Addressing a host of religious and public figures at the annual Prophet Muhammad Birthday celebration late in November in 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed to eradicate terrorism in in Egypt within three months.
The armed forced, in consequence, launched in early February 2018 the comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 to eradicate Daesh in northern and central Sinai. The operation also included other areas in the Nile Delta, the Western desert and the area west of the Nile Valley.
This is the largest military operation to be staged inside Sinai since the October War of 1973. It reflects the serious desire of the Egyptian state to fight terrorism in Sinai and in the other provinces.
According to information provided by the army, the operation will have a deep effect on Daesh for many years to come. The Egyptian army is apparently insistent on finishing off this terrorist organization once and for all.
Nonetheless, developments of the operation raise a number of questions. We will try to answer these questions here.
These developments raise questions on the nature of the terrorist operations that can happen in Sinai after the eradication of Daesh. Will the liquidation of Daesh members in Sinai put an end to terrorism in Egypt in general? Will there appear new militant groups that will think the way Daesh thought?
We need to review Egypt’s counterterrorism experiences since the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in order to be able to answer these questions. The death of Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1949 did not cause the death of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. The ferocious terrorism that reared its ugly head in the 1980s and 1990s did not stop after its perpetrators were killed or put in jail. The same terrorism spent a period of slump, but returned to its past strengths after the January 25 revolution in 2011. This means that the eradication of a terrorist organization does not necessarily bring its ideas to an end.
Comprehensive strategic vision
Some countries benefit from the presence of Daesh and the presence of other terrorist organizations. The economies of most of these countries depend on the export of arms to the Middle East region. This means that the same countries can invent new terrorist organizations in case Daesh Sinai is eradicated. This makes it necessary for the Egyptian state to formulate a comprehensive strategic vision in preparation for this possibility. This vision needs to make the development of Sinai and provinces near Egypt’s borders with other countries a focal point. This development must go hand in hand with the military and intellectual battle against terrorism. The intellectual battle has to immunize the nation’s youth against being entrapped by terrorist organizations.
This study can be subdivided into the following four sections:
The first section focuses on conditions in Sinai and the reality of Daesh in Egypt. It dwells on Daesh’s failure to establish a stronghold and seep out into other parts of Egypt. The fact is that Daesh could not establish its own province in Sinai as it hoped. It only succeeded in establishing terrorist pockets. In Syria, Iraq and Libya, Daesh used sectarianism to fuel its own growth. However, it could not do the same thing in Egypt because the conditions in Egypt are different.
The second section dwells on the importance of the comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018. It shows that the comprehensive nature of the operation means that it targets all types of terrorism with all means.
The third section focuses on the role non-military institutions play in the fight against terrorism, especially after the vanquishing of Daesh.
The fourth section explains the effects the development of Sinai and the border provinces will have on extremism.
The northern and central parts of Sinai are the prime stage for the fight against terrorism in Egypt. This was why a state of emergency has been slapped on those parts of Sinai since October 2014. The state of emergency was especially imposed after the death of 30 army troops in a series of coordinated bombings at army posts. The bombings also targeted two armored vehicles in Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai.
In April 2017, Sisi imposed a nationwide state of emergency for three months. This followed bomb attacks on two churches in Tanta in the Nile Delta and the northern coastal city of Alexandria. The same state of emergency was renewed in the light of the constitution.
The air force intensified its work in Sinai ahead of the start of Operation Sinai 2018 in February. Efforts were also intensified with the aim of collecting information about the hiding places of the terrorists. Law-enforcement troops also moved ahead with establishing a buffer zone between Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip with the aim of cutting off Daesh’s supply routes. By the end of 2017, the buffer zone between Sinai and Gaza became 1.5 kilometers wide. Residents whose homes fell within the planned buffer zone were compensated for these homes. (1)
To know more about conditions in Sinai before the launch of Operation Sinai 2018, one has to read about Egypt’s years-long fight against terrorism. Direct military confrontations between countries have become a very costly matter. These confrontations can lead to the total destruction of a country fighting against another. This was why military planners invented proxy wars. In doing this, these planners want to avoid the high cost of conventional wars and also make strategic gains as far as the balances of power are concerned.
This opened the door for the presence of what is known as fourth generation wars, a term that also means proxy wars. Militias and militant organizations now launch wars against states. Wars now do not erupt between traditional armies. Wars now primarily aim at putting pressure on states and causing their failure to coerce them to bow to their enemies. They also aim at weakening states. (2)
Early stages of formation, merger
Dentist Khaled Mosaed formed what came to be known as Ansar al-Jihad Group at the end of the 1990s. The group carried out several terrorist operations. In 2004, it staged an attack on Taba Hotel. This attack was followed by a series of attacks on tourist facilities in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005. In 2006, the group also staged an attack on a resort in Dahab.
As a result, security forces launched a massive crackdown on terrorist elements in Sinai until 2011. Until the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt and other Arab states, Ansar al-Jihad had been influenced by the ideology of al-Qaeda. It aimed primarily to back the Palestinians in their struggle against the Israeli occupation of their country. However, soon after the Arab Spring, the group made Sinai the focus of its militant activity.
The eruption of the January 25 revolution in Egypt was accompanied by massive unrest in the country. This gave the chance for terrorist groups to resume their work in Sinai. Tawhid and Jihad Group merged into Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai. The merger opened the door for the creation of a new group, namely Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.
Soon after it promulgated itself in 2011, the new group staged a number of operations, including the blowing up of the natural gas pipeline between Egypt, Israel and Jordan. The group bombed the pipeline almost 14 times. It also attacked an Israeli army patrol car near the border with Egypt. In August 2012 – during the Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt – Ansar Beit al-Maqdis carried out what came later to be known as the First Rafah Massacre. The massacre left 16 Egyptian army troops dead. These army conscripts were killed by the group as they broke their fast on the 17th day of the Islamic month of Ramadan. By the end of 2012, the number of terrorists in Sinai had reached 3,000, according to the estimates of some experts.
Following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis launched repeated attacks against army troops and policemen with support from the Gaza-ruling Hamas movement. The attack that was staged on August 18, 2013 was the strongest of all. This attack targeted two buses carrying police conscripts. Twenty-five conscripts were killed in this attack. The terrorists forced the conscripts to get out of the bus and lie on the ground before they shot them dead.
Transformation ahead of allegiance
The attack on the Karm al-Qawadis army checkpoint in October 2014 was the strongest to ever happen in al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. Thirty-three army troops were killed in this attack which proved to be a turning point. A month after the attack, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis swore allegiance to Daesh. (3)
In 2015, the pace of attacks against military facilities and security posts accelerated. The most powerful attack took place in July 2015 when the Sinai Province Organization staged coordinated attacks against army checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. The organization used booby-trapped vehicles in staging the attacks, leaving 17 army troops, including four officers, dead. The army and air force then raided terrorist hideouts and killed not less than 100 terrorists. Several terrorists were also injured in the raids. More than 20 vehicles that were used by the terrorists in staging their attacks were also destroyed. By July 5, 2015, 240 terrorists had been killed.
Daesh’s ability to launch attacks in North Sinai was much weakened in 2016. By the end of the year, the organization had improvised new tactics in its showdown with the Egyptian state. The new tactics included the targeting of Christians in North Sinai. The organization also moved its activity to central Egypt. Attacks in this regard were carried out until the end of 2017. They included attacks against the St. George’s Church in Tanta in the Nile Delta and the Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the northern coastal city of Alexandria. Explosive devices were used in the carrying out of the attacks on April 14, 2017. The two attacks let 45 Christian citizens dead. Twenty-nine more Christians were killed when a bus carrying pilgrims from al-Adwa Village in the central province of Minya was also targeted by terrorists on May 26, 2017. The attack aimed to reduce pressure on Daesh in Sinai, one brought about by military operations against the organization. (4)
Diaa Rashwan, a researcher in Islamist movements and a member of the Supreme Anti-Terrorism Council in Egypt (5), said Daesh’s organizational idea in Sinai failed, because the terrorist group came short of making its own stronghold and expanding. Such an organization, Rashwan said, depends on creating its own stronghold before moving on to control other areas or territories.
He said this did not happen in the case of the group in Sinai. Daesh, he said, failed in establishing its own province, contrary to what it claims in its media propaganda. It only succeeded in forming terrorist pockets, Rashwan said.
Rashwan said Daesh uses sectarianism as fuel for growth, like in the cases of Syria, Iraq and Libya. In Egypt, he said, the conditions were different, which was why it failed in using the same technique, although it tried several times to sow the seeds of sectarian strife by bombing churches.
However, all these attempts failed because of the unity of the Egyptian social fabric, Rashwan said.
Sinai 2018: Important operation with diverse goals
The comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 is only an extension of previous counterterrorism operations in this country. Operation Desert Storm, which was launched on July 27, 2013, was the first of these operations. This operation was launched in full coordination between the different units of the army. It followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. Operation Desert Storm was followed by Operation Martyr’s Right which kicked off on September 8, 2015, in Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and al-Arish in North Sinai province. The fourth phase of the operation lasted until the end of 2017. (6)
Operation Sinai 2018 is important in that it combines all the army units that participated, either collectively, or separately, in the previous operations, including the Rapid Reaction Force which was formed in March 2014 (7). The force was formed three months before Daesh emerged. The airborne force has special combat abilities and special equipment (8). It was formed by Sisi when he was chief of the Egyptian army. The Special Reaction Force cooperates with another anti-terrorism army unit, known as “Unit 888”. While this unit is small, its members are highly trained and have very advanced equipment. It is specialized in raiding terrorist command centers, destroying them and then withdrawing. This unit does not enter extended military confrontations, like the Rapid Reaction Force does. The Rapid Reaction Force has a wider mandate (9).
Operation Sinai 2018 was launched after the armed forces acquired vast expertise in dealing with Daesh in Sinai, given the fact that the organization usually employs guerrilla war techniques.
The presence of diverse strategic objectives is what makes Operation Sinai 2018 a special one. According to the first statement of the army on the operation, these objectives include the following:
- Carrying out missions and military and operational drills on all strategic fronts
- Tightening control on all border crossing points
- Ensuring the cleansing of areas where there is terrorist presence
- Immunizing the Egyptian society against the evils of terrorism
The second statement of the army included the following operation objectives (10):
- Cutting off the terrorists’ supply routes by tightening security on Egypt’s maritime borders
- Tightening control on border crossing points and beefing up security at the maritime passage by border guards and policemen
- Beefing up security at important targets nationwide by army troops and policemen
The third statement by the army on the operation included the following objectives (11):
- Carrying out air protection operations on all strategic fronts
- Protecting economic targets in the sea
- Combing the coast with the aim of tightening the noose around terrorist elements and preventing their escape
- Securing the coast from Marsa Matrouh to al-Salloum by assigning the navy the mission of patrolling this area
Analysis of the results (12)
Analysis of the results of the operation until the release of the 11th statement on February 21 (12) shows the following:
1 – Daesh had strong presence in different areas of North Sinai. A total of 751 hiding places of the terrorists had been destroyed. A total of 1,464 centers of the terrorists and places where they stored chemical materials, explosive devices, wireless communication devices, spare parts and narcotics had been destroyed. A total of 165 underground warehouses where the terrorists hid essentials, motorcycle spare parts, explosive device components, 1,500 kilograms of composition 4, an amount of the chemical compound TNT, 56 detonators, 13 electrical networks, and fuel barrels. A 250-meter-long tunnel was also destroyed.
2 – A large number of foreign militants joined Daesh in Sinai in the period between January 25, 2011 and the end of Morsi’s one-year in power. A total of 577 foreign militants were arrested along with 1,411 Egyptians wanted by the authorities in connection with criminal violations.
3 – Daesh depends on the trade in narcotics to finance its operations. The army raided 66 farms in which the organization grew all types of narcotics, from marijuana to hash. The army also found huge amounts of addictive pills. These addictive materials were either sold to youth inside Egypt or smuggled to other countries.
4 – Army troops participating in the operation also found and defused 433 explosive devices and ten anti-tank mines. This shows that huge efforts need to be made to remove explosives after Daesh’s eradication and before the return of the residents of evacuated areas to their homes.
5 – Enormous amounts of arms and ammunitions were found in areas raided by the army, which unveils massive smuggling from Libya after the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in the country as well as international backing to Daesh.
6 – Army troops participating in the operation found a field lab used by Daesh in the making of explosive devices. The lab demonstrates the skill organization operatives have in this regard.
7 – Daesh’s media abilities became weaker, especially after the destruction of two organization media centers and the confiscation of communication equipment, books, documents and brochures that promote jihadist and takfiri activity.
8 – Daesh possesses a large number of four-wheel drives. The army found and destroyed 128 four-wheel drives along with 296 motorcycles that did not have license plates. Army troops also found a workshop for cutting hijacked cars into pieces. The troops also found a huge amount of car and motorcycle spare parts. Daesh used to sell these parts to get funding for its operations.
Role played by civilian state institutions
The post-Daesh phase makes it necessary for civilian state institutions, such as al-Azhar, the church, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and the media to work together to immunize youth against extremism and extremist organizations.
Ideas never die after the death of their propagators or the people who make them. Marxism did not die with Carl Marx. The Muslim Brotherhood did not die after its founder, Hassan al-Banna, died. This underscores the need for an intellectual and cultural battle against terrorism to go hand in hand with the military battle against it. This is also particularly true, given the fact that although some countries want Daesh to be eradicated, the same countries do not want its ideas to die. They want these ideas to stay and expand to fuel the emergence of other organizations that can help them sell more arms in the Middle East.
The fact that Daesh loses territories does not mean that it is totally defeated. Daesh’s former spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani highlighted this reality in one of his speeches (15). He said the Americans should not think that they could win the war against Daesh by killing one or two of its leaders.
This is then an unreal victory, he said. Has America won the war by killing Abu Musab or Abu Hamza? Does America think it can win the war by making us lose a city or a plot of land? Were we defeated when we lost cities in Iraq? Do you think you can win the war by taking Mosul, Raqqa or Sirte or all the cities we used to control?
Adnani went on to say that his organization does not fight to protect a plot of land or liberate this plot of land.
As an institution, al-Azhar made huge efforts in the past few years to counter extremist ideologies. It launched a number of observatories in foreign languages. The observatories track takfiri edicts and ideas, analyze them and then comment on them. Al-Azhar also organized a number of international conferences in this regard.
Nonetheless, al-Azhar needs to work harder. It can coordinate its work with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Youth and Sports to fight the ideology of extremist organizations.
Aspired development of Sinai
Before the January 25, 2011 revolution, the government viewed Sinai only through a security prism. The need for finding solutions to the problems of Sinai arose soon after longstanding president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. Nonetheless, there were no projects to translate this newfound interest in Sinai into action (16).
Most tourist projects were established in the southern part of Sinai, whereas the northern part of the peninsula was neglected. Sinai Bedouins benefited nothing from most of the projects launched in the peninsula for a long time under Mubarak. Professional workers were, meanwhile, encouraged to migrate from other parts of Egypt to Sinai. Once they arrived in Sinai, these migrant workers were given preferential treatment, compared to indigenous Sinai residents. Sinai Bedouins were also barred from joining the army, police and the peacekeeping troops in Sinai. North Sinai province suffered an extreme lack of civil servants, schools and hospitals (17).
Terrorism turned into an impediment to development in Sinai, following the January 25 revolution of 2011. Terrorist groups were most active in areas deprived of development for a long time. The northern and central parts of Sinai need to be populated by 5 million people at least after the eradication of terrorism in them. Urban communities to be formed in northern and central Sinai will be the first barrier that prevents the return of terrorist organizations to them. The Suez Corridor project is planned to be the focal point for development in Sinai. It will be center stage for tourist, trade and industrial activities in the peninsula. The Ministry of Agriculture has a plan to use the fertile plains of al-Arish in launching agricultural projects there (18).
Results and Recommendations
1 – The killing of Daesh militants in Sinai does not mean that terrorism will be totally eradicated in Egypt. Egypt has to be ready for the post-Daesh phase. This phase need to be incorporated into the ongoing Operation Sinai 2018.
2 – There is a need for forming a comprehensive intellectual strategy by all civilian institutions.
3 – There is a need for speeding up the development of Sinai by bringing evacuated residents back to their homes after the ongoing Operation Sinai 2018 comes to an end.
4 – There is a need for focusing on the cultural and educational dimension in relations with the residents of Sinai. The media needs to stop demonizing the residents of the peninsula and describing them as “terrorists” and “traitors” (19).
5 – Security agencies need to keep working to prevent the return of terrorists to cleansed areas.
6 – Permanent anti-terrorism committees need to be founded in Sinai and border provinces to formulate a strategy that deals with the reasons for the appearance of terrorism in these areas.
7 – Cultural institutions need to be established in northern and central Sinai. These institutions will play a role in countering extremism in Sinai, as well as in the other provinces.
(1)Eman Ragab: “Terrorism and Extremism Fight Policies in Egypt”, Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, February 19, 2018 (http://acpss.ahram.org.eg/News/16545.aspx)
(2)Mohamed Hassan: “Data analysis: The Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018: Messages and Courses”, Badil Center for Planning and Strategic Studies, February 9, 2018 (https://elbadil-pss.org/2018/02/09/%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%A1-2/)
(3)Ahmed Sayed: “Terrorist Activity and the Security Situation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula” South Front, October 2017 (https://southfront.org/terrorist-activity-and-security-situation-in-egypts-sinai-peninsula/)
(4)Ahmed Sayed: “Terrorist Activity and the Security Situation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula” South Front, October 2017 (https://southfront.org/terrorist-activity-and-security-situation-in-egypts-sinai-peninsula/)
(5)Rashwan said this in an interview with the researcher who conducted this research.
(16) Zack Gold, “Security in the Sinai: Present and Future”, International Center for Counter-Terrorism – the Hague (icct), March 2014 (https://www.icct.nl/download/file/ICCT-Gold-Security-In-The-Sinai-March-2014.pdf)
(16) Backgrounder by Zachary Laub, “Security in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula”, Council on Foreign Relations, December 11, 2013 (https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/security-egypts-sinai-peninsula)
(18)Mohamed Farous, “Development Dimension in the Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, al-Siyassa al-Dawlia, February 20, 2018 (http://www.siyassa.org.eg/News/15551/%D8%AA%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%85%D9%88%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%A1–.aspx)