Jump to navigation

Vol 55 No 17

Published 29th August 2014


High stakes in the Sinai fight

The Islamist revolt in the peninsula grew rapidly after Mubarak’s fall. Now, neither government forces nor their jihadist foes can control the area

Over the last ten years, radical Islamists have gained a foothold among the disaffected tribes of the Sinai peninsula and now a full-blown insurgency is in progress. The slow-burning conflict, marked by almost daily killings and occasional major violent convulsions, is likely to persist without either the state or the rebels tipping the balance decisively.Now, northern Sinai changes hands daily – the jihadists mounting checkpoints in order to uncover informers at night. When day breaks, the army emerges to erect its own checkpoints, sometimes launching raids backed by Apache attack helicopters and tanks on what it believes to be rebel safe-houses. This is the broad pattern of the government's conflict with Islamist militants in northern Sinai, the wilderness sandwiched between the Suez Canal and the Israeli border. 

The militants are strong enough to cause significant human and infrastructural damage but too weak to wrest control from the government. The major concern is how strong they could become in the future.

For the government, the fight carries major risks. Several villages have become ghost towns after the army demolished many homes. Villagers sleep in the towns, anxious not to be caught in the crossfire and return only to tend crops. Interviews with northern Sinai residents suggest that, while successful in immediate security terms, the state's counter-terrorist campaign is generating deep public disaffection because arrests and violence are often indiscriminate.

Egypt's jihadists gained a new lease of life when several activists escaped from prison during the 2011 revg5tolt against President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak and from the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-13. Although the insurgents are few, several high-profile attacks have altered the course of Egyptian politics. On 2 September 2013, the military launched a new north Sinai campaign in earnest, raiding villages, targeting militants and destroying homes. December and January saw the jihadists retaliate with car bombings of police buildings in the Nile Delta, assassinations of senior police officers and the shooting down of an Apache helicopter with a portable surface-to-air missile near Rafah on 25 January, the third anniversary of Egypt's revolution.

Holy House supporters
Then the tide turned the government's way. A series of raids – particularly one on a safe house in Qalyoubia Governorate on 19 March – appeared to smash the operation of the Ansar Beit el Makdis (Supporters of the Holy House, i.e. Jerusalem) in the Nile Delta (AC Vol 55 No 12, Red sea missile drama). ABM is the most prominent Islamist organisation in Sinai. Its main leader is said to be Shady el Menaie from the Sawerka tribe.

ABM declared itself in 2012 amid a spate of bombings of the gas pipeline to Israel (AC Vol 53 No 10, Israel and the energy crisis). Before the uprising and the military coup of July 2013 that brought Field Marshal Abdel Fatah Khalil el Sisi to power, ABM focused on attacking Israel, launching missiles there and conducting cross-border raids (AC Vol 54 No 14, The agony and the ecstasy). After the July 2013 coup against President Mohamed Mursi and the mass killing that followed, ABM began to target the police and army but it maintains it does not deliberately kill civilians, other than suspected informers. On 5 March, Israeli commandos had intercepted the Klos-C, a vessel carrying rockets, assumed to be bound for Gaza, and explosives, reportedly en route to Sinai, off the coast of Sudan (AC Vol 55 No 8, Saudi Arabia targets Khartoum). Since then, ABM operations have been less deadly in both north Sinai and the Delta.

On 12 May, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Mustafa told reporters that 99% of terrorists had been eliminated. One of few certainties in the conflict, however, is that not all attacks are fully disclosed and government exaggeration is common. Journalists are intimidated by jihadists and government alike while mobile and landline telephones are often cut for eight to twelve hours a day. For the government, suppressing information often seems as important as suppressing the jihadists. A man recently released from the Azouly military detention centre in Ismailia, where Sinai residents are often held and torture is rife, said, 'The last thing they tell you is:  "If you speak to the press, we'll bring you back".

Inside Sinai's jihad
The core members of the jihadist movement in north Sinai number in the low hundreds, according to estimates by a former participant, Bedouin leaders and officials. They are organised in overlapping cells with notional hierarchies, rather than a rigid structure. For now, neither side is able to land a killer blow on the other.

Egypt has claimed at least twice to have killed El Menaie, most recently in May. ABM denies it and three witnesses told Africa Confidential that they had seen him and other prominent jihadists walking freely around local villages in recent weeks. He was gaoled at around the age of 18 during the crackdown that followed a series of bombings aimed at tourists in Sharm el Sheikh in 2004-06, and which fuelled local resentment of the security services.

The rise of the 'Islamic State' (formerly the Islamic State in Sham/Levant, ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and northern Syria has exerted a powerful pull on Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa, and those in Sinai are no exception. IS tactics have caused much debate among jihadists. At least two north Sinai residents have been killed fighting for IS in Iraq, suggesting that greater numbers are present. Others fight in Syria. ABM communiqués celebrating two of their suicide bombers in 2013 said the two killed had also fought in Syria.

Three senior tribal leaders interviewed by AC volunteered that support for IS's ideology was growing and one thought it very likely that ABM would declare its allegiance. The others agreed that if jihadists were able to implement the IS model while treating tribes well, as they felt the group had in Iraq, they could succeed. Yet the jihadists are not strong enough, they said, to confront the tribes head-on. Tribal authority has been eroded by Islamist radicalism and new sources of wealth but the ethnic groups have well-informed, well-armed and powerful structures long independent of the state. So far, the jihadists seem to have handled this strategic relationship astutely.

All northern Sinai tribes, which are structured into clans and extended families, contain both supporters and opponents of the military and of the jihadists. Inter-tribal and clan alliances and vendettas are complex and opaque. Militants assassinated four senior tribal figures in the second half of July, including Bedouin police Brigadier General Mohamed Hani on 29 July and three others labelled informers. Members of Hani's tribe, the Sawerka – other members of which are militants – vowed revenge. That same day, Al Watan reported, tribal leaders had held a meeting to organise opposition to the militants.

However, interviews suggested that the killing of the men won broad approval and a well-placed Sawerka source said that, in fact, no broad-based retaliation was planned. Jihadists have generally taken care only to target already unpopular figures in the community hierarchy. Another attempted assassination failed when the target, Abdel Majid el Menaie, whom rebels accused of being a former informant for the army, returned fire with his son, killing at least three assailants, relatives say. The attack showed the interpenetration of tribal and political vendettas: Abdel Majid had helped to kill Shady's father, the sources claimed.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the government has not taken many precautions against antagonising local people. At the hospital in the north Sinai capital, El Arish, on 27 July, a man told AC that he had returned the previous day from shopping for the Eid festival to find that a tank had shelled his brother's house in El Gora village, killing his brother, his brother's wife and his own children. His wife, mother and his brother's children were badly injured.

The next day, 28 July, a girl was killed in the nearby village of Mugataa by an army shell, locals said, and her family was put under pressure to accept a death certificate listing a heart attack as the cause. This is reportedly a common practice to reduce casualty statistics. The unreliability of the statistics, the authorities and the media makes it difficult to gauge how common such experiences are but they cause widespread anger.

When Egypt regained Sinai from Israel in 1982, it viewed the Bedouin population – historically second-class citizens – as primitive and untrustworthy. Businesses set about importing Egyptians to Sinai from the Delta to work in tourism and agriculture. Bedouin were left impoverished, excluded from most jobs and largely reliant for justice on tribal courts. During the 1990s, Salafist and Takfiri activists began to gain a hearing, supplanting Sufi preachers. After the Islamist attacks on the United States in 2001 and the US-led invasion of Iraq, their influence grew.

After 2005, the black market and trafficking in people, arms and drugs, including via the smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip, became increasingly economically important. During the 2011 revolt against Mubarak, Bedouin – not just Islamists – who were fed up with the security services attacked police stations and killed officers. The ongoing counter-terrorism operation has made life tougher, raising prices and destroying traditional livelihoods.

Security vetoes development
Tribal leaders, diverse analysts and Western diplomats have long urged Egypt to devote attention to economic development as a necessary complement to the military campaign against Islamists. At senior levels of government, lip service is paid to this. Yet the security services are allowed to veto development projects in sensitive areas without accountability and there have been no notable projects in north Sinai. A source with experience of the Sinai Development Authority said that he believed the security and military had blocked its proposals, maintaining that development had to follow security. There is no appetite in central government for acknowledging, let alone reforming, the often indiscriminate behaviour of the military and security services.

Many north Sinai people resent the jihadists, both for drawing down the ire of the army on the whole community and for killing civilians. A misdirected mortar attack on an army base in El Arish on 10 July killed only one soldier but seven civilians. Nonetheless, resentment against the army is very powerful and carries the risk of long-term destabilisation.

Military and police targets aside, security analysts are well aware that militants could pose a major threat to shipping in the Suez Canal, which earns cash-strapped Egypt around US$5 billion a year, and to gas pipelines to Israel, Jordan and a military-owned cement factory in central Sinai's industrial zone. 

ABM and its allies carried out 15 attacks on the pipeline between the overthrow of Mubarak and the election of Mursi in June 2012. By April 2012, the attacks had already ended the contract with Israel. Under Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, there were perhaps two pipeline attacks but since his ouster, there have been at least eight, most recently on 20 July. They are primarily an irritant: Egypt is now a net importer of natural gas. In August 2013, militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a cargo ship in the Suez Canal. In response to this and other attacks, the military says it will fortify large stretches of the 193-kilometre Canal. Another possible target is tourism, a once vital industry that has not recovered since the fall of Mubarak. 

Local links
Local officials and many Islamism analysts claim an alliance between ABM and both the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiya (Hamas). Local analysts and Sinai residents deny this. Activists who went on to form the Sinai jihadist movement operated with the no-longer active Iranian-backed, Gaza-based Jundallah (God's Brigade) and have trained in Gaza with the Daghmoush clan (allied to Hezbollah) and the Mujahideen Shura Council, all of which are in conflict with Hamas. Hamas severely weakened Jundallah in a firefight in August 2009 and has openly battled the Daghmoush. Until recently, Hamas had its own separate organisation in Sinai. Mursi and his staff were active in negotiations to secure the release of seven members of Egyptian security after they were kidnapped in May 2013 and met tribal leaders with a view to addressing Bedouin grievances.

Israel keeps a close watch on developments in Sinai. In August 2012, it used an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) to kill Ibrahim Owida Nasser Madan, a Bedouin militant, in north Sinai, the first of perhaps three such attacks on Egyptian territory. The latest, according to witnesses, was the 23 July destruction of a car carrying three ABM militants driving away from a site where they had tried to fire rockets into Israel. While the Egyptian army claimed it had carried out the strike using artillery, local witnesses reported hearing a drone engine and claimed no Egyptian military vehicles were within range.

The low-level campaign of bombing and shooting which continues in Cairo and the Delta appears to be not by Sinai militants but by local groups. The highest-profile is Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt): they kill civilians and police officers, and attack electricity pylons, but show no sign of escalating and their operations seem less sophisticated than ABM's.

A potentially greater threat comes from militants based on the western border with Libya (AC Vol 55 No 13, The centre moves east). On 19 July, they overran an army base in Qasr Farafra in the Western Desert, killing 22 troops and losing only two men. An earlier attack there had killed five. Egyptian security officials told Reuters that they believed militants based in Libya were trying to link up with those based in Sinai.

The government, whether in its current or previous incarnations, has shown little interest either in curbing the excesses of the security services or in improving the social conditions and chronic economic underdevelopment in the tribal areas, where discontent and both jihadism and more traditional banditry can thrive. While the marginalisation is long standing, the potential for Islamists to exploit it is greater now than ever. The influence of the well-funded IS, for example, seems to be growing in north Sinai.

For now, Egypt, helped by US and Israeli intelligence, will probably contain the Sinai jihadists to tribal areas without stamping them out. Meanwhile, they will increase physical security around strategic targets, particularly the Suez Canal and gas pipelines. 

Related Articles

The Red Sea missile drama

Fearing reprisals from Saudi Arabia and Israel, Khartoum turns down Tehran's offer to build missile launch pads near Port Sudan

Just how close are relations between the Islamist regimes in Khartoum and Tehran? The headline from Iran's Fars News Agency on 4 June – 'Iran, Sudan Discuss Expansion of Ties...

The agony and the ecstasy

The military takeover in Egypt may eventually lead to fresh elections but it challenges the country's fledgling democracy. It will certainly strengthen the political roles of both ...

The ball is in the court

Judicial battles are as crucial to the political future as the clashes between Mursi and the military

President Mohamed Mursi’s challenge to the validity of a constituent assembly dictated by the military has been postponed amid brawling in court, on the street and in politics in g...

Half a cheer for democracy

Promises of reform mix uneasily with baton charges on opposition parties

'I am certain of my choice,' President Hosni Mubarak told the audience in his old school on 27 July, announcing his candidacy for a fifth term. 'I choose a strong, a democratic, Eg...

More Gulf cash needed

The subsidy cuts have much to do with keeping the El Sisi regime’s benefactors on-side but Egypt's energy prices are still among the lowest in the world

As the Egyptian public digested the news on 5 July that the prices of petrol, diesel and electricity had all been sharply increased, three senior economic ministers flew to the Gul...