While the nature and frequency of terrorist attacks peaked in the years that followed the 2011 Revolution, sustained counter-terrorist campaigns over the last six years have succeeded in eliminating leading terrorists, drying up their sources of funding, and seriously curtailing their ability to operate
Terrorist attacks in Egypt’s interior (the Nile Valley and Delta), and its peripheries (Sinai and the Western Desert) increased following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and peaked between 2015 and 2017 period, posing a grave threat to national security.
As the geographic scope of attacks expanded and the terrorists broadened their targets to include civilians and houses of worship, the government clarified its approach to counter-terrorism. The vision which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi outlined at the US-Arab summit in Riyadh in 2017, set the strategic contours for Egypt's fight against terrorism, especially in Sinai.
A three-pronged action plan was adopted. It included enhanced intelligence gathering — the surveillance of terrorist elements and assembly points, tracking, cutting off sources of financing and logistic support, and bolstering border security — complemented by sustained military and security operations to deliver debilitating strikes and destroy terrorist infrastructures, and the lunch of ambitious development projects to raise the living standards of Sinai’s inhabitants.
These three prongs shaped the course of counter-terrorist operations. Martyr’s Right and Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 made major inroads towards eliminating the terrorist threat.
Comprehensive Operation Sinai was launched on 9 November 2018 following the presidential directive ordering the Armed Forces and police to eliminate terrorism in Sinai. The presidential directive had been issued in the aftermath of the Rawda Mosque attack on 24 November 2017, when the Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province massacred more than 300 worshipers during Friday prayers.
Six years into President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s presidency what are the results of the ongoing counter-terrorist campaign?
The terrorist map in Sinai has changed a great deal over the past six years.
First, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis split off from Al-Qaeda, declared its allegiance to Islamic State and renamed itself the Sinai Province.
The Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ switch in allegiance had a major impact on Al-Qaeda, whose ability to carry out terrorist attacks had declined considerably since 2012. Gradually Al-Qaeda affiliates faded from the scene. In one of its last appearances, Al-Qaeda affiliate Jund Al-Islam released a statement condemning the Rawda Mosque attack. It reappeared briefly on 10 September 2018, posting a video attacking the Egyptian state and calling on Muslim youth throughout the world to join in the “jihad for Allah”, since when it has sunk into oblivion. As a result, the primary thrust of the security battle in Sinai remains focused on the Sinai Province, still the largest and most active terrorist group in the peninsula.
Military operations in Sinai passed through many stages, beginning with the Martyr’s Right series in 2015-2016 and culminating in Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, the most sweeping, precise and successful of the counter-terrorist operations.
During the past six years Egypt has scored major successes in implementing its three-point action plan. Intelligence and security operations identified and eliminated many first and second tier Sinai Province commanders, including Abu Osama Al-Masry, the former ABM operative Kheirat Sami El-Sabaki, and the notorious Mohammed Gamal. The loss of these and other leaders had a profound impact on the organisation's structure and its ability to carry out attacks.
Egypt also made strides in drying up sources of terrorist funding and logistical support. Egyptian border forces and the coast guard tightened their control over land and maritime borders, both in the theatre of operations and along Egypt’s western and southern borders. This was complemented by political success: an agreement was reached with Hamas to tighten controls on the Gaza side of the border, while Egyptian military engineers succeeded in closing many of the border tunnels which had been used to supply equipment and personnel to terrorist groups.
The November 2017 Rawda Mosque massacre in which Sinai Province gunmen murdered more than 300 civilians precipitated a major shift. In its wake the civilian population in Sinai increased cooperation with counter-terrorist forces in the peninsula, helping the security forces to dismantle terrorist infrastructures and curtail the ability of terrorists to move around the peninsula.
Two facts testify to the progress achieved against terrorism in Sinai during the past six years. The first is the remarkable decline in both the frequency and scale of terrorist attacks since 2018 compared to the peak years of 2015 to 2017. The second is the dramatic decline in losses sustained by military and security forces over the last 18 months compared to the preceding four years.
So what lies ahead?
While it would be over-optimistic to predict the complete demise of Sinai Province or other jihadist takfiri groups in Sinai, given the successes already achieved by the various counter-terrorist campaigns we can predict that there will be further erosion of their ability to launch attacks, or sustain anything resembling a coherent infrastructure of terror.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly