In May 2022, at least 16 Egyptian troops were killed in two separate attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. The attacks were claimed by Wilayat Sinai or Sinai Province (SP), Egypt’s branch of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has been actively conducting assaults on the Egyptian military for the past eight years. The May strikes were the deadliest in recent years, following a period of calm and constant assertions by the Egyptian government that it had defeated terrorism in Sinai. However, the renewal of SP’s aggressions raises many questions about the group’s military capabilities and tactics, about whether Egypt is on the verge of a new wave of attacks, and about the extent to which Egypt’s counterinsurgency strategy is viable or effective.
The Resurgence of Deadly Attacks
On May 7, a spokesperson for the Egyptian military announced that an officer and 10 soldiers were killed in an attack in western Sinai. According to the statement, the Egyptian military “foiled a terrorist attack” at a checkpoint near a water pumping station east of the Suez Canal. A few days later, another attack on a military checkpoint near the city of Rafah in the North Sinai Governorate resulted in the deaths of an officer and four soldiers. However, some reports have suggested that the true number of the victims of the first attack was higher than official figures.
Over the past decade, Sinai has been the epicenter of terrorist attacks in Egypt and the base from which Islamist militants wage their insurgency against the Egyptian government. Their assaults mainly target security forces, including military convoys, checkpoints, and facilities, and have mostly taken place in the cities of northern Sinai, particularly al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah. However, as a result of Egyptian military operations, over the past few years SP’s activities have moved to the western part of North Sinai, notably to the city of Bir al-Abd, which in November 2017 witnessed one of the deadliest extremist attacks in Egypt’s history when SP militants stormed the al-Rawda Mosque, injuring 128 people and killing more than 300, including 27 children.
Despite the decrease in the frequency of attacks in recent years, Islamist militants remain active, and pose a serious threat to Egyptian security in Sinai.
Despite the decrease in the frequency of attacks in recent years, Islamist militants remain active, and pose a serious threat to Egyptian security in Sinai. This is made clear by the fact that the attack on May 7 was among the deadliest conducted against the Egyptian military in the past two years, and that it targeted a civilian facility. Islamist militants tend to target military and security facilities and personnel, and generally eschew civilian targets in order to avoid backlash from local residents. However, their newer targeting of civilians and non-military governmental facilities constitutes a dangerous development in their tactics.
The fact that the attack took place far from SP’s usual battlefield is also very significant, since the group’s incursion into areas that are under the administrative jurisdiction of Egypt’s heartland governorates, such as Ismailia and Port Said, raises the dangerous prospect of their conducting more attacks in Egypt’s mainland in the future.
Most importantly, the May 7 assault took place close to the eastern edge of the Suez Canal, which is arguably the world’s most important shipping route. This proximity increases fears of threats to international trade, and raises questions about Egypt’s ability to maintain the safety and security of ships that use the canal.
Insurgent Fighting Tactics
Over the past few years, Islamist militants have developed their strategies, capacities, and tactics in their fight against Egypt’s military and security forces, as well as against civilians who collaborate with the Egyptian Army. Since pledging allegiance to IS in November 2014, SP has intensified its attacks against the Egyptian military and police. Although the numbers of dead and injured among both the militants and Egyptian forces are often contested, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has claimed that since 2013, more than 3,000 military and police personnel have been killed in the fight against terrorism, while more than 12,000 have been injured. Sisi also stated that since 2013, the Egyptian Army has spent more than 80 billion Egyptian pounds— equivalent to more than four billion US dollars—fighting the insurgency.
These numbers reflect the ferocity of Egypt’s war on terrorism, and also reveal a significant improvement in SP’s fighting tactics and military capabilities. The group’s military strength is unprecedented and unmatched in Egypt’s history of insurgencies, which stretches back to the 1950s. The group employs two methods of warfare: The first is what Omar Ashour calls “urban terrorism,” which includes attacks in cities and towns using a combination of car bombs, suicide bombings, and targeted assassinations. The second is guerrilla warfare using mobile units that employ hit-and-run tactics against military and security forces targets. These tactics have enabled the militants to engage in an asymmetrical war against the Egyptian military, which seems to lack experience in dealing with these types of tactics, and which itself relies on more conventional military strategies.
SP has also attempted to replicate some of the tactics that IS has deployed in Syria and Iraq, such as seizing land and territory.
Furthermore, SP has also attempted to replicate some of the tactics that IS has deployed in Syria and Iraq, such as seizing land and territory. For example, on July 1, 2015, the group carried out a highly complex and sophisticated operation consisting of coordinated attacks on more than 15 security checkpoints across North Sinai, and especially in the city of Sheikh Zuweid. The onslaught was part of an attempt to seize the city, which it briefly accomplished before the Egyptian military regained control. Again, in July 2020, SP seized control of four villages just to the west of Bir al-Abd, which led to a major standoff with the Egyptian Army.
Islamist militants also regularly target civilians, particularly those belonging to Sinai tribes that they suspect of collaborating with the Egyptian Army. For example, in April 2021, SP kidnapped 14 men from the al-Dawaghra tribe, known for its close ties with security forces in North Sinai. The following June, it kidnapped another five civilians in Bir al-Abd, alleging that they were collaborating with the army. Similarly, the group executed two Bedouin tribesmen in the southern part of Bir al-Abd, accusing them of collaboration with security forces. Several human rights organizations have documented the crimes committed by insurgents against civilians in Sinai. A report published by Human Rights Watch points out that, “Sinai Province’s indiscriminate attacks, such as using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas, have killed hundreds of civilians and led to forced displacement of local residents.”
The quality and sophistication of the militants’ operations also raise questions about their intelligence capabilities and the extent to which they might be able to infiltrate the Egyptian Army. For example, the May 7 attack targeted a facility whose location was undisclosed, and that was under the highest possible protection. In addition, over the past several years, SP has targeted several high-profile military and security officers, succeeding in killing them despite substantial security protection and efforts to keep their location in Sinai a secret.
Finally, SP seems to be adopting the tactic of attrition in its fight against the Egyptian military. Failing to capture territory, control cities, or seize villages, its fighters seek to exhaust the Egyptian Armed Forces, terrify its soldiers, and deter local residents who collaborate with them. The tactic seems to be working in their favor so far.
A Failed Response
Over the past decade, the Egyptian military has conducted several counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai Peninsula in order to get rid of Islamist militants. However, these operations have met with very little success, which raises several questions about the viability of the government’s strategy, as well as its ability to maintain security and stability in Sinai.
The Egyptian military’s operations have met with very little success, which raises several questions about the viability of the government’s strategy, as well as its ability to maintain security and stability in Sinai.
The Egyptian Armed Forces’ first major military counterterrorism campaign in Sinai was launched after the 2011 Egyptian uprising, and following a rise in Islamist militant activities in the peninsula. The campaign, dubbed Operation Eagle, began in August 2011 under the supervision of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt’s caretaker government following the uprising. The Egyptian military deployed roughly 1,000 troops and hundreds of armored personnel carriers in North Sinai. This represented the first major deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, thus marking a substantial change in the military and security situation in Sinai.
A second phase of Operation Eagle occurred under late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, after a major attack on the Egyptian military in Rafah on August 5, 2012 left 15 soldiers dead. Following the attack, President Morsi ordered Egyptian security forces to take complete control of the Sinai Peninsula and declared three days of national mourning to honor the fallen soldiers. The Egyptian Army then resumed the operation, killing 11 terrorists and capturing 23, according to military officials at the time.
Two months after the aforementioned July 1, 2015 attack on more than 15 military and security facilities and attempt to capture the city of Sheikh Zuweid, the Egyptian military conducted another major operation in northern Sinai called Operation Martyr’s Right, which aimed at “rooting out and killing ‘terrorists’ since July’s immediate response to militant attacks.” The campaign consisted of multiple stages totaling 514 individual operations that reportedly killed 3,163 insurgents.
On February 9, 2018, a few months after the attack on al-Rawda Mosque, the Egyptian Army launched its third major military campaign against Islamist militants. Dubbed Operation Sinai, the campaign was described by Egyptian officials as a comprehensive campaign carried out across the country that sought to confront “terrorist and criminal elements and organizations,” and to “protect Egyptian society from the evils of terrorism and extremism, while also confronting other crimes that affect internal security and stability.” The operation was carried out on a large scale, involving land, naval, and air forces, as well as police and border guards, not only in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the Nile and Delta Valleys and the Western Desert as well. According to Egyptian officials, in 2018, the government deployed 88 battalions comprising 42,000 soldiers, up from 41 battalions and 25,000 soldiers the previous year.
Four key points demonstrate the weaknesses of these military operations and explain their poor results. First, these operations were no more than a retaliatory act of revenge, rather than forming part of a preemptive strategy to prevent future attacks. This hasty and emotionally charged response therefore fails to provide a sustainable solution to the situation in Sinai.
This failure to bring militants to justice fuels theories about the Sisi regime’s political interest in prolonging the conflict in Sinai, which may serve to secure domestic political support.
Second, most of Egypt’s military operations failed to capture insurgents or their leaders so as to try them for their crimes. This failure to bring militants to justice fuels theories about the Sisi regime’s political interest in prolonging the conflict in Sinai, which may serve to secure domestic political support among those who see the regime as a protector, and to bolster its legitimacy on the international stage, where Egypt can present itself as a crucial bulwark against regional destabilization.
Third, the Egyptian government deploys violence indiscriminately in Sinai. Its military operations often cause horrible collateral damage among the Bedouin and other local residents. Several human rights organizations have spoken of the Egyptian military’s crimes in Sinai. According to Human Rights Watch, “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.” Moreover, the government’s use of aerial bombardment and heavy artillery causes significant harm to the residents of Sinai.
Finally, and most importantly, the Egyptian Army’s ability to engage in guerrilla warfare is highly questionable. Despite its massive number of conscripts and its military capabilities, Egypt has a conventional army that is neither trained nor equipped to confront guerrillas and conduct asymmetrical warfare.
Revising Egypt’s Counterinsurgency Strategy
Despite Egypt’s major military operations, Islamist insurgents’ attacks pose a serious security challenge to the Egyptian government. They also reveal the weakness and failures of Egypt’s counterinsurgency strategy in the Sinai Peninsula. While it is true that the number of attacks has fallen over the past couple of years, Islamist militants have proven that they are still able to launch deadly attacks against both civilians and the Egyptian military. There is therefore an urgent need for the Egyptian government to rethink and revise its counterinsurgency tactics and strategy in order to prevent further bloodshed in Sinai.
There is an urgent need for the Egyptian government to rethink and revise its counterinsurgency tactics and strategy in order to prevent further bloodshed in Sinai.
In order to succeed, such a revision should be based on several key factors. First, any counterinsurgency strategy should genuinely address the economic, social, and political root causes of terrorism in Sinai and the rest of the country. Adopting a single-minded military response has proven insufficient and ineffective at eliminating the threat of terrorism in Sinai and elsewhere, and has in fact exacerbated the situation in Sinai.
Second, any counterinsurgency strategy should take into account the local residents in Sinai and uphold their basic human rights. The fact that some of the military operations in Sinai damage the livelihood of residents effectively alienates them and provides extremists with fertile ground for recruitment and mobilization against the Egyptian state. The government should therefore hold accountable military officers who violate human rights in Sinai.
Third, instead of using its war on terror as a tool to draw political support domestically or abroad, the Egyptian government should take action to protect both its soldiers and civilians from militants’ attacks, including dismissing military leaders who are responsible for the protracted failure in Sinai.
Finally, fighting terrorism is not only the government’s responsibility, but is a burden that should be borne by society as a whole. There is therefore a significant need for more political openness and freedom, which could rally Egyptian society behind its government in support of its fight against terrorism. Unless it addresses these issues, Egypt will remain locked in a vicious circle, continually fighting terrorism without achieving any real success.