As the Egyptian military struggles to contain the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai, its already forceful response is becoming more heavy-handed. Increased reliance on heavy weaponry and air power is contributing to a rise in civilian causalities and inflaming anti-government sentiment.   

Extrajudicial killings in Sinai increased in 2016, according to the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, reaching 1,234 out of 1,384 extrajudicial killings across the country, constituting 89.2 percent of all cases documented. Within that, the vast majority of cases (1,177) occurred in the North Sinai province, which includes the towns of al-Arish and Shiekh Zuweid, as well as Halal Mountain, the epicenter of the insurgency. Across Egypt, air raids were responsible for 451 of the cases reported, assassinations for 443 cases, deaths during sustained state operations for 368 cases, and artillery for 56 cases. The use of artillery and the air force therefore constitute 36.6 percent of all extrajudicial killing in Egypt. By comparison, in 2015, the total number of extrajudicial killings reached 328 nationwide, with air power and artillery claiming the lives of 43 individuals combined, or 13.1 percent of the total death toll.    

Reflecting the heavier crackdown is a rise in the number of attacks claimed by Wilayat Sinai, the local IS affiliate and the main insurgent group, reaching 48 attacks per month for the first six months of 2016, compared to 28 per month for the six months prior. Still, the rise in terrorist attacks does not entirely explain the increase in state-sanctioned civilian deaths to the extent the scorched-earth tactics of the Egyptian military do. For example, based on local reports from September 2015, entire villages associated with the militants were wiped out by heavy shelling, including the villages of al-Touma, al-Mahdiya, al-Moqataa, and al-Goura, among others. There are also local reports of direct shooting at civilian homes; when residents complain to authorities, the military accuses them of having ties with the militants. Moreover, there are local reports of attacks by the Egyptian air force on villages in Sinai, leading to the destruction of a number of homes and civilian deaths.

In addition, the number of casualties during counterterrorism operations far exceeds the estimated number of Wilayat Sinai fighters. Since the start of the large counterterrorism “Operation Martyr’s Right” in September 2015, the Egyptian military has reported that 2,529 militants were killed and 2,481 others arrested as of December 2016. However, foreign intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israel Defense Forces, estimated in mid-2016 that the size of Wilayat Sinai ranges from several hundred to a thousand militants, far below the numbers of reported killings. This disconnect can be explained by faulty intelligence or by inflating of the number of militants killed to include civilian deaths among militant deaths. The Egyptian government has a history of attacking civilians mistaken for militants. Local sources in Sinai back up the existence of such incidents, including an invented attack on a police station in Sheikh Zuweid that was used to justify the deaths of civilians in September 2013.

The counterinsurgency operation has increasingly been undifferentiated in its targeting of the local population. On January 13, five local youth were assassinated who were accused of being part of an attack on a police checkpoint that claimed the lives of eight policemen. In response, the local Bedouin tribes around the city of al-Arish launched a limited civil disobedience campaign to placate the public, refusing to pay water and electricity bills on February 11. The families claimed that at the time of the attack on the checkpoint, the five youth were already being held by state security forces, specifically the national security agency. This is not the first time that Egyptian security forces have been accused of executing defendants already in custody at the time of their alleged crimes, the most notable example of which is the case of Arab Sharkas. Six men were executed after being accused of killing soldiers during a Wilayat Sinai raid on the village of Arab Sharkas in March 2014, even though there was strong evidence that they were under arrest at the time the raid was committed.

Other cases, documented by a local NGO called Sinai for Human Rights, indicate more deliberate extrajudicial killings of civilians in recent months. Four civilians were publicly assassinated following their arrest on January 27, 2017, the motivation for which remains unclear. There are also a number of documented cases of civilian deaths at security checkpoints and more frequent cases where air strikes and heavy weaponry killed civilians. For example, on January 20, a drone strike killed ten civilians attending Friday prayers in the south of the city of Rafah. The same month, an artillery shell fell on residential area in the south of al-Arish, killing three civilians, including two children.

State-sanctioned violence against civilians has only increased local anger against the military, whose actions have also led to the deterioration of the local living conditions by imposing a constant state of siege on residents. Together with the state’s policies of economic and social marginalization, this repression is feeding the insurgency. This has shifted some sympathy from the military to the militants, who are increasingly seen as a way to take revenge. This has manifested itself in militants’ shows of strength, including publicly evicting Coptic families from their homes in the city of al-Arish; the government was unable to stop the eviction process or, more startlingly, to return the refugees back to their homes. This indicates the central government’s loss of control in Sinai, even though it has boasted of killing of thousands of militants and repeatedly proclaimed progress in fighting the insurgency. Moreover, based on local sources, the militants have started to impose control over the civilian population—for example by imposing taxes, enforcing wearing niqab, and raising tariffs on the smuggling tunnels in Rafah, where they live openly.  

The combination of heavy repression, numerous civilian casualties, and the increased reliance on the use of airpower and heavy weaponry has not only alienated the local population, it has proven highly ineffective. The state could make its operations in Sinai more effective by collaborating with local tribes that have declared willingness to ally themselves with the Egyptian military. But, suspicious of the local tribes, the central government has been reluctant to arm them as part of its counterterrorism campaign. The Egyptian government’s attachment to conventional warfare paradigms has failed to put down the insurgency, which has instead become emboldened to carry out a rising number of attacks.

Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.