Egyptian security forces have largely managed to eradicate terrorist groups that once plagued the country and have mostly prevented Islamic State (IS) affiliated fighters from infiltrating the country’s mainland from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Islamic State-Sinai Province (IS-SP) remains active and the Egyptian military’s strategy of containment will continue to prove costly from multiple perspectives.
IS-SP has only managed to launch attacks on the country’s mainland intermittently over the past several years, but the group remains significantly active across a large portion of territory stretching from close to the Suez Canal in the west to near the Gaza border to the east. This year, however, has seen a notable increase in attacks near Bir al-Abd, along the peninsula’s northern coast routes to the Suez Canal.
The nearly 100 attacks claimed by IS-SP since the beginning of 2020 have highlighted the group’s continued capabilities and the challenges faced by the Egyptian armed forces, despite the Egyptian forces’ regular claims of successful operations against the militants.
Among the most significant and costly challenges are the disconnect between the military command in Cairo and the field commanders from the 2nd and 3rd Field Armies responsible for the operations on the ground in Sinai, and the largely reactive nature of military operations. Most recently, on July 21, the government claimed to have killed 18 IS-SP fighters and destroyed several explosive devices after the group launched an attack on a military outpost in Bir al-Abd that killed two Egyptian soldiers. IS-SP, however, claimed the operation killed 100 Egyptian military personnel. Many similar claims of operational successes and the death of IS-SP fighters follow the same pattern in which IS-SP conducts an attack that prompts retaliatory operations by Egyptian forces, with significant disparities between casualty claims.
This reactive containment strategy has allowed the group significant freedom of movement and has contributed to the frequent loss of Egyptian soldiers, including senior military officers such as Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Shahata Abd al-Maqsoud and Brigadier General Mostafa Abido, who were killed by bombings in February near Sheikh Zuweid and Bir al-Abd, respectively (al-Araby, February 25).
Meanwhile, the Egyptian armed forces’ lack of a full-scale military operation since Comprehensive Operation Sinai in 2018 and failure to engage in a more holistic approach has led them to increasingly rely on the Sinai Tribal Union—which includes the Tarabin and Sawarka tribes, among others—to provide some of the more proactive measures to combat IS-SP. These measures include a deal that incentivizes tribal elders to turn in tribal members who are fighting alongside IS-SP in exchange for those members’ amnesty upon interrogation by Egyptian officials (Al-Monitor, June 16). This reliance on the Sinai Tribal Union has increasingly led to kidnappings and violent attacks on tribal members and civilians, including an attack on the Abou Tawila village just east of the town of Sheikh Zuwayed that killed three Tarabin tribe members on July 6 (Mada Masr, July 15).
The strategy of containment, the reactive nature of military operations, and a lack of flexibility for field commanders will continue to provide IS-SP with the operational space needed to wage a prolonged insurgency, despite more concerted attempts to cut off its supply, finance, and recruitment lines. The reliance on local tribes—while important to stem recruitment, gain vital intelligence and provide more persistent armed resistance—will increasingly lead to attacks on civilians and could disincentivize future cooperation if the government does not fulfill its role in providing more effective security.