Assessing the Jihadist Threat in Egypt: The Sinai Peninsula

7 MINS READJun 29, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Examining the Jihadist Threat in Egypt
Tactics used by the Islamist militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, which included this 2015 bombing of a police station in El Arish, resemble an insurgency more than a terrorism campaign.
(AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Sinai militancy will continue to look more like an insurgency than like traditional urban terrorism.
  • The Egyptian government's heavy-handed tactics may be able to suppress the militant problem, but they will not be able to solve it. In fact, a military-only solution will perpetuate the problem of radicalization among Sinai residents.
  • A comprehensive counterinsurgency approach will be needed to truly address the deep issues that make Sinai an ideal jihadist recruitment and operational area.

The history of radical Islamism in Egypt is long and bloody. But in the past few years, the threat posed by Egyptian jihadists has reached new heights. Many of the country's jihadists, held captive under former President Hosni Mubarak, were freed during the revolution that led to his ouster in 2011. These militants went on to play a leading role in forming groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which by late 2013 had become the most active and deadly terrorist group in Egypt.

Of course, any attempt to examine Egypt's militant threat must first acknowledge the vast difference between the threat environment on the Sinai Peninsula and that of mainland Egypt. The former is far more of an insurgency; Sinai militants employ hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, roadside bombings and indirect-fire attacks with rockets and mortars. By contrast, the militant threat on the mainland tends to more closely resemble urban terrorism.

Much of the reason for this difference stems from the long history of tension between the government in Cairo and the Bedouin tribes inhabiting the peninsula. Strong tribal networks in Sinai have limited the government's control there, as have restrictions placed on government forces allowed into the peninsula under the Camp David Accords. The Bedouins have a number of grievances, including allegations that the government has not provided much-needed services or encouraged economic development in the territory. They also accuse the government of using excessive force in response to the tribal uprisings engendered by those perceived shortcomings. The Egyptian government's often-harsh responses to dissent bear out those complaints and have helped make Bedouin tribes ripe recruiting grounds for jihadist groups.

The Rise of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis

From 2004 to 2006, a violent campaign of suicide bombing attacks against tourist targets in Sinai shook resorts in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. The group behind the attacks was mostly made up of radicalized local Bedouins who had been heavily influenced by the actions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, so much so that they named their group Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) — the name of al-Zarqawi's group before it adopted the al Qaeda in Iraq moniker in October 2004.

The Egyptian government came down hard on Tawhid wa al-Jihad, killing many of its leaders and fighters. But the military response only suppressed the simmering militant problem; it did not extinguish it. In the wake of Mubarak's overthrow, Sinai militancy again roared to life, giving rise to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Although the group used a new name, many of its members, especially those in Sinai, were veterans of the defunct Tawhid wa al-Jihad. Initially, the group focused on Israel, conducting a string of rocket attacks against Eilat from Sinai as well as a number of bombing attacks on natural gas pipelines running from Egypt to Israel. In 2012, however, the group began assassinating tribal leaders in Sinai who were important mediators with the government. By removing them, the jihadists sought to deny the government a means to rein in jihadist activity on the peninsula.

Following the July 2013 coup that overthrew former President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis began to increasingly target Egyptian security forces. Though the group had conducted such attacks in late 2012, they became much more frequent in 2013. Using roadside bombs, suicide vehicle bombs, small arms and rockets, the group launched numerous attacks against buses transporting Egyptian security personnel. In January 2014, it shot down an Egyptian army helicopter in Sinai using an Igla-class, man-portable surface-to-air missile, presumably received from Libya.

The Jihadist Schism

After a schism developed between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq in 2013, and the Islamic State declared a caliphate in June 2014, many of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' members chose to ally themselves with the Islamic State. Some members of the militant group had previously traveled to Syria to fight alongside jihadists there who formed the core of the Islamic State. In November 2014, the group was accepted as part of the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province. But a capable portion of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, led by former Egyptian special operations forces officer Hisham Ashmawy and operating in the Egyptian mainland, did not break from al Qaeda.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' propaganda operations had shown some similarity to those of the Islamic State before November 2014, but after that point they showed even more, indicating close collaboration between the two organizations. Their cooperation also began to manifest itself in the Wilayat Sinai's battlefield tactics. For example, on July 1, 2015, the group launched a large-scale attack on the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, using hybrid tactics that combined suicide bombings with an armed assault by a large number of gunmen. Those tactics were similar to the ones employed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to successfully overrun defenses and capture military bases and cities. Although the assault on Sheikh Zuweid was eventually repelled, resulting in heavy losses for Wilayat Sinai, it nonetheless signaled the danger posed by the group. Not long after the Sheikh Zuweid incident, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for an attack against an Egyptian navy patrol boat near Rafah using an anti-tank guided missile. Then, in October 2015, it also claimed credit for the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 shortly after it took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh airport in southern Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai's attempts to capture and hold territory in the peninsula have been unsuccessful, and it has suffered heavy casualties in its attacks against Egyptian military and security forces. It nevertheless retains the ability to conduct frequent attacks against security forces and checkpoints. But its tactics have shifted back toward employing roadside bombs and occasional hit-and-run attacks with small units, limiting the group's losses and permitting it to sustain operations for longer.

Efforts have been made on the peninsula, which has long been a corridor for smuggling weapons to Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, to stop the flow of weapons from Libya to Wilayat Sinai. But militants do not need external sources of weapons to cause mayhem in Sinai. There are large uncleared minefields in the area left over from the wars between Egypt and Israel. Though the mines are now antiques, they nonetheless provide Wilayat Sinai bombmakers with a valuable source of military-grade high explosives. One dismantled anti-tank mine can provide more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of TNT.

Militants do not need external sources of weapons to cause mayhem in Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai also has conducted armed assaults and indirect-fire attacks against the Multinational Force and Observers base in Sinai. The assaults have led to the closure of some smaller outposts and a reduction of the number of personnel posted there. Wilayat Sinai's attacks have also reduced tourism in Sinai, an important source of revenue for Egypt's economy and jobs for the peninsula's residents.

The Egyptian military frequently trumpets the number of Wilayat Sinai militants it kills, a list that includes several prominent group leaders, but it is unlikely that Cairo will be able to kill its way out of this problem. As in previous waves of Sinai militancy, Egypt's heavy-handed response may actually serve to radicalize more young Bedouin men. Until the Egyptian government begins to address problems in Sinai using a more comprehensive counterinsurgency program, the underlying social, economic and political issues there will continue to spur regional militancy. Aware of the threat, Saudi Arabia has proposed a $1.5 billion economic development plan for Sinai; the plan is pending final approval by the Egyptian parliament. But if and when it is implemented, the plan will be only one small step of many that will be required to provide the security, sound governance and economic opportunities needed to stabilize the peninsula. In the meantime, jihadists will continue to recruit and operate in the peninsula.

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