A Deadly Holding Pattern: How Cycles of Instability Enable ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula

A Deadly Holding Pattern: How Cycles of Instability Enable ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula

by Nicholas Glavin

Egypt has an ISIS problem.

The Egyptian government’s own neglectful policies fuel one of the deadliest insurgencies on the African continent. Decades of marginalization and disproportionate military crackdowns drive a feedback loop of instability.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a local jihadist group operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014. ISIS-Sinai boasts over 1,000 militants in a remote corner of Egypt and a ruthless track record: downing a Russian commercial airliner, overrunning police checkpoints, attempting to assassinate the Minister of the Interior, and killing 312 worshippers in a mosque—the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s history.

Cairo’s current approach to militancy in the Sinai Peninsula is misguided. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s pledge to militarily defeat ISIS-Sinai in 2018 fails to address the underlying drivers of the conflict. To deliver ISIS-Sinai an enduring defeat, Egypt should increase socio-economic development of the Sinai Peninsula, recalibrate its military-centric approach, and recognize the Sinai insurgency as a top-tier national security concern.

The Sinai Peninsula remains a decades-long problem. As part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, Israel agreed to return the territory to Egyptian control in 1982 in exchange for Egypt’s demilitarization of the area. Since then, Egypt continues to view local Bedouins as second-class citizens, potential Israeli agents, and a population unworthy of socio-economic development programs. Terrorists unleashed a wave a bombings on tourism sites—Egypt’s prized possessions in South Sinai—which sparked relentless crackdowns from the government on militants and innocent Bedouins alike throughout the 2000s. Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis flourished after the outset of the Arab Spring in 2011, when Egyptian forces prioritized dealing with protests in mainland Egypt instead of on the peninsula.

Egypt must undertake three policy options to halt the endemic cycle of violence in its periphery.

First, Egypt must initiate necessary socio-economic development in the region. It is critical that Cairo recognizes marginalization as the locals’ primary grievance, and that only the government can comprehensively address this issue. Nearly forty years of socio-economic neglect has systematically decimated the livelihood of local Bedouins, many of whom tacitly accept the presence of terrorist and insurgent groups. Moreover, its latest military offensive destroyed thousands of homes during the operation, deepening further resentment between Bedouins and the central government. Infusing the necessary funds to construct educational and employment opportunities, as well as pathways to integrate local Bedouins into the greater Egyptian societal framework, will syphon off disenfranchised individuals who would otherwise turn to militancy.

Second, it is time for the Egyptian military to restructure its military readiness for the twenty-first century. Contemporary Egyptian military doctrine focuses on foreign incursions from Israel, Libya, and Sudan as the basis of its force posture. This is no longer effective for its current security threats. Egypt should possess the capabilities to manage a low-boiling insurgency on its periphery, even if it does not rise to an existential threat. Egyptian officers who have experienced the fighting in the Sinai Peninsula and are promoted into senior leadership positions should advocate for military readiness reforms to face unconventional warfare. Encouraging mid-level Egyptian officers to attend U.S. military war colleges can also serve as a long-term investment to discourage archaic practices.

Third, Cairo must formally acknowledge that it has a deadly ISIS-aligned franchise operating within its borders. Its spokespersons refuse to label the Sinai militants as ISIS, instead referring to them as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. It is paramount that Egypt, a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, recognizes the true nature of this group and manages it appropriately. It is no longer a localized insurgency, but rather a networked organization with ties to ISIS’ senior leadership in Syria. The Global Coalition’s June 2018 meeting in Morocco signaled its commitment to addressing ISIS’ presence across the African continent, but it requires buy-in from Cairo.

Egypt is a sovereign state and manages its internal affairs as it so chooses. Yet Cairo uses this instability as political capital to expand executive authority, despite it being responsible for creating the conditions in which extremist groups thrive. International partners, operating bilaterally and through Global Coalition mechanisms, must influence Egypt to pursue these critical reforms. Moreover, U.S. Africa Command can achieve one of its policy objectives of reducing threats from violent extremist organizations in Africa to a level manageable by local security forces. Egyptians must own the outcome and close political seams which facilitate instability.

Only Egypt can solve its ISIS problem, if it so chooses.


Image: Backstreets of Islamic Cairo

Courtesy of David Evers / Flickr


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Nicholas A. Glavin will graduate in May 2019 with a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. His thesis analyzed the implications of ISIS-aligned groups in Africa and Southeast Asia on U.S. counterterrorism policy. Nicholas previously worked at the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Naval War College. He received a B.A. in International Relations (magna cum laude) from Roger Williams University. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the policy or position of the U.S. Government.

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