Counter-Terrorism: Losing While Winning

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December 6, 2019: Egypt has been fighting Islamic terrorists in northern Sinai since 2011 and has had a difficult time dealing with a few thousand full-time Islamic terrorists and twice as many part-timers. Most of the terrorists are locals who are not so much Islamic as locals angry at the way they are treated by the security forces. Many of these locals are Bedouins, who have never been treated well by Egypt and comprise more than half the 600,000 people in the Sinai Peninsula. About .5 percent of Egyptians are Bedouin while in neighbor Israel 3.5 percent of the population is Bedouin and the Israeli Bedouin do much better than their Egyptian counterparts. Educational and job opportunities are much better in Israel, while Israeli Bedouin get along much better with the security forces than in Egypt. Israel also has more Bedouin in the army and police than does Egypt. The smuggling is illegal on both sides of the border and the Bedouin dominate it, and realize that helping the security forces prevent Islamic terrorists from crossing the border means less military and police attention to the more traditional smuggling of goods and illegal migrants.

On the Egyptian side of the border, there are more Bedouin who are willing to fight the security forces, usually because of abuse by poorly trained soldiers and police prone to arrest everyone in sight. This resistance is often a family affair. Bedouins who have lost family members to military operations, usually gunfire or airstrikes, will consider revenge an obligation. For a while, Islamic terror groups were able to exploit that but by 2016 the Bedouin came to understand that the Islamic terrorists were an even greater threat than the trigger-happy and undisciplined soldiers who patrolled Sinai and manned numerous checkpoints. It is very different on the Israeli side of the border where the more professional security forces maintain good relations with local Bedouin communities. While there is crime (like smuggling) on the Israeli side there is very little Islamic terrorism.

Another major difference between Israeli and Egyptian military operations against Islamic terrorists in the desert area that comprises Sinai is the level of cooperation from local civilians. The better trained security forces and a cooperative civilian population mean there is very little Islamic terrorist activity on the Israeli side of the border, while in Sinai over 5,000 have died since 2011 because of persistent Islamic terrorist activity. In Israel, there have been fewer than a hundred deaths in the same period, most of them from fighting Hamas and other Islamic terror groups confined to the Gaza Strip. The Islamic terrorists in Sinai would prefer to be killing Israelis but they cannot survive in Israel and have a very difficult time even getting across the border. In fact, Bedouin on both sides of the border will cooperate to keep the Islamic terrorists away from the Israeli border because it is bad for their smuggling operations. Bedouin have been smuggling for as long as there have been borders and they consider it a profession worth protecting.

In Egypt, the 340,000 man army is largely composed of conscripts serving one to three year terms. Conscripts get 45 days of basic training followed by short specialist schools for a few and on-the-job training for most. The basic training is very rudimentary and concentrates on learning how to dress and act like a soldier. Weapons training is limited to rifle fundamentals and little training in the use of other weapons is given. Most of these troops never serve in Sinai, where the army has about 20,000 troops. In addition, there are some para-military police, many of them conscripts but better trained. There are also over a thousand special operations troops, who are largely regulars (not conscripts) and very highly trained. Getting assigned to Sinai is considered bad luck for most troops, although the special operations professionals and career-minded officers see it as an opportunity.

What turns many Sinai civilians against the military is the way the military handles security and combat operations. Again similar operations on the Israeli side of the border are handled much more efficiently and without angering local civilians. In fact, the security personnel and civilians cooperate. Civilians will call in any suspicious activity confident that it will be quickly handled without endangering civilians.

On the Egyptian side, the local police are usually on good, or at least familiar terms with local Bedouin and will avoid needless violence. The military is different since they do not live in Sinai and just want to survive their year or so there. As a result, the troops will often shoot first without much concern for civilian casualties. The air force is the same way. While Israeli airstrikes are carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties the Egyptian pilots are given vague orders with an emphasis on bombing something suspicious and coming back after a “successful” mission.

Because of the problems Egypt has on its side of the border, Israel has sought to help. For years Israel and Egypt have quietly cooperated in dealing with Islamic terrorists in Sinai and the Israeli Negev desert. This often involves Israeli airstrikes on the Egyptian side of the border. These missions are much more carefully planned and carried out and the Egyptians never have reason to complain because the Israelis will quickly tell the Egyptians who they hit and where. When Egyptian troops show up they find dead Islamic terrorists, not civilians. Egyptian air force planners know how the Israelis operate but realize that the Egyptian air force does not have the same attitudes or resources and change comes slowly, if at all.

For Egyptian security forces, it got worse after 2014. That’s when an elected Moslem Brotherhood president was removed by a popular uprising against the proposal to adopt Islamic law. The new president was a former general, who got elected on the promise to fight Islamic terrorism and their threat to the economy. This made it easier for Islamic terror groups to recruit in Egypt. In the same year, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took control of a third of Iraq and half of Syria and began establishing affiliates throughout the Islamic world. That included Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

After 2014 the people of North Sinai were still unhappy with government corruption and mismanagement but now saw the Islamic terrorists as a problem, not a solution. This was especially the case after ISIL started kidnapping civilians and holding them for ransom or promises of help in carrying out attacks on soldiers or police. Since 2011 many Islamic terrorists showed up in North Sinai saying they were the solution to government oppression. But that is what Islamic terrorists always promise yet rarely deliver. Because of the increased and continuous pressure from the security forces and increasingly hostile civilians, a growing number of Sinai based Islamic terrorists are leaving the area.

The Egyptian counter-terror operation has benefitted from an informal alliance between Egypt, Israel and Hamas to drive ISIL from the area. ISIL was (and still is) everyone’s enemy but that sharing of information made other Islamic terror groups in northern Sinai more vulnerable. Hamas doesn’t care about that because most of the smaller Islamic terror groups in Gaza and northern Sinai were (and still are) hostile to Hamas.

Since 2013 over a thousand Egyptian soldiers and police have died fighting groups like the Moslem Brotherhood, ISIL and smaller groups based in Gaza. Islamic terrorist casualties have been in the thousands and civilian casualties nearly as high. The pressure has been particularly heavy since late 2015 and some smaller Islamic terror groups appear to have disappeared. Some may have dissolved and at least one or two merged with others. Since 2013 about a thousand people a year have died from Islamic terrorism. About half the dead are terrorists (actual or suspected) and the rest usually civilians. Most Egyptians oppose Islamic terrorism, if only because it tends to kill lots of innocent civilians and cripple the economy. But in a few rural areas, mainly in northern Sinai, there are a few civilians (usually Bedouin) willing to support Islamic terrorists. By 2016 that support was faltering. Outside of Sinai there a lot of people who are Islamic conservatives and are more tolerant of Islamic terrorism.

In 2018 two senior leaders of the local ISIL affiliate (the “Sinai Province”) surrendered after they were surrounded in the city of Rafah. The two ISIL leaders are Egyptians and not only surrendered but answered questions and called on other ISIL members in Sinai to do the same. This was not a surprise as ISIL in Sinai has been having a hard time since late 2017 when most of the cooperation they had received from a few Bedouin tribes and clans disappeared. This was the result of an ISIL attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai that left 311 local Moslems dead. Many tribes became actively anti-ISIL after that and many joined an anti-ISIL tribal militia to assist in tracking down and capturing or killing ISIL members. The worst damage done to ISIL was that many Bedouin would call in (using cell phones many now had) reports of suspected ISIL activity. That made a big difference for the security forces, who could now go after specific ISIL targets and not round up a lot of innocent tribesmen during their search operations and raids. Suddenly the security forces were much less of a threat to the Bedouin tribes and ISIL lost a major source of local support.

Despite this shift in Bedouin support towards the security forces the continued civilian deaths caused by poorly trained troops, or sloppy planning for airstrikes, continues to create angry and uncooperative civilians. The army noticed and responded with a special training course for soldiers, especially conscripts, newly assigned to Sinai. This training concentrated on avoiding firing on civilians and how to maintain better security for the troops at checkpoints and small outposts. The air force was ordered to make an effort to avoid civilian casualties but it was difficult to quickly change air force habits. This made a difference but there were still avoidable civilian deaths and continued declines in civilian cooperation.

 


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