What Next for the Sinai?

10 Nov 2015

Assuming the Sinai franchise of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) did plant a bomb on the Russian Metrojet 9268 flight on 31 October, what should we read into it? Is it indeed the game-changer that some analysts tend to suggest, with IS now attacking international targets outside the Iraq-Syria conflict zone? 0r is this attack primarily an illustration of the alarming capabilities if the Wilayah Sinai, IS’ local franchise formerly known as Ansar Beit al Maqdis, and if so, what does that bode for Egypt?

It now appears that (Israeli?) intelligence had intercepted terrorist chatter indicating that an attack in the Sinai was imminent. What exactly, when, where and how was unclear. But, as the Soufan Group rightly states, the tourist resort Sharm El Sheikh definitely had to be the preferred target. Surely the Egyptian authorities understood the importance of protecting the tourism sector, a notoriously “soft” target and valued at 11% of Egypt’s economy?

Why did this happen?
To answer this question, we must first go back in time. As ICCT Visiting Fellow Zack Gold noted in his 2014 ICCT Research Paper, ever since the Israeli-Egypt peace accords, the Sinai Peninsula and its inhabitants have been systematically neglected by the central authorities. Despite its rich resources – tourism, oil and gas in particular – the region has hardly benefited. The population are, they say, being treated like second class citizens, politically, economically and culturally. The period between 2000 and 2011 saw occasional “hit and run” attacks by different terrorist networks on tourist sites, vital infrastructure, and security services. After the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the security presence in the Sinai evaporated; consequently, Salafist Jihadi groups stepped in to fill the vacuum, the main one being Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM i.e. “Supporters of Jerusalem”). Small but sophisticated, and with ample access to weapons and funding, ABM showed its capabilities by carrying out complex attacks against Egypt’s security forces, gas and oil pipelines, and – in 2014 – a bus carrying Korean tourists as well as against an Apache helicopter. Egyptian security forces have since then stepped up their military campaign against ABM, but so far at least, their harsh and indiscriminate measures have been unsuccessful, impacting negatively on the local security situation and actually emboldening ABM’s status. It wasn’t a surprise therefore when other groups joined ABM when it declared itself the IS Sinai province. For IS itself, ABM’s track record was convincing enough to welcome their allegiance and provide them with resources, weaponry, soldiers (foreign fighters) and know-how. As so often the local population, caught in between, suffers the most.

How important is this?
Bringing down a plane this size, with so many foreign tourists on board, constitutes a massive prize for IS in at least four ways: first, the attack shows that the Egyptian security apparatus’ efforts to degrade and destroy IS Sinai network, has failed. Second, it asserts IS’ status as the most lethal and effective foreign Wilayah, which may serve as a magnet for more foreign fighters traveling to the Sinai to join their ranks. Third, it sends a signal to Russia that its recent decision to engage militarily in Syria is not cost-free. And finally, it also sends a signal to the estimated 2,500 Russian foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq that their brothers in the Sinai are actively supporting them. Egyptian efforts to downplay the possibility of a terrorist attack carried out by IS evaporated once the British government issued a temporary travel ban and opened their own investigation into airport security. The timing of this decision – coinciding with Egyptian President Al Sisi’s visit to Whitehall and just weeks before the Christmas holidays – couldn’t have been more damaging. The UK’s motto “better safe than sorry” was quickly followed by others, severely damaging the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of employees in Sharm el Sheikh and those who rely on them.

What’s next?
While more evidence is gathered and aviation security measures improved, the Egyptian government will most likely intensify its military campaign against IS Sinai province. If handled well this time, they may actually succeed in forging an alliance with the local population, who have nothing to gain from a growing influence of IS in the Peninsula. For that to happen, the government in Cairo will have to make a U-turn in its policy vis-à-vis the deeply suspicious Bedouin population in particular. Confidence-building measures will be necessary. The government will have to involve them in a comprehensive campaign; protecting the civilian population should be the starting point. While such a policy change may in fact be possible in the short run, winning the trust and having a real impact on the ground will take more time. In the meantime, IS will also intensify its own campaign, targeting security services, vital infrastructure as well as the tourism industry. It is well resourced, capable, and likely to attract more foot soldiers. It knows the terrain and has, through its assassination campaign of “traitors” working together with the authorities, some degree of control over the local population, if not territorially, then at least psychologically.

The inevitable conclusion is that we should not expect any quick wins; on the contrary, as has been the case for over a decade already, the Sinai Peninsula will remain a magnet for terrorists and the stage for a bloody, intense and protracted guerrilla-style insurgency, with possibly even more spill-over to Egyptian mainland and into Southern Israel.

Mark Singleton
Director, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague  (ICCT)