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  • Einat Elazari

What makes ISIS in Sinai stay alive?

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

Defeated in almost every other territory, ISIS presence in Egypt is deadlier than ever.  

[See the original LinkedIn publication here]

On November 24th a combined terror attack took place in Al-Rawda village, located at the north of the Sinai Peninsula. 30-40 gunmen followed the explosion of 3 cars near a mosque, entered and killed at least 311 people in the deadliest terror attack in Egypt’s history. While there was no clear claim of responsibility it is assumed that ISIS (“Wilayat Sinai “- the Sinai branch) is behind it. The fact that the target was a Sufi mosque only increases chances that it was indeed an ISIS action, as the terror group considers the Sufis to be apostates. Moreover, ISIS rivalries group in Sinai were quick to condemn the horrific attack while the organization remained silent.

The emergence of ISIS in Egypt

 As in Iraq, the emergence of ISIS in Egypt was based on a local terror group that was active. In Egypt it was Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, who emerged in 2011. It pledged alliances with ISIS in the peak of the terror group activity in Iraq and Syria during 2014. This terror group claimed responsibility to many prominent attacks in Egypt, including the bombing of the MetroJet flight in 2015 (224 killed). It killed so far hundreds of Egyptians soldiers and policemen as well as Christian Copts in the past 3 years and is today the biggest terror threat in the Sinai Peninsula. 

The reasons behind ISIS ability to flourish in Sinai

The reasons for ISIS survival and dominance in Egypt and especially in the Sinai Peninsula are multifaceted and a mix of political, socio-economic and operational issues.

1. Arab spring in Egypt and the events that followed in 2011-2013 were too chaotic to properly address the security problem: The dramatic political shifts Egypt has went through (Mubarak resignation, Morsi’s win in elections and then Egyptian coup d'état later) left it with no contentious agenda and clear line of operations. In other words, the shifts and changes Egypt has gone through in the past 6 years have resulted in negligence and creation of security vacuum in some areas of the country, especially at its periphery. The release of hundreds of Islamist militants from Egyptian jail and flow of weapons from Libya after Gaddafi’s fall didn’t help either.

2. Local community grievance towards the central regime: Minorities and marginalized groups as the Bedouin tribes have been long neglected by the regime, well before the Arab Spring. This grievance turns this population and region into a convenient place to operate from: one that is not interested to support the regime and counter its enemies.

As a result, Sinai is currently a fruitful ground for the activity of many local tribes and militant groups. Some of them are rivalries to ISIS and works against it, trying to win over the heart and support of the locals in Sinai.

3. An inadequate response and action by the Egyptian security forces:

Unlike in Iraq and Syria, ISIS in Egypt does not hold a land (at least not a continuous one) and therefor it is more fluid in operations, moves fast and under the radar, successfully assimilates in the civilian landscape.

The Egyptian military response to these characteristics of activity by ISIS is far from being enough. The biggest military in the Middle East is too heavy in action and response vs. the quick and dynamic movement of a skilled terror organization. The Egyptian army still hasn’t transitioned well enough to counter terrorism methods implementation. Heavy machinery operations with tanks and air strikes are not accurate and dynamic enough as deep, credible and real-time intelligence, professional dense areas warfare and tight cooperation with the rest of the security forces like the police and other special units. If it won't change its strategy soon, we’ll probably see more deadly attacks in Sinai and even other regions in the country.

The delicate situation in Sinai constitutes a real problem to president Sisi

On the one hand Egyptians are angry for not doing enough against terror, on the other hand the aggressive military operations in that area are increasing the rage of the local tribes who suffer great loses of property and life as well as extensive arrests as a result. Without an effective support and intelligence from the local population, the fight of the regime against terror is much harder.

The war over local support

The local population in Sinai is subjected to a struggle over its support between the regime and ISIS (and other terror groups). The attack is a message from ISIS to the local population in Sinai showing the grave results of supporting the regime. In order to get the local tribes in Sinai back on its feet with resistance to ISIS and willingness to assist on the ground to the Egyptian forces, a protection from terror won't be enough: financial and social assistance is part of the bigger solution, showing a shift in the regime's attitude and strategy.

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