The Egyptian government does not like the word insurgency when used to describe events in Siani. The term implies a rebellion where there might be some local buy-in. It also obfuscates, from the point of view of the government, the true terrorist nature of the Ansar Baitulmaqdis (ABM), the prevalent armed group fighting against the state in Sinai, which swore allegiance to the Islamic State.
“Insurgency” or “Terrorism” may be a a mere quibble over semantics, but the terminology bears a considerable consequence on the strategies to counter the group. Judging from this video, others before it, and from the current course of the conflict, it is safe to say that ABM is waging a typical insurgency in Egypt. The danger lies in the fact that the government wishes to remain blissfully ignorant of the insurgent nature of the group. It has even recently called on all its diplomats to resist all attempts by western media and politicians to link ABM to the Islamic State, and to assert that the armed group in Sinai is a subgroup of the Muslim Brotherhood. I am positive very few will buy this, however the security agencies seem to believe that this is a proposition they can sell, and which will help in the systematic vilification of the Brotherhood in a way that justifies mass execution sentences, and the current crackdown on political dissent of all hues.
The first mistake of the counter-insurgent is to treat all groups as a single entity thus blinding his or herself from the nuanced motivations of different actors. In Sinai, insurgents couldn’t care less about the Brotherhood. Their battle against the state would not cease even if a political process ensues with the Brotherhood. Their ideological references are different from those of the domesticized Brotherhood types who might be willing to reengage with legitimate political institutions if a reconciliation ever becomes possible.
A full-blown insurgency is rampant in Northern Sinai. Its signs are a systematic armed campaign against the state, waged by a clearly defined organization with an hierarchical structure that deploys a balanced collage of military tactics, espionage, terrorism, and propaganda against the Armed Forces. The insurgents harp on the grievances of the local population and utilize the needs and resources of organized crime when necessary. By doing so they have successfully gained the confidence, or at least the benevolent apathy, of many tribal members among the Bedouin of the peninsula.
The video above is emblematic of how ABM has managed to deploy counter-espionage and propaganda against its adversary. (It also has the added advantage of further outing some of the state’s leashed Salafis such as Abu Ishaq al-Huweini and his ilk. But that’s another story for another day).
The organic nature of the insurgency to Sinai and its people is evident in the way ABM, or Wilayat Sina as it now prefers to be known, distances itself from other factions of the Islamic State. While swearing allegiance to IS in November 2014, possibly to enhance their funding and recruitment efforts, they nevertheless refrained from commenting on he incident of the execution of 21 Egyptians in Libya in February of 2015. Commending the gruesome execution would have lost them favour among the population they wish to win over. And although Sinai is home to a large number of soft targets that might be appealing to some IS types elsewhere, including tourist sites and a world renowned monastery, it is noteworthy that the Sinai franchise has so far limited itself mostly to targeting the Army and Police, in addition to citizens it allegedly claims to be working with the state or with Israel.
ABM’s somewhat restricted campaign is typical to an insurgency that does not wish to antagonize the population it purports to serve. On the other hand, this is also a sign that the organization finds that restrained action remains lucrative and suitable for its purposes. As the video underneath shows, attacking army positions has been seemingly rewarding enough for the militants. Inevitably, the organization must also be benefiting from trafficking, smuggling or other illicit activity. Only in desperation might the organization revert to attacking civilian targets. But so far the state seems too weak, and the Bedouin unwilling, to curtail the militants’ modus operandi.
There are signs that the government has decided to control media coverage of ABM’s almost daily attacks against the state in Northern Sinai, and that the situation is worse than what is being reported. Further alarming is the Military Intelligence’s failure so far in garnering a clear ‘Awakening’-like response from the Bedouin tribes, despite some active attempts to do so. As far as the Bedouin see no improvement into their lot, and as long as the ABM stick to their restrained insurgency, it is unlikely that the state will be able to elicit any response from the local tribes against the militants. Asking western governments for more weapons to fight the good fight against terrorists in Sinai is not going to help. Major policy decisions must be taken to reform land entitlement regimes, provide basic services, and relax political spaces, if the state wishes to win over the people of Sinai. So far, little is being done in that direction. Too much faith is still being laid in the sheer might of the inglorious Army. That faith on its own is not paying off.