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Sinai Attack: Why the Arab World's Largest Army Can't Beat ISIS

Egypt has neglected northern Sinai for too long, and now it's paying the deadly price

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi (right) shakes hands with Egypt's Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi and army generals during a presentation in Suez, October 29, 2017.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi (right) shakes hands with Egypt's Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi and army generals during a presentation in Suez, October 29, 2017.Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Islamic State has yet to take responsibility for the attack on a Sufi mosque in northern Sinai on Friday that claimed 305 lives, but there is little doubt that it was carried out by Wilayat Sinai — an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai. The organization has targeted Sufis before in other countries and it is currently the only insurgent group operating in Sinai capable of such a large-scale attack. Which leads to the question, why is ISIS, currently in retreat in its former main strongholds of Syria and Iraq, still capable of such operations, in Egypt of all places.

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Unlike Syria and Iraq, where Islamic State took advantage of the vacuum created by civil war and demoralized armies, Egypt — despite political upheaval in recent years — still boasts the largest army in the Arab world and for over four years, has been ruled by the iron fist of a military regime. The Egyptian army does not lack for the resources to fight a counter-insurgency war in Sinai, including mobile armored vehicles and attack helicopters. Israel has green-lighted every Egyptian request to reinforce its units in the peninsula, despite the demilitarization protocols of the Camp David peace accords. And yet despite Egypt’s ongoing campaign to wipe out ISIS in Sinai — a campaign which, according to foreign reports, includes major assistance from Israel — the group still retains the capability of launching the sort of devastating attack we saw on Friday.

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Egyptian army conscripts guard the Suez Canal University hospital, where the victims of an attack on a North Sinai mosque receive treatment, Ismailia, Egypt, November 25, 2017.Credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP

A year ago, the tide seemed to have turned in Sinai. In a series of attacks on Wilayat strongholds, the Egyptians succeeded in eliminating an estimated two-thirds of the ISIS fighters, including their commander Abu Du’a al-Ansari. They were down to around only 300 men when Muhammad al-Isawi, known in ISIS as Abu Osama al-Masri, an Egyptian who had fought with the group in Syria, took command. Al-Masri, with reinforcements, aid and supplies from Islamic State’s base in Libya has succeeded in reviving the organization, with its numbers back to around a 1,000 and more damaging attacks on both military and civilian targets.

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According to intelligence sources, the Wilayat’s fighting force is made up of Egyptian Islamists, volunteers from other countries, including veterans of Syria and Iraq, and most crucially, members of local Sinai Bedouin tribes. Their zone of operations is the northern half of Sinai, while for the most part, the Red Sea coast region in the south, where thousands of Israelis spent their High Holidays vacation two months ago, has remained calm. This is not disconnected from the fact that while billions have been invested in building the Red Sea resorts, the villages and towns of the northern Mediterranean coast have remained underdeveloped. Until about three years ago, residents of the region were still making money from the open trade of the smuggling routes that run through the tunnels under the border with Gaza. Egypt has now destroyed all but a few of the tunnels, which are now used exclusively by Hamas and other Palestinian groups, for arms and personnel.

While the local Bedouin tribes in the south are loath to jeopardize their income from Red Sea tourism by cooperating with ISIS in the south, those in the less developed north have fewer qualms. Egypt is now paying the price for decades of neglect of northern Sinai. Its soldiers hunker down in armored vehicles and fortified positions, while the jihadists enjoy cover from local collaborators there and in the nearby mountain passes. Egypt’s energetic sponsorship of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement in recent months was mainly motivated by its interest in ensuring that Gaza doesn’t serve as Islamic State’s backyard — something it was in danger of becoming. But the Egyptians’ real problem is within its own territory. It has allowed northern Sinai to remain a black hole of resentment and radicalism for too long and is now paying the price.

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