Deadly mosque attack puts Egypt’s Sinai strategy in spotlight

After three bloody years battling an Islamist insurgency in the peninsula, Egypt’s army still faces deadly mass attacks by Islamic State terrorists

The Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles) west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, November 25, 2017.(AFP)
The Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles) west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, after a gun and bombing attack, November 25, 2017.(AFP)

CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) — Egypt’s years-long military campaign against a jihadist insurgency in the north of the Sinai Peninsula is under increasing scrutiny following a devastating mosque attack last week.

More than 300 people were killed in Friday’s bomb and gun assault — the deadliest in the country’s recent history — highlighting the insurgents’ ability to carry out spectacular attacks despite the deployment of tens of thousands of troops.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to respond with “brutal force,” and the army announced it had destroyed several of the vehicles used in the attack and killed their occupants.

But for some analysts, the army’s muscular reprisals are not enough.

“I think [the Sinai] needs [a] smarter military presence,” said Zack Gold, an analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.

In this Oct. 24, 2017 file photo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends a military ceremony in the courtyard at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, France. (Charles Platiau, Pool via AP, File)

“The job of the military is not to protect the military,” he said. “The job of the military is to protect the population and to secure the territory.”

He said currently soldiers were usually confined to checkpoints on the region’s roads instead of securing the population centers, where the insurgency has crippled the economy.

‘Easier to recruit’

Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said multiple foreign diplomats had told him that when they urge Egyptian officials to change tactics, “they get a lot of pushback.”

“They are basically told ‘not to interfere in Egypt’s affairs,'” he said.

He said discussion of security strategy took place within a “small circle” and that the public was “not allowed to participate in that conversation to discuss what is problematic and what could be better.”

Injured people are evacuated from the scene of a terrorist attack on a mosque in Bir al-Abd in the northern Sinai Peninsula of Egypt on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. (AP Photo)

Egypt’s Western allies acknowledge the army has made some headway in containing the insurgency and forcing IS to change its tactics.

Large-scale attacks on the military have grown less frequent, as IS has increasingly turned to a war of attrition involving roadside bombings and sniper attacks, inflicting fewer casualties on the army.

The military has also succeeded in hitting some of the group’s top commanders, including overall leader Abu Duaa al-Ansari who was killed in an airstrike last year.

It has largely ended the once-lucrative smuggling trade with the Gaza Strip by destroying tunnels under the border with the Palestinian territory and razing parts of the divided frontier town of Rafah to create a buffer zone.

But the home demolitions have stoked further resentment in a region that has felt marginalized for decades.

Kaldas said that situation “makes it easier for ISIS (IS) to recruit, it makes people less interested in supporting the government.”

Egyptian army conscripts stand guard outside the Suez Canal University hospital in the eastern port city of Ismailia on November 25, 2017, where the victims of a bomb and gun assault on the North Sinai Rawda mosque that took place the day before are receiving treatment. (AFP Photo/Mohamed El-Shahed)

IS too has sparked antagonism with its tactics.

The jihadists have executed dozens of members of the region’s largest tribe, the Tarabin, for allegedly cooperating with the army.

Some Tarabin have formed militias to fight IS.

Increased military presence

Sissi came to power after leading the military overthrow of his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013 promising to restore security following the chaos of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But four years on, the situation in Sinai is far from stable.

In November 2014, shortly after Sissi’s election as president, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group previously linked to Al-Qaeda, swore allegiance to IS.

Friday’s attack was carried out by some 30 armed men carrying flags similar to the black banner of IS, although the jihadist organization has not formally claimed the assault.

The Rawda mosque, roughly 40 kilometers west of el-Arish in Egypt’s Sinai, after a gun and bombing terror attack, on November 24, 2017. (AFP/Stringer)

The emergence of IS in Sinai strengthened the jihadist insurgency that began in 2013, with the Sinai terrorists drawing from the expertise of IS jihadists elsewhere.

The Sinai Peninsula had long been demilitarized under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, but as the violence intensified the government responded by ramping up its military presence, with the approval of Israel.

The region’s biggest army was able to prevent IS repeating its successes in Iraq, where it seized a third of the country, including major urban centers, before declaring its “caliphate” in 2014.

One attempt by IS in July 2015 to seize the town of Sheikh Zuweid prompted the military to unleash F-16 jets, forcing the jihadists to withdraw.

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