and local residents in Sinai has increased their grievances and radicalized some of them, spurring many to join militant groups in order to take revenge against the regime. Finally, using tribes in the fight against the insurgency has created many problems as some of their members are regularly kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the militants.

The Egyptian military and security forces have committed grave human rights violations against the Bedouin and other Sinai residents, and these policies have fueled alienation and rage.

Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy in Sinai has failed miserably in eliminating the danger of terrorism. In fact, it has been proven to be counterproductive and has deepened the serious and dangerous situation in Sinai instead of resolving it. This raises many questions about the competence of Sisi’s government and its ability to fight terrorism effectively.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about him, click here.