“Don’t send reinforcements to Sinai,” Kamal Allam, the military commander of Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province (SP), taunted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Send your whole army. It will die here in desert.” Allam’s video message came in April 2015 after a complex attack on seven military and security targets. Two months later, SP was able to launch an even more complicated operation. In July that year, it simultaneously attacked 15 military and security targets and briefly occupied the town of Sheikh Zuweid. During the fighting, around 300 militants were able to cut off certain posts from incoming Egyptian reinforcements. As ever, the number of dead army soldiers and officers is contested. The Egyptian military claimed 17; unofficial sources claimed over 100.
The July episode might have been the most spectacular, but it was far from the last. Throughout the rest of 2014 and early 2015, SP conducted well over 200 attacks And as recently as September 2015, four American and two Fijian peacekeepers were wounded in blasts near the North Camp of the Multinational Force & Observers, the group formed to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal.
The attacks in Sinai came despite Cairo’s extremely brutal counterinsurgency campaign, which was ramped up in North Sinai starting in September 2013. And the Sinai fighters’ ability to nonetheless expand their battle’s geographic scope is just one puzzle about the insurgency.
Sinai’s northeastern coast, where the insurgency is centered, is not exactly rugged terrain. Most of the high mountains are in the south of the peninsula. Its population is relatively small. The North Sinai Governorate has a population of only 434,781 (40 persons per square mile). Further, the loyalty of this population seems to be divided. At least some members of almost every northeastern tribe and clan have joined the insurgency or support it, but not all or even a majority. These divisions do not follow clear rural-urban, settler-Bedouin, tribal, or administrative fault lines. Finally, there is no state sponsorship for the insurgents, and the regime forces outnumber the militants by at least 500 to 1. Regime forces enjoy U.S. financing, training, equipping, and intelligence support, as well as intelligence and tactical support from Israel.
All of these factors mean that Allam’s taunt should have been wildly off base. But it wasn’t.
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, insurgent capabilities have steadily risen. Scholars such as Andrew Mack, Ivan Arreguín-Toft, Jason Lyall and Isaiah Wilson, Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki, Seth Jones and Patrick Johnston, Sebastian Schutte, and others have reported a significant rise in the victories of insurgents over stronger incumbents or in the inability of incumbents to defeat much weaker insurgents. This is a change in historical patterns. In a study of 197 asymmetric conflicts, Arreguín-Toft argued that 55 percent of militarily weaker actors were victorious between 1950 and 1998, as opposed to only 11.8 percent between 1800 and 1845 and 34 percent between 1900 and 1945.
The literature provides a wide range of explanations, many of which are centered on population, geography, external support, military tactics, and military strategy. The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual concludes that insurgencies represent a “contest for the loyalty” of a mostly uncommitted general public that could side with either the regime or the insurgents, and that success requires “winning their hearts and minds.”
Other explanations center on geography. Professors James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford University, for example, stressed that rough terrain is a critical support for insurgency. In his seminal work Counterinsurgency Warfare, the French officer David Galula argued that “the role of geography . . . may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot get any help from geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.” Others have argued that it isn’t the roughness of the terrain that matters but how far away the terrain is from the center: the farther it is, the harder for the regime to accurately project power.
Other scholars highlighted foreign sponsorship. In their study of 89 insurgencies, Connable and Libicki argued that insurgencies that “benefitted from state sponsorship statistically won a 2:1 ratio out of decided cases.” Once sponsorship was wholly withdrawn, the victory ratio for the insurgent side fell to one to four. This is relevant only to clear-cut victories, not to mixed cases or enduring insurgencies.
Finally, scholars explained why weaker insurgents win or survive in terms of military tactics and strategy. Tactically, many have argued, insurgent access to new technologies in weaponry, communications, intelligence, transportation, infrastructure, and organization has allowed them to punch above their weight. Strategically speaking, Arreguín-Toft has modeled how strategic interactions between militarily weaker actors and their stronger enemies work. His study concludes that weaker forces can overcome their deficits by employing the opposite strategy of a stronger opponent.
Some of these explanations do apply to the Sinai insurgency—at least at different stages and points in time—most notably, the arguments about distance from the center and military tactics and strategy. But the story of its survival and expansion also deviates from these explanations in important ways.
TAKING SIDES IN SINAI
The story of the Sinai insurgency goes back to the Israeli withdrawal from the territory in 1982. Since then, Egypt has mostly treated the area as a threat rather than an opportunity; Sinaians are potential informants, potential terrorists, potential spies, and potential smugglers, rather than full Egyptian citizens. According to a cable published by WikiLeaks, a senior Egyptian police official in Sinai once told a visiting American official delegation that “the only good Bedouin in Sinai was the dead Bedouin.”
By November 2014, most ABM factions had pledged an oath of loyalty to ISIS. Cairo’s official policies were designed to control and disempower Sinaians. They included preventing Sinaians from owning land, subjecting them to invasive scrutiny, and limiting any developmental projects. Such policies were ramped up after the second Palestinian intifadain 2000. Back then, several Egyptian security bureaucracies—principally the State Security Investigations (SSI, now renamed the National Security Apparatus) and the General Intelligence Service—believed that northeast Sinai was sending direct logistic support to Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. Since then, repression and attempted co-optation of selected tribal leaders has ruled the day.
Things escalated further after the simultaneous bombings of Taba and Nuweiba, where Israeli tourists used to spend vacation, in October 2004. The SSI had almost no information about the terrorists responsible and therefore conducted a wide crackdown in northeast Sinai. With the help of the Central Security Forces (CSF), the SSI arrested around 3,000 and held women and children hostage until other suspects surrendered. “They electrocuted us in the genitals for hours before asking any questions,” one of the former detainees told me in 2012. “Then the torture continues during and after the interrogations. Many of the young men swore revenge.”
A second wave of bombings hit Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town, in July 2005. This time, an organization did declare responsibility for the attacks. Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad(Monotheism and Struggle, or TJS) was inspired by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq, but most of its leaders and members were locals. The founder, Khaled Musa‘id, was a dentist from one of the largest and most influential tribes in Sinai. Musa‘id was killed in a firefight with the CSF in 2005. His legacy was the transformation of an ideological current into a real organizational structure, with a hierarchy and multiple cells.
A second wave of crackdowns followed the 2005 bombings. Many suspected TJS members and sympathizers (as well as their relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors) were arrested. “We met them in prison. Most of them did not know anything about ideology, theology, or jurisprudence. Some were illiterate and we had to teach them how to read,” said a former Islamist detainee who was imprisoned with the “Sinai group,” as they were known.
Some imprisoned fighters radicalized, and others abandoned their belief in jihad. But back in Sinai, the environment was significantly changing. A 2007 Gaza conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and a 2009 crackdown by Hamas on Salafists, pushed some former Fatah officers and Salafi militants into northeast Sinai. By early 2010, the jihadists in the area began to regroup into different organizational structures. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem, or ABM) emerged as the most active armed organization in Sinai, among at least four others.
Between June 2010 and July 2013, ABM focused primarily on attacking Israeli civilian and military targets. But the insurgency did go after Egyptian police stations and security headquarters in January, February, and July 2011, partly to avenge the crackdowns of 2004–2006. By early February 2011, Egyptian security forces had fled both Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid towns.
Soon thereafter, the caretaker government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces launched Eagle 1, a counterinsurgency operation designed to fight the militants in Sinai. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s eventual successor, Mohamed Morsi, launched Eagle 2 during his short tenure. Both operations failed to quell the insurgency and, in many ways, seemed to be a continuation of previous counterinsurgency policies rather than a new approach. The local perceptions changed, however, after the July 2013 coup against Morsi and the August 2013 massacre of protesters in Rabaa and al-Nahda squares in Cairo. “We knew torture is on its way. It was just a matter of time,” one of the residents of Sheikh Zuweid told me. He had been detained in 2004 for a few months, before being released uncharged.
ABM responded with changes of its own. Whereas the group had previously stressed that it was targeting Israel, after 2013, it spoke primarily of “defending the Muslims of Egypt against the onslaught of an ‘army of apostates,’” as went the title of a series of videos documenting armed operations against security forces, including an assassination attempt on the former minister of the interior. By November 2014, most ABM factions had pledged an oath of loyalty to the upstart Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Previously, the group had an undeclared affiliation to al Qaeda and had followed al Qaeda’s post-2011 tactic of combining political violence with social services to win over local support. This combination endured, despite the new affiliation with ISIS.
Guerrilla warfare is not new to Egypt. What is new is the quality, which is comparable to regular Special Forces operations. OVERPOWERED
There are many reasons for the durability of the Sinai insurgency. Of particular importance are the military capacity and resources of the insurgents, the regime’s counterinsurgency blunders, and the changing political environment in which both operate. Other elements do matter, of course, including SP’s propaganda and perceived legitimacy, but they are secondary to the others.
In Egypt’s history of insurgencies, SP’s combat capacity is unprecedented. The group employs mainly two types of tactics and field operations. The first are the common tactics of “urban terrorism.” They include attacks in cities and towns via a combination of car bombs, suicide attacks, and targeted assassinations. The second type is guerrilla warfare, involving small mobile units and hit-and-run strikes on security and military targets. The units are lightly armed and avoid any prolonged direct confrontation with the incumbent’s forces.
To be sure, guerrilla warfare is not new to Egypt. What is new is the quality, which is comparable to regular Special Forces operations. Since early 2014, SP has made use of a combination of heavy and light mortar artillery, guided and unguided surface-to-surface missiles, guided surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, and snipers to cover the advance or the retreat of infantry formations composed of tens or hundreds of militants (depending on the operation). In January 2014, militants shot down an Mi-17 helicopter that belonged to Egypt’s Second Field Army, killing all five of its crew members. The weapon the insurgents used was an infrared-homing, surface-to-air missile from the Russian-made Igla family. This was the first time in Egyptian history that an armed nonstate actor dropped a state’s military helicopter by a missile.
Then, in October 2014, SP seized a large number of weapons after a twin attack on military checkpoints in Karm al-Qawadis (Sheikh Zuweid) and El-Arish City. During fighting, SP killed more than 30 soldiers and destroyed an American-made M60 Patton tank and an M11 armored vehicle. In November, the organization issued a propaganda video entitled The Charge of the Supporters, in which it showed some of the weapons seized from the incumbent’s forces, including heavy mortars (120 millimeters).
The intensity and the scale of attacks expanded in January 2015, when SP simultaneously targeted 11 military and security posts in three towns: El-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah. Simultaneous attacks on such a number of targets was by itself unheard of in Egypt, even compared with the times the British armed forces and Egyptian insurgents clashed in the Suez Canal cities in the 1940s and 1950s. The targets of SP’s attacks were hard ones: well armed and heavily guarded. They included the camp of Battalion 101 in El-Arish (which is the headquarters of some of the military forces deployed in the northeast; and the place where the military police and intelligence interrogates suspects). Locals referred to it by the term “Sinai’s Guantánamo.”
In May 2015, SP issued The Charge of the Supporters 2, a propaganda video well documenting simultaneous attacks on seven military targets in April. But SP’s most complex attack came on July 1, 2015. It targeted 15 military and security posts simultaneously and succeeded in destroying at least two. An estimated 300 insurgents took part in the July operations, and the fighting lasted for more than 20 hours. SP used guided antiaircraft Igla missiles again and seemed to have forced the Apache helicopters to retreat. Then the incumbent forces used F-16 fighter jets to bomb from higher (and much less accurate) altitudes. The insurgents retreated, mining the route behind them.
Even as the insurgents have waged an unusually effective guerrilla war, the regime has waged an unusually ineffective counterinsurgency. In total, SP and its predecessor, ABM, conducted well over 400 attacks between 2012 and 2015, with the most sophisticated attacks in terms of the quality of the military tactics and quantity of the insurgents taking place in 2014 and 2015. The overwhelming majority were aimed at either the military or the security forces and took place in the northern coastal road between El-Arish and Rafah. The number of dead military officers and soldiers in North Sinai is difficult to verify but is estimated to be over 700, compared with 401 in all of Egypt between 1992 and 1997. The number of dead insurgents is even more difficult to ascertain. Adding the numbers provided by the military spokesperson since 2011, dead insurgents will exceed 3,000 (compared with 425 during the 1990s insurgency). However, the identity of the deceased persons is contested. Some of them appear to be civilians killed in aerial or artillery bombardments and detainees held by the security forces before being eventually listed as killed during combat.
By continued targeting of the incumbent’s forces and its brutality while executing captured soldiers and officers, SP aims to destroy or undermine the soldiers’ will, not necessarily their capacity, to fight. So far, SP is in the first phase of this strategy: still attempting to secure strongholds as it gains support and resources. But where do the resources come from? Regime figures and supporters accuse Libya and Gaza of supplying arms and Israel, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States of conspiring with the insurgents. In fact, although some arms have come from Libya, many are taken from regime forces during local attacks. As for training, SP draws on a few defected members of the Egyptian armed forces to train its ranks, including former Special Forces, navy, and police officers. The group also recruits battle-hardened insurgents trained in foreign combat zones, including in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. A third category is the persistent local insurgents, who, over the last decade, accumulated significant experience combating the incumbent’s forces and building logistic support networks. Given the political environment, SP faces no real problems recruiting members.
Even as the insurgents have waged an unusually effective guerrilla war, the regime has waged an unusually ineffective counterinsurgency. Cairo’s counterinsurgency policy in Sinai was built on three pillars: repression, intelligence, and propaganda. Intensive, reactive, and mostly indiscriminate repression was the hallmark of the policy in the north. The goal was to terrorize and hence subdue a population perceived as potentially rebellious. But it was also reactive in some cases, slipping toward outright revenge. Tactics used included torture of suspects, extrajudicial killings of suspects and detainees, demolition and burning of homes, forced evacuations, destruction of property and farms, and use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment in residential areas.
The alleged 3,000 militants killed since 2011 included perhaps 438 in ten days in September 2015, 232 in four days in August 2015, 241 in four days in July 2015, and more than 170 in a week in February 2015. Sinai’s Human Rights Committees in the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (EORF) and the Sinaian Observatory, two local nongovernmental organizations critical of Cairo’s human rights record in Sinai, report that some of the dead suspects were in the custody of the military or the security forces. Overall, an EORF report claimed that the military extrajudicially killed 1,347, detained 11,906, and forcibly deported 26,992 between September 2013 and June 2015. Human Rights Watch reported the large-scale destruction of at least 3,255 buildings and indicated that “the Egyptian army provided no written warning of the impending evictions and that many residents heard about the coming demolitions from army patrols, neighbors or media outlets.” To be sure, the most damning effect of the military strategy is the loss of countless civilian lives.
Propaganda is another pillar of Cairo’s strategy. But the low quality of the propaganda has hurt the regime’s credibility. For example, Cairo has declared Kamal Allam, an SP commander, dead a few times now. But he keeps on showing up. The government is also misleading and inaccurate in statements on military operations; deaths of soldiers, civilians, and insurgents; collateral damage; and inducements for cooperation. The regime’s strategy is out of the 1960s, when the rulers had a monopoly of information.
The government’s campaign of repression also created an environment where arms became an essential tool for both survival and justice. The pillars of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy are, in many ways, undermining one another. Repression and mediocre communications undermine attempts to get locals to cooperate. “When you go there [to a military checkpoint] to tell them that there is a bomb beside your house, they tell ‘you planted it, you dirty Bedouin’ and then beat or arrest you,” a local resident of Sheikh Zuweid told me, recounting the experience of his neighbor. Beyond that, the quality of the soldiers’ training and low morale are also problematic. Soldiers sent to North Sinai are often conscripts in the last few months of their service; the thinking is that they will not risk desertion and military tribunals in their last few months. This type of soldier is no match for ideologically committed, locally rooted insurgents.
It is extremely difficult to survey the Sinaian population to see what side it supports. In any case, both sides claim the hearts and minds of the region’s residents. In August 2013, a video released by ABM (and confirmed by local journalists) showed a massive funeral involving hundreds of pickup trucks and four-by-four SUVs marching to bury four members of the organization who had been killed by an Israeli drone while trying to launch a missile attack against Israel. This would not happened had they been members of the incumbent’s forces, but it doesn’t mean that the ideological extremism or the brutal tactics of SP are popular. Tribal loyalties and grief are key, but at any rate, the government is not winning the contest for the public. And there are no indications that Cairo plans to change policies in the near future.
On a national level, the escalation of Egypt’s political crisis since the July 2013 military coup had major implications for the security situation. Eradicationist factions have gained power in the security and military institutions. These factions believe that Sinai’s crisis—among others—could be resolved by eradicating opponents and subduing dissent via brutal force. Mubarak’s main mistake, they contend, was that he was too lenient.
The government’s campaign of repression also created an environment where arms became an essential tool for both survival and justice. “Many of the young men carrying arms in Sinai today are not affiliated with any organizations,” Yehia Akeel, former MP representing North Sinai in the dissolved Consultative Council, told me. “For them, the coup and what it unfolded meant that they are back to the pre-2011 days of torture and imprisonment without charge. And they prefer the desert and the gun to that.”
SP insurgents have been able to capitalize on these developments to bolster both recruitment efforts and its legitimacy.
The United States is involved in supporting Egypt’s military through its Foreign Military Financing and its International Military Education and Training programs. CORRECT COUNTERINSURGENCY
The Sinai crisis calls for a complex and long-term counterinsurgency policy. In other words, it calls for anything but the current repression-intensive policies, which are likely most effective at driving locals into the arms of the insurgents.
It is well past time for Cairo to try something new. It should identify the threats, their nature, and the surrounding conditions. Any comprehensive counterinsurgency should address the long-term developmental needs of the peninsula, including the tribal, socioeconomic, political, identity, and demographic dimensions of the problem.
In the short term, a change in the pro-regime media rhetoric is essential to signal policy change for North Sinaians. Refraining from the negative stereotyping in media campaigns is both morally and instrumentally required. On tactical grounds, enhancing the credibility of the incumbents’ statement as well as the sustainability of its policies is essential to build stronger local intelligence and support networks. More reliance on such networks, besides better-trained and -equipped Special Forces, while limiting the use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, will positively affect the overall campaign’s objectives. This should be executed in parallel with a policy to “win hearts and minds,” which starts with appropriate compensation for the residents of demolished homes, the owners of destroyed farms, and the recognition of the “collateral damage” done by the military.
In the middle to long term, Sinai should not be dealt with as merely a security threat to Cairo. Parts of Sinai’s problem are rooted in Egypt’s crisis of national reconciliation, its extremely polarized political environment, the absence of a nonviolent conflict resolution mechanism, the lack of security sector reform, and the structural deficiency in civil-military relations. Cairo has never undertaken a thorough revision of its military and security policies in Sinai. The only open discussion that occurred regarding Sinai was in the brief transition period between February 2011 and June 2013. It did not yield any executive policy, and it died out quickly following the July coup. This needs to change. In general, insurgencies do not pose a major threat to legitimate, well-institutionalized governments following competent counterinsurgency practices. This is not the case in Egypt, where legitimacy is contested, institutions are corrupt, and the counterinsurgency practices have been far from ideal.
The situation in Sinai is important to the United States for various reasons, including the stability of the region, the 1979 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, the security of the allies, and the need to counter terrorism/violent extremism. But the video showing an American-made M60 Patton tank bombing a residential building in Rafah, among others, can be a powerful, counterproductive tool for both instability and anti-American local radicalization. Despite the fact that many locals seek refuge near the Multinational Force & Observers camp as a safe zone from the Egyptian military’s indiscriminate bombardment, many perceive the United States as supportive of the incumbent’s policies. Already, notorious interrogation facilities are dubbed “Sinai’s Guantánamo” (camp of Battalion 101) and “Egypt’s Guantánamo” (Al-Azouly military-run prison in Ismailia).
The United States supports Egypt’s military through its Foreign Military Financing and its International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs. On a moral level, the United States needs to ensure robust human rights vetting for all military aid and security assistance and also to conduct full end-user agreement monitoring for American military equipment in the Sinai Peninsula. On a strategic level, the United States Army and Marine Corps already produced one of the best field manuals on counterinsurgency. The Obama administration should urge the incumbent’s forces to abide by it, especially the components related to “winning the hearts and minds” of the locals and to altering the well-established culture of tolerating “collateral damage.”
The United States can also help tackle some of the long-term structural problems. Civil-military relations and security sector reform courses should be introduced in the curricula of the IMET programs and added to the many training courses provided to Egyptian officers in the United States. Finally, related to the political environment, the Obama administration resumed financial aid to the ruling regime in Egypt, even though it has not met the congressional condition of taking “steps to support a democratic transition.” The absence of national reconciliation, poor counterinsurgency strategy, and lack of oversight over military aid fosters an environment in which the Sinaian crisis may endure and possibly expand.