Egypt is no longer sovereign in the Sinai Peninsula. Islamic State terrorists, moving freely throughout the Sinai’s Northern Province, have been delivering stinging defeats on Egypt’s military and police convoys. The November 24 mass murder of Sufi Muslim worshippers by radical Sunni terrorists in the Northern Sinai Province underlines the Egyptian government’s loss of control in the area. If Cairo changes its tactics and strategy, however, the Sinai can be saved.
Initially, Islamic State terrorists in the Sinai Desert feasted on soft targets, such as Coptic Christian communities and local, lightly defended, police stations. The Egyptian military’s inability to prevent these attacks or subdue jihadist forces simply emboldened the terrorists. In mid-October, Islamic State jihadists even robbed a bank in the northern Sinai’s provincial capital, El-Arish, making off with about a million dollars to help finance their anti-government campaign. Large tracts of the northern Sinai are slipping out of Egypt’s control due to the military inefficiencies and counterproductive policies of government security forces.
These shortcomings include an unwillingness to change tactics, ineffective weapon systems for desert combat, and lack of proper logistical support. The troop convoys sent into the desert are “red meat” for the jihadists, “who mount sophisticated multi-tiered attacks and employ snipers to demoralize security forces.”
The jihadists station their lookouts atop high desert sand dunes to monitor the approach of security forces; convoys are visible from miles away. On one occasion, the terrorists were seemingly able to lure security forces into an ambush.
The advanced capability and sustainability of the Sinai jihadists is in part, a result of Hamas training and Iranian financial support. The sad fate of a police convoy upon which the jihadists inflicted heavy casualties underscores the typical military column’s overall vulnerability.
Another government vulnerability is political in nature. Cairo is failing in desert warfare against the jihadists also because it lacks the support of the Sinai’s Bedouin tribes. The ease with which Islamic State contingents navigate the desert’s dunes indicates that the terrorists have intelligence and logistical support inside Bedouin villages. The Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” was able to capitalize on the Bedouins’ hostility to the central government’s harsh treatment, such as scorched-earth tactics against villages near a recent military defeat of security forces. Egyptian military leaders has often penalized villages for allegedly not providing warning of proximate jihadist attacks.
Egypt’s security forces might improve their performance in the Sinai against ISIS by adopting the following suggestions. The military might permanently occupy all of the major oases of the Sinai desert, thus denying jihadists easy access to water replenishment and rest sites. Another initiative for the Egyptian General Staff might be to establish a unified command and control structure, eliminating miscommunication between Army and Police commanders.
Egypt’s army, which has not fought a war since its 1973 campaign against Israel, might also benefit from more combat experience.
Egypt could also use the help of American desert-warfare Special Forces advisors, as well as actionable intelligence from trusted Bedouin scouts, who are desert trackers. Egypt might improve relations with the Sinai’s principal Bedouin tribes and other locals by building, perhaps with US help, schools and health clinics. Sinai’s two most influential tribes, the Tarabin and the Sawarka, envelop the El-Arish metropolitan region and could serve as an effective buffer zone against large scale terrorist attacks on Egyptian urban areas in the northern Sinai. Egypt might also organize tribal defense units at the village level. The regime might end punitive measures against civilians, if a nearby security force operation against jihadists goes badly.
Egyptian intelligence services might also develop a program to wean Bedouin away from ISIS. For example, Cairo could distribute videos and eyewitness accounts of terrorist atrocities throughout the Bedouin communities. Reportedly, ISIS is interfering in tribal institutions, and pushing its radical Sunni ideology.
Unless Egypt adopts a more effective military and political strategy against its jihadists, it could lose the entire Sinai, and the all-important Suez Canal, a prospect which would shake the foundations of both the regime and the region.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he was a Military Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
 Crossing the Canal: Why Egypt Faces a Creeping Insurgency” by Michael Horton CTC Sentinel June/July 2017, p.25.
 “Crossing the Canal: Why Egypt Faces a Creeping Insurgency” by Michael Horton CTC Sentinel June/July 2017.