Vast terror attacks are not a rare event in Egypt. From the mid-1990s attacks in upper Egypt led by al Gama'a al Islamiyya — a radical Islamist group — through the 2004-2005 al Qaeda (AQ) bombings in the Sinai Peninsula, to the more recent attacks led primarily by Islamic State (ISIS) affiliated organizations, terror is no stranger to Egypt. However, it seems that the latest attack in the Rawda mosque near the northern Sinai town of Bir al Abed has broken all past records with more than 300 dead, among them dozens of children.
Unlike most of the recent attacks, which targeted mainly tourists, Copts, and government officials, these victims were Bedouin Egyptian Muslims, followers of Sufism — a mystical form of Islam. Though no group has claimed responsibility, it was reported that the assailants were carrying ISIS flags. It is safe to assume that ISIS-Sinai Province (ISIS-SP) stood behind the attack, though other Islamic groups could be held responsible as well. ISIS itself has targeted Sufis around the world several times over the past year (in February 2017, a Sufi shrine in Pakistan was bombed by ISIS militants).
Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi came to power in 2014, he has waged an uncompromising war against Islamic terror in Egypt, especially on the Libyan border and in the Sinai Peninsula. Since the political turmoil of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s government has struggled to exercise its sovereignty along its borders, which have become an entry point for terrorist and arms.
Despite these ongoing efforts and the support Egypt receives from its allies – including the United States, the European Union, Israel, and moderate Arab countries — Egypt’s war on terror bears little fruit. Its military and security apparatuses struggle with the harsh desert environment, poor operational capabilities, outdated intelligence and early-warning mechanisms, and hostile population (especially in the Sinai, which has been neglected by the regime for dozens of years).
The global intensification of terror attacks by affiliated organizations and radical-Islam-inspired individuals is due to ISIS’s recent defeats and territorial withdrawal in Iraq and Syria. The attack in Sinai is but one aspect of this new strategic situation that is forming in the Middle East and influencing the rest of the world.
ISIS is trying to convey the message that despite its defeats in Iraq and Syria it is still potent, and will continue to pursue its ultimate goal: establishing the Islamic Kalifate, with Sinai Province at the forefront now that the organization is losing its grip in Iraq and Syria. The Rawda attack was also a signal to Egypt’s regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia, which itself suffers under radical Islamic terror from both ISIS and Iranian-backed groups. By attacking “heretical” Muslim, ISIS again draws the line between what it perceives as “good” and “bad” Muslims, and signals that it can still challenge the political stability of “heretical” regimes.
However, the attack’s message was also aimed at rival terror organizations, particularly Junud al Islam, an AQ-affiliated organization that is trying to gain a foothold in the Sinai. ISIS-SP is signaling that it is the only alternative to the “corrupt” Egyptian regime, and that it will not hesitate to take revenge on those who collaborate with the regime or rival organizations.
ISIS-SP’s success in executing large-scale terror attacks across Egypt may strengthen its ability to bring militants into Egypt, and position itself as both the next center of the Islamic State and a hub for exporting terror. Egyptian authorities estimate that hundreds if not thousands of Islamic militants have already fled from Iraq and Syria, infiltrated Sinai, and joined ISIS-SP.
Though the Egyptian army will retaliate, the effort will only yield limited results and will most likely exacerbate the alienation of the population towards the Egyptian state, thus creating a downward spiral of terror.
Most of all, the situation in Sinai isn’t just a local problem. Imagine what could happen in global markets, if terrorists will threaten the Suez Canal. Three days ago, in a counter-terrorism summit in Riyadh, representatives from some 40 Muslim countries agreed to increase financial pressure on terror organizations and tighten intelligence cooperation.
Important as they may be, these measures are too little and too late. ISIS-SP’s recent achievements must be met with a more fundamental change, one that can only be backed by the U.S. and its regional allies. One such measure could be the establishment of a Saudi-led coalition, including the UAE and Jordan as well as Israel (as a silent partner), with deep American support.
With the current American administration’s determination to actively combat global radicalism and terrorism, the U.S. should be the driving force behind such innovative initiatives, which otherwise have slim chances of succeeding. If executed correctly and quickly, these measures can positively affect the global war on terror.
Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is a political science professor specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.