Non-territorial terrorism: Implications for Egypt

Ziad A Akl , Wednesday 24 Jan 2018

The loss of territory in 2017 suffered by various terrorist entities will influence their tactics and strategies in the year ahead

Mosul, Iraq
A member of the Counter Terrorism Service walks past the ruined Grand al-Nuri Mosque in the Old City in Mosul, Iraq, June 30, 2017 (Reuters)

The year 2017 marked significant changes in the pattern of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. This change rests primarily on the territories lost by terrorist entities, the Islamic State (IS) group and its regional affiliates mainly, because of organised military actions by states or international military coalitions.

Last year witnessed several celebrations of victory over IS in both Iraq and Libya, where most land under IS control was retaken by governments. In Syria, the geographical presence of IS was significantly reduced after forcing IS out of Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor.

The Egyptian Armed Forces expanded its counter-terrorism military operations in Northern Sinai during 2017, which led to the termination of any significant territorial control for terrorist entities.

However, it is crucial to clearly differentiate between the loss of territorial control on the one hand, and the actual termination of the terrorist threat on the other. The loss of territory will not terminate the threat; it will rather reduce its intensity and transform it pattern.

As the power that territorial control gave to terrorist groups disappears, terrorist entities will transform the strategy of their existence and activity. Establishing the Islamic Caliphate will no longer be possible after losing territory.

Similarly, the financial resources that poured into IS from exploiting territorial control (like taxing or trafficking) will also be cut, making establishing the caliphate even more unattainable.

It is indeed true that regaining territories from IS will significantly weaken their capacities and reduce the level of sophistication in their operations.

However, the radicalised fighters and the entity managed to survive the territories they lost and continue to organise attacks, but due to the different environment in which IS and its affiliates in the region operate, patterns of attacks are expected to witness changes of various sorts.

Pattern changes will include less technologically sophisticated and more primitive terrorist operations like attacks with low range explosives or even homemade ones.

Furthermore, dismantling the territorial infrastructure will lead to geographical diffusion of attacks, either in the region or in Europe. The geographical diffusion will include targeting new cities as well as targeting new locations. Losing territorial control will also make terrorist entities focus on targets that are of a political rather than military significance, like churches or state institutions or foreign organisations. 

Attacks that rely on lone-wolf strategies will also increase (stabbings and driving into crowds), specifically in countries where there are no zones of conflict.

Finally, territorial losses will cause an influx of returning jihadists, who might return to their countries of origin or relocate in new places. In both cases, returning jihadists will introduce new experiences to the terrorist entities in their new location, which in turn will reflect operationally on the pattern of attacks.

Those pattern changes have various implications on Egypt. The threat coming from the Egyptian-Libyan border will be intensified since Libya is one of the potential hubs for IS relocation.

Egypt is facing this threat with its full support of a political settlement in Libya, on the one hand, and putting pressure behind the unification of the Libyan National Army, on the other.

Territorial losses in Sinai, and the intense military presence in it, will imply that terrorist activities might diffuse to other areas like the Delta or Upper Egypt, specifically within the context of relocation.

This means that Egypt will need very high degrees of coordination between its security institutions (the Armed Forces, Interior Ministry and intelligence) in its vision for its counter-terrorism strategy for 2018.

Recent changes in some key security positions signal that the regime is aware of the transformation of the threat and is institutionally adapting to it. Finally, the combination of lone-wolf strategy and politically significant targets requires intensifying the security presence at all facilities that have the potential to be targeted in 2018.

Statistics say that Egypt’s efforts to counter terrorism have been successful in reducing the number of yearly terrorist attacks over the past three years. Recognising the transformation of the threat and adjusting the strategy is key in maintaining that success. It is a slow battle, but one that will certainly be won. 

The number of terrorist attacks includes detonated explosives, defused explosives, and armed attacks


* Ziad A Akl is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit of Al-Ahram Centre For Political and Statrategic Studies


* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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