The attacks in Egypt are a reminder that the government's policy is failing. Tackling the crisis will require a sophisticated approach that goes beyond brute force.

The recent terror attack in the northern Sinai Peninsula, which killed 305 and injured 109, was unprecedented for Egypt in terms of its scale and the target. 

Around thirty masked terrorists who allegedly carried Islamic State (Daesh) flags while wearing military-style uniforms carried out a suicide blast in a crowded Sufi mosque in the North Sinai provincial capital of Arish, before firing at worshippers and arriving ambulances. 

This massacre marked the first large-scale attack by a militia on a Muslim congregation in Egypt, implying that ISIS’ local branch, Sinai Province, was behind the attack although the group has, as of now, not claimed responsibility.

The al Rawdah mosque was a target due to ideological reasons—Sinai Province views Sufis as ‘heretics’—and the politics surrounding the local Sawarka tribe's (the second largest in the Sinai) declaration of war on Sinai Province and its announced participation in the state’s fight against the extremists. 

Moreover, the attack demonstrated not that Sinai Province has any state apparatus of its own—as ISIS did in Libya, Iraq, and Syria—but instead that the local offshoot is capable of preventing the Egyptian government from defeating terrorists in the Sinai - which has been under a state of emergency since October 2014.

In response, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el Sisi vowed revenge, promising to respond with "brute force" and an "iron fist". 

The same day as the Arish massacre, Egypt’s military bombed targets near Bir al Abed, destroying what the government claimed were several of the vehicles that Sinai Province allegedly used for the attack, in addition to “a number of terrorist hideouts that housed weapons and ammunition.” 

The tough words from Sisi and the swift military response were characteristic of the leadership in Cairo which has responded in much the same way to past killings of Egyptian nationals by ISIS in both Egypt and Libya.

Yet the fact that Sinai Province was capable of waging an act of terror against innocent civilians on such a scale in Arish, several years after Egypt began waging its ongoing military campaign against militant extremists in the northern Sinai, raises major questions about the efficiency of Sisi’s strategy for defeating such terrorist groups. 

Had the government in Cairo known about these ISIS hideouts on Egyptian soil why didn’t the military take action sooner given Sisi’s previous rhetoric about decisively defeating the group?

Moreover, there are justifiable concerns that Egypt’s approach to addressing terrorism in the Sinai rests far too much on military means that will ignore or worsen the conditions that Sinai Province and other extremists have exploited to gain influence, particularly since the "Arab Spring" revolution of 2011 and the military takeover of 2013. 

To be sure, since the fifteen-year Israeli occupation of the Sinai ended in 1982, this part of Egypt has been the most difficult part of the country to govern for all of Egypt’s presidents. Yet until Sisi took over four-and-a-half years ago, the Sinai’s extremist militias were far more focused on Israel/Palestine, not the Egyptian state.

Longstanding issues such as illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and human rights violations in the Sinai have fueled grievances that pushed members of local Bedouin tribes to join Sinai Province. 

The wealth created from Egypt’s tourism centers in South Sinai have not delivered tangible benefits to the Bedouins and they are often depicted as smugglers and criminals. Statements from a number of locals in the Sinai that they fared better off under Israeli occupation are telling about the extent to which many see themselves as second-class citizens in Egypt. 

The Egyptian military’s extra-judicial killings, torture, and destruction of villages in the fight against ISIS are exacerbating root causes of insecurity in the Sinai, which enabled Sinai Province to recruit some of its leaders from tribes that are otherwise fighting ISIS, including the Sawarka and Tarabin.

Three-and-a-half years ago, when the Egyptian military ousted Egypt’s democratically-elected president, one of the major justifications for removing the Muslim Brotherhood-led civilian government from power was its alleged unwillingness to take action against terror factions in the Sinai. 

The Sisi regime’s legitimacy has largely rested in its image as a protector against extremism and militancy. Yet the state’s inability to bring terrorism under control is challenging the Egyptian leadership to maintain such an image.

Nonetheless, since Sisi’s ascendancy to power in 2013, the terrorist menace to Egyptian security has increased, only to be met with powerful conventional warfare waged by the state. Although Egypt’s campaign in the Sinai has thwarted ISIS from achieving what was once the so-called Caliphate’s central leadership in Raqqa, such a strategy has displaced and killed many innocent civilians in the crosshairs of the Egyptian regime’s struggle against ISIS.

With ISIS having lost its strongholds in Iraq and Syria and its fighters seeking new opportunities, Sinai Province may lure more foreign recruits from other Arab states, Europe, the Sahel, southwestern Russia, and Greater Asia, adding momentum to the extremist group. 

Doubtful that military means alone will solve the myriad of social, political, and economic problems in the Sinai that made extremist groups appealing to many locals, more bloodshed in this part of Egypt looks likely to continue in the future. 

Although there is no easy solution, the Egyptian authorities ought to devise a more sophisticated approach to dealing with the North Sinai crisis that does not rely so much on military muscle. Whether the al Rawdah massacre becomes a turning point in the Egyptian state’s campaign against terrorism in the Sinai remains to be seen.

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