In the wake of the Arab Spring, jihadist groups and terrorist militias proliferated across the region, Al-Ahram Weekly examines a decade of fighting terrorism in Egypt
In one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of modern Egypt, 235 worshippers were killed in Al-Rawda Mosque in the city of Bir Al-Abd in Sinai (photo: Reuters)
Between January 2011 and December 2020 terrorism in Egypt passed through four phases. The first phase, between 11 February 2011 and 29 June 2012, was the period in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control after president Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.
The phase was characterised by extreme fluidity and poor security. Police performance was undermined by attacks on police stations and the army was forced to take on policing alongside its military duties. These pressures coincided with widespread political turmoil and security breakdowns in other Arab countries.
The turmoil reached a peak with the total collapse of the Libyan state. Meanwhile, the initially peaceful revolutionary movement in Syria degenerated into internecine warfare, and terrorist groups and militias proliferated in Iraq, Yemen, and the African Sahel. Such conditions helped revive some terrorist groups in Egypt, especially in Sinai. Around 25 terrorist attacks occurred during the first phase, mostly in North Sinai.
Activity during this period can be divided into two. Operationally, a growing number of jihadist Salafi elements in Sinai were spurred into action following the January 2011 Revolution. Most staged what are best described as lone-wolf attacks, primarily focused on gas installations. Fifteen of the 25 attacks targeted the Egyptian-Jordanian gas pipeline, the first taking place in Arish on 5 February 2011.
Organisationally, groups attempted to unify operations beneath a single banner. Tawhid wal-Jihad had some success in this endeavour, and terrorist violence increased in tandem. It was responsible for 19 terrorist attacks between February 2011 and June 2012, some of which killed members of the Armed Forces. The 29 July 2011 attack that killed four soldiers and an officer was essentially a proclamation of intent.
Others followed, including an attack against the Taba Hotel on 10 January 2012, and the attack against a Central Security Force (CSF) van and murder of CSF forces in Central Sinai on 24 March 2012. The period of SCAF rule concluded with an attack on a security checkpoint in Wadi Firan in South Sinai in which two conscripts were killed.
The second phase covers the 30 June 2012 to 3 July 2013. This period, which began with the election of president Mohamed Morsi, saw the creation of Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, which effectively laid the foundation for the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai. Twenty-two soldiers in Sinai were killed in 11 terrorist attacks staged during Morsi’s year in office. The first, and bloodiest, occurred on 5 August 2012 when 16 policemen were killed in Rafah.
The Rafah massacre marked a turning point for the Morsi regime. In response, Morsi rescinded the 17 June 2012 constitutional declaration and his government grew lax, if not indulgent, towards the growth of terrorist organisations. It was also a period in which large numbers of extremist groups and fighters began to infiltrate Syria via Turkey, paving the way for the exponential growth of terrorism in the period following the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
In the wake of 30 June 2013 Revolution and the ouster of Morsi on 3 July 2013, the number of terrorists skyrocketed and their operations expanded beyond Sinai into the Nile Valley and the Delta.
Targets diversified in tandem with the growing ferocity of attacks, particularly against churches. Around 222 terrorist attacks occurred in one year. The largest was the second Rafah massacre on 19 August 2013 which killed 25 soldiers. Few governorates were left unscarred by terrorist violence during a period which saw the emergence of small radical Muslim Brotherhood breakaway groups such as the Iqab Al-Thawri, and the rise of the Ajnad Misr organisation, a splinter of the Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
The Boutroseya Church bombing in Cairo in 2016 left 29
people dead (photo: Reuters)
The fourth phase, which is continuing, began 8 June 2014. It opened with the election of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as president, and has seen the worst wave of terrorism in Egypt since the 1930s. About 2,000 attacks have occurred during the last six years. Terrorist groups proliferated and diversified their targets. The collapse of regional security in Libya, Syria, and the Sahel facilitated the movement of terrorist operatives and arms.
In Egypt, the situation grew more fluid as groups split off from the Muslim Brotherhood (Hasm, Liwaa Al-Thawra, Ajnad Misr, Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Murabitoun) and Islamic State (IS) affiliated groups, such as IS Sinai Province, grew in influence. Targets now included electricity grids, infrastructure and transport networks, and economic institutions. Judges also became a focus of assassination attempts, including prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat, senior military leaders and other public figures.
Despite the soaring rate of terrorist attacks early in this period there was a decline in the number staged in the Nile Valley and Delta. And following the launch of a major counterterrorist drive in 2018, Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, the rate of terrorist attacks began to decline across the country. The Muslim Brotherhood splinter groups were steadily eliminated from the equation, and by 2020 the Nile Valley and Delta had become virtually terrorist-free. In Sinai, terrorist activities were reduced to a small corner in the north of the peninsula.
The characteristics of terrorist attacks in Egypt since 25 January 2011 can be summed up in several points. While army and security personnel remained the primary targets, at the height of terrorist activity judges, clergymen and Christian and Muslim houses of worship all fell within the terrorists’ sights.
Following the ouster of Morsi, electricity pylons, water mains and other infrastructure were increasingly targeted, and crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became the primary weapon, though arson, booby-trapped cars and guns were used in some operations.
By 2015, the terrorists had begun to identify a new target: commercial enterprises and other economic facilities. In March 2015 two banks, a shopping mall, a communications tower, and a branch of KFC were attacked, and in a new departure a primary school was targeted. In the same year, tourist sites attracted the terrorists’ attention.
An Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis commander, Abu Obeida Al-Misri, claimed responsibility for masterminding the notorious Karnak suicide bombing which killed two people, and threatened to destroy all the remains of Egypt’s Pharaonic civilisation. In late 2015, two police officers were killed in a terrorist attack near the Pyramids, It was, however, the downing of a Russian passenger plane after it had taken-off from Sharm El-Sheikh Airport that had the most disastrous impact on the tourism sector.
In 2016, the judiciary came to be singled out by some terrorist groups. In addition to the assassination of Hisham Barakat, terrorists attacked judges overseeing presidential election polling stations in Arish. The attack against the deputy prosecutor-general in late 2016 was the last such incident.
Incidents of terrorism in Egypt cannot be viewed as an anomaly given a regional environment that has encouraged the spread of extremist organisations and militias. The growth of terrorism, and the diversification of its aims and tactics, has been informed by political developments in Egypt, especially after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in July 2013.
Porous borders, collapsed security structures and other manifestations of security breakdown facilitated the spread and interplay of radical forces. A turning point came at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 when the Egyptian government’s comprehensive counter-terrorism drive scored major victories. Ultimately, Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 succeeded in almost eradicating terrorism from the Nile Valley and Delta, reducing it to the peripheries, and by 2020 terrorist operations in Sinai were at record lows compared to the previous decade.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly