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Deadly Egypt mosque attack puts Sinai military strategy in spotlight

Egypt's years-long campaign against an insurgency in the Sinai is under increasing scrutiny [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 November, 2017

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Egypt's years-long campaign against an insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula is under increasing scrutiny following a horrifying mosque attack last week that killed more than 300 people.
Egypt's years-long campaign against an insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula is under increasing scrutiny following a horrifying mosque attack last week that killed more than 300 people.

The attack was the deadliest assault by extremists in Egypt's modern history and a grim milestone in a long-running fight against the insurgency led by an Islamic State affiliate.

It also highlighted the insurgents' ability to carry out devastating attacks despite the deployment of tens of thousands of troops.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed to respond with "brutal force", and the army announced it had destroyed several of the vehicles used in the attack and killed their occupants.

But for some analysts, the army's muscular reprisals are not enough.

"I think (the Sinai) needs (a) smarter military presence," said Zack Gold, an analyst at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center.

"The job of the military is not to protect the military," he said. "The job of the military is to protect the population and to secure the territory". 

The job of the military is not to protect the military... The job of the military is to protect the population and to secure the territory

He said currently soldiers were usually confined to checkpoints on the region's roads instead of securing the population centres, where the insurgency has crippled the economy.

'Easier to recruit'

Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said multiple foreign diplomats had told him that when they urge Egyptian officials to change tactics, "they get a lot of pushback". 

"They are basically told 'not to interfere in Egypt's affairs'" he said.

He said discussion of security strategy took place within a "small circle" and that the public was "not allowed to participate in that conversation to discuss what is problematic and what could be better".

Egypt's Western allies acknowledge the army has made some headway in containing the insurgency and forcing IS to change its tactics.

Large-scale attacks on the military have grown less frequent, as IS has increasingly turned to a war of attrition involving roadside bombings and sniper attacks, inflicting fewer casualties on the army.

The military has also succeeded in hitting some of the group's top commanders, including overall leader Abu Duaa al-Ansari who was killed in an air strike last year.

It has largely ended the once-lucrative smuggling trade with the Gaza Strip by destroying tunnels under the border with the Palestinian territory and razing parts of the divided frontier town of Rafah to create a buffer zone.

But the home demolitions have stoked further resentment in a region that has felt marginalised for decades.

The army has been accused of large scale abuses against civilians during military operations, with Human Rights Watch alleging security forces have been involved in extrajudicial executions in the Sinai

Kaldas said that situation "makes it easier for ISIS (IS) to recruit, it makes people less interested in supporting the government."

The army has also been accused of large scale abuses against civilians during military operations, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleging security forces have been involved in extrajudicial executions in the Sinai.

According to the group, such killings fit a "pattern of abuse" against civilians by Egypt's military in its campaign against IS-affiliated militants.

IS too has sparked some antagonism with its tactics.

The extremists have alienated the region's largest tribe, the Tarabin, by executing dozens of its members for allegedly cooperating with the army.

Some Tarabin have formed militias to fight IS.

Increased military presence

Sisi came to power after leading the military overthrow of his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013 promising to restore security following the chaos of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. 

But four years on, the situation in Sinai is far from stable.

In November 2014, shortly after Sisi's election as president, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group previously linked to al-Qaeda, swore allegiance to IS.

Friday's attack was carried out by some 30 armed men carrying flags similar to the black banner of IS, although the extremist organisation has not formally claimed it.

The emergence of IS in Sinai strengthened the extremist insurgency that began in 2013, with the Sinai militants drawing from the expertise of IS extremists elsewhere. 

The Sinai Peninsula had long been demilitarised under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel but as the violence intensified the government responded by ramping up its military presence, with the tacit approval of Israel.

The region's biggest army was able to prevent IS repeating its successes in Iraq, where it seized a third of the country, including major urban centres, before declaring its "caliphate" in 2014.

One attempt by IS in July 2015 to seize the town of Sheikh Zuweid prompted the military to unleash F-16 jets, forcing the militants to withdraw.

Read also: The Egypt Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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