For several years, Egypt has been the victim of one of the fiercest waves of terrorism in its contemporary history. It began in August 2012 with the “Ramadan massacre” in Rafah, claiming the lives of 16 soldiers, and reached its highest peak in 2015, which experienced the most terrorist attacks (594) in any single year from 2013 to 2017. In January 2015, alone, there were 124 armed attacks. The frequency declined slightly to 105 in February and then climbed to the highest peak for that year in March, with 125 attacks. The rate gradually began to decline in April (72 attacks) and May (63), and then dropped dramatically to 23 in June. In July 2015, the number of attacks rose again to 41 before dropping, again, to 27 in August. The frequency declined again in autumn, reaching the lowest point for that year in November with only five attacks, although it would rise again slightly in December to nine.
As of the beginning of 2016, the frequency of terrorist attacks began to decline considerably compared to 2015. Also, with the decrease in attacks in the Nile Valley and Delta, most attacks were confined to Sinai. But the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 brought a quantitative shift in terrorist tactics and strategies, as was manifested in both the nature of the targets selected and the weapons used in the attacks. We can break down the process in terms of tactics and personnel as follows.
TACTICS USED BY TERRORIST ORGANISATIONS IN 2017: The number of national economic and infrastructural targets declined in 2017 compared to the previous three years. This is due, on the one hand, to the security forces’ success in curbing the activities of the new terrorist groups that had emerged in the Nile Valley and Delta (such as Hasm, or Resolve; Revolution Brigade; and Revolutionary Retribution) and, on the other, to the tendency of the older groups (Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, Al-Murabitoun and the Islamic State in Egypt) to focus on the installations and personnel of the Egyptian military, which those terrorist organisations regard as their prime target.
- In 2017, terrorist organisations and operatives introduced a new target: Egyptian Christians and certain Muslim sects, such as the Sufis. During the year, terrorists targeted four churches and numerous Egyptian Christians and Sufis.
- The year also brought an increasing number of missiles fired by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis into Israel.
The qualitative shift, in 2017, in the strategies and tactics of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and other Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Egypt is consistent with one of the phases of IS strategy, which is to sow and disseminate chaos and anarchy in society. The third phase in the IS strategy — “empowerment” (which the mother organisation had realised in Syria and Iraq) — has become unattainable. This is not just due to the organisation’s failure to realise it on 1 July 2015 when its Egyptian franchise, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, attempted to seize control of a number of state institutions in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah while simultaneously attacking about 15 military and police sites and facilities in the vicinity. The Egyptian Armed Forces swiftly and decisively defeated Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, not just in that battle but in terms of its bid to implement the “empowerment” phase of IS strategy.
The failure drove Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis to attack-and-flee tactics and to other terrorist tactics, such as suicide attackers and bombers, in order to attain its objectives, as can be seen in most terrorist incidents in Sinai in 2017. Such tactics can only fall under the heading of the strategy of creating chaos.
THE INCREASE IN NON-EGYPTIANS IN TERRORIST ORGANISATIONS IN EGYPT: The terrorist organisational structure underwent various transformations in 2017 in recruitment and hierarchy as they increasingly relied on non-Egyptians in the command structure. This development coincided with the Egyptian military’s success in eliminating key terrorist leaders, especially from the ranks of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
A case in point was the death of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis leader Abu Anas Al-Ansar, which prompted the central IS organisation to promote a non-Egyptian member— Abu Hajer Al-Hashemi — as senior Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis commander. According to available information, Abu Hajer is a former Iraqi military officer. His appointment set a precedent and led to a rise in the recruitment of non-Egyptians, as was evidenced in the reports on websites close to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis of the terrorist operatives killed in clashes with the armed forces. Many of the names cited are not Egyptian, such as Moaz Al-Qadi and Khalil Al-Hamaida, who are known to have belonged to the IS affiliate in Gaza. Indeed, it has been observed that quite a few of the names that have emerged belong to breakaway members of the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s paramilitary wing, while others belonged to the jihadist Salafi groups in Gaza.
The Gazan recruits into the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis / “IS Sinai Province” have come to see Hamas as another version of Fatah and to regard Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh as no different to Mahmoud Abbas. They believe that not only has Hamas shrunk from its commitment to confront Israel, but that it also has effectively become a part of the agreements it had refused to recognise.
Many of the names that have emerged shed light on the Gaza dimension of the Sinai terrorist phenomenon. Some time ago, Hamas arrested a certain Abdel-Wahed Abu Adhra on the Palestinian side of Rafah. A former member of Hamas’s naval commandos, Abu Adhra, 20, was eventually released when Hamas caved into threats from both Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai and the IS affiliate in Gaza. Abu Adhra is the brother of Muflih Abu Adhra, the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis commander who was killed in clashes with the Egyptian army a year and a half ago. After his release, Abdel-Wahed infiltrated into Sinai and joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
Abdel-Hilal Al-Qishta, who was killed in a recent Egyptian aerial raid against an Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis stronghold, was another Gazan recruit of note. Once a prominent member of the Qassam Brigades, he publicly broke away from Hamas and joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. The same applied to Abu Malek Abu Shweish, assistant commander of Hamas’s military wing who then split off from Hamas and joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Other prominent names on the list of members of the Qassam Brigades who broke away from Hamas and joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in the Sinai include Tarek Badwan (killed 17 December), Mohamed Abu Sanima, Rashad Abu Sanima and Hassan Al-Jomeithni (the latter three were all involved in the Karm Qawadis attack). As was the case with certain extremists who had been discharged from the Egyptian security agencies, such recruits, with their advanced military training, they gave a powerful boost to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in terms of training and combat preparedness and diversity. This has been evidenced, in particular, in the use of missiles, explosive devices and booby-trapped vehicles.
The foregoing casts to the fore the danger of IS returnees from Syria and Iraq. Given the potential impact that the return of such trained and combat hardened individuals could have on the fight against terrorism, this problem of “returnees” will be one of the most— if not the most — crucial of questions that the Egyptian government must tackle as it formulates its counterterrorist strategies for 2018.
On the whole, the number of terrorist attacks has declined in 2017 compared to the three previous years. This applies, above all, to the Nile Valley and the Delta and the governorates of Greater Cairo and Alexandria. In addition, the majority of terrorist attacks are confined to a 2,500-square kilometre portion of North Sinai governorate.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly