The horrific massacre of over 300 Egyptian civilians, almost certainly by the Islamic State, last week serves as a stark reminder of the dangers posed by jihadi activity in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate — and of the Egyptian government’s own efforts to restore control.
As in previous moments of national shock and mourning, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised after the attack that the martyrs will be avenged with “brute force.” Sisi received support from U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted that such evil must be defeated “militarily.”
Such a strategy won’t bring peace to Sinai, nor forestall further terror attacks elsewhere in the country. A congressionally mandated study that I recently helped conduct with CNA’s Center for Stability and Development concluded that military efforts won’t defeat jihadi groups like the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai. Sisi’s strategy is liable to only worsen North Sinai’s status as a breeding ground for al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the next generation of global jihadis.
Egypt has a longstanding problem with jihadis in North Sinai, and its approach to the region can be described as nothing less than brute force back to at least 2013, when then-Defense Minister Sisi declared a war on terror. In the four years since, the Egyptian government claimed to have killed almost 2,500 terrorists in North Sinai, according to numbers collected by the Tahrir Institute. Unofficial counts put that figure even higher. The military has put whole cities on lockdown during multiweek operations, and it used to measure success in the number of huts it burned down in the region.
Egypt has had some success in disrupting the Islamic State in Sinai, but the group still manages to carry out near-daily attacks against soldiers, police, and civilians. Estimates of jihadi fighters in North Sinai have been relatively stable for a number of years — between several hundred and 1,500 — and if official Egyptian figures are accurate, the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is growing.
Sinai’s security vulnerabilities underscore why a military-only solution will continue to be ineffective at quelling jihadism in the peninsula. In our study, we identified seven security vulnerabilities common to countries or regions where al Qaeda and its affiliates are active. They are internal conflict, a history of violent jihadism, collapse or partial collapse of the central government, perceived government illegitimacy, demographic instabilities, security sector ineffectiveness, and a neighboring state in crisis. Most of the areas we studied suffered from six of these vulnerabilities — as does North Sinai.
The only identified vulnerability that has been overcome in Sinai is state collapse — though it was the partial collapse of Egypt’s central government in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that provided the primary opening for North Sinai’s current insurgency. The Interior Ministry, which previously maintained a stranglehold on Sinai, crumbled during the revolt. In mysterious prison breaks across the country — blamed variously on the Muslim Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and general mayhem — over 23,000 criminals escaped, and many hardened jihadis fled to the safe haven of North Sinai.
The internal security forces’ collapse was driven by their perceived illegitimacy and abuse of power in Sinai and throughout Egypt. As journalist Mohannad Sabry documented vividly in his book on the region, the population of Sinai sought vengeance on the internal security forces for its rampant abuses as the Mubarak regime teetered. In January 2011, mostly peaceful protestors camped out in Cairo. In the North Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweid, “It wasn’t a protest anymore, by nightfall it had turned into a full-fledged battle; the sounds of AK-47s and the 50 calibers were recognizable.”
After Mubarak’s fall, Egyptian military leaders acknowledged in private conversations that the country’s police had screwed up. The military was determined to have a better relationship with the people of Sinai, but it was unfamiliar with how to productively deal with the region. The army had spent decades training for conventional war and was unprepared for the task of maintaining internal security. To his credit, Sisi has recognized the Egyptian military’s shortcomings. However, despite rhetorical nods to ideology, development, and population protection, Egypt’s brute-force strategy in North Sinai has remained the same since he became de facto ruler in 2013.
But CNA’s study found that security and governance factors, like those that exist in Egypt, are only part of the story. Sinai is also influenced by its history of violent jihadism, tracing back to attacks on South Sinai’s tourist cities from 2004 to 2006. Indeed, the founding mythology of the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate links the leader of those attacks to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq. Just as al Qaeda in Iraq became the Islamic State, it was only logical for Sinai’s jihadis to follow Zarqawi’s successors and join the Islamic State’s global caliphate.
Jihadism in Sinai also benefits from instability on Egypt’s borders. Since the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Egyptian officials have complained that foreign powers left Libya to fester, as jihadi groups gathered and arms smugglers pilfered advanced weapons that were shipped through Egypt to Gaza.
Egyptian officials place much of the blame for its inability to quell the North Sinai insurgency on the bordering Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the violent Islamist group Hamas. They have a point: Although Hamas is ideologically opposed to harder-line jihadi groups, its need for smuggling access to its isolated territory has resulted in pragmatic cooperation with the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate on Egypt’s side of the border. Hamas has reportedly provided advanced arms, military training, and even safe haven and medical care to leading Sinai jihadis.
Egypt began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels connecting Sinai to Gaza in February 2013, and the effort has escalated considerably since then. The Egyptian government established a buffer zone between the two regions. Despite these measures, and promises of cooperation from Hamas, smuggling and cross-border infiltration continue. Egypt has more recently taken a different tack by overseeing a reconciliation deal that would return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza at the expense of Hamas rule. The hope is that true reconciliation would put Palestinian Authority forces on the Gaza-Egypt border as a better counter-smuggling partner than Hamas’s military wing.
Although Egypt’s sectarian divides are less significant than in other parts of the Middle East, demographic instabilities also contribute to jihadism in Sinai. Islamic State attacks against Coptic Christians in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt have exacerbated long-simmering religious tensions. In the current context, the Coptic minority is seen as united behind Sisi and the military’s 2013 ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist president. Following President Mohamed Morsi’s removal, his supporters and sympathizers attacked Christian communities across the country. Last week’s attack on Egyptians at worship in a Sufi mosque will probably backfire — most of the victims probably were not themselves Sufis, nor are regular Egyptians opposed to Sufism — but the broader political dynamics continue to provide jihadist groups with a pool of new recruits.
Though in no way comparable to the civil wars in Syria or Yemen, Egypt is still undergoing a political conflict that pushes jihadi recruitment in Sinai and elsewhere. The government and the Muslim Brotherhood refuse to reconcile with each other — prolonging a stalemate that exacerbates violence in Sinai.
As the United States discovered during its struggle against al Qaeda in Iraq, a counterinsurgency strategy takes a long time to bear fruit — and nearly defeated groups can bounce back in unexpected ways. In hindsight, though, recommending that Egypt follow the U.S. example in Iraq is tone deaf. U.S. efforts to conduct counterinsurgency the “right” way dismantled al Qaeda in Iraq, but we now know the group reconstituted itself as the Islamic State years later.
A fast-paced and sustained population-centric counterinsurgency may be able to dismantle the Islamic State in Sinai more quickly than Egypt has managed. Nevertheless, Egypt may eventually be able to declare victory in its Sinai war as a result of brute force — as it did following the terrorist attacks of the 2000s. But as Egypt learned in 2011, and as the United States learned after its war against al Qaeda in Iraq, that victory will only be temporary. Without addressing the broader vulnerabilities at the root of the problem, Sinai will continue to serve as a breeding ground for local and international jihadi recruitment. And, as in Iraq, the next iteration of jihadi insurgency in Sinai could be worse.