Egypt considers its options in the battle against ISIL
Years into Egypt’s war on terror, the conflict rages: in the past six months we have seen the bombing of the St Mark’s Cathedral complex, deadly twin Palm Sunday bombings, an attack on one of the world’s oldest functioning monasteries and weeks of conflict with tribes in North Sinai. This violence has been claimed by ISIL entities in Egypt, with some claims attributing attacks to the “Sinai Province” and others to the “Islamic State in Egypt”.
While the two entities had previously exhibited unique modus operandi, more recent events indicate a convergence in the type of activity across the country. The solidification of jihadism bodes ill for a country struggling to regain a sense of safety and stability after years of turmoil and economic hardship, and which the international community has deemed too big to fail.
In November 2014, Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, pledged loyalty to ISIL’s leadership in Syria, emerging as the “Sinai Province” in a slick video highlighting statements from the group’s leadership. According to data we’ve collected at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, there have been more than 2,000 terror attacks reported across Egypt since then. Of these, “Sinai Province” claimed a third.
In the early morning of July 11, 2015, assailants detonated a parked car packed with explosives in front of the Italian consulate in Cairo, ravaging the mission’s facade and claiming one civilian life. ISIL attributed the attack to the “Islamic State in Egypt”, though the pronouncement came without any of the bells and whistles that accompanied Sinai Province’s debut.
Although ISIL’s branch in Sinai predates the mainland branch by only eight months, the mainland group has claimed only 20 attacks since its inception: until December 2016, the group had not claimed an attack for six months. The period of quiet seemed to allay fears that ISIL would cement its presence in the mainland and gave credence to president Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s narrative that the state was having success in its fight against terrorism, which Donald Trump has praised heavily.
But for some observers, the relative calm stoked concern that the persistent insurgency in Sinai meant the continued potential for spill over into the mainland.
These concerns were confirmed when ISIL claimed an attack on the seat of the Coptic See at the St Mark’s Cathedral complex in December. Not only did this attack kill more than two dozen worshippers, but it also sparked a new wave of violence against Egypt’s embattled Christian minority, carried out simultaneously by both ISIL branches.
With increased sectarian targeting since last year, both groups have adopted a new and explicit focus on the country’s minority Christian population: along with the major attacks on Christian institutions, Christian families in North Sinai were explicitly targeted in their homes, driving families to flee. Up to 10 million of Egypt’s Christians now find themselves squarely in ISIL’s crosshairs. Although Egyptian state officials and the security apparatus made vocal a commitment to securing Christian institutions after the St Mark’s Cathedral attack, and again after the Palm Sunday attacks, continued attacks underscore the urgent need to match promises with action and the difficulty of this task.
Beyond just securing institutions, however, the state will need to address the scourge of extremist violence if it wishes to mitigate the persistent threat of terrorism, to protect its vulnerable population, and to prove it is a safe environment for foreign investment and a return of tourism.
Most of Egypt’s international partners seem to accept Mr El Sisi’s current security strategy, which relies on restricting rights and freedoms and establishing expansive control for the military and security apparatuses, as most recently evidenced in the implementation of an emergency law.
But this approach has been implemented in North Sinai for years, yet has failed to achieve any greater security or stability there. On the contrary, these recent attacks show that violence has only escalated in intensity and has not been contained in area. The Egyptian government is, of course, serious about combating ISIL, but its efforts must be carefully calibrated if it is to succeed.
Jacob Greene is a senior research associate and Allison McManus is research director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
Updated: May 1, 2017 04:00 AM