CDA Institute guest contributor Emmanuel Seitelbach, an independent analyst on international affairs, writes about the current radicalization taking place in the Sinai.
On 1 July 2015, a series of simultaneously orchestrated attacks against Egyptian forces in the Northern Sinai Peninsula killed 17 soldiers and policemen across five military checkpoints. Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis, an insurgency group that recently swore allegiance to the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The Sinai Peninsula has been in a state of anarchy for decades and the local insurgency has recently undergone a radical transformation. Drawing from the regional chaos in Libya, Iraq and Syria, local militias have recruited foreign guerilla fighters and have essentially taken control of Northern Sinai from the Egyptian authorities. Due to Sinai’s remote location in the eastern periphery of Egypt, isolated by the Suez Canal, the province has not been fully developed, despite its strategic resources such as the touristic attractions of Sharm El Sheikh Resort, the St Catherine monastery, as well as the presence of minerals and oil. On the contrary, the proximity of the province to the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip has exacerbated lawlessness by providing opportunities for various forms of cross border trafficking.
When this insurgency started in the 1950s, unrest from the Bedouin community did not have the strong Islamist character it has acquired today in light of its Islamic State supporters. The Sinai is home to approximately 400,000 Bedouins representing 70 percent of the local population. In a situation similar to that of the Tuaregs of Eastern Mali, indigenous Bedouin tribes have been marginalized by successive Egyptian governments. Until the recent uprising, they were perceived with suspicion by the Egyptian authorities and submitted to a regime of systematic discriminations. With low literacy rates and few employment opportunities, Bedouins lived a pastoral migratory cycle across the peninsula.
Their condition improved during the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967 and lasted 15 years. The new Israeli authority provided healthcare, education, housing, and employment in the tourism industry in order to pacify the region. However, following the Israeli withdrawal in 1982, Egypt launched a policy of land reclamation for Egyptian nationals, expropriating many Bedouins of their ancestral land. Moreover, under the Mubarak regime, Bedouins were restricted from serving in the Egyptian military as well as from government jobs or any other economic opportunities. This Egyptian exclusionary policy permanently turned the Bedouins into marginal migrant laborers in their homeland, setting up the stage for a confrontation.
Disenfranchised and impoverished Bedouins began to resort to illegally smuggling narcotics to Egypt as a mechanism to cope with their economic hardship. When the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip was reestablished along the eastern edge of the Sinai, smuggling weapons, goods, and fighters in and out of the Gaza Strip became a lucrative illicit industry. After the Gaza blockade started in 2007, the elaborate network of tunnels along the Gaza border became an economic lifeline for the Bedouins. More recently, Bedouins have been preying on populations fleeing war torn or oppressive African countries such as South Sudanese, Eritreans, or Somalians. As a result, Bedouins have become accomplished in the kidnapping, torture, slave trade, and ransoming of refugees seeking asylum in Israel.
As legitimate Bedouin grievances remain unaddressed, and under decades of repressive measures by the Mubarak regime, the Sinai has become fertile ground for the expansion of Islamism. Foreign fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda – from Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Algeria – joined the ranks of local Bedouins who embraced Salafism. In addition, Hamas and other Gaza-based Islamist militants have been increasingly using the geographic depth of the peninsula as an operational platform to target Israel, knowing that Israel would not retaliate inside the Sinai at the risk of creating a diplomatic incident with Egypt. Across the Gaza border, weapons and guerilla fighters have been flowing in both directions.
From the newly established Islamist stronghold in Sinai, a series of terrorist attacks against Egyptian tourist sites have been carried out, including the 2005 Sharm-el-Sheikh attacks and the 2006 Dahab Bombing. In addition, the Arab Gas Pipeline that transfers natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been repeatedly targeted. Israeli estimates suggest that, since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, 15 Salafi groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have been operating in the Sinai – the most active being Al Takfir wal-Hijra, Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and Jaish al-Islam. Islamization of the Sinai accelerated following the Red Sea resorts bombings of 2005 and 2006, when Egyptian security forces arrested and tortured thousands of Bedouins, throwing them into prison cells along with Salafists, as part of an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign.
While maintaining their own Islamist agenda, imported fighters have gained a foothold in the peninsula by co-opting Bedouin grievances, and promoting sympathy for the global jihad. Groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula typically call for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, the termination of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and the end of the discrimination and economic marginalization of the Sinai Bedouins. Their targets have evolved from civilian entities, like tourist resorts and oil pipelines, to the infrastructure of Egyptian security forces, like police stations and the Battalion 101 Camp in El Arish: the Egyptian military campaign headquarters. Insurgents have acquired sophisticated weaponry, such as anti-aircraft guided missiles, and have carried out well-coordinated large scale attacks.
In October 2014, after a deadly attack on a military checkpoint that killed 33 soldiers, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the destruction of 1,200 tunnels and 800 homes of Palestinian refugees living in Egyptian Rafah along the Gaza border. As a result, 1,165 families were evicted and a one kilometer wide no man’s land was created, to prevent the underground smuggling of Islamists seeking refuge against counterinsurgency forces, inside the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas government has also started losing its control of the Gaza Strip. In July 2015, a wave of bombings against government infrastructure signaled that Islamic State sympathizers have taken root inside the Strip, challenging the authority of the de facto government, to try to impose an even more radical Islamist regime.
Israel is also feeling the consequences of the disorder in the Sinai. The August 2011 attack that struck multiple targets, including tourist buses in southern Israel, was a wakeup call. Since then, Israeli tourists have been discouraged to travel to Sinai resorts and a security fence has been built along the Egyptian border. Striking inside Israel constitutes an attempt to trigger a confrontation between Egypt and Israel, undermining the long standing peace treaty.
To date, the Egyptian government has failed to restore the rule of law in the peninsula, and has not been able to dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure there. A decline in tourism has been a major consequence of the destabilization of the region. This represents a significant blow to a fragile economy when the tourism industry accounts for 11 percent of the Egyptian GDP. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s forces are unprepared to counter a domestic insurgency as they were trained and equipped to fight a large conventional war against another state. Repressive military crackdowns have served to radicalize the Bedouins and, without a dramatic change of approach, the Sinai insurgency is likely to endure, fueled by an influx of foreign fighters from nearby conflicts.
In order to mitigate the growing terrorist threat in Sinai, a response to legitimate Bedouin grievances is necessary. More specifically, implementing a long term economic development strategy to improve the socio-economic status of the Sinai Bedouins would address the root cause of unrest. In that regards, Egypt requires economic assistance from the international community, to transform a region perceived as a threat into an economic opportunity. Since some Hamas leaders have shown interest in a long term truce with Israel, the fight against the rise of Jihadism in the Sinai may be an opportunity for unlikely security cooperation between Egypt, Israel, and Hamas.
Emmanuel Seitelbach is a technologist and an analyst of international affairs.