Egyptian security forces killed 16 suspected fighters in the country’s northern Sinai Peninsula, according to state media last Tuesday. According to the Interior Ministry, the “National Security Department was monitoring ‘two terrorist cells, planning to carry out a series of terrorist attacks against vital installations and important figures in El Arish city.’” In two separate raids, security forces killed ten suspected armed fighters in the Obeidat district and six in the Abu Eita district, where weapons, ammunition, and explosives were also found after a reported exchange of gunfire. The suspected fighters’ bodies were taken to hospitals to be examined and identified, while there was no mention of casualties on the side of the security forces. These attacks come in the context of Egypt’s war on terror, mired with military counterterrorism campaigns against Islamic extremists and heavily centered in the Sinai Peninsula.
Many have condemned the tactics the Egyptian security forces have used in their counterterrorism campaigns and their war on terror. Despite some like Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution having said that “it’s important that Sinai not become yet another place where Al Qaeda or other international terrorists can find a haven,” many have been critical of the security forces’ use of violence against civilians. Amnesty International has criticized the Egyptian Armed Forces for using banned cluster munitions in airstrikes in North Sinai, stating that cluster bombs “‘are among the vilest weapons in modern warfare, inherently indiscriminate and capable of killing and maiming civilians for years after their deployment.’” The security paradigm guiding the approach to the Sinai and counterterrorism campaigns in the area “needs to be pushed aside,” says Lina Attalah, previous managing editor of the Egypt Independent, since “the state as it exists in Sinai is only a relic of oppression.” Hossam Bahgat, journalist and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has stated that “only the people of Sinai can defeat terrorism, the central government is not going to defeat terrorism, it’s stoking terrorism through its practices.” In fact, “despite years of sustained military operations, including thousands of deaths and arrests,” insurgency continues, a report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy states. There has been “no concrete evidence” that the counterterrorism campaigns have extinguished radical Islamist threats in the Sinai, said Andrew Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in testimony to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee last year.
These criticisms are warranted, and many of them also apply to the security forces’ killing of the 16 suspected fighters in the Sinai reported last Tuesday. The Egyptian state’s account does not provide much detail about the killing of the 16 fighters, only describing the individuals killed as “suspected” fighters, to be examined and identified after being killed, with no mention of security force casualties or any information about the “suspected” fighters’ affiliation. This is indicative of the state’s control of the narrative surrounding its counterterrorism campaigns, a narrative which represents the state as capable and able to suppress insurgent forces. Yet, it is also indicative of the broader issues associated with the state’s counterterrorism strategy, as the Egyptian security forces continue using violence with no accountability and no transparency.
The Sinai Peninsula has continually been the site of major instability. In 2013, Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, now president, declared a “war on terror,” with a new “Operation Sinai 2018” being launched in February of last year to defeat terrorism in the nation. The operation particularly targeted Wilayat Sinai, a local militant group and affiliate of the Islamic State, and as part of the operation, security forces were deployed in the Sinai Peninsula. The operation was accompanied by a humanitarian crisis, with home demolition, restrictions on food supplies, and massive displacement. Egyptian security forces have since intensified the use of airstrikes in the face of a lack of real success in countering terrorist forces in the area.
So far, Egypt’s war on terror can be construed as a failure to effectively and efficiently counter terrorism in a sustainable way. The war on terror has resulted in widespread human rights violations and the undermining of the rule of law. Many civilians, including ethnic minority Bedouins, have been arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. The counterterrorism campaigns have served as cover for the violation of human and civil rights; there have been extrajudicial killings with no acknowledgment by the military, little due process, and no accountability, while dissent has been criminalized and online media censored. Furthermore, the war on terror has led to the increased ostracizing of the Sinai Peninsula, which continues to suffer from a lack of development. Viewing the Sinai through a lens of security and military counterterrorism, the government has done little to economically develop the area. Continuing to view the area through a security paradigm and indiscriminate engagement in human rights violations do not constitute an effective counterterrorism strategy, as there is no exploration or addressing of the root issues leading to terrorism, including the radicalization of populations due to grievances against the central government. The war on terror has helped to further alienate the people of the Sinai; it has enforced a sense of abandonment and reinforced isolation of the area, which has led to increased instability. Egypt must re-evaluate its approach. It should be more targeted, transparent, and legally sound. Moreover, the international community must halt its support for this brand of counterterrorism. Egypt is supported by the US and European countries with foreign aid and arms contracts, despite concerns of human rights abuses and brutality. The international community must recognize that to achieve peace and security within the region, it must stop its support of ineffective counterterrorism campaigns centered on indiscriminate violence.