November 30, 2017
By Col. (Ret.) Dr. Eran Lerm
The worst terror atrocity in Egyptian history and among the bloodiest worldwide in the last decade was carried out during Friday prayers on November 24 at the Sufi mosque of al-Rawdah near Bir al-'Abd in northern Sinai, a small town halfway between Al-'Arish and the Suez Canal.
It was a massive and well-planned attack by dozens of terrorists who slaughtered all in sight, including dozens of children and the ambulance crews that tried to offer assistance. The sheer brutality of the act, which ended with 305 dead and many others grievously wounded, may be the reason why no one has claimed responsibility so far (not that A’maq, the Islamic State “news agency,” has ever been squeamish about the murder of innocents in Berlin, Manchester, Barcelona or elsewhere in the world).
Still, the general assumption is that this was carried out by the “Sinai Province” of Baghdadi's Islamic State – sometimes referred to as IS Northern Sinai, or ISNS. What motivated the group to massacre fellow Muslims in this mind-numbing manner?
To begin with, IS and its surviving leaders (whose whereabouts remain unknown) are in urgent need of proving that they are still a formidable fighting force capable of reshaping the region's strategic balance, despite the total destruction of their core “state” area in Iraq and Syria. They also lost the long battle over the town of Marawi in the Philippines, and in 2016 were eradicated in northern Libya: all the more reason for the “Sinai province” to demonstrate just how much damage it can still inflict.
Moreover, the mass slaughter of tribal elements suspected of having turned against it has long been an established part of the Islamic State's pattern of repressive action. This is, to some extent, in response to the successful strategy pursued by the U.S. military during the “Sahwa,” or tribal renaissance, in Western Iraq ten years ago: it is meant to deter, in the most brutal fashion, any would-be defections to the government side.
At the ideological, or pseudo-religious, level of argumentation, IS and its affiliates have made it a central aspect of their creed – as was evident in Mali and elsewhere – to pursue and destroy the practitioners of the Sufi (mystical) traditions of Islam, who are accused of saint-worship and sorcery, ultimately amounting to polytheism, the worst possible offense in the eyes of purist Salafi believers.
These causes and motivations were quite evident well before the attack – which makes it all the more inexplicable that the Egyptian security forces failed to foresee and defend against it. It is difficult to avoid the painful impression that after three years of fighting the “Province,” the Egyptian military has yet to make the necessary progress in terms of mounting an effective CI (counter-insurgency) campaign.
The keys to such a campaign are not spectacular air strikes or even the deployment of more and more ground troops – even if Israel is still willing to tolerate their presence in Sinai well above the numbers authorized under the Military Annex of the Peace Treaty. The decisive element in CI operations is the quantity and quality of the current intelligence collected, analyzed on the spot, and disseminated in time to the operational level. The latter need to be agile and flexible enough to translate such information into effective action.
Israel learned this the hard way. The lesson, learned and re-learned over the years, came into focus once again in the harrowing early years of the current century, when the wave of terror seemed almost unstoppable. But once the interagency barriers were broken and intelligence could flow fast to the relevant combat units, the tide was turned. It became increasingly possible to preempt planned attacks and to track down would-be perpetrators to their homes, diminishing the effectiveness of the terror campaign (admittedly, with the help of a physical barrier).
Why has it been so difficult for the Egyptians to learn and apply the same lessons – as the Jordanians, for example, have done quite successfully for decades? There are several factors at work. To begin with, the rigid traditions of the Egyptian military leave little room for discretion and initiative in response to the constantly shifting challenges posed by terrorist groups. Historically, as we saw in our wars (which ended, once and for all, with Sadat's visit forty years ago), the Egyptians fought with remarkable bravery as long as they were implementing pre-planned set pieces. Unlike the Jordanians, they were far less effective when faced with the need to improvise. Such basic traits are very slow to change.
In such rigid systems, the necessary flow of information remains highly restricted and “stove-piped” – going to the higher levels and then sent down again, often rendering it irrelevant for operations. In any case, for the Egyptian forces in Northern Sinai, intelligence – specifically, HUMINT (reports from agents, vital for counter-insurgency work) – is hard to come by in a semi-nomadic society that had little reason, over the years, to think well of its “sedentary” Egyptian rulers. (Paradoxically, relations with the Israeli authorities in the 15-year period after 1967 were much better.)
In the beautiful landscapes and Red Sea beaches of Southern Sinai, tourism is a source of livelihood and a good reason to sustain stability – indeed, reckless Israelis keep on going there, despite the strict travel advisories. In the north, though, Sinai has not much to offer. The gas pipelines, bombed all too often, have become economically irrelevant. The lucrative tunnel trade with Gaza has been largely destroyed by the Egyptian military, who came to suspect that Hamas was lending support to the terrorists.
True, new development projects and governmental largesse won over some tribal elements – hence the viciousness and brutality of the IS attack, meant to deter others from doing the same. Still, the overall level of cooperation with the authorities, and the latter's ability to penetrate and comprehend what is happening in the restive communities in Northern Sinai, has remained low since the collapse of police authority there in 2011.
Making things worse, as has often been noted, is the Egyptian military's problematic order of priorities. Budgets – even the allocation of funds within the U.S. aid (Foreign Military Financing) package – go first to the acquisition of expensive and impressive weapon systems. While still dependent on American weapons as their mainstay, the Egyptians have also paid from their own pockets for large French, Russian, and German projects, which cannot be explained other than by the need to keep up with Israel as the “threat of reference,” more than 35 years since the last Israeli soldier left Sinai.
Instead, resources should have been directed toward the necessary combination of military means and economic incentives supporting counterinsurgency in Sinai; but Egyptian leaders have often reacted testily to the suggestion that they need to reverse their preferences.
But this conversation can no longer be avoided. Israel is not alone in having a vital interest in changing the present dynamics in Sinai: an IS presence threatens not only our border (and there have been cross-border attacks and rocket launches by IS and similar elements in recent years). It would also put at risk the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole.
The U.S., too, has a stake in making its aid package more purposeful. At the same time, the discussion cannot proceed from a position of presumed superiority: the Egyptian government (like most other governments, only more so) does not take kindly to being lectured to on its moral or professional failings. European and American officials and legislators who chose a condescending approach toward Sisi's government did more harm than good, and were rarely – if ever – listened to.
It should not be beyond the capacity of human design, however, to devise a policy that begins by reaffirming a position of profound commitment to Egypt and of respect for the regime's quest for stability, and then proceeds, on this basis, to offer experience and advice on CI and CT strategies and techniques. Egypt's stability, after all, is among the most important prerequisites for regional security and for Israel's future, and we can no longer just take it for granted.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.