For over two years, the Egyptian military has been conducting large-scale military operations in North Sinai in response to a series of insurgent attacks targeting Egyptian security forces. However, Egypt’s response—supported by the United States and Israel—to the group conducting the insurgency in Sinai and the Nile Delta, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), lacks innovation and adaptability. The “War on Terror” has become predictable in ways that have been taken advantage of by ABM. Until the Egyptian military and its allies begin to properly understand ABM’s strategy and learn from past mistakes in their approach to confronting Islamist insurgency, they will be largely ineffective in combating this evolving threat.
While ABM and its sympathizers do, undeniably, wave the black banner of al-Qaeda, their appropriation of the themes of global jihad should be understood in primarily strategic terms. ABM is an entirely Egyptian phenomenon, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Syria, where foreign fighters poured in to participate in a grander jihad; even Palestinian involvement reflects domestic Egyptian political dynamics. At the same time, ABM is distinctly different from other Islamist groups in Egypt. ABM has more than a passing disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood, whom they believed sold out by joining the post-2011 political process; the state claims that the group has an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now classified as a terrorist group. Their attack on Israel in the early days of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency demonstrates their resolve to cause problems for the Egyptian government, whether it is secularist or Islamist. Moreover, ABM is not connected to the Salafi groups operating in North Sinai’s cities, notably al-Arish, Shiekh Zuweid, and Rafah. However, the Egyptian state has largely responded to ABM’s attacks by targeting these groups, driving them to support greater violence against the state. ABM actively benefits from this conflation.
Tactically, ABM’s insurgency can be divided into two main phases. The first phase focused on engagement, consisting of a number of high-profile attacks against Israel. While these attacks were largely seen as a tactical failure, the reality could not be more opposite: the border peace between Egypt and Israel was shaken to its foundations, leading to an amendment of the Camp David Accords that allowed Egypt to deploy more heavy weaponry into Sinai. This resulted in the launch of Operation Eagle in August 2011 and its renewal as Operation Sinai in 2012. This was precisely the goal of phase one, and it was met with a heavy-handed security response. Since Egypt has extremely poor human intelligence capabilities on the ground in Sinai due to decades of economic and political alienation, the state’s best bet was to hope that its “kinetic” response would take out jihadists hidden among the civilian population and, of course, silence any journalists who might expose their tactics. This response was a key factor in pushing Sinai’s Salafis to adopt a more violent posture against the state.
The second phase focused on retaliation, and ABM responded to Egyptian security operations by targeting the security establishment. By targeting military and police rather than Egyptian civilian centers, ABM and its allies are increasingly able to paint themselves as defenders of Egyptian citizens who are being brutalized by Egyptian security forces. This second phase escalated in the aftermath of the Rabia al-Adawiya massacre, which was perhaps the greatest gift the Egyptian military could have handed a group like ABM. This gave ABM and its allies the perfect opportunity to expand its operations into Egypt proper, planting large bombs near police stations and security buildings in Cairo and surrounding governorates including Dakahliya and Sharqiya, as well as targeting the Interior Minister in a failed assassination attempt and a police general in a successful attempt. This did not represent any major change in strategy, but was rather their seizing of an opportunity to conduct retaliation attacks in Egypt proper, which is likely to have been their goal all along.
Regardless of ABM’s image issues—their al-Qaeda affiliation does not sit well with the majority of Egyptians—the Egyptian response, supported by the United States and Israel, plays directly into ABM’s grand strategy. This response, and the optimism surrounding the recent decline in large-scale attacks in Sinai and Egypt proper, is based on three enormously false premises. The first of these is that aerial bombardment is an effective way to conduct counterinsurgency. Airpower is dangerously indiscriminate, contributing to the perception of an assault against Egypt’s civilian population and increasing support for anti-state violence. The second is that the decline in attacks preceding Egypt’s recent election indicates that Egypt’s strategy to combat the insurgency is working. ABM’s goal is to embarrass and discredit the state, and it was in their interest to let the election proceed without interference. Any attack might have inadvertently legitimized what was clearly a sham election. Rather, ABM was able to sit back and let the Egyptian state embarrass itself.
Finally, policy analysts have argued that ABM poses a “real and serious terror threat,” but the insurgency in Sinai is much less of a security challenge to the United States and Israel than it would seem. This feeds the American misconception that Sinai’s insurgency is connected to global jihad and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This, once again, plays into ABM’s strategy. Although ABM’s opening salvo was against Israel, this does not imply that Israel is a serious front in their war. Rather, their opening tactics—as well as their name, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is commonly translated as Champions of Jerusalem—were pursued more for their publicity value on the international stage. They used Sinai’s strategic location, Egypt’s vulnerability to U.S. pressure, and U.S. obsession with Israeli security as a lever to force a military confrontation.
The reaction from all parties was predictable: the United States and Israel supported an Egyptian offensive into Sinai that paralleled Egypt’s increasingly brutal crackdown on domestic political dissent. This is made doubly important by the fact that ABM has largely refrained from targeting Egyptian civilians, calling into question the credibility of the state’s claim that it is waging a war on terrorism. Rather, it might appear that Egypt is waging a war on its own population for the sake of U.S.-Israeli interests. This serves only to benefit ABM by further discrediting Egypt’s military regime in the eyes of its citizens. Until Egypt and its allies realize the consequences of their actions in the eyes of the Egyptian people, they will continue playing into the hands of ABM.
Joshua R. Goodman is a graduate student in Political Science at Yale University and author of Contesting Identities in South Sinai: Development, Transformation, and the Articulation of a Bedouin Identity Under Egyptian Rule (2013).