Source: Getty

The Egyptian Military’s Terrorism Containment Campaign in North Sinai

Rather than eradicating a jihadist threat, the Egyptian Armed Forces strategy in North Sinai has aimed at containment, perpetuating a decade-old conflict.

by Allison McManus
Published on June 30, 2020

Approaching nearly a decade of efforts to combat an insurgency in North Sinai, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) has announced no definitive success or defeat. The last major military operation, Comprehensive Operation Sinai in February 2018, declared its intention to “end terrorism” in the province; similar objectives were associated with previous large-scale operations, beginning with Operation Eagle in 2011. In issuing statements, the armed forces spokesman typically reiterates the intent to “eradicate terrorism,” though he has given no updates on the progress of the 2018 operation since a thirty-second communique on March 12, 2019.

Despite these ambitious declarations, the actions of the EAF in North Sinai suggest that the strategy aims for containment and attrition rather than eradication. The reasons for this more modest strategy are multifold: although there may be an earnest desire to rid the province of the militant threat, the nature of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ dual role as political and military actor create constraints that prevent it from either formulating a dynamic force able to combat the threat or carrying out the necessary political “soft power” strategy to prevent militants’ recruitment. Yet, while the military has been relatively successful in achieving this more realistic containment strategy, the continued presence of the threat remains a concern. Sustaining a military presence is costly: the military continues to sustain nearly daily casualties, the local population suffers and is susceptible to militant recruitment, and militants have sporadically penetrated and attacked the mainland.

Undoubtedly, the performance of the EAF in North Sinai has revealed tactical and operational challenges in the field, but several key political and institutional challenges have hampered the armed forces in implementing a strategy to achieve its declared aims. For one, the structure of the Egyptian armed forces is such that strategic decisions are made by those in Cairo (with little input from the field command), with tactical decision making carried out by field commanders in a hierarchy geared to traditional warfare, rather than a less centralized structure that is more effective in combating insurgency.

No joint special operations command exists that would be able to respond dynamically to the threat and conduct independent missions, and thus special operations are generally deployed as elite infantry within regular units. While a 2015 presidential decree established a unified command for the area east of the Suez Canal and comprising the 2d and 3d Field Armies, it did not fundamentally alter strategic decision making power away from Cairo or offer a more flexible command. Doing so would likely generate opposition from traditional commands keen to maintain their power, particularly as positions approaching the SCAF level come with significant political and economic benefits as well as rank and command.   

Politically speaking, to institute a strategy that would effectively combat the insurgency in the long term would require the government to examine the roots of the threat and militants’ ability to successfully recruit and replenish its force; it would likely mean that a more holistic strategy be adopted, one informed by the realities on the ground, which would require both a soft and hard power approach. Yet acknowledging any expression of grievances is viewed as politically risky for a government that sees openness as a threat to its power; President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi himself has justified antidemocratic measures as necessary to combat terrorism.

Barring a grounded, whole-of-government approach, a heavy-handed strategy has, at times, indicated a genuine effort to dismantle terrorist networks and eye a more decisive solution, but the scale of which has ultimately been unsustainable. Six months after the launch of Comprehensive Operation Sinai, which included large-scale deployments in both Sinai and the western desert (as well as smaller deployments near the Suez), the military began to wind down the campaign, and attacks picked up in North Sinai almost immediately.

And so time and again the military has reverted to containment, as evidenced in efforts to control movement into, out of, and within North Sinai with checkpoints that restrict travelers from visiting the province unless they show proof of residency; internal, semi-permanent military checkpoints throughout the province; curfews, especially in the eastern part of the province; and barrier walls on the Gaza border. The EAF has also created a buffer zone on the Gaza border—criticized by rights groups and residents for large scale forced displacements and home demolitions—and flooded tunnels used for the illicit movement of people and goods. Slash-and-burn tactics have sought to diminish militants’ capacity and disrupt their logistics and supply, killing thousands since 2013 and destroying equipment and shelters, but only occasionally targeting leaders.

The current strategy has largely been successful in mitigating the threat from its peak in 2015 and has more or less kept the threat isolated to North Sinai. Militants’ capacity to conduct large scale assaults has clearly been degraded since their brief July 2015 success in overtaking the city center of Sheikh Zuweid; the EAF, according to official statements, claimed to have killed around a hundred fighters affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State in ensuing clashes and airstrikes. Today, militant attacks have abated overall in Egypt: while 2015 and 2016 saw sustained political violence throughout the country, with intermittent sectarian or civilian-targeted attacks, only a few have been reported outside of North Sinai since January 2018. However, the counterterrorism campaign’s declared goals, which are highly publicized and not tied to concrete objectives or timelines, are better read as a part of the military government’s political strategy to allay public concern and secure support for the country’s leadership amid concerns over the terrorist threat.

The threat is far from eliminated. Though less often than during the peak, militants have continued to target military personnel and interests in North Sinai, almost without pause. Thus far 2020 has seen—according to claims from Islamic State—thirty-nine attacks, killing thirty-five soldiers and civilians they suspect of collaboration, and injuring twenty-five more. These attacks have a geographic spread from Bir al-Abd, less than 50 kilometers east of the Suez Canal, to Rafah, on the Gaza border. The attacks regularly hit established checkpoints manned by conscripts, and at times result in casualties among officers. This year, IED attacks killed a Lieutenant Colonel, Ahmed Shehata Maksoud, and Brigadier General Mostafa Abido, the 134th Infantry Brigade commander, part of the 2d Field Army, whose purview covers North Sinai.

The response to Abido’s killing reveals another feature of Egypt’s approach in North Sinai: whatever strategic planning exists, many operations are reactive. The EAF reported killing ten fighters following Abido’s death, and even major campaigns, like Comprehensive Operation Sinai, are often retaliatory. The EAF launched this operation in response to the Rawda Mosque attack that killed 311 worshipers. The EAF has announced few, if any, notable operations that indicate an effort to implement an apparent strategy, and, aside from increasing in scale, operations have not changed in a way that points to strategic shifts over the course of the years-long conflict.

Table 1: Timeline of Major Operations since 2011
Date Attack Operation
July 30, 2011 Arish: 100 gunmen kill six, injure twenty others  
Aug 14, 2011   Operation Eagle: first mass deployment of forces to Sinai Peninsula since 1973 War
August 5, 2012 Kerem Shalom border crossing: gunmen kill 16 Egyptian soldiers  
August 7, 2012   Coordinated air and land operation; declared “complete success” by August 8
October 24, 2014 Arish: Thirty-three police and military personnel killed in a series of attacks  
October 26, 2014   State of emergency in North Sinai (since renewed continuously); daily operations for next month
July 1, 2015 Militants affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” capture Sheikh Zuweid  
July 1–6, 2015   Rapid deployment of air power; 240 militants killed in operations over the next week
September 3, 2015 Militant video of major attacks on military forces, including a Kornet missile attack on a Navy ship  
September 7, 2015   Operation Martyr’s Right kills hundreds (first phase declared success September 23); reports continue for three years
November 24, 2017 Rawda mosque: gunmen kill 311  civilians (deadliest attack to date)  
February 9, 2018   Comprehensive Operation Sinai: Sisi gives a three month deadline to defeat terrorism in North Sinai

The fact that the EAF has not made significant adjustments to its strategy in North Sinai suggests that leaders view the current situation as acceptable. Containing a pernicious threat in North Sinai could be a win in light of the other security concerns Egypt faces, from the internal political dynamics of preserving power to the deterioration of stability in Libya over the past year and mounting alarm over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to the south. However, as Egypt’s history of terrorism and insurgency has shown time and again, containment is likely only a temporary solution. For example, former minister of interior Mohamed Ibrahim declared terrorism in Egypt “99% eliminated” in 2014, months before Sinai-based militants pledged fealty to Islamic State and intensified their insurgency there. In September 2015, the EAF announced that it had achieved the goals of the first phase of Operation Martyr’s Right, only to face the worst terrorist attack to that point a month later, when insurgents killed 224 civilians in the Russian MetroJet bombing. As long as the North Sinai insurgency simmers, the local population will remain frustrated and terrorized, jihadists will recruit, the EAF will sustain casualties and suffering, and threats to the mainland and civilian population will loom.

On December 15, 2019, Sisi, a career military officer with a background in military intelligence, addressed Egypt’s third World Youth Forum. He emphasized the need for coordinated efforts to confront the complex menace of terrorism that threaten Egypt’s civilian population and its fragile economy. This recognition is apt. To implement these coordinated efforts requires rethinking Egypt’s approach to counterterrorism.

Tackling the pernicious insurgency in Sinai will require a host of reforms at the operational and tactical levels, but these should start with a reassessment of strategy. One immediate step to facilitate a more dynamic and responsive strategy would be to empower leadership specialized in countering insurgency to make joint command decisions. Ideally a SCAF-level position, a special operations command should be able to coordinate the special forces and intelligence gathering units that currently operate in the various branches of the security apparatus, rather than under disparate commands, as currently is the case. Such a command would be better equipped to advise on and implement a clearly articulated and timebound strategy (with long, medium, and short term objectives), not only making and taking tactical decisions, but also working with leaders outside the command to implement longer term operational and training reforms. Rather than a series of intermittent operations with lofty aims that eventually give way to containment, which has characterized the last ten years of the war in North Sinai, a strategic shift is vital to undertake a more proactive and cumulative approach to win the conflict.

Allison McManus is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. Follow her on Twitter @AllisonLMcManus.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.