While Islamic State (IS) militants focus on territorial ambitions in Syria and Iraq, affiliated jihadist organizations and inspired cells demonstrate their ability to commit gruesome terrorist attacks on multiple continents. Last week, IS affiliated militants conducted their most brazen coordinated assault in the Sinai Peninsula, reportedly attacking 15 military sites and carrying out three suicide bombings, resulting in the deaths of 21 Egyptian soldiers and 241 militants in subsequent operations. Two days after the initial attack, jihadists launched two advanced Grad missiles into Israel.
These latest developments emulate similar patterns witnessed in the last few years since the destabilization of the Sinai, challenging both Egyptian and Israeli national security. Whereas Israel operates swiftly to provocations in other insurgency fronts, the Jewish state respects Egypt’s territorial sovereignty. Preserving the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, a major cornerstone of regional stability, is the utmost priority. Israel should therefore rely on enhanced defensive measures and strengthen intelligence cooperation with Egypt to mitigate the potential for any Israeli counterterrorism operations in the Sinai theatre.
With the world focusing on IS affiliated attacks elsewhere, the international community should pay close attention to the spread of an unprecedented jihadist insurrection within the Arab world’s largest nation, threatening stability at a vital interstate junction in the volatile Middle East.
From Cairo to Jerusalem
Following the 2011 popular uprising, the Egyptian military was forced to withdraw from peripheral regions of the country to quell the protests and ill-equipped law enforcement personnel were tasked with monitoring the Sinai Peninsula. A security vacuum rapidly emerged, allowing for an influx of radical Islamists from Egypt and abroad to set up bases of operations and launch an insurgency along side increasingly radicalized local Bedouin. An Israeli intelligence report states that there are roughly 15 various Salafi jihadist organizations believed to be operating in the Sinai Peninsula currently, including four groups that actively plan attacks against Israeli targets. The Sinai Province – formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis or “Supporters of the Holy Temple (Jerusalem)” – now pledges allegiance to the Islamic State and represents the most powerful group in the Peninsula.
In August 2011, Sinai jihadists coordinating with Palestinian militants conducted a series of cross-border attacks consisting of multiple waves in southern Israel near the Egyptian border. The terrorists first opened fire on a public bus before bombing near an Israeli army patrol along the border with Egypt. The third wave of the attack involved an anti-tank missile striking a civilian car killing eight Israelis. This incident exposed significant security deficiencies on Israel’s southern flank. A year later, a team of jihadists stormed an Egyptian military outpost near the Israel-Gaza border, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers, stealing two military armoured vehicles, and speeding towards the Kerem-Shalom border crossing. The first vehicle exploded upon impact with an Israeli barricade and the second was destroyed by the Israeli air force.
Revamped Israeli intelligence warned of an imminent attack and the newly constructed border fence proved effective, demonstrating that enhanced defensive measures can help deal with the security threat emanating out of the Sinai. Other cross-border skirmishes have occurred as well, while numerous advanced missiles have been fired from the southeast corner of North Sinai toward Israel’s major tourist destination, Eilat. Last week’s unprecedented assault on Egyptian forces and subsequent Grad missile attack targeting Israel demonstrates that Sinai based jihadists remain committed to provoking the Jewish state for the purposes of recruiting more operatives and rupturing Egyptian-Israeli relations. The attack also reinforces the perception that Egypt’s military apparatus is incapable of containing the Islamist insurrection.
Since the July 2013 military coup that ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, hundreds of Egyptian policemen and soldiers have been killed in the Sinai, indicating a sharp increase in violence. Many observers believe Egypt’s repressive counterinsurgency strategy is contributing to worsening security conditions. There is no single over-arching formula for conducting successful counterinsurgency. Much of the scholarly literature argues that each case requires a unique set of tactics, while historical examples are difficult to apply to contemporary insurgencies.
However, relatively successful counterinsurgency warfare ideally relies on highly discriminatory use of violence against insurgents coupled with offering various public goods to the civilian population. Strong intelligence that helps differentiate between active insurgents and civilians is crucial. Egypt’s approach to counterinsurgency in the Sinai will likely continue experiencing longer-term setbacks amid some perceived tactical successes.
The Egyptian military depends on its fleet of Apache helicopters to combat Sinai insurgents, relying on heavy-handed tactics, including launching helicopter-fired Hellfire antitank missiles in densely populated areas. Egypt’s fleet of Apaches face historically deficient maintenance and sustainment capabilities, in addition to poor pilot training. These factors contribute to rising collateral damage among the Sinai population.
“Israel should limit any future offensive operations in the Sinai to avoid stirring up public backlash against the Egyptian military regime for cooperating with the Jewish state.”
As the military regime devotes much of its resources to countering the perceived threat from the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist cells in mainland Egypt, its intelligence capabilities in the Sinai have proved incapable to foil mass-casualty and extensively coordinated terrorist plots. Moreover, there is no concrete effort to promote development projects in the Sinai and enhance the Bedouin community’s socioeconomic status. Continued alienation of the broader Sinai population will not bode well for longer-run Egyptian counterinsurgency efforts as historically disenfranchised residents will serve as a critical pool of jihadist recruits.
Israel’s Achilles Heel
Israel is aware that is has little to no influence over altering Egyptian strategy, unless Egypt sought covert tactical advice or requested training assistance – initiatives that are not politically feasible. Security coordination will continue, however Egypt is unlikely to act on all Israeli intelligence warnings of concrete terrorist plots. In August 2013, Israel reportedly sent an attack drone into the Sinai, in coordination with Egypt, to eliminate the threat of an impending rocket attack and killing five terrorists in the process. This important development marked the first time Israeli military assets were deployed over Egyptian territory since Israel relinquished the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.
Under the present threat level, Israel should limit any future offensive operations in the Sinai to avoid stirring up public backlash against the Egyptian military regime for cooperating with the Jewish state. In this context, Israeli covert operations in the Sinai, including alleged abductions of Palestinian jihadists for interrogations, should cease. Targeted killing of operatives with Palestinian connections, for example, should be strictly limited to surgical strikes conducted in the Gaza Strip.
However, in the event the threat escalates and Egypt is incapable of preventing imminent attacks, Israel will confront growing domestic pressure to act and should formulate an operational strategy that institutionalizes unique rules of engagement in the Sinai for extraordinary circumstances. In the meantime, Israel must rely on its unique satellite program and electronics surveillance capabilities, enhance newly created intelligence units devoted to the Sinai, and continue bolstering defensive measures and early warning systems, while cautiously diverting military assets from the relatively more problematic Lebanese and Syrian fronts.
As IS affiliates around the world ramp up terrorist activity, Sinai based jihadists will be encouraged to escalate the level of violence to demonstrate their prestige among the preeminent global jihadist network. Direct, secret dialogue between Egypt and Israeli security counterparts – even between senior officers in the field – will continue under a strengthened framework of coordination and mutual respect. Nevertheless, Israel will continue to face a dilemma with regards to permitting Egyptian military hardware enter the Sinai to combat the growing insurrection subject to the critical security annex of the 1979 Peace Treaty.
The longer-run implications on the future of the cold peace pertaining to a potential permanent presence of the Egyptian military in the territory will remain a weary trade-off for short-term Israeli requests concerning increased stability in the Sinai.
*This piece is based on the author’s forthcoming publication in the Paterson Review of International Affairs.
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Michael Shkolnik is a counterterrorism analyst with a private Washington D.C. based agency and serves as research coordinator for the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies (CCISS). Shkolnik is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, focusing on proto-insurgency development and terrorist group territorial control. While completing a graduate degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security, he worked with two prestigious national security institutes in Israel.
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Featured Photo from The Israel Project.