More than 200 people have reportedly died in an attack on a mosque in Egypt's North Sinai province, in an unprecedented attack on civilians. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but Sinai has been at the centre of an ongoing conflict between Islamist militants and Egyptian security forces. The IISS, in its Armed Conflict Database (ACD), collates data on the fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons of armed conflicts – Sinai included, and its annual Armed Conflict Survey (ACS) provides in-depth analysis of the political, military and humanitarian dimensions of all major conflicts.
The excerpt below from the Egypt chapter of the ACS published in May 2017 gives more background information on the conflict in Sinai.
‘Despite reports of a decrease in violence in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt failed to quell the jihadist insurgency in the region in 2016. There, the security forces often faced deadly attacks by Wilayat Sina (Sinai Province), an affiliate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, that dominated the insurgency throughout the year. Elsewhere in Egypt, radicalised cells of Muslim Brotherhood members and anti-coup operatives became more focused in their terrorist campaign – as was underlined by the formation of Hassm (Determination) and Liwa al-Thawra (Brigades of the Revolution) in the second half of 2016.
Wilayat Sina: enduring threats
The seeming decline in violence in the Sinai Peninsula was attributed to a decrease in attacks on international and other high-profile targets (such as the Russian MetroJet plane that was downed in October 2015, killing more than 200 people). Furthermore, the Egyptian Air Force killed the leader of Wilayat Sina, Abu Duaa al-Ansari, in August, along with hundreds of other Wilayat Sina operatives throughout the year.
Despite experiencing these setbacks, the insurgents maintained a high frequency of attacks on military and police personnel in 2016. They were particularly active between September and December, launching 20–30 such operations each month in the period, compared to 10–20 in the last four months of 2015. Although the more recent attacks were less spectacular, they were not always small-scale. In November 2016, an attack on al-Gaz army checkpoint in Sabeel village, south of the city of Arish, killed 12 soldiers. This was the third month in a row in which at least ten soldiers had been killed in a single attack on a military checkpoint. The trend reflected the new boldness of the insurgents, who earlier in the year had begun to kill policemen in their homes near Arish.
Wilayat Sina maintained its monopoly on jihadist activity in North Sinai, with no other group claiming responsibility for an attack in the region in 2016. In addition to targeting military and police forces, Wilayat Sina executed civilians accused of collaborating with the army and launched attacks on Sufi clerics and Christian communities – moves that many perceived as being inspired by ISIS. Wilayat Sina also appeared to adopt other features of its parent organisation, particularly in its rhetoric. Although it was unable to hold territory as ISIS did in Iraq and Syria, Wilayat Sina remained highly mobile and proved its resilience through its capacity to repeatedly regroup. As observed by analysts, Wilayat Sina’s strategy focused on sustained engagement akin to attrition and attacks on soldiers’ morale, which had the primary aim of eroding their will to fight.
Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks in Egypt outside the Sinai Peninsula. The fact that the group took credit for such operations directly – rather than through Wilayat Sina – suggested that either it engaged in only minimal cooperation with its affiliate or that it was trying to establish a distinct presence in Egypt outside Sinai. Thus, ISIS claimed to have been behind attacks on civilian gatherings such as the 11 December suicide bombing at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia, in Cairo, which killed 27 civilians. The group conducted larger-scale assaults in Egypt in 2016 than it had the previous year. However, such attacks did not necessarily suggest a qualitative increase in the group’s capability to strike in Cairo as much as its capacity to skilfully exploit ‘lone wolves’ there.’
(Source: IISS Armed Conflict Survey 2017)
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