Egypt's Military Struggles To Quell Growing ISIS-Linked Insurgency

Jul 24, 2015
Originally published on July 24, 2015 1:13 pm

In 2013, there were seven known militants from the village that Ahmed Abu Deraa comes from in Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula. Today, that number has jumped to about 60, says Abu Deraa, an independent journalist who sometimes works for NPR. All of them are with Sinai Province, the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State.

The Sinai's militants are all gathering under the ISIS umbrella, Abu Deraa says. But what they're fighting for isn't some grand regional cause.

"We've reached to a point where it's about vengeance," he says. "Because your father was killed or your brother, because your house was destroyed."

For the most part they're targeting only Egypt's security forces, or people they accuse of aiding the military. Meanwhile, Egypt is facing a growing insurgency in its northern Sinai Peninsula. It has been brewing for years. As violence has increased in recent months, Egypt has intensified a wide military crackdown to quell the unrest.

Analysts say that's part of the problem: The mass crackdowns likely are driving more people to join the militants.

"The crux of this policy is two things," says Omar Ashour, a Middle East politics and security expert at Britain's University of Exeter and an associate fellow at London's Chatham House. First, he says, "is heavy-handedness, a hard crackdown on dissent and all forms of suspected militant activity." The government is also trying "to co-opt some of the tribal leaders to provide information, either by intimidation or by incentives."

'A Full-Fledged Insurgency'

It's a policy that has been going on for more than a decade, Ashour says.

The Sinai long has been an underdeveloped region, with few services for its largely Bedouin community. And it has seen a decade-long cycle of sporadic militancy and massive state crackdowns.

"Now you have a full-fledged, mid-level insurgency with significant support in some areas," Ashour says. "You are having really Egypt's most powerful, armed non-state actor ever."

Now the militants have a regional backer in ISIS.

But unlike ISIS, the Sinai militants are largely from the area, and for the most part are targeting government security forces — not civilians, say Ashour, residents and other analysts.

Ashour says the militants' arsenal has also grown to include anti-aircraft weaponry, mortars and small and heavy artillery. And their tactics are more sophisticated.

'It Creates More Terrorism'

After attacks on July 1 that killed at least 21 Egyptian military personnel, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was defiant. He traveled to Sinai and declared it not just "under control," but "completely stable."

The government is calling this a war on terror. It blames the unrest in Sinai, along with many other things, on the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Southern Sinai is still home to tourist resorts and the Red Sea beaches, but much of northern Sinai, the focal point of the conflict, is barred to outside journalists.

Sherif Mohy el-Din, a researcher on Sinai for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a civil liberties and human rights organization, says the region won't be pacified through military might alone.

"It creates more terrorism," he says. "So I think rather than just using the security policy, we should make it more social, pro-human rights — not use of collective punishment."

Residents from the area of Sheikh Zwayed, one of the Sinai's focal conflict points, are fleeing by the thousands since the coordinated attack July 1 on military checkpoints, mainly because of Egyptian military strikes and a lack of water and electricity.

Om Yousef is one of the women who fled. Speaking by phone, she asked to be identified by her nickname for fear of retribution.

"The army has made many mistakes," she says. Her own home was struck by military bombs this month and her father was injured. That's when she fled to another part of the region.

The area is becoming unlivable, she says, and militants have planted landmines on many roads.

Still, she says, the militants try to spare civilians. "The terrorists are organized," she says. "If they want to target the army, they target them only — and we are not harmed."

Near the town of Sheikh Zwayed in northern Sinai, home to some of the heaviest fighting, "we're in the middle of a war," says Abdel Moneim al-Rifaie.

He's a leader of the Bedouin Riyashat tribe. He describes rocket attacks and airstrikes in his neighborhood, but says he's not sure who is firing what weaponry.

"We are citizens who need to be secured by our forces," he says. But people feel unsafe, so they're running away — despite the military calling from loudspeakers in local mosques for them to stay home.

There were 40,000 people in al-Rifaie's tribe living in Sheikh Zwayed and the surrounding area last month. Now, only 2,500 remain in their homes.

Twenty-five people from his tribe have been killed so far in clashes this year, though he wouldn't specify whether it was the military or the militants that killed them. Seven others were beheaded by extremists, who accused them of working with the Egyptian army.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Egypt faces an insurgency. Opponents of the government are becoming more violent in the Sinai Peninsula, that triangle of land at the top of the country by the Suez Canal. The militants are mostly local groups. But last year, they pledged allegiance to the self-declared Islamic State. Egypt's military crackdown on the unrest has not worked. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ahmed Abu Deraa says that in 2013, there were seven known militants from his village committing attacks in the northern Sinai Peninsula. Abu Deraa is an independent journalist in Sinai who sometimes works for NPR.

AHMED ABU DERAA: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Today, he says that number has jumped from seven to about 60.

And all of them are with Sinai Province? (Speaking Arabic).

DERAA: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: Sinai Province is the name of the local ISIS affiliate. And all militants, he says, are gathering under that umbrella. But what they're fighting for, Abu Deraa says, isn't some grand regional cause.

DERAA: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: He says that most are fighting for vengeance because their brother was killed or their house was destroyed. Analysts say that's the problem with Egypt's counterterrorism policy.

OMAR ASHOUR: The crux of this policy is two things, is heavy handedness, a crackdown hard on dissent, and on all forms of suspected militant activity and to try to co-opt some of the tribal leaders to provide information, either by intimidation or by incentives.

FADEL: It's a policy that's been going on for more than a decade, says Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer of security studies at the University of Exeter. The Sinai has long been an underdeveloped region, with few services for the largely Bedouin community. It's seen a decade-long cycle of sporadic militancy and massive state crackdowns.

ASHOUR: Now you have a full-fledged, mid-level insurgency with significant support in some areas. And you're having really Egypt's most powerful, armed non-state actor ever.

FADEL: And now the militants have a regional backer through ISIS. Ashour says their arsenal has grown to include antiaircraft weaponry, mortars and small and heavy artillery. But unlike ISIS, analysts say, the militants are largely from the area and mainly targeting security forces, not civilians. Now, southern Sinai is still home to tourist resorts and Red Sea beaches, but much of northern Sinai, the focal point of the conflict, is barred to outside journalists. After simultaneous attacks on July first, killing at least 21 Egyptian soldiers, Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was defiant. He traveled to Sinai and addressed the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: He declared it not just under control but completely stable. The government is calling this a war on terror. It includes the Sinai unrest among the many things they blame on the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement. Sherif Mohy el-Din is a researcher on Sinai for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He says Sinai won't be pacified through military might alone.

SHERIF MOHY EL-DIN: It creates more terrorists. So I think rather than just using the security policy, we should make it more social. We should make it pro-human rights.

FADEL: Residents said by phone they fled the worst areas because of the military strikes and lack of water and electricity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FADEL: One woman who asked not to be named for fear of retribution says the airstrikes frequently hit civilian homes. She's among thousands who fled the area of the worst fighting. Her father was injured when their home was hit earlier this month. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.