Why are Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts Failing in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2016

In October 2011, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared “the military situation in Sinai is 100 percent secure” (Daily News Egypt, October 6, 2011). Four years later, Army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Samir assured Egyptians that the North Sinai was “100 percent under control” (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2015). Even Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a former jihadist and principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group) declared as recently as last August that for Sinai’s branch of the Islamic State: “This is the beginning of the end for this organization…  It cannot undertake big operations, such as the bombing of government buildings, like the bombing of the military intelligence building previously … or massacre, or conduct operations outside Sinai. Instead, it has resorted to car bombs or suicide bombings, which are mostly handled well [by Egyptian security forces]” (Ahram Online, August 11; August 15).sinai-ea-map

Since then, Islamic State militants have carried out highly organized large-scale attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish, killing 12 conscripts on October 12 and another 12 soldiers on November 24. Together with a steady stream of almost daily IED attacks, mortar attacks and assassinations, it is clear that militancy in North Sinai is far from finished.

Since 2004 there have been a series of jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. The latest face of militancy in the region is the Wilayet Sayna (WS – “Sinai Province”), a name adopted by the Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM – Supporters of Jerusalem) following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014. The secretive WS has been estimated to include anywhere from several hundred to two thousand fighters. Despite operating for the most part in a small territory under 400 square miles in with a population of roughly 430,000 people, a series of offensives since 2013 by the Arab world’s most powerful army in North Sinai have produced not victory, but rather a war of attrition. The question therefore is what exceptional circumstances exist in the North Sinai that prevent Egypt’s security forces from ending a small but troubling insurgency that receives little outside support.

As in northern Mali in 2012, the conflict in Sinai has merged a localized ethnic insurgency with externally-inspired Salafi-Jihadism. The conflict persists despite the wide latitude granted by Israel in terms of violating the 1979 Camp David Accords’ restrictions on arms and troops deployed by Egypt in the Sinai. Unsettled by the cross-border activities of Gazan and Sinai terrorists, Israel has basically granted Cairo a free hand in military deployments there since July 2015.

At the core of the insurgency is Sinai’s Bedouin population, culturally and geographically separate from the Egyptian “mainland.” Traditionally, the Bedouin of the Sinai had closer relations with Gaza and Palestine to the northeast than the Egyptian nation to their west, though Egypt’s interest in the Sinai and its resources dates to the earliest dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The Israeli occupation of the region in 1967-1979 left many Egyptians suspicious of pro-Israeli sympathies amongst the Bedouin (generally without cause) and led to a ban on their recruitment by Egypt’s military or security services.

According to Egyptian MP Tamer al-Shahawy (a former major-general and military intelligence chief), social changes began in the Sinai after the 1973 war with Israel: “After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing… For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritize a security over a socio-‎economic political response.”‎ (Ahram Online, August 15).

Lack of development, land ownership issues and Cairo’s general disinterest in the region for anything other than strategic purposes erupted in the terrorist bombings of Red Sea tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006. The deaths of at least 145 people led to a wave of mass arrests, torture and lengthy detentions that embittered the Bedouin and further defined the differences between “Egyptians” and the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. With the local economy struggling due to neglect and insecurity, many young men turned to smuggling, a traditional occupation in the region. Like northern Mali, however, smuggling has proven a gateway to militancy.

In recent decades, Islamist ideology has been brought to the Sinai by “mainland” teachers and by students returning from studies in the Nile Valley. Inattention from government-approved religious bodies like al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments left North Sinai’s mosques open to radical preachers denouncing the region’s traditional Sufi orders. Their calls for an aggressive and Islamic response to what was viewed as Cairo’s “oppression” and the support available from Islamist militants in neighboring Gaza led to a gradual convergence of “Bedouin issues” and Salafi-Jihadism. Support for groups like ABM and WS is far from universal amongst the tribes and armed clashes are frequent, but the widespread distaste for Egypt’s security forces and a campaign of brutal intimidation against those inclined to work with them have prevented Cairo from exploiting local differences in its favor. The army claims it could “instantaneously purge” Sinai of militants but has not done so out of concern for the safety of residents (Ahram Online, March 21).

Egypt’s Military Operations in the Sinai

Beginning with Operation Eagle’s deployment of two brigades of Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt) Special Forces personnel in August 2011, Cairo has initiated a series of military operations designed to secure North Sinai, eradicate the insurgents in the Rafah, al-Arish and Shaykh al-Zuwayad districts of North Sinai, eliminate cross-border smuggling with Gaza and protect the Suez Canal. While meeting success in the latter two objectives, the use of fighter jets, artillery, armor, attack helicopters and elite troop formations have failed to terminate an insurgency that has intensified rather than diminished.

sinai-ea-al-saiqaAl-Sa’iqa (Special Forces) in Rafah

The ongoing Operation Martyr’s Right, launched in September 2015, is the largest military operation yet, involving Special Forces units, elements of the second and third field armies and police units with the aim of targeting terrorists and outlaws in central and northern Sinai to “pave the road for creating suitable conditions to start development projects in Sinai.” (Ahram Online, November 5, 2016). Each phase of Martyr’s Right and earlier operations in the region have resulted in government claims of hundreds of dead militants and scores of “hideouts,” houses, cars and motorcycles destroyed, all apparently with little more than temporary effect.

Military-Tribal Relations

Security forces have failed to connect with an alienated local population in North Sinai. Arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonments have degraded the relationship between tribal groups and state security services. Home demolitions, public utility cuts, travel restrictions, indiscriminate shelling, the destruction of farms and forced evacuations for security reasons have only reinforced the perception of the Egyptian Army as an occupying power.  Security services are unable to recruit from local Bedouin, while ABM and WS freely recruit military specialists from the Egyptian “mainland.” It was a Sa’aiqa veteran expelled from the army in 2007, Hisham al-Ashmawy, who provided highly useful training in weapons and tactics to ABM after he joined the movement in 2012 (Reuters, October 18, 2015). Others have followed.

The role of local shaykhs as interlocutors with tribal groups has been steeply devalued by the central role now played by state security services in appointing tribal leaders. In 2012, a shaykh of the powerful Sawarka tribe was shot and killed when it became widely believed he was identifying jihadists to state security services (Egypt Independent, June 11, 2012)

The use of collective punishment encourages retaliation, dissuades the local population from cooperation with security forces and diminishes the reputation of moderate tribal leaders who are seen as unable to wield influence with the government. Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, has blamed terrorism in North Sinai on the familiar “external and internal forces,” but also noted that under Egypt’s new constitution, the president could not use counter-terrorism measures as “an excuse for violating public freedoms” (Ahram Online, May 10).

Operational Weaknesses

The government’s media blackout of the Sinai makes it difficult to verify information or properly evaluate operations.  Restrictions on coverage effectively prevent public discussion of the issues behind the insurgency, reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Nonetheless, a number of weaknesses in Cairo’s military approach are apparent:

  • Operations are generally reactive rather than proactive
  • A military culture exists that discourages initiative in junior officers. This is coupled with an unwillingness in senior staff to admit failure and change tactics compared to the tactical flexibility of insurgents, who are ready to revise their procedures whenever necessary
  • An over-reliance on airpower to provide high fatality rates readily reported in the state-owned media to give the impression of battlefield success. The suppression of media reporting on military operations in Sinai turns Egyptians to the militants’ social media to obtain news and information
  • The widespread use of poorly-trained conscripts. Most of the active fighting is done by Special Forces units who reportedly inflict serious losses in their actions against WS. As a result, WS focuses on what might be termed “softer” military targets for their own attacks; checkpoints manned by conscripts and conscript transports on local roads. There are reports of poorly paid conscripts leaking information to Sinai-based terrorists for money (Ahram Online, October 21).
  • A failure to prevent radicalization by separating detained Sinai smugglers or militants with local motivations from radical jihadists in Egyptian prisons
  • An inability to stop arms flows to the region. Though effective naval patrols and the new 5 km buffer zone with Gaza have discouraged arms trafficking from the north, arms continue to reach the insurgents from the Sharqiya, Ismailiya and Beni Suef governorates

Islamist Tactics in Sinai

The Islamist insurgents have several advantages, including intimate knowledge of the local terrain and a demonstrated ability to rejuvenate their numbers and leadership. Possession of small arms is also extremely common in Sinai despite disarmament efforts by the state. The WS armory includes Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, RPGs and mortars. Many weapons have been captured from Egyptian forces operating in the Sinai.

According to WS’ own “Harvest of Military Operations” reports, IEDs are used in about 60% of WS attacks, guerrilla-style attacks account for some 20%, while the remainder is roughly split between sniper attacks and close-quarter assassinations. Since 2013, over 90% of the targets have been military or police personnel as well as suspected informants (al-Jazeera, May 1). In 2016, IED attacks have numbered roughly one per day. The bombs are commonly disguised as rocks or bags of garbage.

sinai-ea-checkpointEgyptian Army Checkpoint, al-Arish

Well-organized assaults on security checkpoints display a sophistication that has worried military leaders. Checkpoint attacks since October 2014 often involve the preliminary use of suicide bomb trucks to smash the way through fixed defenses, followed by assaults by gunmen, often in 4×4 vehicles which have been banned in military operational zones since July 2015. Car bombs and mortars have been used to launch as many as 15 simultaneous attacks, demonstrating advanced skills in operational planning. Snipers are frequently used to keep security forces on edge and the ambush or hijacking of vehicles on the road complicates the movement of security personnel.

Military intelligence has not been able to overcome WS security measures. WS is notoriously difficult to infiltrate – recruits are closely vetted and often assume new identities. Trackable communications devices are discouraged and the group’s cell structure makes it difficult to obtain a broader picture of its organization and membership. At times it is not even clear who the group’s leader is. Sinai Bedouin chiefs have complained that when they do give warnings to the military of militant activity, their warnings are ignored (Egypt Independent, August 7, 2012)

There is intense intimidation of residents not sympathetic to WS and its aims. The group has even warned ambulance drivers not to transport wounded security personnel to hospitals (Shorouk News, December 21, 2015). Suspected informants are shot, though the WS tries to remain on good terms with locals by providing financial aid and social assistance. Sympathetic residents are able to provide a steady flow of intelligence on Egyptian troop movements and patterns.

sinai-ea-brigadier-mahmoudBrigadier General Hisham Mahmoud (Daily News Egypt)

WS focuses on state institutions as targets and rarely carries out the type of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians common to other theaters of jihad. However, public, security and religious figures are all subject to assassination. In November, WS beheaded a respected 100-year-old Sufi shaykh of the Sawarka tribe for “practicing witchcraft” (Ahram Online, November 21). Even senior officers are targeted; in November Air Force Brigadier General Hisham Mahmoud was killed in al-Arish; a month earlier Brigadier Adel Rajaei (commander of the 9th Armored Division and a veteran of North Sinai) was killed in Cairo. Both men were shot in front of their own homes (Ahram Online, November 4). In July, a Coptic priest in al-Arish was murdered by Islamic State militants for “fighting Islam” (Ahram Online, July 1). Religious sites inconsistent with Salafist beliefs and values are also targeted for destruction. The shrine of Shaykh Zuwayad, who came to Egypt with the conquering Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640 C.E., has been attacked multiple times in the city that bears his name.

When Egyptian military pressure becomes too intense, insurgents are able to take refuge in Jabal Halal, a mountainous cave-riddled region south of al-Arish that acts as a main insurgent stronghold and hideout for fugitives. The area is home to many old Israeli minefields that discourage ground operations, though Egypt’s Air Force claims to have killed scores of militants there in airstrikes (Egypt Independent, August 20, 2012).


Egypt’s large scale counter-insurgency operations have been disappointing for Cairo. Such operations do not have the general support of the local population and are regarded by many as suppression by outsiders. The army and police are not regarded as guarantors of security, but as the violent extension of state policies that discriminate against communities in the North Sinai. So long as these conditions remain unchanged, Egypt’s security forces will remain unable to deny safe havens or financial support to militant groups.  Air-strikes on settled areas, with their inevitable indiscriminate and collateral damage, are especially unsuited for rallying government support.

Excluding the Bedouin from Interior Ministry forces foregoes immediate benefits in intelligence terms, leaving security forces without detailed knowledge of the terrain, groups, tribes and individuals necessary to successful counter-terrorism and counter-smuggling operations. However, simply opening up recruitment is not enough to guarantee interest from young Bedouin men; in the current environment they would risk ostracization at best or assassination at worst. With few economic options, smuggling (and consequent association with arms dealers and drug traffickers) remains the preferred alternative for many.

Seeking perhaps to tap into the Russian experience in Syria, Egypt conducted a joint counter-insurgency exercise near al-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast in October. The exercise focused on the use of paratroopers against insurgents in a desert setting (Ahram Online, October 12, 2016). Russia is currently pursuing an agreement that would permit Russian use of military bases across Egypt 10 October 2016 (Middle East Eye, October 10; PressTV [Tehran], October 10). If Cairo is determined to pursue a military solution to the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, it may decide more material military assistance and guidance from Russia will be part of the price.

A greater commitment to development is commonly cited as a long-term solution to Bedouin unrest, though its impact would be smaller on ideologically and religiously motivated groups such as WS. Development efforts are under way; last year President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi committed £E10 billion (US$ 560 million) to new industrial, agricultural, transport and housing projects (al-Masry al-Youm, March 8). Unfortunately, many of these projects are in the Canal Zone region and will have little impact on the economy of North Sinai. More will be needed, but with Egypt currently experiencing currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages and shrinking foreign currency reserves, the central government will have difficulty in implementing a development-based solution in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the December 15 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Plan to Ship Israeli Gas to Egypt Raises Political and Security Concerns

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2014

Only two years after public opposition and attacks by militants brought an end to Egyptian gas shipments to Israel, there is a new proposal to begin shipping Israeli natural gas to Egypt.  Texas-based Noble Energy signed a non-binding letter of intent with Unión Fenosa Gas (UFG – a Spanish-Italian joint venture) on May 5 calling for the shipment of 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from Israel’s offshore Tamar gas field over 15 years. The gas would be liquefied for export at Unión Fenosa’s Damietta liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant (20 percent owned by Egypt) before shipment to foreign markets by tanker, though the Egyptian government announced two days later that it had not yet issued the necessary authorization required for any imports of gas from Israel. Egypt’s Oil Ministry has said that any such deal would need to “serve the national interest of the country” (Wall Street Journal, May 6; Haaretz/Reuters, May 7).

The Tamar gas field is located 50 miles off the Israeli coast in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and began production in March 2013. The largest partner in developing the gas field is Noble Energy, with a 36 percent share. Other partners include Israel’s Isramco Negev 2, two subsidiaries of Israel’s Delek Group and a subsidiary of Israel’s Dor Alon Group. The Tamar partners have already signed smaller deals to supply gas to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan’s Arab Potash Company and Jordan Bromine Company but have otherwise failed to find international markets for Tamar’s production. Turkey remains a potential customer for Tamar gas, but any deal with Turkish energy firms would come with its own political baggage, given the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

Leviathan, a second Israeli offshore gas field, is owned by the same partners as the Tamar field. With twice as much gas reserves as Tamar, Leviathan is expected to go online in 2017 though financing has yet to be arranged due to the absence of large, long-term contracts with buyers. The Leviathan partners are expected to announce an export deal with foreign partners within three months. Tamar and Leviathan are expected to meet Israel’s domestic energy needs for at least the next 25 years.

The last natural gas deal between Egypt and Israel ended badly, with both parties entering arbitration before the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) this year to resolve outstanding financial claims. In this earlier case, natural gas exports from Egypt to Israel were repeatedly interrupted by attacks by militants on the al-Arish to Ashkelon pipeline. The attacks began shortly after the January, 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and continued even after the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) and the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) terminated their agreement with Israel’s East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) over a payment dispute following an Egyptian declaration of force majeure they claimed would excuse them from meeting their supply obligations.[1] By this time, there was massive popular opposition to continuing a deal to supply Israel with gas at below market prices that many Egyptians viewed as a prime example of the corruption that permeated the Mubarak regime.

There has been some discussion of using the existing pipeline to carry Israeli gas to Egypt until a proposed undersea Tamar to Damietta pipeline has been completed, though it seems likely the pipeline would again be the target of Bedouin and Islamist militants operating in the Sinai (al-Jazeera, May 8). Residual anger over this earlier contract is likely to help generate opposition to any new Egyptian gas project involving Israel. However, if the deal goes through, militants will have much greater difficulty interrupting the submarine pipeline than the exposed pipeline running through the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt is trying to deal with severe energy shortages during a politically sensitive time. Natural gas is used to generate most of the nation’s electricity and blackouts have become common since the 2011 revolution. With steadily diminishing production and an inability to attract sufficient investment to develop remaining reserves, Egypt is finding it impossible to meet both heavily subsidized domestic demand and its export commitments (Reuters, May 6; al-Bawaba, May 7). Several gas-producing Gulf nations supporting Egypt’s political transition have supplied Egypt with $6 billion in free fuel to ward off potential popular unrest created by energy shortages this summer (Reuters, May 6).

With Egyptian natural gas now being diverted to the domestic market, UFG’s Damietta plant has been offline since December 2012 (al-Jazeera, May 8). A second Egyptian LNG plant located at the Mediterranean port of Idko is operated by the British-owned BG Group, the losing bidder on the Tamar gas deal. Like the Damietta plant, the Idko plant is also running well below capacity due to supply shortages and was unable to export any gas during the first quarter of 2014. The Egyptian government’s decision to divert natural gas supplies to the domestic market is estimated to have cost Unión Fenosa and the BG Group billions of dollars in lost revenue and has prevented both firms from meeting their commitments to customers in Europe and Asia.

Following the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Russia, European countries dependent on Russian gas imports are now seeking alternative supplies, mainly from nearby Algeria. After Egyptian negotiations with Algeria’s government-owned Sonatrach were halted when European markets began expressing interest in Algerian gas following the Crimea crisis, Egypt turned to Russia’s Gazprom Company for supply, reaching an agreement to import Russian liquefied natural gas beginning this summer (Daily News Egypt, May 13). The favorable payment terms offered by Russia may be viewed as part of its effort to re-establish influence in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

It remains uncertain whether any of the Israeli gas exported to Egypt would find its way to gas-hungry Egyptian markets or what the reaction of the Egyptian public might be to such a development. In the meantime, Unión Fenosa has brought its own complaint before the ICC over the Egyptian failure to maintain contracted payments as per its agreement and it is possible the BG Group will follow suit with reference to Egypt’s failure to supply its Idko LNG facility with natural gas. The BG Group has already declared force majeure for its Egyptian operations because of the government’s gas diversions and a $4 billion debt owed by the Egyptian government. Egypt has already faced 19 arbitration cases from international energy firms since the 2011 revolution, with most of these remaining unsettled. In the meantime, factories, businesses and retailers are all forced to reduce their hours of operation, damaging an already struggling economy. Alternatives to gas are being sought to supply Egypt’s energy needs as the high consumption summer months approach, including the use of coal and low-grade polluting petroleum products (Zawya [Dubai], April 15).


1. Force Majeure refers to a party to a contract being relieved of their obligation to fulfill terms of a contract due an event or circumstance beyond the control of the party concerned that has resulted in the party failing or delaying its contractual obligations in circumstances that could not be prevented or overcome by the standard of a reasonable or prudent person or party. It excludes such relief (normally intended to be only temporary) in cases of negligence or malfeasance.

This article was published in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egyptian Military Offensive in the Sinai Follows Tourist Massacre

Andrew McGregor

March 6, 2014

Egyptian security forces have responded to the latest terrorist blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry with a series of raids that have killed dozens of militants and resulted in the detention of many others.

Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis

On February 16, a bomb on a tourist bus carrying South Koreans making the trip from St. Catherine’s monastery to the resort town of Taba killed three tourists and their Egyptian driver, while a further 13 tourists were wounded (al-Jazeera, February 16). The attack was claimed by militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), who claimed the strike was “part of our economic war against this regime of traitors” (AFP, February 19). Tourism accounts for over 11 percent of Egyptian GDP and is an important source of foreign currency. The Sinai was the last part of the politically volatile nation to maintain a healthy tourist trade, but this has now been put in jeopardy. The bombing was denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a militant Islamist group responsible for the murder of 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997 (Ahram Online, February 17).

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gaza-based Islamist organization. Since its first appearance in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on oil pipelines, a strike on Israeli troops in 2012, the attempted assassination of Egypt’s interior minister in 2013 and the successful assassination of an important National Security Agency investigator the same year (see Terrorism Monitor, November 28, 2013).

The tourist bus bombing led to a number of operations as part of the ongoing Egyptian military response to radicalism in the Sinai Peninsula:

  • During the night of February 19, Egyptian Army helicopter gunships used missiles to attack houses suspected to harbor militants in the Shaykh Zuwayad area, killing at least ten people (AP, February 20).
  • On February 28, the Egyptian Second Field Army (responsible for the Sinai) reported killing six militants (including an alleged member of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and the arrest of 14 others (Egypt State Information Service, February 28).
  • On March 1, the armed forces reported ten extremists killed and ten others wounded in the Northern Sinai communities of al-Arish, Shaykh Zuwaya and Rafah (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], March 1).

The military also continues to demolish tunnels to Gaza in the border town of Rafah

Militants in the Sinai also continue to attack another sector of the Egyptian economy – gas exports to Jordan. The gas pipeline running through northern Sinai was blown up south of al-Arish for the fourth time this year on February 25 (al-Arabiya, February 26). Most of the bombings of the pipeline (which brought an end to gas exports to Israel in 2012) have been claimed by Ansar al-Maqdis.

This article first appeared in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis Intensifies Assassination Campaign in the Sinai

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gazan Islamist organization that first appeared in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Since then, ABM has become one of the most active and aggressive of the many militant groups now found in the Sinai. Its latest high-profile operation was the November 17 assassination in Nasr City of Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk Abu Khattab of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA), one of the leading investigators involved in the prosecution of ex-president Muhammad Mursi and other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, ABM has mounted several attacks on the pipelines that carry Egyptian natural gas to Israeli and Jordanian markets, claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli troops in September, 2012 and attempted to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on September 5 (Daily News Egypt, July 26, 2012).

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk

In its claim of responsibility for the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, ABM maintained that it had targeted the senior investigator over the commitment to trial in Alexandria of 15 women and seven girls for participation in a violent pro-Mursi demonstration in Alexandria in October: “[Mabrouk] was one of the major tyrants of the state security apparatus and the assassination was a response to the arrest of free women by this malicious apparatus.” The statement ended by promising further attacks if the women were not freed. [1]Given Mabrouk’s peripheral connection with the Alexandria case, prosecutors suspected the ABM statement was intended to mislead their investigations and asked the Interior Ministry to investigate the declaration (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21).

Suspicion of complicity in the assassination has fallen on the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemned the attack on November 19 and assailed efforts by the media to associate them with the assassination (Daily News Egypt, November 20). The timing of Mabrouk’s murder is noteworthy, as it came shortly before his testimony in the Mursi trial and a week after submitting a CD supporting the charges of spying leveled against the ex-president. Judicial sources have indicated that the CD includes a recording of a phone call between Mursi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as another phone conversation in which Mursi admits providing Hamas with information on the security situation in the Sinai (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21). Colonel Mabrouk played a central role in taking down the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, arresting leading members such as Khayrat al-Shater, Essam al-Erian and Muhammad al-Beltagy. The spying charges actually predate Mursi’s removal as president; the case accusing Mursi and 13 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood of spying and illegal contacts with foreign entities was forwarded to prosecutors by the Ismailia Appeals Court on June 23 (al-Ahram Weekly, November 22).  Mabrouk was also expected to be the chief witness in a separate case regarding Mursi’s Hamas-assisted escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison five days after the January 25 Revolution.

According to the ABM statement, the killing was carried out by the Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah Battalion. This ABM faction is named for al-Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah, the eighth Abbasid caliph (795 – 842), known for his fighting skills and his campaigns against the Christian Byzantine Empire. As justification for the murder, the ABM statement cited an episode from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, in which the Prophet attacked and expelled the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe after an incident in the market in which a Jewish goldsmith is said to have pinned the clothes of a Muslim woman so as to cause her to be stripped naked when she walked away. The Jewish merchant was immediately killed by a passing Muslim, who was in turn killed by a Jewish mob, leading to the Prophet’s eventual attack. [2] ABM asks, on the basis of this precedent, what alternative do Muslims have when faced with the detention and assault of hundreds of Muslim women?

Mabrouk’s funeral was attended by Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim and several other ministers and high officials. A three-day mourning period was announced by interim president Adli Mansour on November 20 (Egypt State Information Service, November 21). The Interior Ministry claims 152 “martyrs” have been lost to militant activities since Mursi’s June 30 overthrow.

Colonel Mabrouk was only the latest in a series of Interior Ministry personnel (many of whom conceal their identities and rarely work in the field) to be targeted by assassins. Revelations of the existence of “assassination lists” with the home addresses of intelligence officers involved in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood are reported to have prompted a deadline of January for Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim to discover the leak in his Ministry (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 22; al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], November 22).

On November 21, police in the Delta town of Qaha raided an apartment in search of two suspected terrorists wanted in connection to the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Ibrahim and an attack on a Coptic church. The two were arrested only after a gunfight that killed police Captain Ahmad Samir al-Kabir (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 21; November 22).

On the following day, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced the arrest of the prime suspect in the Mabrouk assassination, Shady al-Manei, described as a leading member of Bayt al-Maqdis. Al-Manei was alleged to be a subordinate of Muslim Brotherhood deputy guide Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater (presently detained) and was previously imprisoned in connection with the 2005 Taba bombings before being released by ex-president Muhammad Mursi (Egypt State Information Service, November 23). Nabil Na’im, a fierce opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad from 1988 to 1992, has accused al-Shater, a prominent businessman, of funding ABM’s strikes on Egyptian security forces (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 9; for Khayrat al-Shater, see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2013).

The Egyptian Army has not failed to respond to the ABM’s attacks on security personnel. On November 26, four black Army Humvees pursued and killed Shaykh Abu Munir (a.k.a. Muhammad Hussein Muhareb) and his son at al-Mehediya in the northeast Sinai. Abu Munir was an associate of ABM and a prime suspect in the brutal roadside murder of 25 police recruits dragged from their bus in August (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], November 26; Telegraph, November 26).

On November 20, ABM released the identity of the suicide bomber who attacked the South Sinai security directorate on October 7, killing five soldiers and wounding 50 others. The “martyr,” Muhammad Hamdan al-Sawarka (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), was a member of the Sawarka tribe, one of the Sinai’s largest. The ABM statement also criticized prominent Egyptian Salafist leaders for failing to resist the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 20).

In his assessment of the Sinai campaign of the Egyptian security forces, Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founding member of the extremist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who has since renounced political violence, commented:

This campaign has largely succeeded. Without it, Egypt would have witnessed a long series of car bombings. We must admit that this military campaign prevented the arrival of this danger to the Nile Delta and to Cairo in a major way. Extremists in Sinai can equip a thousand booby-trapped cars and dispatch them to other areas in Egypt. The military campaign destroyed many mine and weapons stockpiles, and many of those who committed terrorist attacks were arrested. Many smuggling tunnels were closed and the sources of funding for these groups in the Sinai were controlled (As-Safir [Cairo], November 25).


1. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Declaring our responsibility for assassinating the criminal Muhammad Mabrouk,” November 19, 2013, http://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=47326

2. The incident is related in Ibn Hisham’s (died c. 830) Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyah , an edited version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad (now lost).

This article first appeared in the November 28 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Sinai Jihadists Respond to Egyptian Military Offensive with Statements and Suicide Bombs

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, September 19, 2013

As the Egyptian military intensifies its campaign against militants and terrorists in the volatile but strategic Sinai Peninsula, their jihadist opponents have responded with a series of messages claiming the Army was using excessive force, destroying property and killing civilians. These statements of defiance have been backed up by several suicide attacks designed to dissuade Egypt’s security forces from pursuing the complete elimination of the various Salafi-Jihadi groups operating in the Sinai.

Egyptian Police Capture Suspected Militants in the Sinai (Reuters)

In a statement released on September 4, al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya fi Sinai disputed the reported arrests of al-Qaeda leaders in the Sinai, calling such reports “lies and silly fabrications” designed to “cover up the acts of treachery and betrayal committed by the Egyptian army blatantly and the crimes committed against the people of Sinai.” [1]The Salafist movement accused Egyptian authorities of borrowing methods used by the Israelis on the Palestinian population and acting under Israeli direction in targeting homes and mosques in the Sinai as well as demolishing other homes to create a buffer zone at the Rafah border point. The statement condemns in particular the shelling of the Abi Munir mosque in al-Muqata’a village (near the town of Shaykh Zuwayid). The movement says Egyptian troops fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding innocent parties, acts which make the Egyptian military “an assaulting apostate sect which should be deterred and repelled and this is what the mujahideen are doing every day with operations that are burning and breaking their forces.

A September 11 statement by the Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militant group said the stated goal of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai, the liquidation of criminal and terrorist elements, was only a screen for its real purpose – the creation of a buffer zone “to protect Jews from any threats from militants in the Sinai and to prevent any strikes of the mujahideen against the Jews.” [2] The statement goes on to accuse the Egyptian Army of mounting its own campaign of terrorism and intimidation in the region through random shelling, arson, the destruction of wells, looting, indiscriminate fire and the repeated targeting of mosques without justification. All these acts are committed with the intention of serving “the interests of the Jews and to preserve their security.” The Egyptian Army has thus aligned itself with “the enemies of God and the enemies of Islam.”

A second communiqué issued by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis on September 15 decried the “displacement and terrorism launched by the Egyptian Army on the people of the Sinai” and claimed that the Army had committed a massacre of seven named civilians (including four children under seven years-of-age) who were killed by shellfire or under the treads of one of the 30 tanks the movement says the Army used to attack their village on the morning of September 13. [3] The statement claims the attack’s objective was to prevent the mujahideen from attacking commercial centers in Israel from the Sinai and was carried out on the orders of the American Army. The movement promised a “painful response” to the Egyptian Army’s “criminality and apostacy.”

The Egyptian Army’s use of armor, Apache helicopters and 20,000 troops to strike alleged terrorist refuges in the Sinai marks the greatest Egyptian military concentration in the region since the 1973 Ramadan War with Israel. Though the campaign was initially stated to have the purpose of eliminating radical Salafist jihadi organizations in the Sinai, the Army has expanded its mandate to include daily raids on homes believed to belong to opponents of July’s military coup (Mubasher Misr, September 13). The campaign is expected to last six months.

In an unusual development, but one that reflects the growing security cooperation between Israel and the Egyptian military, a delegation of Israeli security officials arrived in Cairo on a private jet on September 11 to discuss security issues in the Sinai with their Egyptian counterparts (Arutz Sheva, September 12). A statement from the pro-Mursi National Alliance to Support Legitimacy said the meeting was intended to coordinate efforts with Israel to kill innocent civilians, destroy local agriculture, displace residents and demolish mosques, “just like the Israeli army in the occupied territories” (Egypt Independent, September 16).

The militants have attempted to fight back, offering armed resistance in the villages and a mix of car bombs and suicide bombs to disrupt the Army’s campaign. Roughly 50 soldiers and policemen have been killed in the Sinai since July.

  • In a September 5 “martyrdom operation,” a bomb went off in Nasr City as Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim’s convoy passed, though Ibrahim, the intended target, survived (Ahram Online [Cairo], September 13). The group apologized to “Muslims in general and the relatives of the martyrs in particular” for its failure to kill Ibrahim, but promised further attacks would follow until this objective was achieved. The statement explained that the group was “working to establish the religion of Allah on Earth” while refusing to “take the road of pagan democracy.”
  • On September 11, two car bombs targeted the military intelligence headquarters in Rafah and a nearby military checkpoint, killing six soldiers and the two suicide bombers. The attacks were claimed by Jund al-Islam (MENA/Ahram Online [Cairo], September 7; AFP, September 13).
  • On September 16 a bus carrying Central Security Force conscripts was hit by either a roadside bomb or an RPG, injuring seven conscripts (Ahram Online, September 16).

Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Ali recently said the army had been surprised by the “sudden escalation in terrorist attacks” after the army took control of the country, though he denied the jihadists’ accusations the army had used excessive force in the campaign, remarking that if that was the case, “we would have finished terrorism off in 24 hours” (Daily News Egypt, September 15).


  1. Al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya fi Sinai, “Lying Agents,” Fursan al-Balagh Media, September 4, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46874
  2. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “The Egyptian Army – Criminality and Betrayal: Statement on the Extended Military Campaign against the People of the Sinai,” September 11, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46923
  3. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Second Statement on the Extended Military Campaign against the People of the Sinai,” September 15, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46962
  4. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Battle of Revenge for the Muslims of Egypt: Assassination Attempt of the Egyptian Interior Minister,” September 8, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46902


Sinai Insurgency Exploits Political Crisis in Egypt

Andrew McGregor

July 11, 2013

The growing confidence of Islamist militants operating in the volatile Sinai region of Egypt was displayed on July 10, when gunmen made an audacious attempt to assassinate General Ahmad Wasfy, the commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army (responsible for the Sinai) (Ahram Online [Cairo], July 10). While the causes of Sinai’s insecurity have many sources and levels of militancy began growing simultaneous with the collapse of Egypt’s security infrastructure that accompanied the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the Egyptian Army’s latest takeover of the country and arrest of Muslim Brotherhood political leader Muhammad al-Mursi has provided new opportunities for Salafist-Jihadist groups in the Sinai to exploit Egypt’s internal political crises in their own interests.