Egypt’s ‘largest-ever’ operation in Sinai – again
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Analysis

Egypt’s ‘largest-ever’ operation in Sinai – again

Why Cairo appears to be taking the Islamist threat from the peninsula more seriously than before

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Smoke rises in Egypt's northern Sinai, as seen from the border of the Gaza Strip, amid fierce clashes between government forces and Islamic State-affiliated gunmen on July 1, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Smoke rises in Egypt's northern Sinai, as seen from the border of the Gaza Strip, amid fierce clashes between government forces and Islamic State-affiliated gunmen on July 1, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

It’s now a routine. On each of the past four days, the spokesman of the Egyptian army, Mohammed Samir, has offered glowing reports of the military’s achievements in its latest operation in northeast Sinai, which began in the middle of last week.

On Thursday, Samir claimed Egyptian soldiers had succeeded in killing more than 80 terror operatives and arresting almost 200. He reported on the number of vehicles destroyed, and the motorcycles, tunnels and warehouses used by the terrorists (most of them members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis — who have rebranded themselves as part of the “Sinai Province” of Islamic State) that were exposed and detonated. He emphasized that this was the largest operation ever conducted by the Egyptian army in the cities of northeast Sinai – that is, in the deadly triangle that has emerged between Rafah, el-Arish and Sheik Zweid.

It is hard to determine at this point if the Egyptian military spokesman’s claims about the scale of the operation are accurate. We’ve heard similar claims over the past two years about “largest-ever” military operations in the Sinai Peninsula. But if it is indeed true that the operation is intended — as the army claims — to cleanse these cities of terror, that marks a significant change in policy for the military.

Until now, the Egyptian high command and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi preferred to focus on preventing attacks inside Egypt and along the Sinai shores of the Red Sea. The center of the peninsula and the remote northeast were largely neglected.

True, the army sent reinforcements to the restive northeast more than once, and even conducted military operations there. But it was clear that the bulk of Egypt’s attention was focused on ensuring quiet and order on the shoreline between Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh.

Is it possible that the danger inherent in such a strategy, including the possibility that terror from northern Sinai will filter across the Suez Canal, has brought decision-makers in Cairo to change tack and back a much more aggressive posture in the area?

Nostalgia

The shoreline from Taba to Sharm was for decades a popular vacation destination for young Israelis. The huts, the diving sites, the low prices, the serenity, and even the famous salep drink attracted tens of thousands of Israelis each holiday period who preferred Sinai’s calm to the frenzy usually found in vacation spots within Israel. The throngs continued to arrive even after Israel’s withdrawal from the peninsula in 1981, and after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Even the deadly attacks in Sinai itself over the past decade didn’t stop the Israelis from coming, albeit in smaller numbers.

Egyptians gather around the crater following a bombing that struck a main police station in the capital of the northern Sinai province in el-Arish, Egypt, Sunday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Muhamed Sabry)
Egyptians gather around the crater following a bombing that struck a main police station in the capital of the northern Sinai province in el-Arish, Egypt, Sunday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Muhamed Sabry)

But the fall of the Mubarak regime in January 2011 brought Israeli tourism — and Sinai’s economy — to an almost complete standstill. Sinai transformed overnight into a center of terror activity that drew Islamist operatives from throughout the Middle East, and led many locals to join extremist terror groups who operated against the Egyptian government, even in the days of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.

The second Egyptian revolution, in June 2013, marked a change in direction for the government in Cairo, which went to war against the terror operatives, while Sinai’s Islamists, Bedouin and foreign fighters decided to escalate their own war against the new regime.

And still, throughout this tumultuous period of the past four years, the Egyptian army managed to keep relative peace on the shores of the Red Sea. The last terror attack to hit the area took place some two years ago.

The army’s success on the southern shoreline of the peninsula is the result of several key factors. First, it took its operations in the area seriously. More special forces units have been deployed to the shoreline, and only a few months ago a regional commander was appointed to the rank of brigadier general, higher than in similar theaters elsewhere. Second, the Egyptian government reached an agreement with the Bedouin tribes who live near the shores of the Red Sea. A mechanism for cooperation between the army and the tribes has been established and works well. Its result is indisputable: namely, quiet on the shoreline.

In this Nov. 6, 2014, file photo, an Egyptian army armored vehicle stands on the on the Egyptian side of border town of Rafah, north Sinai, Egypt. (Ahmed Abd El Latif, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)
In this Nov. 6, 2014, file photo, an Egyptian army armored vehicle stands on the on the Egyptian side of border town of Rafah, north Sinai, Egypt. (Ahmed Abd El Latif, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)

But on the other edge of the Sinai Peninsula, mainly its northeastern corner, the situation is radically different. The Bedouin tribes there have long served as manpower and weapons providers for Islamist terror cells in the towns, which are densely populated with Palestinians, Egyptians and Bedouin. The local Bedouin — and not the foreigners from distant Muslim lands — are responsible for most of the recent attacks against the Egyptian army in this area. For example, it was Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, established in 2008, that was responsible for the summer 2011 terror attack near Ein Netafim in which eight Israelis were killed.

Jihadist Salafi groups have grown popular among the Bedouin tribes of the region, in part because of growing religious fervor throughout Sinai in recent years. Not everyone who becomes religious becomes a terror operative, of course, but it is among these newly pious where ever more supporters of extremist Islamist ideologies are found.

A jihadist nucleus has formed out of these new supporters in nearly every tribe in Sinai, often splitting off from the rest of the tribe and establishing separate tent encampments, mosques and arbitration systems. This phenomenon has driven a deep fracture in Sinai Bedouin society and divided tribes and even clans. Young members of these Salafi nuclei in any particular tribe increasingly avoid marrying non-Salafi members within their tribe.

The success of Salafi ideology is rooted not only in intensifying religiosity, but in the social realities of the area. Economic hardship in the narrow alleyways of the region’s densely populated cities serve as an optimal backdrop to recruitment, and as an ideal battlefield for resisting a regular army.

It must be said that the Egyptian army invests a great deal of resources in dealing with terror operatives from the area. The establishment of the buffer zone with Gaza in the city of Rafah, which has grown to a width of some 1.2 kilometers, is evidence enough of that. Hundreds of homes in Rafah were “shaved” off the face of the earth, and the city’s appearance has changed dramatically.

Still, despite these efforts and the economic and geographic realities of the region, if Egypt wanted to deploy a vastly larger military force – something well within its capabilities – to deal with this troublesome corner of the peninsula, it is safe to assume that it would be able to change the current reality.

Summer terror

In early July, Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” launched a simultaneous assault on 15 Egyptian military positions in the Sheik Zweid/Rafah-el-Arish area. The attack appeared to mark a dramatic achievement for the group – but at a heavy cost.

It was the largest-ever such attack in the peninsula, and managed to take the lives of dozens of Egyptian soldiers. The sheer scale of the attack demonstrated high morale and impressive military capabilities.

But for Sinai Province, the results were nonetheless disappointing. The situation on the ground did not shift in favor of the terrorists. Indeed, the opposite may be true. The effort, intended to wrest territory away from the Egyptian army in the triangle, failed decisively. Within a few short hours, the Egyptian army returned and made a show of its continued presence in the area, despite the heavy death toll among its forces. Sinai Province, meanwhile, sustained immense casualties relative to the organization’s small size: some 200 to 250 dead. Egyptian public opinion continued to back Sissi despite – and because of – the attack.

And in a fundamental sense, this may have been the attack that changed the Egyptian army’s vision for its operation in Sinai. It understood that those few hundred terror operatives in el-Arish, Rafah and Sheik Zweid who participated in the attack could have found their way to the Red Sea, and carried out an attack on a similar scale that would have dealt a blow not only to tourists, but to the Egyptian economy.

Will the current operation change the situation on the ground in Sinai, allowing Israelis and their shekels to return to the huts and dunes of those beaches? It’s too early to tell. But while Egypt struggles, Israelis take their vacations elsewhere.

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