The Middle East Channel
The Sinai War Escalates
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been associated with lawlessness and terrorism since the 2011 uprising. Most attacks in — and emanating from — Sinai had three specific targets: Israel, Egyptian-Israeli relations, and Egyptian security forces. Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sinai-based jihadi groups have continuously escalated their attacks: first using car-bombs ...
Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been associated with lawlessness and terrorism since the 2011 uprising. Most attacks in — and emanating from — Sinai had three specific targets: Israel, Egyptian-Israeli relations, and Egyptian security forces. Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sinai-based jihadi groups have continuously escalated their attacks: first using car-bombs in Sinai, then spreading their attacks outside the peninsula, then using advanced weaponry against the Egyptian military. A further escalation last weekend could mark a new target, which should worry both Egypt and the international community.
On February 16, a man boarded a bus carrying South Korean tourists in Taba, Sinai, and set off a bomb on his person. The bus had stopped approximately 270 yards from the Egyptian-Israeli border, where the Koreans were to cross and continue their international tour. Tourism, a key economic sector in Egypt, has dropped off significantly during Egypt’s recent political turmoil. In the past three years, Sinai Bedouin have kidnapped tourists to gain Cairo’s attention and hotels in Cairo have been attacked by thugs; however, this was the first terrorist attack targeting foreign tourists.
Sinai’s most lethal and effective jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group emerged in Sinai in 2011, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the dissolution of Egypt’s security state to disrupt the flow of a gas pipeline to Israel and occasionally launching cross-border attacks with fighters, snipers, and rockets. Beginning in summer 2012, when the Egyptian military launched a serious effort to uproot the jihadi threat in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and likeminded groups turned their weapons almost exclusively on the military and police.
Attacks against Egyptian security forces became more frequent, more deadly, and more damaging after Morsi’s ouster. At the same time, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’s propaganda targeted Sinai’s population and disenfranchised Muslims throughout Egypt. The group claimed to be defending the population against the brutality of Egypt’s "infidel" armed forces, and its attacks — both in and outside Sinai — targeted security buildings and national security leaders, including an attempted assassination on Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. Throughout this terror campaign, Sinai’s jihadi groups have attacked and threatened the military’s economic empire, but until February 16 they had spared other important sectors of the economy, including tourism.
Prior to Sunday, the last bombing in Taba was in October 2004. That attack marked the beginning of a two-year terror campaign against South Sinai resorts. The recent attack, however, marks a shift in tactics reminiscent of the radical Islamist terrorism Egypt faced in the 1990s. Also, similarly, the Egyptian government and security forces are fighting what they see as a war of survival against Islamists. As then, Islamist groups are targeting security forces, political leaders, and symbols of the state. Then, and apparently now, groups such as al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyya transitioned from taking on the state to taking on the economic pillars of the state: namely tourism. That campaign culminated with the 1997 shooting attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, in which 60 foreign tourists were killed. The assault was so brutal, and so detrimental to Egypt’s tourism economy, that it forced these groups to reconsider their methods.
Almost 20 years later, attacks on tourists in Egypt are still rejected by Egyptians and any group targeting tourists is likely to lose support. Given that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’s actions and statements have focused on gaining sympathies and support from disenfranchised Egyptians, this attack suggests a radicalization among Sinai’s jihadis. By claiming responsibility, the group made clear that the Taba attack is more than a one-off incident. Indeed, one of the more disconcerting aspects of the claim is that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis does not view its attack on tourists as an escalation but defined the incident within the context of its "economic war" against Egypt’s government.
The willingness to target tourism also renews worries that Sinai-based jihadis have shifted their sights to international interests. Until now, Israel has borne the brunt of Sinai groups’ foreign ire. International actors have warned of threats to foreign embassies, Suez Canal shipping, and even civil aviation. To date, these targets have been possibilities — and have even faced small-scale attacks — but not serious concerns based on operational trends. Over the past three years Sinai attacks first targeted Israel then shifted to Egypt. A campaign against foreigner tourists may signal another, worrisome shift.
Zack Gold is a Washington-based analyst. He is the author of the Brookings Saban Center analysis paper, "Sinai Security: Opportunities for Unlikely Cooperation Among Egypt, Israel, and Hamas," and a forthcoming paper on terrorism in Sinai for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. Follow Zack Gold on Twitter: @ZLGold.