The Sinai Insurgency, Part 1: An Introduction

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Just before 1:50 PM local time (UTC+2), four off road vehicles planted three bombs in the Al-Rawda Mosque in the small Egyptian village of al-Rawda. At 1:50 PM, the bombs exploded and roughly forty fighters using RPGs and small arms stormed the mosque. The attackers eventually fled, but not before killing 312 and injuring 122.1.“Egypt attack: Gunmen kill 235 in Sinai mosque” : BBC While no one has since directly claimed the attack, responsibility has generally been attributed to the Islamic State. This tragedy brought into the limelight a broader conflict which has been underway for the last six years.2.“Egypt’s Sinai desert, a haven for malcontents” : The Economist The Sinai Conflict has cost Egypt thousands of lives and has greatly destabilised the region.3.Worth, Robert F. “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS”. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York City, N.Y. (2016) The violence is fuelled by a complicated mix of local problems, regional conflicts, and the continual spread of Islamic State-style groups. In this article series, I will discuss the most significant angles that make up the on-going conflict.

The Sinai Peninsula is the land bridge connecting Asia and Africa. It is about 60,000 km2 in total size and has a population of around 1,400,000 people.4.Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) Egypt has asserted control of the Sinai since the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979. The peninsula is part of five different Egyptian governates, but the majority of the territory falls under the jurisdiction of the North Sinai Governate and the South Sinai Governorate. The North Sinai Governate is based in the city of Arish, which has a population of around 420,000.5.Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) Most of the population are Bedouins, and 60% reside in urban areas, of which there are five other main population centers: Nekhel, Rafah, Bir al-Abed, Hasna, Sheikh Zuweid.6.CAPMAS 2015 Census The other major governate is the aforementioned South Sinai Governate, with about a third of the population based in the city of El Tor. About 50% of the population is urban and reside in the towns of Dahab, Nuweiba, Sharm El-Sheikh and Taba .7.CAPMAS 2015 Census Additionally, a small part of the peninsula is connected to various governates along the Suez, including the Suez Governate, Port Said Governate, and the Ismailia Governate.

In the last few years, the majority of attacks have taken place in the North Sinai region, the most troubled area in the peninsula. The six-year conflict began after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against the Mubarak regime. Following the subsequent collapse of Libya, the quality and quantity of weapons being smuggled into the area rapidly increased.8.Watanabe, Lisa. “Sinai Peninsula – From Buffer Zone to Battlefield”. CSS Analyses in Security Policy (February 2015) This surge coincided with the collapse of the Egyptian central authority. This sparked local Bedouin groups, assisted by international Jihadists, to dispute the authority of the government. Operation Eagle and Operation Sinai were among the first significant attempts by the Egyptian government to reassert control. However, both operations have had limited success and have costed the lives of many Egyptian security personnel.9.Watanabe, Lisa. “Sinai Peninsula – From Buffer Zone to Battlefield”. CSS Analyses in Security Policy (February 2015) The 2013 coup against President Morsi sparked furthered violence as more conservative Muslims felt disenfranchised by the status of the country, in addition to anger over the more authoritarian policies of the new government. Over the last four years more than 4,700 people have been killed, including several thousand insurgent fighters and over a thousand-military personal.10.Watanabe, Lisa. “Sinai Peninsula – From Buffer Zone to Battlefield”. CSS Analyses in Security Policy (February 2015)

It is important to recognise that the region has long been known for lawlessness. Since the 1979 peace agreement, the Egyptian government has mostly pulled out of the region, placing administration and autonomy onto the hands of local tribes. Many of such tribes have made a living smuggling weapons and supplies, further adding to the capacities of the Sinai insurgents. This has coincided with a change in religious identification. While the dominant religious philosophy in the region is still Sufism, there has been a local push by repressed Bedouin populations towards a more militant ideology.

Egypt has responded to this crisis in what some have called a “war on terror”.11.“Egyptian troops strike hard in North Sinai after multiple attacks” : Al-Ahram Over the last four years, Egypt has claimed to have killed over 2,500 opposing fighters, mostly in the North Sinai Governate.12.“13 Egypt policemen killed in Sinai attack claimed by IS” : Middle East Eye The armed forces have conducted sprawling operations, some of which have spanned several weeks’ time. Major tactics have included putting whole cities on lockdown and bulldozing entire villages suspected of harbouring insurgent forces. The army is treating this as a conventional war, not as an insurgency, and is not conducting their operations effectively in such regards. Most estimates on the number of insurgents have remained constant, at around 1,500 members, despite insurgent forces suffering a steady stream of losses.13.“Sinai Province: Egypt’s most dangerous group” : BBC

In the next part of the series, we will look into the rise of radical Salafism in the region and look at the current Islamist groups that are active in the region.

Chris Gentry
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Chris Gentry is a graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He specializes in Turkey, Syria and Iraq particularly the military background of those conflicts. His other interest is in the religious history of the region and has worked on several academic projects related to the Druze, Ismali;i and Assyrian Christian populations. He is also the director of the Syrian Civil War Podcast.

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