Sinai Peninsula: tracing the roots of Egypt’s Islamist Insurgency

Article 11 (2) Sinai
Sinai militants claimed responsibility for the October 2015 bombing of Metrojet flight 9268, killing 224 people (Image Source: Flickr, Irish Typepad)

When Metrojet flight 9268 was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in October last year, the world was alerted to the creeping Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s remote north-eastern corner.  In the seven months since the deadly bombing in which 224 people lost their lives, the IS-affiliated militant group which claimed responsibility for the attack – Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) – has further enhanced their ambitions and capabilities, prompting greater attention from concerned international observers. The rapid growth of the group, which now has an estimated 1,500 fighters and access to more sophisticated weaponry, signals the latest development in an increasingly worrying regional picture, in which conflicts are spiralling out of control and jihadist ideology is spreading to unstable areas. Whilst Islamic State (IS) have recently lost ground in their strongholds of Syria and Iraq, their affiliate branches in Libya and Egypt continue to grow in strength, with Sinai in particular being targeted as a new base in recent IS propaganda videos – signalling a potential shift in focus towards North Africa.

However, despite recent developments, the presence of militants in the Sinai Peninsula is nothing new. The region has a long and troubled history of instability and jihadist violence, which can be traced back through time to uncover how Wilayat Sinai has been able to establish itself as an emerging IS stronghold, at the crossroads of North Africa and the Middle East.

The current developments must be placed firstly within the Sinai’s geographical context: as a remote desert area, it is far from the control of the central government in Cairo, and has long been characterized by weak state presence and a climate of lawlessness. Secondly, it must be placed within a firm historical context: as a slice of territory located at the heart of one of the world’s most volatile and unstable regions, which has been fought over for decades.

In 1967, the Sinai Peninsula was captured by Israel during the six-day war, and was held until the Camp David Accords in 1978 led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, facilitating the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces by 1982. In their place, a peacekeeping force made up of troops from 12 countries became permanently positioned in the area. Known as the ‘Multinational Force and Observers’, the role of the mission was to monitor the terms of the treaty and ensure that peace prevailed. A period of relative stability followed, during which Egypt’s former strongman president Hosni Mubarak oversaw the region’s transformation throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, with coastal towns such as Sharm el-Sheikh becoming popular holiday destinations for western travellers, as the tourist industry boomed and revitalized the flagging local economy.

Despite these economic successes along the coast, many of the indigenous Bedouin people of the Sinai felt isolated from the rest of the country: marginalized from the political process, denied access to the region’s natural resources, and excluded from the economic benefits of the thriving tourism industry. Whilst the coastal tourist resorts were made to feel safe for western visitors through the maintenance of a high security presence, the areas of Sinai to the north became increasingly unstable and lawless: smuggling routes flourished as state presence remained weak, with weapons being transported in tunnels under the border from the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

In the 1990’s, the area became a breeding ground for terrorists: individuals would travel to the Sinai to receive combat and arms training, before carrying-out attacks in other parts of Egypt. A group which shared the violent ideology of Al-Qaeda – Tawhid wal-Jihad – soon emerged after several factions united under a larger movement, and came to prominence in the early 2000’s. By 2004, the Sinai was no-longer just a training ground, but the site of deadly incidents: the group conducted a suicide attack on the resort town of Taba, killing more than 30 people. The following year, larger-scale attacks followed, when 88 people were killed in a series of car bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh during July 2005. The attacks were unprecedented in scale: they spread fear through the coastal towns and decimated the tourist industry, shattering the livelihoods of many locals and drawing international condemnation.

Article 11 (1) Sinai
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been a site of militant activity for decades. The IS-affiliated Sinai Province group has recently gained a foothold in the region (Image Source: CIA)

After the spate of attacks, the government of Hosni Mubarak cracked-down hard. Many of the militant group’s leaders were killed in gun battles with the security forces, whilst many more suspected terrorists were sentenced to jail. For the time being, the insurgency was supressed and the tourism industry recovered. However, the radical ideology of Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al-Qaeda did not disappear, and the groups served as an inspiration for future jihadism: many former members joined forces to form Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis – a group which would later transform into Sinai Province. The springboard which launched this new wave of terrorism was initiated in 2011: as the Arab Spring revolutions swept across the Middle East at lightening pace, the Sinai Peninsula experienced some of the most severe uprisings. It’s location in the far north-west of Egypt, led to an increasingly lawless scenario as the state did not possess the necessary resources to exercise full control; this fed into an atmosphere of instability and once-again made the Sinai a hotspot for terrorist recruitment.

Over the next five years, Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis became the most active and dangerous insurgent group in Egypt, carrying out regular attacks in northern Sinai, and even some in the capital, Cairo. In November 2014, the militant organization changed its name to Sinai Province and pledged allegiance to IS, stating a desire to be governed as part of a proposed caliphate extending across the Middle East and North Africa. From this point onwards, attacks increased in scale and complexity, signalling closer co-operation with IS leadership and the possession of more advanced weaponry. The Egyptian army has been the primary target of attacks, particularly since the removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. In January 2014 the group shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in an audacious attack with a ground-launched missile, likely to have been smuggled from Libya; this came just one month after a large-scale attack on a security compound in the northern town of Dakahliya, in which 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured.

The military-led government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi placed the region under a ‘State of Emergency’ in October 2014, after 33 security personnel were killed in an attack claimed by the group. At the border with the Gaza Strip, the authorities effectively created a ‘buffer zone’ in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons, through demolishing houses and digging a trench to make access to the border more difficult. In September last year, the government announced a large-scale campaign to crack-down on the insurgency, targeting buildings in the towns of Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. However, attacks have continued, with suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations becoming a regular occurrence. There have been unverified reports that the group has targeted Egyptian naval vessels in the Mediterranean, with missiles fired from the shore. If Sinai Province does indeed possess this capability, it would be an especially worrying development given the central importance of the region to commercial shipping. The October 2015 downing of the Metrojet flight was the largest signal yet of the group’s intent; an attack for which it claimed responsibility, and indicated was in retaliation for Russian airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The same month, smaller-scale attacks were carried out at sensitive tourist sites, near the Pyramids at Giza and the Karnak Temple in Luxor, indicating the intention of Sinai Province to spread fear, damage the tourist industry, and inflict the maximum level of harm upon President Sisi’s government.

The pervasiveness and tactical adaptability of Sinai Province in the face the recent military crackdown, is an especially worrying development for Egypt’s security officials and outside observers. The presence of IS in the Sinai Peninsula is becoming an increasing concern, especially after IS recently launched an extensive media and propaganda campaign, aimed at increasing recruitment in Egypt. In the wider context, the main concern from the international community is that IS attempting a deliberate reorientation towards North Africa, as its territory in Syria and Iraq comes under increasing pressure. There is significant evidence to support this claim: Sinai Province appears to be increasing its recruitment and growing in strength; Libya has long been courted as a ‘second base’ for the jihadists, following the upheaval and chaos which followed the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011; whilst Tunisia is the leading source of foreign fighters to IS, and has itself been the site of devastating terrorist attacks in the capital Tunis and the beach resort of Sousse.

Overall, the emergence of Sinai Province serves as a painful reminder that ISIS is no-longer confined within the borders of Syria and Iraq. Its ideology and violent tactics have the potential to take root in numerous areas across the Middle East, with similar characteristics to the Sinai Peninsula: areas with a troubled history of instability, marginalization and weak state presence; providing the ideal conditions for terrorism to flourish.

A version of this article was also published on International Policy Digest

Advertisements

Four years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya descends further into chaos

Whilst media attention throughout 2015 has been focused on the Syrian War and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, another complex conflict has been unfolding largely un-noticed, just across the Mediterranean. When the brutal regime of Colonel Gaddafi fell in 2011, Libya was at the centre of international news headlines. Four years later however, the growing instability in the country has become a side-show to these ‘main events’.

After the gruesome death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebels in Sirte, the initial outlook for Libya was overwhelmingly positive. It was viewed in the West as a country ‘freed from authoritarianism and tyranny’, with the opportunity to rebuild itself as a modern democratic state. After the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya in March 2011, a NATO bombing campaign was remarkably successful in aiding the rebels in removing the remnants of the previous regime, leading to the capital Tripoli being captured in August, followed by the death of Libya’s former strongman two months later. These events were accompanied by scenes of celebration and a mood of optimism, as the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) took power and a period of relative stability ensued.

However, it did not last long. Four years later, Libya is a ‘failed state’ plagued by militias. With no effective government, authority or state structures, Libya is a dangerously divided and fractured society on the brink of returning to full-scale civil war.

Article 2 (1)
The Libyan Civil War broke out after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests spread across North Africa in early 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Libya currently has two competing governments. Firstly, there is the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, backed by the Libyan Dawn network of Islamist-inspired militia groups. Secondly, the rival western-backed government is effectively exiled in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Known as the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR), it is internationally-recognized as Libya’s legitimate government and is more secular in nature. However, to view the situation in Libya through the paradigm of ‘two opposed governments’, would be a dramatic simplification of the reality. Libya is a country deeply divided along regional and tribal fault-lines, with a strongly disaffected population and growing risk of civil war.

These divisions can be seen most clearly through analysing the sheer number and diversity of armed groups currently operating in Libya. Irrespective of the protracted political crisis, it is these armed militias which dominate the day-to-day situation on the ground in the absence of any real authority.  Islamist militias such as the Libyan Dawn network are generally supportive of the GNC. However in reality, it is a broad coalition of various armed units and factions, with competing aims and desires. Alongside Libyan Dawn, many jihadist groups are present: including Islamic State (IS), Ansar al-Shariah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. On the other side of this blurred divide are groups generally supportive of the Tobruk government, such as the armed forces and allied units led by General Khalifah Haftar, and powerful non-Islamist militias including Al-Zintan.

To add to the already-dangerous situation, Islamic State has begun to gain a foothold in Gaddafi’s former home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. IS has been able to take advantage of the power vacuum, recruiting locals alongside foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Whilst the country’s political leaders have been pre-occupied with the dispute between the two rival governments, IS has gradually introduced its extreme form of Islamic law in areas under its control, conducted massacres including the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in February 2015, and has threatened to exploit the exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean to smuggle fighters into Europe.

The contrast between the West’s enthusiasm to intervene in 2011, and their reluctance to discuss the situation in Libya over the last four years, has been considerable. A 2015 Report by Human Rights Watch draws attention to the recent escalation of conflict, which has caused widespread destruction of property, civilian deaths and injuries. An estimated 400,000 people are now internally displaced, whilst many foreign embassies and the NGO’s have evacuated their staff from the country. The Libya Body Count website has reported a total of 4,340 violent conflict-related deaths in Libya since January 2014; however in reality the total is likely to be far higher.

The continuing instability has created the perfect conditions for conflict to flourish. The lack of border security has resulted in the increased trafficking of humans and weapons, whilst the judicial system has broken down as militias frequently have attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses. The longer the current political impasse continues, the greater potential there is for the situation to deteriorate; and with the recent rejection of a UN-backed peace deal, there is little sign of progress.

Given Libya’s increasingly complex and volatile internal situation, characterized by division, violence and lawlessness; there is clear potential for the country to become ‘another Syria’.

However, to understand the current situation more fully, we must move beyond simply looking at these internal developments. We must also ask critical questions of western policy, exploring its weaknesses and exposing its contradictions. For example, the West was happy to help remove a human-rights abusing dictator in Libya; whilst at the time maintaining strong alliances with numerous other human-rights abusing, totalitarian dictatorships across the region. This raises questions about the ‘real’ aims of regime change, and exposes the selectivity and hypocrisy of western interventions.

Article 2 (4)
After leading Libya for more than 40 years – since 1969 – Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in Sirte, in October 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

So after the initial optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, what can we learn from the disintegration of Libya? Firstly, it is clear that the problem of ‘complex civil war’ also exists outside the borders of Syria. Whilst the media and western governments primarily focus on the Syrian conflict, the considerable worsening of the situation in Libya has been largely ignored. Secondly, the conflict in Libya must be understood within the wider context of the growth of Islamist militancy in unstable regions. Alongside the proliferation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, other extremist Islamist groups are on the rise: such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The motivations of these groups are closely linked; therefore there is a need for western governments and the mainstream media to shift the focus from primarily being on IS in Syria, and instead pay more attention to the wider context and ideological linkages between conflicts.

Finally, Libya is an example of the dangers of western intervention. Four years after the removal of Gaddafi, the original aims of the Arab Spring protestors and well-intentioned western leaders, lie in tatters. Optimistic demands for civil, political and economic rights have disappeared into a power vacuum characterized by growing divisions, sectarianism and increasing violence.  The example of Libya exposes the double-edged sword at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East: tolerate human rights abuses and prop-up an authoritarian regime to preserve stability; or foster regime change with the hope of bringing democracy, at the risk of dire consequences. This seemingly impossible dilemma suggests that a third-way might be preferable: neither supporting nor intervening against authoritarian regimes; but developing a long-term strategy to tackle human rights abuses, whilst encouraging political reform from the inside.

An Overview: The ‘New Media Environment’ and Conflict in the 21st Century

In the early 21st Century, a new type of global geopolitical conflict has emerged. Whereas the defining ‘old wars’ of the 20th Century were often fought between two clearly distinct sides, with states as the main protagonists (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War); conflict since the turn of the millennium has seemed far more complex. These ‘new wars’, have blurred the boundaries between civil and inter-state conflict, involving many disparate actors with diverse and competing aims. The number of fighting units has increased dramatically: for example in the current conflict in Syria, there are estimated to be over 80 separate rebel groups, fighting the Assad regime, ISIS, and each other. To add to the already confusing picture, many external states have become involved in the conflict: the US-led coalition conducting air strikes, along with the further involvement of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These contemporary conflicts are driven by the conditions of globalization; enabled through new technologies of communication and aided by cross-border flows of weapons, people, information and ideas. The boundaries between war and organized crime have also become blurred: whereas previous wars were funded primarily by the nation-state, today’s conflicts are funded through private donors, resource exploitation and the smuggling of people and weapons. This new type of conflict is characterized by increasingly extreme levels of violence towards civilians, with groups aiming to spread fear and terror in order to achieve their political and ideological aims. In the Syrian civil war, as well as in many recent conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, this has been materialized through tactics including torture, beheadings, executions, destruction of heritage sites and the use of mass rape as a psychological weapon of war.

Article 1
Image Source: Christian Triebert

Across the same time period, media coverage of conflict has undergone dramatic and extraordinary changes. Whilst traditional ‘Old Media’ was based on a few-to-many model, with TV bulletins and newspapers being the primary modes of consumption; ‘New Media’ technologies have facilitated a de-centralized media environment based on the internet and multi-platform reporting. As a result of these changes, coverage of conflict has become almost immediate. Coverage is now exhaustive and event-driven, typified by the emergence of 24-hour news channels such as CNN, Fox, Sky News and Al Jazeera, along with the rapid growth and popularity of online news websites. This shift has been pushed even further in recent years, with the increased popularity of blogging and the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Another important trend has been the rapid expansion of ‘Citizen Journalism’. Civilians in the world’s conflict zones are now able to capture events first-hand on devices such as smartphones, and upload their content to social media. This allows the dissemination of witness accounts to a mass audience, in almost real time – further increasing the diversity of material available, and helping to ‘fill in the gaps’ in areas which are difficult for journalists to access. Such citizen-produced content has increasingly been used by mainstream news organizations in their reports, with news bulletins on Syria now being typified by shaky, grainy images and first-hand accounts from within the conflict zone.

The rapid changes which have taken place in the media over the last few decades have resulted in coverage of conflict becoming more immediate, in an event-driven media environment based around ‘breaking news’ and the use of dramatic, compelling footage. Images have become an increasingly important medium through which audiences visualise and understand contemporary conflict: increasing the reality of the situation and enabling viewers to gain a clearer picture of events on the ground. ‘Iconic images’ now play an increasingly important role in perceptions of conflict, as they act as a visual marker in the viewer’s mind: for example, the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Baghdad, George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs have become symbolic of the Iraq war. In the current context, camera-phone images of Colonel Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Libya in 2011, and horrific images of ISIS beheading western hostages have become gruesome icons of the current upheaval in the Middle East. In this sense, images in the media have become a powerful weapon in shaping public perceptions of conflict.

Article 1 (5)
Image Source: Magharebia

So what is the result of this new age of conflict, combined with the corresponding explosion in media coverage? Firstly, the power of the media is obvious: it is the primary medium through which audiences make sense of the increasingly complex conflicts of the 21st Century. The media has significant power to highlight the devastating nature of conflict, influence mainstream public opinion, provoke emotive responses, and pressure governments in to taking action. However, dangers emerge as a result of the almost incomprehensible level of coverage: already-complex conflicts can seem even more confusing to viewers, and the real stories of conflict can be left untold. Coverage may be saturated; yet debate is often limited. Conflict is simplified and the dominant perspectives are left unquestioned, resulting in misunderstandings and misperceptions.

There is a desperate need for coverage to do more than just report on daily events as they happen. Media coverage must strive to ask the more difficult questions, acknowledge the complexities of conflict and explore the contradictions which underpin the dominant narratives. For example, the current war in Syria must be located within its historical, socio-economic and geopolitical context, with more critical and controversial questions being asked of actors on all sides of the argument (for example: ‘what has been the role of the Western arms industry in fuelling conflict in the Middle East?’, or ‘Is it morally defensible for western governments to trade with extremist regimes, at same time as being publicly committed to fighting extremism?’). Only once questions such as these enter the mainstream debate, will governments more-fully be held to account, and more in-depth understandings of modern-day geopolitical conflict become possible.