Desert Fury

Is the Egyptian military's scorched-earth campaign in Sinai just creating a new generation of terrorists?

Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images

NORTH SINAI, Egypt — The 9-year-old girl was standing in her family’s kitchen when it happened. A rocket smashed through the outside wall, narrowly missing the child and obliterating everything in its wake. Her father, Ibrahim, a farmer in the North Sinai village of el-Mehdiya, watched powerless from afar. "I saw the helicopter hovering above my home," he said. "The next moment, I watched the building collapse.… They call this a war on terror, but are my children terrorists?"

As Cairo braces for the partial suspension of U.S. military aid — including halting the delivery of Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, and M1A1 Abrams tanks — following the removal of President Mohamed Morsy and the subsequent campaign of repression against his supporters, the Egyptian military is in the midst of a separate struggle to erase militancy from the restive Sinai Peninsula, a problem, ironically, that the U.S. and Israeli governments have long called on the Egyptian government to address.

In that campaign, the Egyptian military claims to have achieved targeted success. Yet a visit to the patchwork of desert villages where it has unleashed the bulk of its firepower reveals a very different picture. What have been billed as targeted attacks have resulted in extensive collateral damage: Hundreds of homes stand shattered and charred across the northern part of the peninsula. In the village of el-Muqatta, rockets punched ragged holes in the walls of a neighborhood mosque. Nearby in el-Mehdiya, rubble fills the space where a local tribal leader’s house once stood.

Sinai has long been a source of consternation for Cairo. The triangular peninsula forms a strategically important buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip, with a demilitarized zone running along the border. Decades of government neglect, however, have encouraged a toxic merger of Bedouin resistance and Islamist militancy, one that has occasionally boiled over into massive bloodshed, as was the case in the 2005 and 2006 bombings of seaside resorts.

Since Morsy’s ouster on July 3, however, the threat emanating from Sinai has felt more acute. Near-daily attacks on security installations in North Sinai have killed over 100 personnel, according to Egyptian officials. Cairo has also been targeted. In early September, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim survived an assassination attempt outside his east Cairo home. A Sinai-based jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for the attack.

One month later, the city was struck again. This time, the Furqan Brigades, another Sinai-linked militant group, claimed responsibility for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a satellite dish in the upscale suburb of Maadi.

The Egyptian Army’s response has drawn mixed reactions. In Cairo, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt’s armed forces and the country’s de facto leader, has won widespread plaudits for tackling the jihadi threat. But on the front line of this "war on terror," Egypt is attracting condemnation from neighboring states as well as local communities.

An attempted cross-border rocket attack on the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat in August — the subject of competing claims of responsibility by jihadi groups operating in Sinai — strained relations with Israel and allegedly prompted a drone strike in response. More predictably, in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has been frustrated by the destruction of between 80 and 90 percent of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza; Hamas’s lost revenue amounts to an estimated $250 million since the operation began in July.

In the village of el-Mehdiya, a short distance from the border with Gaza, residents say the military campaign is failing to differentiate between militants and the civilians who surround them. A helicopter and tank strike on Sept. 7, for example, destroyed the home of an Egyptian businessman named Said, who used to ship construction materials to Gaza before the tunnels closed. Inside the remains of his home, jagged glass carpets the floor. Two walls have been punched out by military shelling. According to Said and his neighbors, the house was struck first from the air and later by tank fire.

"It felt like a completely random operation," he told Foreign Policy. "There was nothing to unite the men whose houses were hit, apart from their tribal identity. They came from different backgrounds, worked in different jobs, and most were not militants. Why is it that the only time we see the hand of our government, it’s a fist striking against us?"

In a September news conference, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali said the North Sinai operation is achieving "our highest rates for successfully achieving our targets." He did not respond to Foreign Policy‘s request for comment on allegations that the current military campaign has adversely affected civilians.

Sinai has long been neglected by officials in Cairo. Its infrastructure remains poorly developed, and the central government offers the Bedouin, many of whom lack official papers, few services. Residents have long complained of exclusion from the national decision-making process — whether in political office or in local development planning — and of heavy-handed security services.

A degree of autonomy was restored to Sinai after the collapse of Egypt’s state security apparatus in January 2011. "The January revolution brought back our freedom," said Abdelkarim, a member of el-Mehdiya’s Sawarka tribe. "Suddenly there was no harassment from the police. They used to stop us at checkpoints just because we were Bedouins, treating us like we were not human. After the revolution, they went away, but now they’re back and our freedom is gone."

The security vacuum that lasted throughout Morsy’s brief presidency brought other benefits to the local community, which was quick to establish coping mechanisms of its own. In the absence of access to employment opportunities, the illicit economy flourished as many earned money from unlicensed tourism services, cannabis and opium cultivation, and arms smuggling into Israel and Gaza. Over time, jihadi movements also gained a stronger foothold, their strength bolstered by weaponry that flowed into Sinai from Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi.

In some ways, Sinai’s position as a geopolitical battleground has prevented the sort of development that could have averted the crisis Egypt’s government now faces. The 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel place severe limitations on troop deployments in the peninsula. Although this separation of state forces once enhanced regional security, it would later contribute to Sinai’s security vacuum. Repeated promises of government-funded development projects have also fallen by the wayside, adding to the list of locals’ grievances.

"Historically, it was Camp David which put severe restrictions over the Egyptian government’s ability to exercise authority in the area," said Nicolas Pelham, a Sinai expert and writer on Middle East affairs for the Economist. "Limitations on the state’s military presence over the huge swaths of territory where most of the population is concentrated has allowed for the buildup of other forces which the state couldn’t control because it didn’t have the ability to do so."

The Camp David Accords split the peninsula into three zones with different levels of security. Although the accords allow for the deployment of 22,000 Egyptian troops and 230 tanks in the western half of the peninsula, Egypt’s authorities are prevented from using anything other than light weaponry in a band of land known as Area B, just east of el-Arish in northern Sinai, and are limited to a police force in Area C, which runs to the border with Israel and Gaza.

In the absence of adequate long-term security cover or development plans, the Egyptian government’s militarized approach to dealing with Sinai now feeds a deep sense of alienation. It also provides fertile ground for the thriving militancy. In subjecting entire communities to repressive tactics intended for the area’s militants, the ongoing military operation is fusing tribal and jihadi identities.

Militants have congregated in Sinai from myriad places, including the local community, Egypt’s Nile Delta region, and neighboring Gaza and Libya. Many are believed to have arrived following prison breaks and mass releases that accompanied the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the reign of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as well as during Morsy’s presidency.

"Although there are clearly foreign fighters coming to Sinai now, they would not be able to operate there unless they were able to feed off the grievances of the local population," said Pelham. "It’s the task of the Egyptian government to recruit local Bedouins to their cause."

Jihadi groups are capitalizing on this sense of isolation and injustice. In a statement released to jihadi forums, al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya in Sinai, a jihadi group with links to militants in Libya and the Sahel, threatened to kill anyone who aids the Egyptian security forces. The message was directly aimed at tribal leaders: "The treacherous agent will only get the sword."

In el-Mehdiya, however, there was little appetite to join the fight that has destroyed so many family homes. Scared and smarting, villagers expressed a deep sense of alienation. "This is a psychological war against all of us now," said Khalil, a local resident who asked that he not be further identified. "They are trying to hurt us so we turf the militants out of our communities. But we feel an injustice, a very bad injustice. If they’re not careful, we will explode."

<p> Louisa Loveluck is a Cairo-based journalist. She previously worked for Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program. </p>