The terrorist attack on a Sufi mosque in the North Sinai village of Rawda in Egypt some three weeks ago, on 24 November, was a shocking event that left more than 300 people dead. The carefully planned attack committed by 40 gunmen marked a turning point in Jihadist extremism for its attack on the mystical branch of Islam – Sufism – but also highlighted the extraordinary ineffectiveness of the Egyptian authorities to counter terror in the country.
Despite the heavy military presence in the region, the perpetrators were able to organize a complex attack on the worshippers inside and outside the mosque, execute many of the wounded and ambush emergency vehicles that arrived on the scene. According to eyewitnesses, the attack continued for more than 20 minutes after security forces had arrived. Egyptian security forces regularly praise themselves for keeping the ISIS’ Sinai branch – Sinai Province – in check but this attack demonstrated their own incapability and vulnerability.
Sinai Province is estimated to have about a thousand ISIS members despite the heavy deployment of Egyptian forces in the peninsula. The army claims to have killed three thousand of the branch’s fighters during the time when the group had been active, yet there is no discernable impact on the jihadists’ very ability to function. The Rawda massacre showed that carnage like this can be conducted in broad daylight with little obstacle.
The response of Egyptian President Sisi was predictable – a vow of revenge against the perpetrators and a promise to “restore security and stability with the utmost force”. Yet a lack of force has not been an issue in Egypt’s approach to North Sinai so far. There is evidence of indiscriminate round-ups, the razing of entire villages, and extrajudicial execution of suspected militants. Instead, what is Egypt’s strategy missing is a solid use of intelligence and local knowledge to precisely target Sinai Province’s ISIS members.
Egypt has the potential of becoming a constructive partner for the West in its fight against terror but EU and US authorities are experiencing a frustrating relationship with Cairo. They say that their Egyptian counterparts show no interest in developing a holistic counterinsurgency approach or obtaining equipment relevant to such endeavor. Instead, the Egyptian army prefers to spend its efforts on visible, big-ticket items such as purchases of fighter jets, aircraft carriers and tanks. Egypt’s security forces used warplanes after the Rawda attack to destroy what it claimed were the vehicles used to carry out the massacre.
Such an approach to fighting terrorism is very distant to anything that the European Union would recognize as an effective strategy. Egypt’s overly broad definition of terrorism coupled with its ongoing violations of human rights and the pursuit of a bluntly destructive response, Cairo still has miles to go to become a go-to partner against religious extremists for Western countries. Yet, without a fundamental change in Egypt’s approach, the EU and its member states should tame both their expectations and rhetorical endorsement of Cairo’s misguided counterterrorism approach.
‘Egypt’s Counterterrorism Strategy: The Missing Element’ – Commentary by Anthony Dworkin – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).