Islamic State's strikes in Egypt: Is this a full-blown insurgency? (+video)
Terrorism is nothing new in the Sinai. But it has evolved in a more dangerous direction for Egypt, and President Sisi's tactics don't seem to be working.
The coordinated attacks Wednesday in the northern Sinai Peninsula that killed at least 70 Egyptian soldiers raised questions both about the effectiveness of the government's tactics to contain the burgeoning Islamist insurgency there as well as the evolution of militant groups aligned with the so-called Islamic State.
The dozen or more attacks were the most sophisticated and challenging to the Egyptian state in Sinai, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, for decades.
The Egyptian government has been battling militants off and in the Sinai for years. Many among the region's majority Bedouin community have felt both neglected and repressed by the central government, with development wealth flowing to connected families in Cairo rather than to locals. The once-thriving smuggling tunnel trade to the Gaza Strip also helped fuel a conflict economy rife with gun smugglers, and guns.
But the problem has evolved. In the first decade of this century, most spectacular attacks in the area were on civilian targets – frequently tourist resorts – after the fashion of Al Qaeda. But in recent years the leading militant group in the area, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) last year and increasingly has shared its goals, has turned to attacks on the military and other arms of the state.
The IS aims first to win and rule territory, then impose a harsh and uncompromising version of Islamic law. That is at odds with the approach of Egyptian Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri of waiting until Arab governments aligned with the West are toppled before building an imagined Islamic paradise. The divergence was what led to the original split in Iraq between Al Qaeda and what became today's IS a decade ago.
Last year Ansar, which has carried out a string of attacks since 2011, changed its name to Sinai Province of IS, and has continued to focus its efforts directly against the Egyptian state. Soldiers, police, and judges have all been slaughtered since, and Wednesday's attacks show that the 2014 vow by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former chief of the army, to crush the group has come up short.
It is reasonable to believe the military's methods may be creating fresh recruits. Following two attacks by the IS-aligned militants in El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid on Oct. 24 that killed more than 30 soldiers, President Sisi declared a state of military emergency and established a curfew in the region.
The state's reprisals were harsh. By late November, the Egyptian military had demolished more than 800 homes around Rafah and El Arish, Sinai cities bordering the Gaza Strip, rendering more than 1,100 families homeless.
On Wednesday, Sheikh Zuweid was the site of the heaviest fighting. An Egyptian reporter with good contacts in the area reports sustained fighting and airstrikes in the area and many civilian casualties.
The Egyptian military's practice of scattering small checkpoints around northern Sinai, often manned by lightly armed and barely trained conscripts, has created an environment rich with targets for the militants, who Wednesday used suicide bombs, light arms, IEDs, and anti-aircraft guns affixed to trucks. The Egyptian military scrambled F-16 fighter jets in response, and released pictures that it said showed militants being killed in airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the Sisi government has used terrorist attacks by Salafi Jihadists like those in northern Sinai to go after the Muslim Brotherhood, sworn enemies of IS. On Wednesday, Egyptian forces killed 9 Muslim Brotherhood members in Cairo's 6th October neighborhood, among them former MP Nasser al-Hafy. That raid could have been in response to the assassination of Egypt's chief prosecutor Monday, which has deepened the country's cycle of paranoia and repression.
El Arish is no stranger to militancy or harsh government crackdowns. After a terrorist attack on tourist hotels in the Sinai coastal town of Taba in October 2004, the government said the attackers came from El Arish and conducted harsh sweeps there, with more than 3,000 people rounded up and jailed by the military, many of them alleged to have been tortured in detention.
Those efforts under former President Hosni Mubarak were no more effective in putting an end to Islamist militancy in the Sinai than have been Sisi's since coming to power two years ago, and the situation in Sinai is getting to the point where it might be appropriate to describe it as a full-blown insurgency.
Both the rise of IS as a regional inspiration to Islamist militants in recent years, and the chaos in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak in 2011, including a long period in which disgruntled security forces sat on their hands, have probably helped the militants to build their strength.