In the last week, there have been two significant terrorist attacks in Egypt. After a period in which Egypt had seemed, with Israeli help, to be getting the better of the jihadist insurgency in the Sinai, the tide appears to be turning the other way, with particularly the Islamic State (ISIS) gaining strength in the peninsula.
ISIS’s Sinai “province” (wilaya) attacked the checkpoint of Egyptian troops guarding a water pumping station in the town of Qantara in the province of Ismailia, east of the Suez Canal, on 7 May, killing eleven soldiers and wounding five others. ISIS claimed the attack the next day through its Amaq News Agency.
There was widespread outrage in Egypt about the attack, with thousands of people attending the soldiers’ funerals on 8 May. There was international reaction to the attack, as well. The spokesman for the United States Department of State, Ned Price, issued a statement saying: “The United States condemns today’s terrorist attack in the Sinai targeting members of the Egyptian military. For decades, the United States has been and remains Egypt’s strong partner in confronting terrorism in the region.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to discuss with the senior military officials the consequences of the attack, and the Egyptian army pursued the attackers into a remote area of the northern Sinai.
Four days later, on 11 May, another five Egyptian soldiers were killed and seven more injured in an attack in the Sinai. According to the Egyptian military, seven jihadists were also killed in the attack. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the likely culprit is ISIS. The attack happened while U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was meeting with President Sisi. On 9 May, Sisi had met with General Michael E. Kurilla, the commander of US Central Command in the Middle East (CENTCOM). The U.S. once again offered strong and immediate support to Egypt after this atrocity.
A Gathering Trend
A jihadist insurgency in the Sinai had been building since early 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi was in power. Ever since coming to power in June 2012, Morsi had embraced HAMAS, the Brotherhood branch that rules Gaza, despite the reputational and other costs this brought to his fledgling regime. The deprioritization of the Egyptian administration of the blockade on criminal and terrorist networks feeding HAMAS from the Sinai meant these had expanded—and began to pose a security challenge inside Egypt.
In the chaos surrounding the aftermath of Morsi’s downfall in mid-2013, the insurgency expanded still further as disaffected Brotherhood radicals turned to violence to try to overturn the new government. Compounding this problem, ISIS declared its Sinai “province” in 2014, absorbing and enhancing the local jihadists. Terrorism was reaching even Cairo by the summer of 2015 and perhaps the most internally infamous attack in Egypt in recent memory took place on 31 October 2015, when ISIS brought down a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board.
With the caliphate at its height during this period, Egypt struggled to get a handle on the insurgency into 2016. By February 2018, however, when the Egyptian military launched a major clearing operation in the Nile Delta, and a counterpart operation along the western border with Libya, a state in anarchy with a significant ISIS presence that lasts to this day, the Sinai insurgency had been reduced to a minor nuisance. In the intervening period, alongside improvements in Egyptian tactics and hardware in the Sinai battle—and the reinstitution of the blockade on Gaza—two external developments assisted Cairo: first, the boycott and isolation of Qatar by the Gulf states, which had cut off political and economic support for Islamism regionwide, and, second, the escalated support from Israel that killed hundreds of ISIS jihadists.
The four years of relative peace was ended in January 2022, when a surge of activity by ISIS in the Sinai began to attract attention. The attacks were mostly low-level at first, pinprick terrorist strikes against state installations and troops, and a wave of kidnapping clearly designed to replenish depleted coffers. There was some hope that the killing of ISIS’s “caliph”, Amir Muhammad al-Mawla (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi), in early February 2022 would disrupt this recovery, but it has not.
In northern Sinai, in particular, where the Egyptian military had eliminated senior ISIS officials and seemed to be consolidating control by late 2021, ISIS is gathering strength—and being able to use the area as a base to project power into other areas in Egypt. ISIS’s new leadership has called for a further escalation of global attacks, and ISIS has made a quick start in doing so, from Afghanistan to West Africa. Egypt is vulnerable to this new campaign, since ISIS has made Africa a key focus and is well-placed on the continent, with so many weak states neighbouring Egypt, to the west in Libya, to the south in Sudan, and more broadly in the Sahel.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February has disrupted global agricultural supplies, and Egypt is particularly vulnerable since it relies so heavily on imported wheat to make bread, which the state subsidises. Reduction in the availability of bread in Egypt is a reliable path to political turbulence. With the terrorism threat gathering steam, Egypt cannot afford domestic instability of this kind. It is important that the international community find an integrated policy for Egypt that cushions it from the economic impacts of reduced international grain supplies, and coordinates a regional security policy to reduce the terrorism threat that is rising across north Africa. Egypt is a state of ninety million people controlling one of the chokepoints of the world economy: it is intolerable from either a humanitarian or strategic perspective to allow a serious collapse in the country.