Over the course of three major operations — Eagle, Martyr’s Right and the expanded Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 — Egypt’s counter-terrorist campaign has scored many successes, not least the decline in the number of terrorist attacks in Sinai. But it is a long and ongoing battle, as Military Spokesman Tamer Al-Refai told the press this week. Because so many factors combine to feed, reproduce and mutate the terrorist cycle, military action will continue to be needed to combat the terrorist scourge.
Egypt’s war against terrorism in Sinai began eight years ago when a growing network of fundamentalist jihadist organisations began to take advantage of the security breakdown following the January 2011 Revolution.
The primary focus of the current counter-terrorist offensive is North Sinai, where the army and police have staged a series of raids and combing operations following a terrorist attack in Bir Al-Abd that killed an army officer, a non-commissioned officer, and eight conscripts. In his last communiqué to the public on Sunday, Al-Refai reported that the army had undertaken 22 raids, killed 126 terrorists, unearthed 228 hideouts and destroyed 116 four-wheel drive vehicles and eight border tunnels.
According to civilian sources in Sinai, an IED was detonated on a road that was being used by an armoured vehicle to distribute Ramadan meals to military checkpoint personnel.
The day after the attack a communiqué was issued detailing actions taken to apprehend the terrorists directly involved in the explosion. Social media accounts in Sinai circulated photos of a man detained in hospital and said to be the person who planted the IED. The Interior Ministry also issued a communiqué stating that 18 terrorists had been killed in a shootout when the police sought to apprehend them in connection with the Bir Al-Abd attack. The same day Islamic State (IS) affiliated Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to local sources, the Bir Al-Abd area appears to have come under the terrorists’ crosshairs. Several residents there have been kidnapped in order to extort ransoms, and an “informer” who worked with the security forces was killed in a brutal manner in order to terrorise others into refusing to cooperate with the state. The sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that they believe most of the terrorists involved in the attacks were from North Sinai, though not from Bir Al-Abd.
The Bir Al-Abd attack occurred following Sinai Liberation Day, which marks the restoration of Sinai to Egypt after the 1973 War, and several days before 10 Ramadan, the anniversary of the war as per the Islamic calendar. In a reflection of how times have changed, this year’s celebration of Sinai Liberation Day showcased the attention the government is giving to developing the peninsula. Sinai has been earmarked for the largest development budget in Egypt’s history, and concrete infrastructural development on the ground is already changing the face of the peninsula.
Among the countries in the region that have been afflicted by terrorism, Egypt stands out as the only state to be engaged in a comprehensive counter-terrorist campaign and a simultaneous battle to develop the areas targeted by the terrorists. That Egypt’s development brigades are on the march in Sinai in tandem with the army and police counter-terrorism brigades manifests the new approach to Sinai. For decades, the peninsula was overlooked in the government’s development plans, a fact that helped create an environment that proved a fertile breeding ground for terrorist organisations.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi expressed the new approach to Sinai when he addressed the national security strategy in Sinai and underscored the extent to which the peninsula is a cornerstone of national security. As the president pointed out, the considerable costs of the strategic development plan should be viewed in this context, and as reflecting the government’s awareness of the multifaceted nature of any comprehensive development process. Military/security actions are necessary to fight terrorism, but there are other avenues that must be pursued simultaneously.
Terrorist organisations carry out attacks not only to prove they still exist but also to derail development. They want to show they still have the ability to infiltrate areas that are undergoing development in order to prevent that development from happening. These operations are a sign of the organisations’ growing weakness. No longer able to operate in Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and the Rafah triangle, they target more vulnerable areas like Bir Al-Abd.
The latest attack may be part of a wider phenomenon. The rise and fall of terrorism, and mode of terrorist attacks in Sinai, often proceeds in tandem with progress or reversals in counter-terrorist efforts regionally. The region has recently experienced a resurgence in terrorism. IS has stepped up its activities in Iraq, for example, where it staged coordinated attacks in the Salaheddin and Anbar provinces at the beginning of May. The terrorist organisation is clearly keen to take advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, the Iraqi army doubled down on its efforts to round up IS remnants and prison escapees in the Salaheddin, Anbar and Diyala provinces.
There has also been a rise in the activities of IS-affiliated media platforms. In addition to frequent broadcasts and postings on operations such as those in Iraq, a 52-minute video shot in Yemen and attacking Al-Qaeda for its “deviation” since the Arab Spring revolutions, was released. Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen has been on the decline as a result of the loss of many of its commanders, the most recent being Qassem Al-Raymi, killed in February 2020.
In Egypt, IS’ Sinai Province Twitter accounts have been recirculating a September 2019 video called “Pledge and Persistence 3”. On one level the video is meant to frame the Bir Al-Abd attack in the context of the defence of “principles”, though its main purpose is to garner publicity. Yet the fact that the organisation had to resort to recycling old material is a sign of the erosion of its media infrastructure in Sinai.
“The re-broadcasting of this video is a sign that the organisation has no specific causes around which to rally supporters and is falling back on general doctrinal tenets,” Ali Bakr, an Egyptian expert on jihadist organisations, told the Weekly.
“The main purpose of the [Bir Al-Abd] attack and the recycling of the video is to prove that the organisation still exists. Perhaps such organisations see Ramadan as a season for making appearances.”
Bakr believes the Sinai Province is now run almost exclusively by locals. The foreign presence has declined since the defeat of IS in Raqqa and the elimination of first-tier commanders in Sinai over the course of recent counter-terrorist operations. Some observers note that there has been a general decline in the number of foreign recruits to IS and its affiliates.
According to experts, there is also a link between terrorist activity in Sinai and the situation in Libya, where arms, Islamist militias and mercenaries have proliferated. Libya was a major source of weapons for jihadist organisations in Sinai in the post-January 2011 period. Two weeks ago, the jihadist mercenaries that Turkey sent into Libya broke into jails in Sabrata and Surman to release more than 400 Islamist extremists among whom are known IS and Al-Qaeda operatives. Such developments throw into relief the threat that the situation in Libya poses to its neighbours. Tunisia and Algeria have tightened border security in order to prevent the infiltration of these extremists, and the Egyptian army spokesman, in his recent communiqué, noted that by far the largest number of vehicles the army has destroyed in its recent operations came from Libya.
The Bir Al-Abd attack also shed light on the declining resources the terrorists have at their disposal. Planted IEDs and suicide bombers are replacing the organised paramilitary assaults of the past.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly