An image posted to social media purportedly shows militants of the ISIS affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
The July 1 Sinai attacks were not the first, but they were the most shocking. They followed the assassination of the prosecutor general, which made linking the two incidents inevitable, especially since they both took place around the second anniversary of the June 30 protests that toppled former President Mohamed Mursi.
Confusion ensued due to contradictory reports on the number of deaths, with an official figure of 21 but local sources saying 70-100. The media described the battle, between Islamist militants and the army, as the fiercest since the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. Meanwhile, officials are trying to alleviate fears over the growing power the militant group Sinai Province, which is affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Syria and Iraq
“This specific attack is by far the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Daniel Nisman, CEO of the Levantine Group Risk Consultancy, adding that the danger lies mainly in a plan to take over Sinai. “It’s not a hit and run – this is what [ISIS] used in places like Syria and Iraq to capture and hold territory.” Nisman said the operation underlined the shortcomings of the “scorched land” strategy of the Egyptian army, as it makes it harder for the state to garner local support.
Sinai security expert Zack Gold described the attack as “new and worrying,” and said militants either aimed to take over the city of Sheikh Zuwaid, where the attacks took place, or wanted to drag the army into an actual battle. “Either one is unprecedented.” However, he said comparing Sinai to Iraq and Syria was unrealistic, and the success of militants in the peninsula was extremely unlikely.
“Egypt isn’t Iraq; this isn’t Anbar. The [Egyptian] military is more cohesive, has more firepower, and has the capability to get them out,” Gold said, adding that the main obstacle is the number of civilians that could be killed in the process.
Journalist Adel al-Qadi said the analogy with Syria and Iraq is not far-fetched. “For the first time, Sinai Province manages to control the streets and military checkpoints of Sheikh Zuwaid, and to besiege police stations and security camps, in addition to planting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on highways to prevent rescue. All this while simultaneously attacking 15 targets with all sorts of weapons,” he wrote. “This looks like real war.”
Qadi noted the large number of militants who took part in the attack – estimated at 300-500 – and the advanced training they must have received, especially in the use of anti-aircraft missiles.
Eissa al-Kharafin, one of the elders of the northern Sinai tribe of Armilat, said the militants exhibited unusual power in the attack. “We were shocked to see them roaming the streets of Sheikh Zuwaid freely, and to see military facilities besieged,” he said, adding that the army was taken by surprise.
Aref al-Akour, a chieftain of Al-Sawarka tribe, blamed the state for following the same strategy after every attack. “With every attack, the state imposes harsher measures, but apparently militants are not affected and civilians in the region are the only ones who really suffer,” he said.
Yehia Abu Nassira, also of Al-Sawarka, said launching airstrikes is not the solution, especially in light of civilian casualties. “Terrorism will only be eliminated through cooperation between the state and the locals of Sinai,” he said. “The state needs to use their help instead of only pointing fingers at them. We have reached the point where almost all members of tribes are considered suspects.”
Khaled Abdel Rahman, political analyst and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement, also underlined the tense relation between the state and Sinai residents. “According to the Egyptian state, if you are from Sinai then you are guilty until proven innocent,” he wrote.
Abdel Rahman added that militants in Sinai keep making a more powerful comeback each time, which was obvious in the last attack, because they are technically in a more advantageous position than the army. “The mountainous nature and rugged terrains of Sinai serve them well. Plus, they know that the Egyptian army is not trained to engage in guerrilla wars.”
While admitting that the last attack was like no other in terms of tactics, weaponry and purpose, writer Fahmi Howeidi said Sinai Province committed a grave mistake by assuming they could capture Sinai or even a small part of it. “It seems the group was tempted by the relative success it has achieved in Syria and Iraq, and accordingly decided to follow the same pattern in Egypt,” he wrote.
“They totally overlooked the fact that Egypt is different; it is a proper state that has a powerful army and a population of 90 million, and is not plighted by sectarian wars as is the case in Iraq and Syria.” Assuming that Egypt is a failed state doomed their plans, Howeidi added.
However, the state made two major mistakes, he said. “The first is insisting on a military rather than political and social solution, and this has not proven successful at all. The second is putting all Islamists in one basket and considering them all suspects, which increases resentment against the regime.”
However, the military approach is supported by numerous experts who believe confrontation is inevitable. General Abdel Rafea Darwish, co-founder of the Knights of Egypt party for army veterans, said the state needed to officially declare war in Sinai due to the sophistication of militants’ training and ammunition.
“The weapons used in the last attack proves that militants are receiving foreign funding,” he said, adding that the United States and Israel are most likely implicated and refuting claims about the involvement of Qatar and Turkey.
Zakaria Hussein, professor of strategic studies and former head of the Nasser Military Academy, said Sinai was already a war zone. “Militant groups have already declared war against the state, and this war is ongoing since terrorism is not eliminated,” he said.
General Moustafa Kamel, professor of political and strategic sciences, agreed that the war was far from over. “In fact, it is impossible to predict when it will end since there are foreign powers behind it,” he said, without specifying which countries.
General Farid Haggag, member of the London-based International Center for Strategic Studies, said the state needed to take stricter measures to speed up the elimination of terrorism in Sinai. “All residents of border areas have to be evacuated to create a buffer zone that no one from outside the army can have access to,” he said. “Anyone who tries to trespass is to be killed immediately.”
Haggag said the state should reveal the countries funding terrorist operations in Sinai and sever diplomatic ties with them. “This will make it harder for those countries to keep the funds coming, and will thus weaken militants.”
Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, official spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces, said all Sinai is currently under state control, and reassured civilians that the army would make sure it safeguards their lives and property while targeting militants. “I want everyone to rest assured that the militants’ days in Sinai are numbered,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before terrorism in Sinai is totally eliminated.”