What's Behind the Wave of Terror in the Sinai

In just five months, Egypt has suffered more than 200 attacks.
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People rush to the scene after a car bombing near the port town of El-Arish in Egypt's Sinai peninsula on July 24, 2013. (Reuters)

Writing to a network of followers and potential followers around the world, the Mauritanian-born cleric Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, one of the world's most prominent jihadi ideologues, described a religious obligation for Muslims to take up arms against the Egyptian army. "The goal of the security campaign that the tyrannical army in Egypt is directing in the Sinai is to protect Israel and its borders after jihadi groups in the Sinai became a real threat to it," the letter, dated October 17, said. "Jihad in the Sinai is a great opportunity for you to gather and unite under a pure flag, unsullied by ignorant slogans."

Hundreds of miles from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's tumultuous revolution, the long-neglected Sinai Peninsula has become the frontline for the military’s fight against extremism. Having operated in a quasi-lawless state there for decades, jihadi groups are now finding an opportunity to ride on the coattails of discontent following the July 3 military-backed coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the interim government’s subsequent neutering of the organization.

Many militant groups see the Islamists' fall from grace as justification for their claims that the creation of an Islamic state can only be achieved through violence, and not through the moderate political campaign waged by the Muslim Brotherhood following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In response, the military has launched an unapologetic crackdown in the Sinai in an effort to crush any group or individual that might challenge its authority or uphold the legitimacy of the now-defunct Morsi regime.

While the military declared an end to a three-month state of emergency earlier this month, a strictly enforced curfew remains in effect in Sinai from 6 P.M. to 4 A.M., with military checkpoints commonplace across the peninsula. And while Egyptian tanks were barred from certain areas of the Sinai following the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israel authorized Egypt to deploy two additional infantry battalions to the region after Morsi’s ouster to counter terrorist threats. It did not end there. In September, the military stepped up its campaign to rid northern Sinai of militants, with Army Spokesman Ahmed Ali saying it would be "taking action against terrorists, instead of merely reacting to terrorist attacks." That same month, dozens of homes were bulldozed and trees removed along the roads from the northern town of Al-Arish to Rafah, the border city with Gaza, according to witnesses and media reports, as the military prepared to create a 1,640-foot-wide, six-mile-long buffer zone around the Rafah border crossing. Schools in northern Sinai began the 2013-14 academic year five weeks later than scheduled amid fears that children would be at risk.

The military’s "heavy-handedness is more out of lack of experience than anything," said Mokhtar Awad, an Egypt researcher at the Center for American Progress. "If the [militants'] goal is to make the military look weak then they can do that. I always compared [militancy] to a virus—that if it does spread to [the Nile] Delta and Upper Egypt, they won't be able to control it."

Anyone advocating non-violence "is a criminal thug who wants the Ummah [Muslim community] to be eradicated and to be slaughtered," al-Shinqiti, the jihadist, wrote in October, appearing to reference the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to win power through the ballot box rather than through jihad. "Every attempt to avoid fighting the Egyptian Army is like treating a disease with the wrong medicine."

If the goal is to thwart the pace of attacks alone, then the military’s counterterrorism campaign appeared, until recently, to be working. A database compiled by David Barnett at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense for Democracies shows that there have been more than 200 attacks since July 3, with an estimated 130 people, the majority police and military personnel, dying in the violence. Monthly attacks have dropped consistently from 104 since Morsi was toppled in July to 23 attacks in October. But the numbers have climbed again in November, with nearly 30 attacks documented so far.

In August, suspected militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at two buses packed with Egyptian policemen as they headed toward Rafah, killing 24 people in the deadliest attack the Sinai had seen in years. Just this week, 11 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a car bombing in Al-Arish—only days after gunmen identified by an unnamed Egyptian government source as "Islamic jihadists" killed a senior Egyptian security official whose responsibilities included monitoring the Muslim Brotherhood (on Thursday, a police officer investigating the incident was himself shot dead).

Some analysts warn that indiscriminately linking the Brotherhood and militant Islamists, as some in the Egyptian government and press have, is careless. Many of Morsi’s critics highlight violent behavior by the Muslim Brotherhood during the days of the 1952 revolution, when members of the nationalist Free Officers Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to form an alliance to rid Egypt of the British, only to become bitter rivals. More recently, many of the Brotherhood’s sympathizers have been blamed for violent behavior at protests. Less than three weeks after toppling Morsi, the head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, stood in full uniform on national television and summoned Egyptians to protest against violence and "terrorism.”

"We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching of the nation and terrorizing of its citizens," al-Sisi said in August. Within weeks of Morsi’s removal, television commercials and billboard ads with the slogan "Egypt Against Terrorism" filled the airwaves and the streets. Many of the billboards remain in place today.

The Muslim Brotherhood "knows the cost of using violence will be very hard, because they know the state is very brutal in Egypt," said Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute. "They know violence will affect their image and credibility so it will decrease their popularity among the people."

As Mohammed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood politician who was recently detained by Egyptian authorities after spending weeks in hiding, told viewers in an August interview with Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, the network's Egypt-focused channel, "Don't be fooled by these lies and deception that aim to label us with terrorism, violence, [and] killing ... at a time when the hands of the coup regime are drowned in blood." Most of the Brotherhood's top brass has been locked up, some in unknown locations, since the July 3 coup.

Barnett noted that there is a particular tendency on the part of the current government and press to link the Muslim Brotherhood and its Gaza-based offshoot, Hamas, to militant activities in Sinai. While these connections may be exaggerated in the Egyptian media, Hamas is thought to have an agreement with Mumtaz Dughmush, the head of the Palestinian militant group Jaish al-Islam, which runs training camps in Gaza for jihadists who subsequently go to fight in Yemen, Syria, and the Sinai, among other locations.

"Egyptian media and the armed forces are doing a lot of conflating when it comes to this, unfortunately," said Barnett. “The Salafi jihadists are highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood." It's a point al-Shinqiti's missive makes clear.

Little is known about the individuals carrying out the attacks in Sinai; Egyptian media reports often identify them simply as Islamist militants or unidentified gunmen, partially with guidance from the military, which does not publicly distinguish one group from the other. The military says it has rounded up a number of foreign nationals, mainly from the Palestinian territories, but the vast majority of those arrested in Sinai are Egyptians.

Most of the militant groups in the Sinai had established themselves before the coup against Morsi in July. Two of the most active groups in the region today are Ansar Jerusalem and al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya. The former is estimated to have between 700 and 1,000 members, according to Barnett, and has carried out several high-profile attacks beyond its home base in northern Sinai. Last month, for example, the group claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and a suicide bombing in southern Sinai. Now, concerns are mounting that the group is gaining a foothold beyond the Sinai. In September, it claimed responsibility for a failed assassination attempt in Cairo on Egypt’s Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who also controls the nation’s police force. While little is known about the group’s organizational structure in the Sinai, Egypt’s Interior Ministry claims that Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda's Egyptian-born leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a member.

In an interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, Nabil Naeem, the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, said Ansar Jerusalem’s Sinai branch had been receiving funding from the Muslim Brotherhood—in particular, from businessman and deputy Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, who is currently among the senior officials behind bars. But the Brotherhood staunchly denies these claims.

Other groups, including Jund al-Sharia, the Muhammad Jamal Network, and Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula, were established more recently, and security analysts believe the latter two have affiliations with al-Qaeda. In October, the United Nations added the Jamal Network and its leader, a longtime subordinate of al-Qaeda's al-Zawahiri, to its sanctions list. Jamal and his network were also added to the U.S. government's list of designated terrorists last month.

Egypt's Sinai, once the frontline for its many wars with Israel prior to the signing of the Camp David Accords, has long served as a smuggling route in and out of Gaza for everything from weapons to supplies to people wishing to move about undetected. Despite the assistance provided by some Bedouin tribes to Egypt's military in the wars against Israel, Sinai residents have gradually seen their territory fall off the radar of the Egyptian government in the years since the 1978 accords, receiving little attention from security forces and virtually none of the economic benefits and resources allocated to cities like Cairo, Alexandria, and Aswan.

Between 2004 and 2006, a series of deadly bombings tore through the resort towns of Taba, Dehab, and Sharm El-Sheikh, killing dozens of people—including a number of Israeli tourists who once roamed freely in the Sinai (Israeli search-and-rescue crews were allowed to cross the border to assist in operations following a bombing at the Taba Hilton, which killed 33 people). The tourism industry in the Sinai took a massive financial hit as a result, with Israelis heeding travel bans set by their government. The Mubarak regime, meanwhile, did little to revitalize the industry, and the region’s residents continued to suffer from neglect and discrimination.

Within weeks of the January 25th revolution in 2011, insurgents in the Sinai clamoring to be heard amid the chaos tried to bomb the Arab Gas Pipeline, which runs through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and has an offshoot stretching from Al-Arish to Israel. The destabilization of Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, and the enduring lawlessness of neighboring Sudan, has made it easier for militants to traffic weapons and people with little concern for the law. A senior North African intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that hundreds of Sinai-based militants are traveling to Libya virtually undetected for training and cooperation with members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Sinai residents have long endured extreme poverty, limited access to education and health care, and socioeconomic marginalization, which has made them resentful of the federal government in Cairo. In the 1990s, the Mubarak regime invested heavily in developing the tourism industry in southern Sinai, beginning with the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. But foreigners and Egyptians from outside the Sinai claimed the majority of the jobs created by that effort. Today, the Sinai is the least developed part of the country and has the highest unemployment rate among all of Egypt’s 29 governorates, according to Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

And the situation only appears to be getting worse. The Sinai's tourism industry, already reeling from a drop off in visitors since 2011, has suffered further losses since the recent spike in violence. Nearly 50 hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh and Taba were forced to temporarily shutter in September amid growing violence and sinking profits.

Morsi's government initially managed to win some support from Sinai tribes following its promise to reverse a law banning peninsula residents from owning land—a security provision put in place during the Mubarak regime. But the security vacuum and economic decline that characterized Morsi's time in office left most of the Sinai deeply unstable.

"There is only one word to describe it here: shit," said Muhamed Sabry, a journalist from Al-Arish who was arrested by military police and handed a six-month suspended jail sentence after filming video of police activity in Rafah. “After the car bombs started, the streets where … security headquarters are located were closed. In Rafah and Al-Arish, the security headquarters are located on main streets, so we have to take back roads, but the streets are narrow. There are a lot of accidents and broken roads that damage our cars. They are torturing us."

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Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama is a freelance journalist who reports on the Middle East.

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