Egypt: Danger in the Sinai

Jihadists on the march.

When Egypt’s long-time President Hosni Mubarak fell to the throes of the people in 2011, one of his crony institutions to also collapse was the Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla, Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, responsible for security in the Sinai Peninsula. Already a weak link in the Egyptian security chain, Sinai has since become a semiautonomous zone, proliferated with Salafi-Jihadist groups, Bedouin militias, militant members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda.

To plug the security vacuum in Sinai, Egypt and Israel have made bilateral, de facto modifications to their 1979 peace treaty which imposed strict limitations on the number of soldiers, type of weapons, and areas within Sinai where Egypt could deploy its forces. The agreement has permitted a greater number of heavily-armed Egyptian military forces into much of Sinai, resulting in a large-scale crackdown on the insurgency. However, Egypt’s counterinsurgency effort has neglected any population-centric initiatives, which is resulting in casualties in the indigenous Bedouin communities. Egypt has failed to understand that insurgencies promote fragility—they grow stronger from chaos. Through the use of brute force, Egypt is actually fueling the fire of extremism in Sinai, where Bedouin support for extremists is growing.

Projecting sovereignty across its entire territory is not a new problem for Egypt, but the revolution of 2011 and the coup d'état in 2013 have hastened Egypt’s need to quell the unrest. For Egypt to regain control of Sinai, at least to the level that it existed prior to the revolution, it is important to understand the changing dynamics of Sinai, and how this is impacting security in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood

With the former head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, almost certain to be elected as Egypt’s next president, his main priority once in power will be to suppress the current wave of Islamist anger, which Egypt claims is being led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider the current government as illegitimate following the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013. However, the recent bombings, which have swept through Cairo and other cities, have largely been carried out by Sinai’s most active militant group—Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the jihadist group has claimed responsibility for a host of terrorist attacks since the revolution of 2011, yet the Egyptian government has shifted the blame for the attacks and ensuing chaos onto the Muslim Brotherhood. While this move has worked politically to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood, it is foolhardy for Egypt to heighten the perceived threat of the Brotherhood, while lessening that of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, especially when there have been allegations of financial and military cooperation between the groups.

Sinai’s ‘Accidental Guerrilla’

Sinai’s harsh and sparsely populated terrain, along with a lack of state governance, has provided the necessary conditions for Salafi-Jihadist groups to build alliances with local Bedouin communities who have been largely neglected by Egypt’s government. Labeled as the ‘Accidental Guerrilla’ syndrome by David Kilcullen, Salafi-Jihadist groups have moved into Sinai, infecting local Bedouin communities with their extremist ideology, before spreading their influence and violence to mainland Egypt, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. This contagion effect has prompted a heavy-handed intervention by Egyptian forces as noted previously, which has been rejected by Bedouin communities who view their actions as a foreign invasion. Many Bedouin have now become ‘accidental guerrillas’, fighting alongside Salafist groups not necessarily because they support their ideology but because they oppose outside interference in their affairs.

The accidental guerrilla syndrome has enabled extremist groups, including many foreign jihadists, to use Sinai as a launch pad for attacks on mainland Egypt. Extremists in Sinai have been conducting a decentralized operation, with low barriers to entry where new clusters of extremists can come and go as they please. As noted by John Robb in his book Brave New War, Sinai’s dynamics are similar to that of a bazaar, where extremist groups cooperate to share resources, intelligence and funds. As a result, Sinai is rapidly becoming a global hub for terrorist activities; its bazaar dynamics enable extremists to manufacture frequent, small-scale attacks designed to hurt the Egyptian economy. By disrupting Egypt’s gas and tourism industries through the bombing of a pipeline delivering gas to Jordan, and the deadly bomb attack on a tourist bus in Sinai; extremists in Sinai are maximizing economic attrition, which they hope will delegitimize the Egyptian government as it creates a situation where it is the government who becomes responsible for Egypt’s economic failures. If Abdel Fattah el-Sisi fails to halt the attacks on Egypt’s economy, then it may not be too long before Tahrir Square is once again filled with demonstrators demanding change.

The Gaza Strip