The terrorist attack on a mosque in the North Sinai village of Rawda in Egypt last week was shocking in the scale of its violence. In an operation that appears to have been carefully planned, militants armed with machine guns killed over 300 people. The attack represents a worrying escalation in the tactics used by militants in North Sinai. It also highlights the extraordinary ineffectiveness of Egypt’s counterterrorist strategy in the region.
According to the Egyptian journalist Mohannad Sabry, one of the few outside observers to have spent much time in North Sinai, both Rawda and the nearby town of Bir al-Abd are “surrounded by military encampments on all sides”. Moreover, the target of the attack was hardly a surprise. The Rawda mosque is associated with a Sufi order. The Islamic State group (ISIS) has regularly described Sufis as heretics, and the local ISIS branch, known as Sinai Province, which seems likely to have carried out the massacre, has targeted Sufi religious leaders in the area in the past. According to news reports, the group has also issued threats against Sufis outside Rawda in recent weeks.
Despite all this, the militants were able to mount a complex attack in which they killed worshippers in the mosque and outside, calmly executed many of the wounded, and ambushing emergency vehicles that arrived on the scene. According to witnesses, the onslaught continued for more than 20 minutes before security forces arrived to confront the attackers. Egyptian security officials regularly claim to be notching up successes against the Sinai branch of ISIS, but this attack suggests such claims are hollow.
Researchers have documented a pattern of indiscriminate round-ups, the razing of entire villages, and extrajudicial execution
The group is estimated to have no more than a thousand members, against a heavy deployment of Egyptian military forces in the Sinai. Indeed, the army claims to have killed three thousand of the group’s fighters during the time the group has been active, yet there has been no discernable impact on the militants’ ability to operate. The Rawda attack is only the latest evidence that Sinai Province remains able to conduct complex operations in North Sinai in broad daylight with little apparent obstacle.
President Sisi has responded predictably to the attack, vowing revenge against those responsible and promising to “restore security and stability with the utmost force”. Yet force has not been lacking in Egypt’s approach to North Sinai so far. Researchers who have investigated the conduct of Egypt’s operations in the area have documented a pattern of indiscriminate round-ups, the razing of entire villages, and extrajudicial execution of suspected militants. Instead, the missing element of Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy has been the use of intelligence and local knowledge to precisely target Sinai Province’s members.
Egypt’s leadership likes to present itself as a valuable partner in counterterrorism for Europe and the United States. Yet Western security officials who have tried to work with Egypt describe a frustrating partnership. These officials say that their Egyptian counterparts display no interest in developing a more focused counterinsurgency approach or obtaining equipment relevant to such a campaign. Instead the Egyptian army prefers to spend its resources on more glamorous, big-ticket items like aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and tanks. The army used warplanes after the Rawda attack to destroy what it claimed were the vehicles used to carry out the massacre.
It may be that Sisi has felt up to now that he can live with a persistent level of terrorist activity in North Sinai as long as it is contained in that remote region. The regime’s reputation and Egypt’s economy are more threatened by attacks in southern Sinai, because of its importance for tourism, and in mainland Egypt. The recent ambush in the western desert that killed an estimated 50 policemen was a major blow to the regime and led to the reassignment of the military chief of staff. The regime has also been persistently focused on the danger of militant activity spilling over from neighbouring Libya.
It is sometimes said that the regime’s heavy-handed approach in North Sinai risks driving the population into the arms of Sinai Province. In the case of the Rawda attack, however, the ferocity of the attack suggests little interest among those responsible in winning local support. Instead, the greatest risk is that the population of North Sinai will feel alienated and abandoned both by the regime and the militants, without the trust in Egypt’s security forces that would allow it to readily pass on information.
For European countries, this latest tragic incident should serve as another reminder that Egypt’s approach to counterterrorism remains very distant from anything that the European Union would recognise. In its overly broad definition of terrorism, its violation of human rights, and its pursuit of a bluntly destructive response, Egypt’s government is not currently a constructive partner for the West in fighting violent extremism. Without a fundamental change in Egypt’s approach, the EU and its member states should scale back their expectations and rhetorical endorsement of Cairo’s flawed counterterrorism approach.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.