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Why Israeli Fighter Jets Aren’t Enough to Solve Egypt's ISIS Problem

While ISIS has lost nearly all the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, the group’s much smaller affiliate in Sinai is still going strong — despite Israeli airstrikes

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Israel Air Force F-15 during takeoff.
An Israel Air Force F-15 during takeoff.Credit: Neil Cohen / IDF Spokesman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Since it signed the Camp David accords in 1979, Egypt has been receiving American military assistance and has totally upgraded its inventory from Soviet weapons systems to hardware Made in the USA. It’s front-line squadrons field F-16C/D bloc 52 fighter jets and AH-64D Apache attack helicopters – similar models to those used by Israel’s air force. With the largest army in the Arab world, you would have expected Egypt to be capable of handling an insurrection in northern Sinai which by all accounts numbers no more than 1,000 fighters. But as an unending series of attacks on both civilian and military targets in the peninsula have proven, the Egyptian army is at the best “containing” Wilayat Sinai, the local branch of ISIS, but still far from mopping it up. While ISIS has lost nearly all of the vast territory it held only two years ago in Iraq and Syria, where its main forces have been decimated, the group’s much smaller affiliate in Egypt’s backyard is still going strong.

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The New York Times reported this weekend that Israel has been helping Egypt in Sinai and over the last two years has carried out over 100 airstrikes using fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones, at the Egyptian government’s request. What makes the Israeli F-16s and Apache more capable than the identical Egyptian ones is a combination of air-crew experience, upgraded Israeli avionics, a wider range of guided munitions, the backup of an array of advanced ground and air-based sensors, unmanned aircraft and a superior command and control system. All these make Israel’s aircraft more adept at seeking out ISIS targets in the desert and its pilots more secure when facing MANPADS – shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that the jihadists are assumed to have in their possession. But the tactical advantages of Israeli air power is not the only reason Israel is willing to risk pilots and aircraft on missions that are ascribed to Egypt.

In 2010, Israel’s national strategic assessment cited the “Mubarak succession” as one of the main points of concern. The veteran dictator was ill and Israeli analysts were anxiously evaluating the chances of potential successors. Hosni Mubarak had taken over from Anwar Sadat in 1981, after the Egyptian president who made peace with Israel was gunned down in Cairo during a military parade. For three decades, Mubarak had been a dependable ally, maintaining the “cold peace.” His deposal in the January 25 revolution took everyone by shock and for the next two and a half years, until Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, took power in a military coup, there was deep fear for the future of the Israeli-Egyptian alliance. The Mubarak succession had finally been resolved favorably.

In private, senior Israeli officers call him “our Sissi,” and in public, no other Egyptian president has ever been so open about enjoying a good relationship with Israel’s leaders — in a Washington Post interview in 2015, Sissi said that he speaks “a lot” over the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Beneath the bonhomie, is an unprecedented level of intelligence and military cooperation. This alliance underpins the peace, even if on the surface in Cairo, most of Egypt’s media and intelligentsia remain hostile to any prospect of “normalization.”

Egyptians gather at the scene following a bombing that struck a main police station in the capital of the northern Sinai province in el-Arish, Egypt, April 12, 2015. Credit: אי־פי

But there are limits to the effectiveness of the alliance. Airstrikes alone, no matter who carries them out, are not enough to wipe out ISIS in Sinai. Before ISIS came along, the original group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, was a local insurgency made up of disgruntled members of local Bedouin tribes, reinforced by Islamists who had fled Cairo and other cities. They are fighting on home turf, among their own people; they know how to blend into the villages and mountains.

The Egyptian army may be large and control major sections of the Egyptian economy, but its poor conscripts and imperious officers are not equipped and trained to fight an asymmetrical battle in terrain where they are regarded by many as foreign occupiers. Northern Sinai, unlike the tourist resorts on the Red Sea in the southern part of the peninsula, has been overlooked and underfunded for decades. There is little allegiance there to the central government in Cairo. The army barely manages to control the main coastal road and at night the soldiers cower in their armored vehicles.

By the end of 2016, airstrikes had decimated ISIS’ fighters; they were down to about 300 men and their leader was killed. But the Egyptian army failed to pursue its advantage on the ground and Wilayat Sinai soon rebounded, reinforced by new commanders and fighters who had fled Syria and Iraq, with experience and knowhow gained in the Caliphate’s battles. Just as in last year’s battles of Mosul and Raqqa it took a ground force to finally rout ISIS from its main strongholds, so too Israeli air support and aid from the U.S. and other Western states will not be enough to defeat Wiliyat Sinai unless Egypt’s own forces begin pursuing the insurgents on the ground.

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