Why you should care
Because disenfranchised locals, opportunistic jihadis and a heavy-handed military makes for a particularly explosive cocktail.
Very few corners of the world have been spared by armed conflict. But some, like North Sinai, in Egypt, never seem to catch a break. This desolate stretch of desert between Egypt and Israel is getting increasingly bloody.
In the past two years, according to official numbers, at least 700 people have been killed by the region’s insurgency.
Yet it rarely makes the front page, unless a Russian passenger plane is downed, all 224 people aboard killed.
The causes of the violence in North Sinai are virtually impossible to describe in less than a few hundred pages, let alone a Twitter-friendly headline. The Egyptian government rarely allows journalists in the region, so any insights are both hard to come by and to verify. But let’s try anyway. After the war between Egypt and Israel in 1967, the region was largely demilitarized, making it a hotbed for smugglers, while local Bedouins organized to protest the central government’s perceived neglect of the region. After President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, Islamist fighters took advantage of the country’s vacuum of power to set up shop in this forgotten stretch of land that happens to be a prime location from which to strike at Israel.
Since 2013, the intermittent violence has escalated into a more organized insurgency (for lack of a better term), part of which has declared allegiance to ISIS and renamed itself the Sinai Province. Since that alliance, “their attacks have been getting more sophisticated and deadly,” says Mokhtar Awad, research associate with the Center for American Progress’ National Security and International Policy team. Oh, and al-Qaida? It too has its own handful of fighters in the region, to make sure ISIS doesn’t think it alone rules the place.
Basically, the region is a geopolitical clusterfuck. Sporadic attacks have targeted everyone: Israel, the Egyptian military apparatus, oil and gas pipelines, peacekeepers, even a couple of South Korean tourists and their Egyptian driver who died when their bus was blown up last year. Civilians are rarely killed, yet the local population is paying a high price, caught in the crossfire between Islamists and state retaliation. “We strongly suspect a majority of the ‘militants’ claimed killed by the government are likely innocent civilians, as Egypt lacks the intelligence to target only militants,” says Joshua Goodman, a Sinai expert and Yale University graduate student. In November 2015, Human Rights Watch accused the Egyptian army of punishing the civilian population through the destruction of homes in the city of Rafah. (The Egyptian minister of defense did not reply to request for comment.)
Still, the “insurgency” doesn’t seem too scary on paper. It’s contained in a small area pushed against the border with Gaza. And its numbers don’t seem too imposing compared with those of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The government estimates the insurgents to number around 1,000, and they don’t have heavy armed vehicles or planes.
Given the insurgents’ unconventional nature, though, there is no chance for a political solution to the problem. Egyptian officials are getting $1.3 billion in arms from the U.S. to fight the insurgents, while Israel, the prime target, watches closely and Gaza hopes it won’t have to intervene. Either way, innocent people will likely die. “If they feel cornered, they will resort to terrorism,” says Awad. “But if they do well and feel arrogant, they will strike too.”