Egypt's Fight Against Terrorism and the Implications for U.S. Counter-Terrorism Policy

Egypt faces a domestic security threat from jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula and within its Nile Valley.  In 2013, the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province (formerly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) emerged in the Sinai Peninsula and, concurrently, a number of homegrown groups (some with transregional jihadist connections) began to coalesce inside Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities in Egypt. While President el-Sisi took steps to both combat terrorist activity and quell the spread of extremist ideology, these may only have limited results. Moreover, the Sinai Peninsula continues to serve as an incubator of terrorist groups due to its geographic distance from the capital. This backgrounder examines the terrorist threat within and beyond Egypt’s borders and makes policy recommendations to assist President el-Sisi’s counter-terrorism efforts.  

  • Egypt’s terrorist threat since 2011. Egypt’s domestic terrorist threat has increased in its targets, location, identity, and capabilities since the ouster of President Mubarak in 2011. During the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi (2011-2013), local jihadists focused their energies on tourist and Israeli targets. This changed after his ouster in July 2013 when they began to carry out attacks against Egyptian military, police, and government offices. At the same time, the group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) emerged in late 2013 as the most dominant group in the Sinai Peninsula. Its profile amplified in November 2014 when ABM pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and renamed itself Wilayat Sinai (or Sinai Province).  Not only has Sinai Province proved the most organized group, but it also possesses sophisticated weaponry, including MANPADs and antitank weapons. Jihadists conducted a series of car bomb attacks inside Cairo, including the June 29 assassination of Egypt’s chief prosecutor. They also attacked candidates of the Salafi Nour party in both the northern Sinai town of al-Arish and in Cairo during Egypt’s parliamentary elections this past October-December. ISIS continues to claim that it was responsible for the October 31 downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in which 224 people were killed. Most recently, media reporting revealed that Sinai Province’s military commander, Shadi al-Menai, traveled to Gaza in December to meet with leaders of Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which may signify yet another stage in the transformation of the group.
  • Egyptian government responses. Egypt’s counter-terrorism policy changed markedly under el-Sisi, reflecting not only concerns about the regional rise of ISIS (which proclaimed its caliphate in the same month), but also, and perhaps principally, his sensitivity to any political opposition to his rule. It was likely the latter that prompted el-Sisi to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood, which he labeled a terrorist organization, and to imprison not only many of its members but also journalists and other political opposition groups. He has nonetheless chased jihadist activity and rhetoric both inside and outside of Egypt. In February 2015 he launched airstrikes in Libya, and recently joined the 34-nation Saudi-led “anti-terrorism” coalition announced in December 2015. El-Sisi has issued a series of policies inside Egypt aimed at curbing both extremist ideology and religiously motivated political agitation. These include shutting down thousands of mosques in February, banning a number of Salafi texts from mosques in June, and banning preachers from commenting on politics in their sermons in July. El-Sisi passed a wide-ranging “Counter-Terrorism Law” in August that not only established special procedures and courts for trying those suspected of terrorism, but also broadened the powers of the security and military apparatuses and punished journalists for differing with official accounts of events. In September el-Sisi launched “The Martyr’s Right,” a large-scale offensive against jihadists in several northern Sinai towns during which 535 militants were killed.
  • Dilemma for U.S. Policymakers. Egypt’s fight against jihadists reveals the resiliency of terrorist groups inside Egypt, who have adapted their tactics and possibly forged new transregional links. However, el-Sisi’s unwillingness to disconnect counter-terrorism from his political concerns (in particular, his aggressive measures in quashing the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups whom he views as threats to his political survival) have not only led to human rights violations but might have even provoked demonstrations and acts of violence. This is especially worrisome given the growth and increasing sophistication of Egypt’s jihadist groups, especially Sinai Province, which will continue targeting Egyptian government and military institutions for the foreseeable future. They will likely also build more rhetorical and material connections to ISIS and other terrorist groups if given the opportunity to do so. Egypt’s prioritization of preserving regime stability over developing a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy risks creating more opportunities for jihadism to adapt and grow.

Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers

The U.S. can play a leading role in helping the Egyptian government define and meet its counter-terrorism objectives by considering the following proposed recommendations:

  • Train Egyptian military and police in both the Nile Valley and Sinai Peninsula in conducting counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations. The military and security services will need to develop parallel command centers and forces trained and equipped to engage in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism combat in urban and desert areas in order to adequately face the Sinai Province and myriad other groups operating throughout Egypt’s cities. President Obama’s pledge of nearly a billion dollars in aid, F-16 aircraft, and missiles this past March (which had been frozen during the previous year due to uncertainties surrounding Morsi’s intentions) is essential for maintaining the country’s military capabilities. Future U.S. aid packages should consider an arsenal tailored for the kind of counter-insurgency operations needed to adequately face the unique nature of their domestic terrorist threat.
  • Facilitate closer sharing of intelligence and tactics between Egypt’s Sinai-based security services and their Israeli counterparts. Egypt is one of two U.S. regional partners that have open diplomatic relations with Israel (the other being Jordan), a fact that has enabled close intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries. Egypt could coordinate closer with its Israeli counterpart in tracking the movement of militants and weapons across the Rafah border, particularly as the threat from Sinai Province grows. The U.S. could help facilitate communication between Egypt and Israel on this issue, and also take part in it by defining both the strategy and tactics of its regional anti-ISIS efforts.
  • Expand the focus, personnel, and capabilities of the Sinai-based Multinational Force of Observers (MFO). The Multinational Force of Observers has had a continuous presence in the Sinai Peninsula since 1982, and has a force of 1,667 representing twelve nations (the largest of which is the U.S.). The current jihadist threat in the Sinai Peninsula requires that the MFO expand its scope to address the unique counter-terrorism concerns there.
  • Lead in the establishment of an integrated security infrastructure on the Egyptian-Libyan border. The most immediate solution to Egypt’s domestic jihadist threat would be to enhance the security of the Libyan-Egyptian border. Because of the border’s length and remoteness, troop deployment alone will be far from sufficient in securing the Libyan border. The U.S. should instead assist in forming a robust security infrastructure along the border that includes an integrated sensor system with persistent air surveillance and a capability to cue interceptors located at regional centers that receive the intelligence feed and pass actionable information to ground or air forces. The U.S. must release more sensors, aerostats, and collection capability for border monitoring and insist that the Egyptian government prioritize their use.
  • Urge Egypt to make its fight against ISIS a top priority, abide by human rights standards, and be more transparent. The Egyptian government has gone to great lengths to curb the spread of extremist ideology through numerous laws banning certain religious literature and political commentary inside mosques. Nonetheless, el-Sisi continues to view the Muslim Brotherhood as the principal threat to both the country’s security and his political survival.  As a result, his aggressive measures in suppressing the group, as well as activists and journalists, have not only resulted in human rights abuses but possibly also an increase in demonstrations and violence.  Moreover, the Egyptian government’s inconsistent reporting of casualties and collateral, as well as overstated successes, calls into question its credibility. Unless addressed, these issues will continue to pose significant hurdles for U.S. security support to the Egyptian government.