The head of Egypt’s State Information Service, Abdel Sadek, enjoys jumping to conclusions. Mr. Sadek, for instance, blames the Tom and Jerry cartoon for the rise of extremism in Egypt because it “portrays the violence in a funny manner… It becomes set in mind that this is natural.” That such a high-ranking official in the Egyptian security forces links a children’s cartoon to terrorism reveals much of what is wrong with Egypt’s counterterrorism policy.

However, a cartoon is the least of Egypt’s problems.  Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s current scorched-earth policy of destroying insurgent holdings, leveling villages, and violating Egyptians’ basic rights will only sever ties between the government and locals while offering little strategic value. Rather, Egyptian counterterrorism policies benefit extremists more as these groups are able to defend their actions and claim that once the West and its puppet regimes are destroyed, the Middle East will be better off. President Sisi must shift away from his current policy to instead cooperate with local tribes, reform security forces, and improve opportunities for Egyptians to cut off support to insurgents. In order to ensure the success of Egypt’s operations, the US should assist through joint military training exercises and more bilateral military exchanges.

Fig. 1: Sinai Conflict Map
Source: DiscoverSinai

Excluded from Egypt, Included by ISNS

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gained power in 2013 after leading a coup against Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected president in modern Egypt. During the coup, thousands of dissidents were killed or detained, most of which were supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. As president, Sisi declared a war on terror and utilized this declaration as an excuse for his repressive policies, especially in the Sinai region.

Although Sisi’s war on terror has focused on North Sinai, violence in Sinai existed before the emergence of ISIS. The Bedouins, the region’s native people, face political and economic marginalization by the Egyptian government, which allows insurgents to thrive. The Bedouins are treated as second class citizens. They are excluded from participation in the military, police, holding government positions, or creating their own political parties. Although a third of Egypt’s revenue comes from tourism, the Bedouin are excluded from the tourism industry in the Sinai because none of the business owners are willing to accept Bedouin workers. The first Bedouin tribes in the Sinai functioned independent of any structured legal or political institutions in Egypt. However, the oppression began when the Sinai was divided between British Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in 1906, and the Egyptian government framed the Bedouin as conspirators against the government.

It is also beneficial to the insurgents that the Bedouin share closer cultural ties to the Levant and Arabian peninsula compared to the Egyptian population and government. The Bedouin were also angered by the coup in 2013 because Morsi had promised a new start in Sinai’s relationship with the government and had encouraged the region’s development. All progress was lost due to Sisi’s ousting of Morsi, turning Bedouin tribes against the government.

After the ousting of Morsi, sympathetic Bedouin aided militants launching attacks on military and police checkpoints in North Sinai. Mohamed, a fundamentalist sheik in North Sinai who asked for his last name not to be revealed for security purposes, explained, “people here have gotten some freedoms, and they will not allow those to be taken away now.” Bedouin leaders noted that the militants are a minority, but fear that more people will be impacted by the military’s crackdown that has escalated the conflict.

Too Many to Count

Al Wilayat Sinai (WS), also known as ISIS in Sinai (ISNS), is a terrorist group that arose from grievances held by the people of Sinai against the Egyptian government. Although estimated to only have around 1,000 members, WS is the most powerful jihadist group in Egypt. Many of the group’s members have military or paramilitary experience, boosting the group’s operational capabilities. WS has also claimed credit for attacks on international targets, including an attack on a Korean tourist bus, the bombing of Italy’s consulate, and the destruction of a Russian aircraft. The international attacks perpetrated by WS are aligned with the tactics of the Islamic State, but the group has also focused its efforts on weakening the Egyptian tourism industry. WS has claimed credit for around 800 out of more than 1,700 terrorist attacks since 2013 in Egypt.

Sisi’s crackdown on jihadist groups in Sinai have exacerbated the growth of Al Wilayat Sinai. Sisi’s counterproductive tactics of treating Sinai citizens as ISNS sympathizers, including mass arrests, destruction of homes, imposing curfews, and communication cuts, have disrupted the lives of local tribes in Sinai and angered the local population. As part of its counterterrorism efforts, the Egyptian military has leveled over 2,000 homes and has displaced hundreds of families without providing any form of compensation.

In response to the government crackdown, ISNS has widened its circle of support to include moderate and radical Islamists suspicious of the government. ISNS has also won approval among locals by setting up informal courts with self-styled clerics because locals in Sinai do not trust corrupt Egyptian state courts.

What adds to the complexity is that ISNS is not the only jihadist group in Sinai. After ISNS attacked a mosque and killed more than 300 people in November 2017, smaller militant factions distanced themselves from ISNS and condemned the attack. Jund al-Islam and Anar al-Islam are just two examples of jihadist groups that are closely aligned with al-Qaeda and regarded to be more moderate than ISNS. The Hasm movement, founded by a former council member for the Muslim Brotherhood, is another more sectarian militant group that targets security forces. Its moderate religious views and national focus have allowed the Hasm movement to appeal to a broader base. These smaller insurgent groups cannot be ignored when considering how to improve counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in Egypt.

Misguided Strategies

Egypt has intensified its use of conventional warfare tactics to combat the insurgency — President Sisi is channeling most of US aid into military equipment that are not particularly effective against jihadists. Charles Lister, expert on jihadism at the Middle East Institute, explained that Sisi’s use of tanks, jets, and other forms of heavy firepower has prevented ISNS from gaining ground, but it is not the proper counterinsurgency tactic to eradicate ISNS.

For example, Egyptian security forces’ treatment of Bedouin as collaborators of jihadist groups only amplifies negative sentiment and reduces cooperation with locals, tipping the balance in favor of the insurgents. Following an attack, the Egyptian military has destroyed homes, livestock, and water wells to punish local tribe members for not warning the security services. However, when a local does try to report information related to a terrorist attack, the local is typically detained for security screenings. Arrested individuals disappear for months and sometimes years — Egyptian police stations are often referred to pejoratively as “homes for the living dead” because those who are detained are often never seen again. If Egyptian security services wish to claim victory against these groups, they must first repair their ties with local communities in Sinai to receive valuable information on insurgent activity.

Rebuilding Relations

It will be impossible to combat insurgents, especially in remote areas, without the cooperation of the Bedouin and local villagers. Bedouin tribes have intimate and detailed knowledge of Sinai’s geography, a key asset in any counterinsurgency operation. The Egyptian military must end its dependency on aggressive military force; otherwise, ISNS will expand its recruitment pool from discontented areas that have been adversely affected by the fighting. The Egyptian government must build sustainable relationships with locals in the Sinai region to ensure that insurgent activity is suppressed. Sisi can disrupt the relationship between the Bedouin and insurgents by ensuring economic and political progress for the Bedouin.

Rather than burning and destroying villages, Sisi must provide aid and infrastructure to Sinai communities through the creation of schools, distribution of food, and medical treatment to improve the military’s reputation in the region. Such a strategy would be particularly effective because ISNS primarily targets unemployed youth who hold anti-government sentiment, and with Egypt’s youth unemployment rate at 31.3 percent, ISNS has an abundance of potential recruits.

The Egyptian government had previously promised compensation for the loss of life, livelihood, and property during military and police operations in the Sinai, but these promises were never kept. Sisi must deliver on policies such as compensation and economic development in order to win over Sinai citizens. Improving ties with locals will increase the likelihood that civilian information regarding insurgent movements are shared with Egyptian security forces. Shoring up support for the Egyptian government will help sustain the military’s ongoing campaign against terrorist and insurgent networks.

Reforming Security Forces

In order to have any form of relationship with the Bedouin, however, Egyptian security forces must provide an adequate level of safety to civilians. Currently, Egyptian security forces rely on conscripts to fill its ranks, leading to poorly-trained and ill-equipped soldiers. Egypt has lost more than 1,000 security personnel since 2013. Some forces even periodically go on strike to protest their treatment. They are paid only slightly more than the minimum wage. Due to their poor reputation, ISNS regards the CSF as the “soft underbelly of the Egyptian forces.” ISNS has no problem passing through the lightly-defended CSF checkpoints and attacking the CSF’s unarmored light trucks and jeeps.

Many of the challenges facing Egyptian security forces are similar to the security issues that US troops faced in Afghanistan. It would be beneficial for the US to share counterterrorism and counterinsurgency lessons from its experiences in the Middle Eastern theatre and provide better technical support to train Egyptian security forces. The US should provide advice and training for better-trained security forces. Some proposals President Sisi has discussed include countering IEDs and other tools of insurgency, establishing a brand new unit for rapid response, expanding counter-terrorism training, and raising the professional standards of the police by sending them abroad for training.

Although ISIS territory has been shrinking dramatically in Syria, if left unchecked, Al Wilayat Sinai could offer more opportunities for ISIS to carry out large operations in the Middle East and increase the political instability in Egypt. The current insurgency is the strongest armed organisation in Egypt’s modern history, and attacks have become more intense and violent. The violence has resulted in more than 400,000 residents of Sinai in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Featured Image Source: Reuters

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