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Why is the ‘war on terrorism’ failing in Sinai?

The Mosque where the bombing attack took place and killed at least 305 people in Egypt on 25 November 2017 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Following the horrific attack last week against the worshippers at Al-Rawdah Mosque to the west of El-Arish in North Sinai, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said, “We shall respond to this act with brutal force.” The fact of the matter is that it has been the use of excessive force which has led to the failure of repeated military campaigns aimed at defeating terrorism in Sinai over the past four years, so much so that the problem has turned from a limited insurgency into an extensive war. This has been due to the wrong tactics and the lack of a government approach based on the ABC of combating rebellion.

The atrocious massacre demonstrated the extent that can be reached by violence through damaging the social fabric. When local residents are turned into tools in the hands of rival armed forces, their options are reduced to becoming informers for the regime or supporters of the Jihadists in the conflict between hegemony and legitimacy.

The attack was the most brutal in terms of the number and type of victims, all of whom were civilians; nobody has claimed responsibility so far. According to the Egyptian Public Prosecutor, 305 people were killed, including 27 children; 128 were wounded. There were, apparently, between 25 and 30 attackers; they hoisted the flag identified with Daesh, although the terrorist group has not claimed responsibility. Five 4-wheel-drive vehicles were used by the attackers, who set fire to vehicles parked outside the mosque.

Researchers and experts agree that the spread of violence in Sinai and its extension to other areas in Egypt resulted directly from the disastrous approach pursued by the regime in its confrontation with rebellious movements. This is particularly so with regard to the employment of classical warfare strategy and scorched earth tactics. According to Omar Ashur, the prevalent conviction among those in charge of military and security bureaucracies is that the more extensive that repression becomes (whether defensive or offensive), the more probable that armed factions will be subdued and controlled. They believe that the same applies to the population of the Sinai Peninsula. Yet, such a belief is supported neither in theory (that is, rationally) nor practically (that is, in the field). The experience in Sinai, in fact, points to the exact opposite. Any independent study of the outcome of security policies over there would arrive at the same conclusion.

Read: Egypt’s war on Sinai

The continued growth of Jihadist groups reflects the failure of the Egyptian military strategy. Armed groups and movements with diverse ideological and jihadist inclinations have multiplied. Some belong to the Al-Qaeda radical sphere, some belong to the revolutionary sphere and some belong to the Daesh sphere. The paths taken and the developments assumed in Egypt by Wilayat Sinai is a reflection of the failure of political transformation towards democracy and pluralism. The organisation first emerged with the name of Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis on 5 February 2011. Its objectives were limited to attacking Israel. The group’s ideology shifted gradually in the aftermath of the military coup, and its priority from then on was to target the Egyptian army and security agencies. As the military campaign against the positions held by the organisation in Sinai escalated, the group announced on 14 November 2014 the establishment of Wilayat Sinai, which was said to be affiliated with Daesh. It also declared that its targets from then on would include what it described as “the apostates” and “the crusaders”.

Despite the extremist ideology and violent military tactics of Daesh, the organisation progressed quite noticeably. It was able to expand the polarisation of society and its recruitment inside Egypt and increased the scope of its operations. Additionally, it exploited the political and economic environment to attract members, and exploited the violent tactics of the Egyptian army in Sinai to create sympathetic popular incubators. The brutal military campaigns in Sinai generated impressions that questioned the real objectives of the operations, which went against standard counterinsurgency practices, namely winning hearts and minds, and creating anti-Daesh political and economic climates.

The violent campaign that the Egyptian army is leading in Sinai has left an impression that is reminiscent of classical wars and scorched earth tactics against a hostile state. As part of the regular army’s campaign in Sinai, which started on 29 October 2014, at least 1,165 families were forcibly displaced and more than 800 houses in the areas adjacent to the Gaza Strip were demolished. The people of Sinai were treated as if they were terrorism suspects and potential enemies. This led to a great deal of resentment and anger, and created the ideal climate for boosting the influence of Wilayat Sinai. Furthermore, adopting scorched earth tactics, involving the use of heavy artillery and the air force, resulted in real disasters and agitated hostility toward the government. Sinai has witnessed 1,234 extrajudicial executions out of a total of 1,384 such operations across the whole of Egypt; the cases are documented by Al-Nadeem Centre for rehabilitating the victims of violence and torture.

Read: Egypt army says it killed 4 gunmen in north Sinai

Most authentic studies confirm that Egyptian military strategies are heavily flawed and question their outcomes. This is exactly what an Israeli study published by the National Security Research Centre, which is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, points to. The study, which was authored by researcher Ofer Winter, concluded that improving the security situation in Sinai to confront Daesh and other Salafist organisations would require Cairo to overcome the challenges associated with shifting from a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency strategy. One of the main problems with the war on terrorism in Egypt is the lack of credibility and transparency. Although the Egyptian authorities have pointed out on numerous occasions that the membership of Wilayat Sinai is in the hundreds — and this is consistent with US intelligence estimates of 600 to 1000 — they have, nevertheless, announced the killing of thousands of terrorists. Boasting about the army’s accomplishments after launching the “martyr’s right operation” in September 2015, the Egyptian military announced, just a year later, that it had been able to kill 2,529 terrorists and arrest 2,481. Other sources put the number of those killed at 5,000 and those arrested at more than 5,500.

Away from propaganda and boastful claims, while Wilayat Sinai keeps performing more effectively (based on its own objectives), the Egyptian army’s performance seems to be stagnant, according to Foreign Affairs journal. Instead of engaging and pre-empting the enemy using ground troops, the army is preoccupied with its economic endeavours and preserving its strength. This has led to the luring of the enemy slowly, via hideouts and booby-traps set up along the roadsides. What is worse is that the Egyptians rely on the Israeli air force for maintaining their security. The Israelis have been given an open mandate to target terrorists using both piloted aircraft and drones that roam the Egyptian skies at will. Israel does indeed level the ground in Sinai, but it does not reduce the gains made by Daesh. Such a mission would require the presence of non-Israeli boots on the ground.

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It would seem that the Egyptian regime is reading the counterinsurgency manual completely upside down. The basics of the manual talk about winning hearts and minds, and bolstering governance and development. According to Oliver Bletcher, the core of counterinsurgency has to do with two outcomes in reality: controlling the population and killing the insurgents. Hence, protecting civilians is central to the counterinsurgency doctrine. The strategy, as described by retired US General David Petraeus in “The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual”, published in November 2006, requires an approach based on three pillars: evacuation, preservation and construction. What this means is, essentially, expelling the insurgents from a specific area and preventing them from returning to it, and then building local institutions to assist the population to move forward.

The manual earned praise from research centres and academics because of its “humaneness” and “cultural-friendly” approach to war. Its humane image is the main attraction of the doctrine. The position of “shoot and torture first and ask questions later”, which was urged by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney, is no longer the main course of action adopted by US troops. Instead, the strategy is now directed toward winning the hearts and minds of the population under occupation. This is achieved by means of development projects and by setting up responsible and accountable governance structures, despite the fact that the manual deals with a situation where resistance is waged in response to foreign occupation, something referred to as an insurgency. How would the situation then be when dealing with one’s own citizens? The counterinsurgency manual was updated once more in order to address shortcomings and errors and was republished on 22 November 2013. It focuses on one central question: how to dismantle insurgency movements and crush them completely in order to save the lives of civilians and guarantee political stability.

The wounded are taken to the hospital after the Egypt Sinai mosque bombing in Al-Arish, Egypt on 24 November 2017. [Anadolu Agency]

The wounded are taken to the hospital after a bomb blast took place in a mosque Sinai, Egypt on 24 November 2017 [Anadolu Agency]

It has become clear that the Egyptian military strategy is heading in the opposite direction of the prerequisites of counterinsurgency. According to Ashur, there is almost consensus among military strategists who specialise in revolutionary war studies that the brutality of regular troops in dealing with local populations directly helps irregular fighters in their recruitment, acquiring of materials and earning of legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US troops in Afghanistan, calls this relationship “the insurgency calculus”. Each civilian killed by regular troops generates ten new fighters who stand against them. According to the New York Times, when Sisi declares his commitment to fighting terrorism, he is in reality directing his energy toward his domestic political opponents who include secular activists, journalists, independent MPs, businessmen, academics, human rights organisations and peaceful Islamic groups.

It can be said in conclusion that the failure of the war on terrorism in Sinai is a logical outcome of the erroneous military strategies that rely on the logic of classical warfare and scorched earth tactics. After all, this contradicts the basic principles of the counterinsurgency doctrine, which is based on winning hearts and minds as well as on adopting good governance and sustainable development and abandoning the use of “terrorism” as a pretext for acquiring legitimacy and legality while violating the rights of ordinary citizens. What is even more important is the creation of an environment that drives away extremism and violence. In addition, there has to be a clear commitment to a pluralistic democratic system of governance based on freedom and justice. It can be said with some degree of certainty that dictatorship is a prime cause of the growth of violence and terrorism by non-state actors.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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