March 9, 2020

The Middle East’s Neglected Insurgency

By Jonathan Burden

In early February, a 4×4 stopped at a gas pipeline near the town of El-Arish, capital of Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. Four masked men, belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group, planted explosives on the infrastructure and slipped away. The resulting explosion caused significant damage. A month later, IS released a video from the Sinai showing the execution of two Egyptian ‘army spies’ via its Amaq News Agency. Although IS’s insurgency in Egypt has never had the resonance of its actions in Iraq and Syria, these two episodes show that the group possesses significant operational and propaganda capabilities in the Sinai region.

Setting the scene

Since peace was signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, the Sinai Peninsula, split between a North and South Governorate, has been treated as a buffer zone between the two states. Government engagement in the region has been at best minimal, and at worst outright hostile. The culturally distinct Bedouin tribes, who number around 250,000 out of Sinai’s population of 400,000 have been barred from taking government jobs and treated as second class citizens. Consequently, for many of Sinai’s inhabitants, black market activity including arms, drugs and people smuggling into the Gaza Strip is often the primary source of income.

Sinai’s two Governorates

When revolutionary fervour ripped across the Middle East in 2011, one of the most high-profile casualties was the regime of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled since 1981. In the aftermath of Mubarak’s deposition, the security forces melted away in the sparsely populated and remote areas of the Sinai. Simultaneously, Bedouin militias exploited the vacuum and overran abandoned military checkpoints and intelligence offices. Rapidly, a range of armed groups began to emerge in the region.

After the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) toppled the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi’s short-lived democratically-elected government in 2013, the number of attacks attributed to Salafi-Jihadist groups significantly increased. Attacks on security forces also seem to have taken on a more organised nature, with the percentage of attacks claimed by a particular group rising from 4 per cent in 2013 to 92 per cent by 2018.

ISIS Amores Vacui

In this environment, a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (AMB), which translates as ‘Supporters of the Holy House’ (a reference to Jerusalem) carried out some significant attacks on the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF), including a combined suicide-vehicle based IED (S-VBIED) and a mounted infantry assault on a checkpoint that killed 30 in October 2014.

A month later, AMB released an audio clip, stating that in ‘accordance with the teachings of the Prophet, we announce our allegiance to the Caliphate, and call on Muslims everywhere to do the same’, declaring itself as the Islamic State’s Wilayat (province) in the Sinai Peninsula, or IS-SP. Although other groups, such as the Allied Popular Resistance Movement, Jund al-Islam, and Tawhid wal-Jihad continue to operate in the region, IS-SP has proven the most significant and resilient group fighting the Egyptian state. To this day, IS-SP maintains loyalty to the Islamic State. The group swore loyalty to IS’s new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in 2019, despite al-Qurayshi’s low profile.

IS-SP has since carried on several notable attacks, including the 2017 attack on a Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abed, that killed over 305 worshippers and the downing of the Russian Metrojet flight 9268 over the Sinai, which killed all 224 passengers and crew on board. While IS-SP has not been able to emulate the territorial or administrative success of the main branch, it has proven itself to be a resilient insurgent movement and enjoys local support. Figure 1 shows how the frequency of fatal incidents involving IS-SP has remained relatively stable.

Attempts to destroy IS-SP/economic reconstruction

In attempting to re-establish control of the peninsula, Egypt has deployed over 42,000 troops to the governorate. Despite AMB/IS-SP being mostly confined to the North Sinai Governorate (60 per cent of attacks have occurred here, compared to 10 per cent in South Sinai and 30 per cent in the rest of Egypt), the security forces have been unable to defeat the insurgency.

Between 2014 and 2017, Cairo launched 4 iterations of the ‘Martyr’s Right’ campaign to dislodge IS-SP. Having made no significant headway, Sinai 18 was launched in 2018, significantly improving on Martyr’s Right by utilising the Air Force’s surveillance and electronic warfare capabilities, generating superior intelligence networks and countering IS-SP’s media and propaganda messages.

Despite achieving some tactical victories, the security forces’ treatment of the Sinai’s population undermined the state’s ability to re-establish control in the Sinai. In late 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that ‘Since 2013, thousands have been arrested, and hundreds have been disappeared. Tens of thousands of residents have been forcibly evicted or fled their homes’. Entire cities and districts are regularly placed under curfew and unemployment has risen to catastrophic levels. HRW also documented how the armed forces had demolished significant areas of housing, as shown below.

Recently, the security forces have recognised that treating the IS-SP insurgency purely as a military problem is unsustainable and an unproductive strategy. The result of the security forces ‘scorched earth’ policies, which have involved razing entire villages, has often been to turn the Sinai’s inhabitants, both Bedouin and non, away from the state and towards IS-SP.

Consequently, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces stated in February 2020, that the security forces would aim to create the appropriate conditions for investment and comprehensive economic development in Sinai. This follows the announcement that the government was allocating 5.23 billion Egyptian pounds ($316 million) for the 2019-20 fiscal year for development, an increase of 75 per cent.

However, the security situation has made both domestic and potential foreign investors wary. Although certain areas around the Red Sea Coast, clustered in the southern Sinai have improved, President el-Sisi has tended to favour the military. Since 1978, the armed forces have been a significant economic actor, with interests in infrastructure, agriculture and mining. The extent to which the armed forces benefit is unclear, but the consensus view is that the public is being deprived by the military’s control of key economic sectors. It is therefore likely that the impact on the wider Sinai economy will be minimal.

Furthermore, decades of neglect in Sinai have allowed IS-SP to generate local support that sustains the group despite the enormous deployment of troops. As previously mentioned, smuggling has historically been a major or even primary source of income for many of Sinai’s inhabitants. Those with sympathies for IS-SP have reportedly utilised these networks to allow the group’s fighters to evade the military and sustain the relatively high level of attacks.

Collaborating with the Bedouin

Analysts of the conflict in the Sinai broadly agree that reversing the policy of isolating the Bedouins is crucial to solving the IS-SP insurgency problem. When, in a limited number of cases, the security forces and the Bedouin have cooperated against IS-SP, success has been achieved. However, the fluidity of allegiances between tribal groups, insurgents and the state makes sustaining this type of practice rather difficult. Nevertheless, the goal of suppressing IS-SP by making the Sinai Governorate economically sustainable will only be achieved through the locals, rather than by attempting to suppress or bypass them.

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