Counterterrorism in Sisi’s 1st term: Progress despite clinging to tradition

As President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stepped into his first term in office, significant developments unfolded within a number of militant groups across the country. Among them, the Sinai-based armed militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic state and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and rebranded itself as Province of Sinai.

The same group bookended the close of Sisi’s first term, but on a less ascendant note. A few months ahead of Egypt’s March presidential election, which unofficial polling numbers state that Sisi handily won, the Armed Forces launched Operation Sinai 2018. The comprehensive military campaign against armed militants in North Sinai, of which the Islamic State-affiliated Province of Sinai is the most prominent, has allowed the state to make headway in its counterinsurgency efforts, where security forces’ approach had previously been mostly reactive.

The differences in two of the major military campaigns carried out during Sisi’s term are telling. Undertaken within his first year in office, Operation Martyr’s Rights, had no clear timeframe. When it was announced in November of last year, the most recent counterrorism effort was more limited in scope. Initially intended to be a three-month endeavor, this was extended after Operation Sinai 2018 was launched toward the end of the brief window. The joint campaign has also produced very different results from the first, with the dozens of militants killed exceeding the relatively smaller number of Armed Forces personnel felled by scattered militant operations targeting military vehicles.

The state’s battle with militants extends beyond the geographical confines of the Sinai Peninsula and its confrontation with the Province of Sinai, however.

A number of new groups emerged in the last four years, including the Islamic State-affiliated Soldiers of the Caliphate, Al-Qaeda affiliates Ansar al-Islam, Al-Mourabitoun and Jund al-Islam, and those that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hassm, Lewaa al-Thawra and the now inactive Revolutionary Punishment.

In the Nile Delta, several small groups took up regular militant action. While at the start of Sisi’s first term their operations were confined to attacks primarily on electrical towers and boxes, the groups’ activities expanded in scope and boldness, culminating with the assassination of Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat in June 2015. And while there was a failed assassination attempt carried out by Hassm on the Alexandria security director in the days leading up to the election, there was a notable downturn in these groups’ activities as Sisi’s first term drew to a close.

There are no official statistics that can aid in framing Egypt’s “War on Terrorism” under Sisi’s watch, neither on the number and type of militant operations, nor on casualties, be they among the civilian population, militants, or security forces. A paper titled “Terrorist Operations: Paths and Characteristics since January 2011” and authored by Ahmed Kamel al-Behairy, a researcher of jihadist movements at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, is perhaps the most comprehensive source available. According to Behairy, as of January 25, 2017, 1,003 militant operations had been carried out during Sisi’s term. These operations targeted infrastructure, state institutions, diplomatic headquarters, churches and mosques, as well as senior security, military and judicial figures. Comparing militancy under Sisi with periods under other presidencies using Behairy’s figures shows a dramatic change. According to the researcher’s data, 11 militant operations were carried out during ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s time in office (30 June 2012 – 3 July 2013), and 222 operations under interim President Adly Mansour (July 4, 2013 – July 7, 2014).

What accounts for these general trends is difficult to discern, as the tactical goals of both the state and militant groups are not known with certainty. And yet, there are a number of possible paths of analysis that may provide some method of evaluation for the last four years of counterinsurgency efforts, including the terms set out in the 2009 United States’ Handbook on Counterinsurgency issued by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and US Agency for Development Director Henrietta Fore.

The handbook lays out four functions of counterinsurgency efforts: the information function comprised of intelligence and influence, the security function which extends beyond a military force to the whole security sector, the economic function that holds up growth as a way to reduce the conditions which aid militant recruitment and the final and fundamental political function around which the other three functions are organized and that allows a government to engage the relevant political actors in the counterinsurgency efforts and to organize social campaigns to support these efforts.

In analyzing Egypt’s counterinsurgency effort in accord with the US handbook’s information and security functions, the researchers that spoke to Mada Masr argue that state authorities tasked with confronting militants have made remarkable breakthroughs, while still being entrenched in traditional operational and information gathering tactics that may pose problems for them, despite their relative successes to this point.

Military strategy

David Schenker, the director of the Arab Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, provides a critique of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ programs of armament and training in his paper “Egypt’s Failed War on Terror,” published in May 2017. “Since 2011, Egypt has been losing ground against a virulent but numerically small insurgency in the Sinai,” Schenker writes. “Notwithstanding its 440,000-strong standing army and $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance, over the past five years, Egypt has been unable to contain—much less roll back—an estimated 600–1,000 insurgents. ”

For the researcher, who is an expert on US-Egyptian military and security relations, Washington should have urged Egypt to change its procurements of US military equipment that it buys via US financial aid. “Given the threats Egypt faces, which almost exclusively relate to terrorism and by extension border security, there is little rationale for the kind of big ticket items Cairo has long prioritized, including tanks, fighter jets, amphibious assault ships, helicopter carriers and upgrades to long-range missiles,” he writes. “Washington should also consider increasing funding for Egypt’s rather modest military education and training program.”

In other words, the quality of arms the Egyptian military procures and the training it provides are not suitable to the threats it faces from militants in confrontations that diverge from traditional state warfare, according to the researcher.

However, Schenker points out that the Egyptian military showed some willingness to give attention to trainings against irregular militant groups in mid-2017. “Recently, Egypt requested and received U.S. training for detecting and disposing of IEDS,” he writes.

Four months after the publication of Schenker’s article, the US and Egypt announced the resumption of the Operation Bright Star joint military training exercises. After an eight-year hiatus, the training exercise returned, but with a new focus, which the Egyptian military spokesperson outlined as training on “issues of security cooperation, anti-terrorism and anti-extremism, and trainings on various scenarios related to 21st century threats, including traditional and irregular warfare.”

The database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents arms deals between different states, as well as militant movements, shows that Egypt, which was not part of the organization’s list of top 10 arms importers before 2014, leaped to the third position among countries importing arms in 2017.

Between 2014 and 2017, Egypt signed deals to import weapons to the tune of US$5.898 billion, with $380 million secured in 2014, $1.452 billion in 2015, $1.711 billion in 2016 and $2.355 billion in 2017.

The increased military expenditure, however, does not necessarily denote a shift in tactics. In that period, Egypt purchased a significant quantity of heavy armaments, which are better suited to the demands of traditional warfare and confrontations with regular armies. From France, Egypt secured deals for the delivery of frigates, helicopter carriers and interceptor fighter planes. It purchased surface-to-air missile batteries and military submarines from Germany. From Russia, Egypt purchased air radar and surface-to-air and anti-submarine missiles. From the US, Egypt purchased naval fighters, frigates and tanks. Egypt also purchased weapons for non-conventional warfare with militant groups, including drones, armored personnel carriers, single jet fighters and portable anti-tank missiles.

Tit-for-tat operations no more?

Over the past four years, both the state and militants have changed the way they conduct their operations. Initially, the state approached confrontations in a reactive manner and employed traditional methods of warfare, a tactic that changed with the announcement of Operation Sinai 2018 and the deployment of most of the military’s weaponry. Militant groups, on the other hand, initially used snipers to target police and military personnel and carried out large-scale operations against targets of strategic military importance. More recently, they have resorted to attacks on civilian targets, the most serious of which was the November 24 attack on Rawda village, which killed over 300 civilians when militants opened fire at and around a mosque during Friday prayers.

For much of Sisi’s term, militant groups were able to inflict serious damage proportionate to the state’s efforts. Operation Sinai 2018, however, seemed to mark a turning point, where the state shifted from a reactive position to assuming a more active role. With the start of the operation, militants’ targets were limited to a number of military tanks and vehicles, killing and injuring a number of soldiers on board. In comparison, the state’s successes seemed to be more significant.

As of publication and as the operation has eclipsed the February terminal point initially specified by Sisi, the Armed Forces have killed dozens of militants, arrested thousands of suspects and released those that were proven not to be involved in hostile attacks. They destroyed a number of media and broadcasting centers and seized explosive materials, as well as transmission and receiving devices, in what appears to be the heaviest losses exacted on militant groups in Sinai since 2011.

For Behairy, however, the shift in the state’s fortunes in the Sinai conflict predates the operation by several years and is related to control over North Sinai’s major cities.

“The Islamic State’s strategy in Sinai was to control Sheikh Zuwayed, Rafah and some of the areas west of Arish. The state was able to counter this strategy,” he says. “July 2015 could be labeled the moment of the state’s victory. This is when the state’s military operations prevented the Islamic State’s attempted takeover of the city of Sheikh Zuwayed. This was the most important victory in Sinai. The Islamic State failed to duplicate the strategy it had followed in Raqqa (Syria) and in Mosul (Iraq), where it established geographical control followed by institutional control. While the Islamic State publicized that it had set up what it called legal courts along with checkpoints and mobile barriers, these were a result of its inability to conduct normal operations rather than a sign of an institutional or continuous tactic.

In mapping out a general history of the operational tactics of militants in Sinai, Behairy states that 2015 was dominated by sniping operations, with 2016 giving way to the use of more improvised explosive devices. The following year, however, saw the Province of Sinai begin to use inghimasi operations, which feature special forces-style suicide fighters who carry both small arms and explosives.

Behairy believes that changes in the tactics of the Armed Forces, which might have included procedures such as expanding security zones around some buildings, replanning security deployments and increasing operational distance from densely populated areas, put pressure on militants and forced them to resort to the elite among their own recruits, and as a result, to incur a higher loss in lives.

“In 2015, the group had the military capacity to target all police stations in Arish, and to raid the checkpoints in Karm al-Qawadis, Zohour and Safa several times,” Behairy says. “It was an indication that it was capable of mobilizing a significant number of its members. Now, however, it has shifted to inghimasi operations using its elite fighters. This is due, of course, to organizational reasons, such as changes in leadership and an increase in the number of foreign members (especially Palestinians). It is also, perhaps, due to the new tactics being used by security forces, such as the redeployment of units outside of cities, limiting military conflict with civilians and expanding security zones around vital buildings.”

The Egyptian government has decreased the population density in areas near the border with Gaza where tunnels have been built by establishing a buffer zone and displacing residents in the area. This policy has extended to areas around some military and government buildings in Sheikh Zuwayed and Arish.

3 months of Operation Sinai 2018

Days after the attack on Rawda, in which militants killed more than 300 civilians, most of whom were praying in Belal Mosque, the president charged Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohamed Farid Hegazy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar with eliminating all terrorist groups from Sinai within three months. The directive was spurred by an assassination attempt targeting Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy and Abdel Ghaffar at Arish airport, after which a security perimeter was established around the airport.

After two months had elapsed, however, neither the Armed Forces nor the police had completed any noteworthy counterinsurgency operations. In contrast, business continued as usual for militant groups in the region which successfully carried out propaganda, social, military and security efforts, until these were impeded by the launch of Operation Sinai 2018 in February.

During that same period, the Islamic State issued a number of photo and video publications, including “The Flames of War II,” which documented the July 2017 attack on a checkpoint in North Sinai, in which commander of Shock Troop Battalion 103 Colonel Ahmed al-Mansy was killed alongside 10 of the Battalion’s members. On December 28, Province of Sinai militants killed the military commander of Bir al-Abd, another Armed Forces lieutenant and wounded six soldiers.

Targeting militant group leaders: Military vs. security

The Egyptian Air Forces’ August 2016 airstrike near Arish that killed Abu Duaa al-Ansari, who was known as the leader of Province of Sinai, served as evidence of a qualitative shift in the Armed Forces’ counterinsurgency strategy, namely they had begun targeting leading positions in the group. Faced with Ansari’s death, the Province of Sinai quickly acknowledged the news by declaring Abu Hajar al-Hashemi, who is not an Egyptian national, as their new governor of Sinai.

With Hashemi at the helm, Province of Sinai operations targeting civilians began to increase at the expense of those targeting the state, the police, the military or the judiciary. There was also the emergence of attacks with a sectarian edge, with the militant group targeting Sufi sheikhs in North Sinai and Christians living in Arish and other North Sinai and Nile Delta villages. These included the St. Peter and St. Paul Church bombing in Abbasseya in 2016, and the twin Palm Sunday bombings in Tanta and Alexandria in 2017.

Ansari’s death and the subsequent change in tactics marked a major transformation in the conflict, according to Behairy. In killing the group’s leader, the state had successfully dealt the Islamic State’s Egyptian branch a strong blow, highlighting the success of the cooperative efforts between its intelligence agencies and the military. The appointment of Hashemi also strengthened the influence of foreign members of the Province of Sinai, which in turn added a sectarian dimension to the organization’s operations.

“Of course it was a successful attack on part of the state. However, it might not have been the best of all possible options,” Behairy says. “We don’t know for sure whether the security forces had the option not to kill him. This would have provided a better leveraging opportunity to clamp down on the militant organization. Ansari’s death pushed the militant group to install its foreign members in leadership positions. It was at this point that they started to target civilians. Ansari was an Egyptian who had been formed by the experiences of older, traditional jihadi groups, such as Tawhid wal-Jihad and others. Until his death, the militant group in Sinai had maintained a distance from targeting civilians in an attempt to create, within Sinai, an environment more supportive of its presence.”

With Hashemi’s appointment, Behairy argues, the Province of Sinai began to misread the situation in Egypt.

“This, of course, served the interest of the state and led to tensions between the group and a number of tribes, such as the Tarabin and the Sawarka, especially with the latter, whose members participated more frequently with the group,” he says.

Where does Egypt’s information gathering apparatus fit into the picture?

Any strategy to combat organized violence always begins with an information gathering apparatus. In Egypt’s counterinsurgency strategy, this broke down to two bodies: the National Security Agency (NSA) handled internal intelligence work, and the General Intelligence Service handled external intelligence work.

Events in recent years posed a significant challenge for internal information gathering, however. The State Security Investigation Services (SSIA) was disbanded in 2011, and most of its officers were dismissed, specifically those handling the files of religious groups. The intelligence body was later re-established with nominal changes, now named the NSA, and a number of those officers were re-appointed as the influence of armed Islamist groups began to rise.

There are two factors that determine how information gathering has played out in Egypt’s counterinsurgency reality over the four years, according to the researchers Mada Masr spoke to. The first concerns the nature and composition of militant groups, and the second is the knowledge base and practice of the intelligence body.

“The Egyptian information gathering agencies possess a great deal of experience gleaned in the recent past and successfully employed outside of Sinai,” says Ahmed Mawlana, an independent researcher on Islamist groups. “This experience was demonstrated in the dismantling of a number of militant groups: Ajnad Misr, the Helwan Brigades, Abu al-Nimras cells and Amr Saad’s group [Soldiers of the Caliphate], which was affiliated with Islamic State. However, while such success could be considered tactical successes, they also entail strategic failures.”

For Mawlana, the state offers citizens two paths: submit to the state apparatus or turn to armed violence. It does not, in his estimation, address what drives people choose armed violence, factors he believes are inherent to the Egyptian context. Without addressing these root causes, the elimination of one group will lead to the creation of new groups that operate differently, Mawlana argues.

However, Behairy locates the slippage in information gathering that allowed Egypt’s militant insurgency to gather steam within the broader context of post-2011 difficulties faced by intelligence bodies.

“The primary agency tasked with gathering information had collapsed [the SSIA]. At the time of its collapse, it was relying on an old database. Many current members of militant groups that left Egypt to join camps in Iraq and Syria were able to exit the country legally. Young Egyptians who were recruited by organizations such as Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra were unknown to the NSA. Most of those had previously joined the Muslim Brotherhood or other streams of political Islam in 2011 and 2012. They were motivated more by vengeance rather than driven by ideology or jurisprudence, especially after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.”

Behairy argues that intelligence bodies need to be restructured to bring them up to date.

“This does not mean, however, that we should simply re-appoint the past officers,” he says. “These officers were experienced in working with the Muslim Brotherhood during their non-violence stage, but they would have no knowledge or experience of how to work with them after the transformations the jihadi groups have undergone in recent years. They should be able to tell the difference in the ways these groups arm themselves now and should be aware that the current regional connections between terrorist groups differ from those that existed in previous moments in history.”

Behairy and Mawlana both agree that chance has played a part in information gathering, though at times this has played out in intelligence officers’ favor, and at others it has proved fatal.

The Wahat Road attack in October 2016, which left 16 security personnel dead, is a touchstone for Behairy. Most of those killed, he points out, were NSA officers tasked with religious activism files. At the time of the attack, the security agencies were criticized for their lack of preparation and poor efficiency in analyzing data.

Mawlana notes that coincidence and a wide circle of suspects has been key to intelligence bodies’ successes as well.

“The discovery and assassination of Hammam Attia, the leader of Ajnad Misr, was a mission in which coincidence played the biggest role. When a burglary occurred in the building where Attia lives, security ordered an investigation into all of the inhabitants. Attia’s ID raised suspicions. He had registered his residence in North Sinai, and by looking at his photo more carefully, the security forces were able to identify him,” he says. “In the case of the attack on the St. Peter and St. Paul bombing, security had uncovered the identity of the perpetrators, as they had been monitoring the group’s cell and were aware of an imminent attack. However, the cell carried out the attack before the security apparatus could act. It was, therefore, easy after the attack to announce that they had identified the cell.”

Recently, national security officers took over Case 79/2017, known in the media as Province of Sinai 2. The case includes 319 suspects, a large number of whom are known to occupy important positions in the group. The case documents detail several operations that clearly show the role played by the information gathering apparatus in the ongoing confrontation with militant group.  

According to these documents, the NSA has produced an outline of the group’s structure. The main body consists of cluster cells, most of which are unconnected, and of which there are four different types. The first is responsible for collecting data, monitoring goals and passing information to the executive cells. The second group is in charge of securing the logistical needs for the remaining elements of the group. The third group carries out suicide attacks against pre-determined goals. The final group includes the members who implement all operations, with the exception of suicide attacks.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s groups

Over the last five years, and in the shadow of the violent dispersal of the sit-ins at the Rabea and Nahda squares in 2013, when hundreds were killed and thousands detained, indications appeared that elements within the Muslim Brotherhood were leaning toward armed violence as a means for retribution against security forces. This was evidenced in a number of statements published by the Revolutionary Punishment group, which decreased in prominence in 2015, and later on by Hassm and Lewaa al-Thawra. The prevalence of former Muslim Brotherhood members in these groups was further proof of this shift.

These groups initially targeted electricity towers and boxes using explosive devices, before moving on to larger attacks against security forces at mobile and permanent checkpoints. There were also several assassination attempts, including against an assistant prosecutor general in September 2016 and a former grand mufti in August. In August of the following year, Lewaa al-Thawra successfully assassinated Brigadier General Adel Ragaei.

However, as the Interior Ministry announced that it had killed a number of wanted individuals in these cases and arrested hundreds in November 2017, their operations came to a halt. Even the online platforms advocating for them disappeared.

For Behairy, the ephemeral nature of these groups has much to do with their composition.

“Let’s first clarify that these groups are random units that are difficult to target but easy to eliminate. They are difficult to target because they are not hierarchical groups that can be easily tracked,” he says. “However, at the same time, capturing only one of their members can lead to the collapse of the entire group. The members of these organizations do not possess the combat experience required to carry out large-scale operations. Moreover, they are more politically motivated than ideologically driven, unlike Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, for example.”

More than half of the state’s success in curtailing the spread of these militant groups can be attributed to the financial difficulties faced by young members, Behairy notes, adding that these youth also prefer joining groups that are already established and active, like Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, instead of forming their own, new organizations. Finally, attacks against leading figures, such as Mohamed Kamal, have become increasingly successful in recent years, stated Behairy.

A cursory glance may show that the state authorities tasked with confronting militant groups achieved significant breakthroughs during Sisi’s first term. However, their counterinsurgency efforts continue to adhere to traditional armament patterns and intelligence gathering tactics that are not well suited to the irregular methods with which these groups operate. While the security apparatus has paid increasing attention to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency trainings in more recent years, and despite some success in exploiting the specific features of certain groups, the state’s approach to conflict with armed militants is still colored by outdated perceptions and information.


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