Freeing Sinai

Kamel El-Beheiry , Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

After a period in which Egypt experienced the highest rate of terrorist attacks in its modern history, Sinai is now free of terrorism, writes Ahmed Kamel El-Beheiry

Freeing Sinai
Al-Sisi in Sinai


Last weekend, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited military and security sites in Sinai, east of the Suez Canal. The visit, which came a few weeks after he hailed the success of counterterrorism operations in eliminating terrorism in the peninsula, was anything but routine. As presidential statements and Al-Sisi’s itinerary made clear, the trip was designed to showcase the second component of the counterterrorism strategy, namely the comprehensive development of Sinai.

On 5 February 2011, Sinai witnessed the first terrorist attack following the 25 January Revolution. It would prove to be no more than a prelude to the waves of attacks that erupted following the 30 June 2013 Revolution which overthrew Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Terrorist operations, which peaked in 2015, took various forms and employed a variety of strategies and techniques. North Sinai was the governorate most impacted during the past decade in terms of the frequency of attacks and the numbers of casualties among army and security forces.

The terrorists were primarily adherents to Al-Qaeda or Islamist State (IS)-linked groups, though some were more fluid in their affiliations. Their targets ranged from security and military personnel and military facilities to civilians, houses of worship and civilian infrastructure.

July 2015 saw one of the largest terrorist operations ever launched against Egyptian security forces when 300 terrorist fighters attacked 15 military sites, killing 17 security personnel. Around 100 attackers died in the assaults. The terrorists’ goal was not so much to inflict casualties as to take control of parts of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Arish in order to raise their flags on government buildings and proclaim an Islamic state in Sinai. This attempt to repeat the IS scenario in Mosul, Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor failed thanks to the Egyptian government’s counterterrorist strategy.

The IS affiliate in Sinai was the most deadly in pursuit of its strategy to intimidate inhabitants of the peninsula. Staring in 2015, it killed around 320 civilians, including 35 tribal elders, on the pretext of cooperating with security agencies.

In January and February 2017, IS announced that it had killed seven Christians in Sinai. The organisation did not state a reason, so we can only assume the victims were targeted on the basis of their faith rather than for having cooperated with security forces. The same applied to the murder of Coptic Egyptian Nabil Habash in April 2021.

The organisation also killed Sheikh Suleiman Abu Haraz, a revered Sufi cleric, on the grounds that he was an “apostate”. Its most bloody attack targeted the Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir Al-Abd in November 2017, killing over 300 worshippers. The mosque is affiliated with a Sufi order.

In 2018, President Al-Sisi launched Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, marking a turning point in the fight against terrorism and the dismantling of terrorist command structures, infrastructure, military capacities, and territorial control. Between 2018 and 2022 terrorist attacks decreased. By the middle of 2020, their number had fallen to 95 per cent of the average in the period between 2014 and 2018. The number of foreign operatives and recruits into the ranks of the IS Sinai franchise also dropped sharply thanks to the tightening of border security.

Not a single attack took place in the first quarter of this year. The Sinai-based IS fanchise has also halted publication of its usual communications and bulletins. Given the central IS organisation in the Levant continues to issue such publications, the cessation is a sign that Sinai is now free of the terrorist group.

IS Sinai elements have acknowledged their losses in terms of personnel and equipment: indeed, the central organisation released an audio recording conceding the defeat of its affiliate in Sinai which was broadcast following the killing of IS commander Abul-Hassan Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi in November 2022.

While it is clear that President Al-Sisi’s announcement that terrorist activities in Sinai have ceased rests on solid ground, this does not mean that extremism has disappeared entirely or that extremists will never resurface. This is why the president and other governmental authorities are so keen to step up comprehensive development of the peninsula. The multifaceted social, economic, and cultural development process is crucial to eliminating an environment conducive to terrorism and the spread of terrorist ideas and to forestalling a resurgence of terrorism.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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