The Egyptian cabinet approved last week a new anti-terrorism bill as Egypt is fighting its own war on terror in the Sinai Peninsula, where the army has stepped up its security crackdown after the October terrorist attacks in North Sinai. While the US-led coalition fights a war against ISIS, Egypt’s government chooses to battle all terrorist groups.
October 24 saw the deadliest attacks on Egypt’s military in years after at least 30 security personnel were killed. Following the two attacks, President Al-Sisi issued a state of emergency and curfew decree in Sinai for three months.
Egypt called on the international community to support saying its war against terror in Sinai is not separate from the fight waged by the anti-ISIS international coalition.
‘’The military establishment of Egypt is now convinced that it’s time to reconsider the whole strategy of combating terrorism in Sinai’’, hinted Mostafa Elwi Saif, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University.
One major step taken by Egypt’s cabinet in response to the attacks was to create a ‘’buffer zone’’ along the Rafah border, in an attempt to circumvent the smuggling of arms and militants through tunnels from Gaza to Sinai.
Hundreds of houses have been demolished and thousands of residents of the area forcibly transferred to new locations, with Egyptian authorities vowing to provide compensation for the families evacuated. The move is said to enable the army to fight insurgent groups and prevent civilian casualties during these operations.
Eman Ahmed Ragab, Senior Researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, recognized a shift in the military strategy in the wake of October 24.
Happy Tarek, Researcher at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), noted a higher level of military intervention in Sinai with increased security presence on the ground, and rapid intervention forces deployed for the first time.
Last month, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, Egypt’s most active militant group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and claimed responsibility for the October attacks.
According to Ragab, the pledge may be understood in two ways. Ansar may be preparing for a change of strategy that could be similar to that of ISIS in terms of targets and level of violence in their actions. The group may be also seeking logistical support and political backing from ISIS to regain freedom of manoeuvring, and help recruit local youth especially from Bedouin tribes of Sinai.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis could benefit from an affiliation with ISIS in terms of wealth, weaponry and tactical experience to battle the Egyptian army.
Experts say the Islamist group has become the wealthiest terrorist organization in history.
‘’ISIS’ media appeal could be also beneficial to Ansar in attracting more supporters’’, Tarek added referring to the large popularity ISIS has around young potential jihadists.
RCSS researcher suggested that a number of militants linked to Al–Qaeda, unsatisfied with the group’s achievements in the region, defected to ISIS to embrace the more attractive idea to create an Islamic caliphate.
Professor Saif, who’s also former UN expert on arms control issues, is sceptical about speculations that ISIS may be expanding into Egypt.
‘’I don’t think ISIS is likely to find in Egypt a socio-political structure that could give them a foothold here’’, the professor asserted, ‘’ISIS is better off in countries that can be divided along tribal, religious or sectarian lines’’.
Saif explained that, unlike Iraq and Syria, Egypt does not have a diverse Islamic makeup, counting a vast majority of Sunnis and only few thousands of Shiites in the whole country.
He also thinks it would not be easy for ISIS to extend to Egypt where a strong, influential organization like the Muslim Brotherhood has been present since 1928.
Whether ISIS might make it into Egypt or not, the war fought by the international coalition against ISIS in Iraq, Syria or Libya may well have implications for Egypt’s fight against terrorism.
Ragab raised concerns over the international coalition arguing it is only targeting ISIS without including other terrorist organizations like the Brotherhood.
In her view, unless the US is prepared to broaden the campaign to target all terrorist groups in the region, Egypt will keep a cautious attitude, and continue to direct its efforts at combating insurgent movements that are threatening its national security.
Egypt has no plans for direct military action against ISIS as its priority remains security at home. Egyptian officials said the country would tackle extremism by using other means like exchanging information between countries, cutting funding sources and offering a moderate religious discourse.
The senior researcher believes the key moment in the surge of violence in Egypt came after the army’s ouster of President Morsi in July 2013. Militants have increased attacks targeting security forces, particularly in Sinai.
Egypt has launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, jailing thousands of its members and labeling it a terrorist organization.
For Prof. Saif, any campaign against terrorism should not be restricted to ISIS pointing at the list of 83 groups designated terrorist organizations that was released by the United Arab Emirates on November 15. The UAE’s new terrorist list includes groups based in the Arab world as well as in the US and Europe.
‘’The US policy of countering terrorism though its international coalition needs to be significantly revised’’, the political scientist commented, ‘’If this campaign is not oriented against all terrorist groups, that won’t put an end to the terrorist threat’’.
Saif recommended consideration of an anti-terror military alliance discussed by Egypt and the Gulf States last month. He encouraged the establishing of a comprehensive security alliance in the wider region headed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that should extend to countries like Algeria, which could play a vital role on political and military levels.
‘’Such regional coalition will most likely come in the shape of a tactical alliance cooperating in the areas of logistics and capacity-building’’, Ragab anticipated.
Al-Ahram Center’s researcher explained that an ad hoc coalition –as opposed to a multilateral institution- would be the most workable type of cooperation as interests of countries in the Arab region are shifting very quickly, and the perception of security is changing.
Arab nations are believed to have participated in joint military actions already. Egypt and the UAE reportedly cooperated in carrying out airstrikes against Islamist rebels in Libya during the summer.
Libya’s porous and unsecured borders today pose a threat to Egypt amid concerns that fighters and weapons could reach Sinai and contribute to the already unstable situation.
In addition, the Gulf states have provided huge financial aid to Egypt since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian army.
The Egyptian army has been carrying out a major operation against an expanding jihadist insurgency in Sinai. Yet, there’s very little data available to determine to what extent Egypt’s security policy has been successful.
‘’Every day we hear how many terrorists have been killed in Sinai, but it’s not clear which areas are strongholds for terrorist groups and where armed militiamen are still present’’, Al-Ahram Center’s researcher observed.
Prof. Saif, specialized in strategic international relations, argued that Egypt can count on one single army that will stay the strongest institution in the country.
‘’There’s more than one army in Iraq or Syria, in conflict against each other’’, the strategic expert said, ‘’That will never be the case in Egypt’’.
RCSS researcher reminded that Egypt’s military, reputed as one of biggest armies in Middle East, comes from a wide experience in confronting militancy including combating a terrorist wave in the 1990s, and will be ready to respond to these security threats with full support from the Egyptian people.
From monitoring of terrorist activities, RCSS recorded over the past year a decrease in militant attacks across Egypt with less frequent incidents of bombings near security institutions or in civilian areas being reported. However, attacks at military sites or security personnel remain regular in Sinai.
Drawing a comparison with the security situation in Syria and Iraq, Tarek claimed some degree of ‘success’ in Egypt’s military campaign. She stressed that operations against militants are mainly concentrated in the border areas of Sinai, not all over the country, and no extremist group has managed to declare an Islamic State in Egypt.
It is premature to tell if the Egyptian army has succeeded or not in confronting terrorism in Sinai as this battle may well take months or even years.
In Saif’s opinion, Egypt’s military and political institutions should carefully assess October 24 attacks as well as the attacks on navy vessels off Damietta, in November, and treat them as two unprecedented terrorist incidents.
‘’These attacks are new and unfamiliar in their nature’’, the professor underlined, ‘’They should be examined politically, militarily and socially to formulate appropriate response policies, and not dealt with as other attacks’’.
Raghab warned that Egypt is also facing leaderless terrorism where it is unclear who directs militant actions.
‘’The way this pattern of terrorism plays out is unpredictable and complicated’’, she said, ‘’It needs to be monitored in the coming months to see how it will affect Egypt’s security’’.
Besides stepping in with heavy security and military measures, the researcher advised, the Egyptian government should address the economic and cultural conditions that create a fertile ground for extremism.
Analysts in Egypt have claimed that the long-dated underdevelopment of the Sinai peninsula and the lack of opportunities there have made Sinai residents more exposed to falling into the arms of radical groups.
Furthermore, Egypt is expected to play a key role in countering ISIS’s extremist ideology as an intellectual and cultural capital of the Muslim world, and home to Al-Azhar University, the centre of moderate Islamic teaching.
Egyptian security experts warned that the measures taken by the government since the events in October don’t necessarily contribute to fighting terrorism.
There have been reports of Sinai residents being caught in the fight between militants and the military. People in Al-Arish recently revealed to an Egyptian daily paper that explosions are a common occurrence, even under curfew, and expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of the military and the police to secure the area.
Residents have also complained that the behaviour of the security forces is alienating citizens, criticizing the army’s actions such as shelling of schools, mass arrests, random shootings, house demolitions and car inspections.
Egypt faces a security threat in Sinai. How it will manage to confront ISIS or any terror groups will depend on how effective is the counter-terrorism response by the state. The protracted security crackdown, forced relocations, and isolation of local populations in Sinai will soon prove to fail if economic, social and cultural aspects of the response are not tackled.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Majalla among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec