Analysis

The Telling Gap Between the Number of ISIS Fighters in Egypt and How Many Egypt Said It Killed

With its deadly attacks on Coptic Christians, ISIS is trying to start a civil war in Egypt. Meanwhile, the army is behaving like it's fighting an enemy state, not a sophisticated guerrilla organization

In this still image taken from video provided by the Egyptian military, an Egyptian fighter jet takes off from an undisclosed location in Egypt to strike militant hideouts in the Libyan city of Darna, Friday, May 26, 2017.
/AP

The optimistic picture of U.S. President Donald Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi laying their hands on an illuminated globe, as a symbol of their cooperation in the war against terror, did not particularly impress the Egyptian branch of Islamic State. Just one month after its attacks on Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and churches in Alexandria and Tanta, ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack in Minya province, when 29 Coptic Christians were killed en route to a monastery – as if fulfilling a preordained timetable to mark the beginning of Ramadan.

These attacks clearly demonstrate why an international coalition such as the one led by the United States in Iraq and Syria cannot be effective against terrorism in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries.

Islamic State does not control territory in Egypt, as it does in Syria and Iraq. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to attack its forces using conventional tactics. Proof of this can be found in the “killing statistics” published by Egypt. According to Western estimates, ISIS has between 1,000 and 1,500 combatants in Egypt. But according to Egyptian government reports, some 6,000 ISIS members have been killed in Sinai since mid-2013 – almost four times more than their estimated number.

Who are all the fatalities? Human rights activists and Bedouin tribal leaders have reported random killings of civilians, each one immediately identified as an ISIS combatant. Last month, a video was published online showing Egyptian troops executing two civilians after briefly interrogating them in the street. The bodies of several other civilians lie nearby. The Egyptian authorities denied that these were soldiers, but it’s hard to believe this in light of the facts.

The difficulty in obtaining intelligence about Islamic State members – let alone their plans – and the defective strategy used to fight the group comes on top of the low motivation of Egyptian soldiers, who have proved unable to deliver the goods in Sinai.

A few years ago, when Sissi was still head of the Egyptian army, he explained at an officers’ meeting why the army cannot combat terrorism. “The army is a killing machine, not a tool for arrests it’s not our job to fight terrorism. That’s the role of the police and internal security forces. We have to defend the country’s borders.”

The strategy has since changed, but the army continues to train and arm itself as if it were fighting or planning to fight other states, not a terror organization. Sissi is purchasing fighter jets, tanks and armored vehicles from the United States and Russia – vehicles that cannot be used in cities or the rocky terrain of Sinai. The counterterrorism training is not systematic and lacks a clear doctrine. In some cases, Sissi lets Israel’s air force or its drones do the work in Sinai (according to foreign media reports), using the Egyptian air force for ineffective attacks against concentrations of Islamic State fighters in Derna, eastern Libya.

Relatives of killed Coptic Christians grieving during their funeral at Abu Garnous Cathedral, Minya, Egypt, May 26, 2017.
Amr Nabil/AP

Such airstrikes – similar to ones carried out by Egypt’s air force against ISIS in 2015, following the beheading of 21 Copts who were working in Libya – are no more than showcase events to demonstrate that the army is actually doing something.

The U.S. administration is well aware of the flaws of the Egyptian campaign against terror organizations. Indeed, this was one of the main topics of conversation during Trump’s last meeting with Sissi. For some time, the administration has tried to convince the Egyptian president to conduct a reform of the army’s mode of operations, and to use more of the $1.3 billion he receives in military aid for purchasing specific tools to combat terror.

Sissi is in no hurry to adopt these recommendations. The United States will decrease its civilian aid to Egypt by $40 million this year, while 15 percent of the U.S. military aid will be frozen pending an improvement in human rights in Egypt. But this restriction will not apply to weapons intended to fight terror. It’s doubtful whether this condition will substantially alter military acquisitions or the way the army fights.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Washington, April 3, 2017.
Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Wilayat Sinai, the ISIS-affiliated group in Sinai, no longer makes do with only conducting activities in northern Sinai. Two years ago, it expanded its operations to larger cities. Whereas in the past ISIS targeted mainly Egyptian security forces in the El Arish area, over the last year it has changed tactics, trying to foment a civil war in Egypt. Frequent attacks against Christian targets, which are supported by parts of the Muslim population, confirm that ISIS has accurately read underlying tensions within the country.

It doesn’t look like the authorities have any organized plan to counter this – something that requires a different military doctrine, but also national action to delegitimize the extremist ideology and dry up the financing that reaches these organizations from abroad, mainly from Syria.