Small Wars Journal

The Sinai Insurgency: The Next ISIS Crisis?

Mon, 08/27/2018 - 12:12am

The Sinai Insurgency: The Next ISIS Crisis?


Christian H. Heller


In March 2018, the Egyptian military claimed that its most recent campaign killed 105 “Takfiris” (a term used for a non-Muslim or terrorist), seized 157 “terrorist-affiliated vehicles,” and bulldozed “1,907 terrorist shelters” after only one month.[i] The campaign continues today, with announcements as recent as 6 August, 2018 that another 52 Islamic State militants were killed.[ii] The 35,000-man Egyptian army operation follows six years of intervention in the Sinai against groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Sinai Peninsula (ISIS-SP, also known as Wilayat Sinai). Tensions between Cairo and the Sinai are scarred by a half-century of skepticism and oppression, and in a region plagued by terrorism and civil war, the Sinai Peninsula is a tinderbox for ISIS to ignite. In Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s own words, “If Egypt is unstable then the whole region is unstable.”[iii] Fortunately, the Sinai insurgency currently poses only a moderate security concern for western states due to the world’s focus on ISIS proper in Syria and the localization of the Sinai conflict. However, the prerequisites for a regional crisis exist at a disconcerting level which could allow the ongoing human rights violations to continue and a rebound location for ISIS following the conclusion of the Syrian civil war.


Four main incidents shaped the Sinai conflict into its 2018 form: the Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, the blockade of the Gaza Strip from 2007 to present, the 2011 Egyptian revolution, and the 2013 removal of President Mohammed Morsi. These events created a region characterized by illicit trade and smuggling networks, distrust and violence between locals and authorities, and increased Islamist tendencies now blending into extremism. From the conclusion of the Six-Day War in 1967 to Israel’s withdrawal in 1982, the Bedouin—who already share more in common with their Arab neighbors to the east than the Nile residents of Egypt—were viewed with suspicion and accused of collaboration with their Israeli occupiers.[iv] Israel developed the Sinai tourist industry, consulted with Bedouin leaders, and provided social services to the locals. In response, after the transfer of control to the Egyptian government, the Mubarak regime ostracized the Bedouin from the Egyptian state:

“Under the Mubarak regime, the Bedouin were restricted from serving in the Egyptian military—which in turn excluded them from a host of economic opportunities. Government jobs were not available…local communities were often disposed of land and ownership rights. Furthermore, Sinai Bedouin were barred from sharing in the lucrative benefits from the Sinai-based tourism and natural resource industries.”[v]

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty intended to create a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel; instead, it created a security vacuum in which, “black markets and transnational crime have flourished.”[vi] Without honest economic opportunities, locals turned to activities such as smuggling and growing narcotics which foster many of the same skill-sets required to operate an insurgency.[vii]


In 2007, Israel and Egypt blockaded the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ takeover of the territory. The blockade created greater economic incentives to pursue smuggling opportunities across the border.[viii] By 2009 illegal trade was the main source of income for the Bedouin who operated trade routes reaching as far as Sudan and Libya.[ix],[x] Salafist clerics in Gaza began influencing groups in the Sinai while others fled to the peninsula after Hamas cracked down on their activities.[xi] Islamist militants from the Gaza Strip also trained in the peninsula and joined Sinai-based organizations, thus adding an external, more-militant, more-Islamist feature to the insurgency.[xii],[xiii]


The Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution provided the window the insurgent groups required to escalate. In 2011 Mubarak removed military units from the Sinai in an attempt to suppress the revolution in Cairo. The result was a deeper security vacuum which, when combined with a worsening economy and the reopening of the border, aided in the growth of radicalism.[xiv] Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM), the precursor to ISIS-SP, became the umbrella organization for a number of extremist groups and began attacking Israeli and Egyptian targets.[xv]  Its first major attack against a gas pipeline connecting Egypt and Israel symbolized the terrorist group’s view of the relationship between the two nations which contributed most to Sinai residents’ suffering. ABM then coordinated its first combined attack into Israel with three separate teams wielding small arms, RPGs, mortars, and suicide vests.[xvi] Egyptian authorities, after receiving approval from Tel Aviv, responded with the deployment of 2,500 troops and 250 vehicles and tanks into Sinai.[xvii],[xviii]


The insurgency reached its tipping point in 2013 after the military coup removed President Morsi from office. Morsi and the insurgents were no friends but he attempted to hold conciliatory discussions with both Bedouin leaders and armed groups while promising government support for North Sinai.[xix] The new military government, believing the two years under Morsi demonstrated weakness towards terrorism, launched an offensive characterized by mass arrests, mandatory curfews, and the destruction of homes along the border.[xx] The campaign  hardened Cairo’s resolve to crush the groups and led to an increase in militant attacks.[xxi] Terrorist groups responded with new targets including tribal leaders and influential civilians who opposed their organizations.[xxii] Between July and December 2013, militants conducted 200 attacks within the contested region.[xxiii] Insurgents improved their capabilities and carried out regular vehicle-born improvised explosive devices (VBIED) attacks beginning in October 2013.[xxiv]


By 2014 the insurgency was spiraling out of control. Counterinsurgency theorist David Galula argues that four conditions create an insurgency: an attractive cause, a weakness in host-nation counterinsurgency forces, an ambivalent or friendly geography, and outside support.[xxv] Each of these conditions existed in the Sinai and culminated in the formation of ISIS-SP. In October 2014, ISIS affiliates—including ISIS-SP—conducted simultaneous attacks in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, after which the government declared a “state-of-emergency” in the peninsula.[xxvi],[xxvii] ISIS-SP responded against new targets by sending hit squads to both Cairo and Qalyubia in the heart of Egypt and conducting advanced attacks in the Sinai with VBIEDs, RPGS, and mortars.[xxviii],[xxix] Insurgents launched their most ambitious attack yet when they tried to capture the city of Sheikh Zuweid with a massive assault in similar fashion to Mosul and Fallujah. A full day of fighting ensued, and ISIS-SP only quit after repeated bombings from Egyptian F-16s.[xxx]


The Egyptian military continued fighting the insurgency in its normal fashion. Operation Martyr’s Right in 2015 allegedly killed over 500 militants in a few short months. Deaths from counterterror missions in 2015 skyrocketed to over 3,000 as the military refused to adapt its counterinsurgency tactics.[xxxi]


ISIS-SP has innovated its tactics and continued its attacks over the last two years to spur dissent and gain credentials.[xxxii] Between 2014 and 2016 militants conducted over 1,100 documented attacks. Major attacks in 2017 included the killing of 305 worshippers at a Sufi Mosque and an advanced ambush in which convoys were stopped with simultaneous IED explosions on both front and rear vehicles.[xxxiii],[xxxiv] Cairo initiated a nation-wide “Comprehensive Military Operation” in February 2018 in another attempt to halt the violence. The only change from previous operations appears to be its severity, which now includes “the total isolation of the Sinai from the rest of the country [and] the increased presence of troops and military equipment,” and has widespread support throughout the country.[xxxv],[xxxvi]


The Sinai Peninsula has to date played a limited role in international security matters due to two factors. First, the civil war in Syria has attracted most regional and international money, concentration, and counterterrorism efforts. Regional powers such as Turkey and Iran remain focused in Syria. Outside powers such as the United States and Russia pursue aggressive counterterrorism strategies to counter ISIS, but with little coordination the campaigns have led to cross-fire between both sides.[xxxvii],[xxxviii] While ISIS proper provides support for ISIS-SP, the main group has yet to divest from its base of operations in Syria in a large-scale relocation, most likely due to increased military pressure. ISIS in Syria remains well-prepared for an elongated conflict due to pre-staged weapons caches, defense plans, and the conflicting desires amongst local and foreign members.[xxxix] ISIS leadership has capitalized on the situation to use its networks to move beyond Syria to other locations like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Egypt.[xl]


The second condition limiting the conflict in the Sinai is the localization of grievances and violence. Though tactics continue to improve, and some attacks have been directed at international targets, most violence remains aimed at Egyptian and Israeli authorities.[xli] Many Bedouin leaders push back against ISIS-SP’s violence and, “heavy-handed control of the local population” as a threat to the tribal structure.[xlii] The localization of the conflict is also an effect of ISIS-SP’s operating environment. Inhabitants of South Sinai appear not to be predisposed to Salafism, and the underground networks the group relies upon are much stronger in the north.[xliii] Additionally, the goals of the militants remain modest and focused on day-to-day survival.[xliv] Cooperation between Egypt and Israel ensures this remains the status quo. For the last two years, Israel has supported Egypt’s operations with its intelligence and air assets while conducting over 100 strikes into Egyptian territory.[xlv] The Gulf States also support the Egyptian military. Emirati military forces train and assist Egyptian troops and have conducted multiple counterterrorism operations in the Sinai.[xlvi] Outside funding to the Egyptian military keeps flowing with no objection to its controversial strategies.[xlvii] President Trump requested $1.3 billion in foreign assistance for Egypt in FY2019, a consistent amount from FY18 and FY17.[xlviii]


The longer the fighting continues the greater the chance of spilling over beyond the Sinai. The structure and resources in place can facilitate a rapid escalation of the conflict into a regional struggle. Researchers at the U.S. Army War College have found that effective insurgent strategies focus on force protection (provided by the tribes and rough terrain of the Sinai), weakening the legitimacy of the regime (accomplished through targeted killings of security forces), and augmentation of resources and support (supplied by ISIS and extensive networks).[xlix] Weapons from Libya have poured into Sinai to complement those from Gaza and Sudan.[l] Additionally, since 2014 the Sinai has seen large increases in the number of foreign fighters entering the conflict.[li] Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have failed to adapt their efforts to include civil services, government responsiveness, and economic development while promises of support have fallen short and eroded trust.[lii] As a result, terrorist attacks have spread to central and western Egypt which stretches security forces thin and unable to protect the populace.[liii]


The largest security concern for western nations remains the re-location of ISIS proper and its resources from Syria to the Sinai which would reduce the relative balance of power between the Egyptian military and the militants. The Sinai remains a geographically-close and operationally-capable region for ISIS should it decide to re-locate from Syria. Several important factors determine if major violence will spread, namely how insurgent leaders invest resources. Their main considerations include local conditions which are conducive to insurgencies, the feasibility and cost of projecting power in those areas, and the relative military capacity of the militants and the authorities.[liv] Egyptian security forces maintain a larger relative capacity than ISIS-SP, but terrorist violence continues growing due to the failures of Egyptian counterinsurgency policy. The main failure is the lack of concern for accuracy in military operations (e.g. too many civilian casualties). Research shows that counterinsurgency strategies, “focused on accuracy in avoiding civilian damage should result in shorter insurgencies,” due to a lack of collateral damage.[lv]


Three factors point towards the continuation of a limited insurgency focused in rural areas for the short-term. First, “militarily weak insurgents” favor inaccessible areas—like the Sinai—which are difficult for governments to penetrate.[lvi] Second, the typical pattern of “gradual expansion” from rural to urban happens due to fighters’ preferences for expanding activities to adjacent areas vice relocation.[lvii] This condition holds true for ISIS-SP whose energies remain focused in the Sinai. Finally, weaker insurgencies send small groups across large distances while relying on established supply bases, just as ISIS-SP is doing.[lviii]


The Sinai conflict possesses all the traits of a robust insurgency, a human rights disaster, and the prerequisite conditions to escalate outside the peninsula. Strategies are based on resources, and resource limitations necessitate a focus on such issues as ISIS in Syria. However, external states cannot turn away from the situation. Europe and the United States should challenge human rights abuses and push the Egyptian authorities to reform their counterinsurgency tactics. A reduction in government violence against civilians would be the first step towards building civil trust and reducing the potential for an ISIS-SP expansion. As the battle against ISIS in Syria winds down, pressure cannot be removed against an international terrorist group with the capability to innovate and re-locate quickly through its existing networks. The post-Syria war against ISIS may likely become counterterror “Whac-A-Mole” with the first target being ISIS-SP in the Sinai Peninsula.


End Notes


[i] Sakr, Taha, “105 Militants Killed in One Month of ‘Sinai 2018’ Operation: Army Spokesperson”, in Egypt Independent, 9 March 2018

[ii] “Egyptian Forces Claim 52 ISIS Militants Killed in Sinai Offensive”, Al Bawaba, 6 August 2018,

[iii] Adler, Stephen and Mably, Richard, “Exclusive: Egypt’s Sisi Asks for U.S. Help in Fighting Terrorism”, Reuters, 15 May 2014

[iv] Laub, Zachary, “Security in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula”, Council on Foreign Relations, 11 December 2013

[v] Ben-Barak, Ram and Siboni, Gabi, “The Sinai Peninsula Threat Development and Response Concept”, Analysis Paper Number 31, January 2014, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, Pg. 4

[vi] Laub

[vii] Yossef, Amr, “Securing the Sinai”, Foreign Affairs, 28 September 2011

[viii] Watanabe, Lisa, “Sinai Peninsula – from Buffer Zone to Battlefield”, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, NO. 168, February 2015, 3

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Laub

[xi] Watanabe, 3

[xii] Idris, I. (2017). Sinai Conflict Analysis. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.

[xiii] Gold, Zack, “Salafi Jihadist Violence in Egypt’s North Sinai: From Local Insurgency to Islamic State Province”, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, ICCT Research Paper, April 2016, 5

[xiv] Dessi, Andrea, “Shifting Sands: Security and Development for Egypt’s Sinai”, Op-Med November 2012, Instituto Affair Internazionali, The German Marshall Fund of the United States

[xv] Gold, 1-4

[xvi] Ibid., 5-6

[xvii] Cook, Steven A., “The Eagle Has Landed…In Sinai?”, Council on Foreign Relations, 17 August 2011

[xviii] Watanabe, 3

[xix] Laub

[xx] Watanabe, 3

[xxi] Idris

[xxii] Gold, 12-13

[xxiii] Salama, Vivian, “What’s Behind the Wave of Terror in the Sinai”, 22 November 2013, The Atlantic

[xxiv] Gold, 7-9

[xxv] Vrooman, Major Stephen, “A Counterinsurgency Campaign Plan Concept: The Galula Compass”, 26 May 2005, School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

[xxvi] Gold, 14

[xxvii] Eltahawy, Mona, “Egypt is Failing to Deal with its Sinai insurgency”, 24 November 2017, The New York Times

[xxviii] Idris, 15

[xxix] Kirkpatrick, David D., “31 Egyptian Soldiers Are Killed as Militants Attack in Sinai”, 24 October 2014, The New York Times

[xxx] “ISIS Insurgency in the Sinai”, Middle East Institute, Incident Tracker located at

[xxxi] “The Peninsular War”, 14 November 2015, The Economist

[xxxii] Aziz, Sahar F., “De-Securitizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula”, April 2017, Brookings Doha Center Policy Briefing

[xxxiii] Mandour, Maged, “Egypt’s Comprehensive Military Operation”, 15 February 2018, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

[xxxiv] Ashour, Omar, “Why Egypt Has a Growing Insurgency Problem”, 28 November 2017, The Middle East Eye

[xxxv] Mandour

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Nechepurenko, Ivan; MacFarquhar, Neil; and Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, “Dozens of Russians Are Believed Killed in U.S.-Backed Syria Attack”, 13 February 2018, The New York Times

[xxxviii] Mehta, Aaron, “Mattis: Unclear if Russia Directed Attack Against U.S. Allies in Syria”, 17 February 2018, Military Times

[xxxix] Sune Engel Rasmussen, Nour Alakraa, and Nancy A. Youssef, “ISIS Remnants Fight On, Despite U.S. Campaign”, The Washington Post, 9 July 2018

[xl] Ibib.

[xli] Watanabe

[xlii] Idris, 6

[xliii] Horton, Michael, “Crossing the Canal: Why Egypt Faces a Creeping Insurgency”, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Sentinel, Volume 10 Issue 6, June/July 2017

[xliv] Hassan, Hassan and Okail, Nancy, “Egypt’s Diversifying Insurgency”, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 1 December 2017

[xlv] Kirkpatrick, David D., “Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K.”, 3 February 2018, The New York Times

[xlvi] Adam Entous, “Donald Trump’s New World Order”, The Atlantic, 18 June 2018, Accessed online at

[xlvii] Hessler, Peter, “Egypt’s Failed Revolution”, 2 January 2017, The New Yorker

[xlviii] Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations”, 7 June 2018, Congressional Research Service Report

[xlix] Metz, Steven and Millen, Raymond, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st Century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response”, Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, November 2004

[l] Laub

[li] Idris

[lii] Aziz, 5-7

[liii] Hassan and Okail, 4

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] Ibid.

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Ibid.

[lviii] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Christian Heller is a U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Officer and Middle East/North Africa Regional Affairs Officer. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Oxford where he obtained an M. Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies while studying on a Rhodes Scholarship.