Meeting Report: Terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula
Date: Monday 7 April, 18:00 – 20:30
Venue: International Press Centre Nieuwspoort, Lange Poten 10 in The Hague
A recent attack on a tourist bus in the Sinai has painfully demonstrated that violent groups in the peninsula are willing to carry out deadly attacks not only on military targets. During this evening seminar, Zack Gold (Middle East analyst) presented the findings of his latest ICCT Research Paper on the Sinai Peninsula. He explain the surged in violence in the Sinai following the 2011 Egypt uprisings, and mapped the violent actors active in the peninsula.
Prof. Dr. Maurits Berger (Senior Research Associate at the Clingendael Institute and Professor of Islam in the Contemporary West at Leiden University) responded to the presentation. The seminar was chaired and moderated by ICCT Director Peter Knoope.
17:45 – 18:00 Doors open, coffee and tea served
18:00 – 18:10 Welcome by Peter Knoope (ICCT)
18:10 – 18:40 The terrorism threat in and from the Sinai Pensinsula, Zack Gold (Middle East analyst)
18:40 – 19:00 Response by Prof. Dr. Maurits Berger (Clingendael Institute and Leiden University)
19:00 – 19:30 Panel Discussion
19:30 – 20:00 Drinks reception
Mr. Knoope opened the meeting remarking how the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring have surprised analysts. In order to understand developments in such an unpredictable political climate, it is especially important to consider people’s motivations and grievances, as Mr. Gold had done in his Research Paper.
Mr. Gold provided an overview of the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. While attacks from and in the peninsula seem to have increased exponentially over the past year, Gold reminded the audience that such developments are not new. Rockets aimed at Israel, targeting of law enforcement personal and the tourist sector, as well as the smuggling of humans, drugs and other commodities have all occurred on occasions prior to the Arab Spring. A more recent development since September 2013 is a spate of attacks in “mainland” Egypt by groups operating on the peninsula.
The group that has claimed the vast majority of Sinai attacks is Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM): an Egyptian group founded in approximately 2011, which has reportedly less than 1,000 members. While the group’s original aim was to work against Israel, ABM now also targets the Egyptian security state and the country’s economic interests. In Gold’s assessment, ABM has loose links to, but no direct affiliation with the al Qaeda franchise. Similarly, he sees no concrete, operational links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both the Morsi government and the current administration have viewed the situation in Sinai as a security problem and have responded with hard and often disproportional security measures against the population. Here, Gold points out, the socio-economic grievances of the majority Bedouin population have been largely neglected and hard measures have caused a backlash against the security state.
Gold considered various future scenarios for Sinai. Despite rapidly-changing developments in the past years, the most likely outcome is not a global jihadi safe-haven in the peninsula, but a return of the security state achieved by the Egyptian armed forces and police through brute force and intimidation. While such approach would solve the immediate security problem, it is an unstable solution in the long-term which fails to address root-causes.
Prof. Dr. Berger pointed out the importance of distinguishing between various actors and their motivations. He noted that it was especially important to understand the identity of the largest proportion of Sinai’s population, the Bedouin, who are both Arab and tribal people with an inherently inward looking perspective. Salafi jihadists, on the other hand, have a focus on (mainland) Egypt with their aim to establish an Islamic state. A third group consisting of international jihadists and foreign fighters have their own, foreign aspirations. These include, for example, Palestinians acting from the Gaza strip to expand their battleground against Israel.
Berger also explained the stakes at play in Sinai, which are of major concern for governments and other states in the region and internationally. These include economic concerns (tourism, Suez Canal), the threat of foreign fighters returning as radicalised individuals to their home countries, the revival of radical, violent Islamic ideology and a platform for attacks against neighbouring countries. Overall, Berger advocated a nuanced approach to analysing the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.
During the ensuing panel discussion, all three panellists agreed that while there was a security problem in the Sinai, the challenges were multifaceted. A deep understanding of the actors, their agendas, identities, grievances and actions is necessary to formulate appropriate policy responses. Peter Knoope closed the meeting by emphasising that engagement through dialogue – instead of isolation – was crucial to achieve a long-lasting solution to Sinai’s multifaceted problems.
Zack Gold, “Security in the Sinai: Present and Future“, Research Paper (March 2014).