“[Multinational Force and Observers soldiers] are outgunned by the terrorists [Sinai Province or SP] right now, and it’s a dangerous mission,” said retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. “They [SP insurgents] have mortars and artillery that they have been firing on the base camps.”
The statement came after Defense Secretary Ash Carter formally notified Egypt and Israel that the United States was considering reconfiguring its mission in Sinai by increasing reliance on remote sensing technology and therefore was withdrawing US troops away from the restive North. The reason?
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It is Sinai Province. The organisation gave an oath of loyalty to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in November 2014.
“It is a situation there that has risk,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, referring to the Sinaian insurgency. The US saw “the risk” coming a while ago. In 2005, a senior Egyptian security official in Sinai told a US official delegation that the “only good Sinaian bedouin is the dead Sinaian bedouin”.
Cairo’s security policies
More than a decade ago, US security officials and other independent security experts warned that Cairo’s security policies in Sinai are both immoral and ineffective; more likely to aggravate an existing problem than resolve it.
The pulling of troops from the MFO owing to an insurgency is the first development of its kind since the peacekeepers were deployed in January 1982. The MFO is composed of about 1,700 soldiers and 200 employees from 13 countries, including 700 Americans. And the risk they face is real.
More than a decade ago, US security officials and other independent security experts warned that Cairo's security policies in Sinai are both immoral and ineffective...
SP is the strongest armed organisation in Egypt’s modern history, even compared to the insurgents of the 1950s and the 1990s. Like other IS provinces, SP publishes its military metrics both monthly and annually.
In January-February 2016 (corresponds to the Lunar month of Rabi’ Thani in the 1437 Hijri year), SP issued its monthly “harvest of military operations”, declaring the alleged destruction of 25 armoured vehicles (including tanks, minesweepers, and bulldozers) and the alleged killing of more than 100 soldiers.
According to SP, this was done via an overwhelming reliance on improvised explosive devices, or IEDs (59 percent of the operations), followed by guerilla attacks (20 percent), and then by snipers (12 percent).
The rest of the deaths were due to close-quarter assassinations of military/security commanders and informants (9 percent).
When it comes to targeting the MFO, there are some significant nuances that ought to be highlighted.
Since the brutal escalation of the military operations in Sinai in September 2013, about 90 percent of SP attacks targeted state security and military forces as well as alleged informants and tribesmen working for them.
Attacks on other targets such as Israel and tourists diminished significantly in quantity, but not necessity in the level of damage inflicted, as demonstrated by the case of Russian Metrojet Airbus.
The attacks on the MFO were also limited. About 10 were recorded since August 2005. Six of them were conducted by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines.
In some of these cases, it was unclear if the MFO was the actual target or not. In others, it was clear. In September 2012, armed militants stormed MFO’s North Camp, destroyed and took away equipment, and exchanged fire with the Forces, wounding four soldiers.
In June 2015, the MFO-operated El-Gora airport was attacked with a mortar shell and a Grad rocket. But compared to the intensity, complexity, and sustainability of the attacks on the regime’s military, the attacks on the MFO are relatively of low intensity.
The attacks on the regime’s forces usually feature sustained shelling, series of vehicle-born IEDs followed by small commando units cleansing what is left of the soldiers. This has not been SP’s modus operandi when it came to attacking the MFO.
This is a puzzle per se. ISIL suffered most of its casualities from US-led bombardment. The organisation and its predecessors were, and are still, in a brutal war with the United States in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. But the organisation’s Egyptian branch does not seem to prioritise attacking US military personnel, who are based in their main area of operations (Northeast Sinai).
Part of the explanation has to do with SP’s local calculations.
Recruitment and local legitimacy
“Locals take refuge near the MFO North Camp when the army starts its indiscriminate bombardment. If SP keeps on attacking the MFO, that safe haven will be gone in no time,” explains a local activist on condition of anonymity.
By doing that, SP wants to send a message to local Bedouins: “Unlike the army, we do care about your safety.”
For recruitment and local legitimacy, this strategy does not hurt. SP still needs to show loyalty to ISIL by attacking the MFO every now and then.
But, there is more to this saga. Earlier this month, two artillery shells landed in the gym of the MFO’s North Camp near El-Gora village at around 3am. Another mortar shell landed a few days later, destroyed a vehicle and injured a soldier.
The US was able to work out the coordinates of the source of the shelling and it turned out to be the positions of the regular army. Apparently, it was “friendly fire” or a mistake. But the list of mistakes committed by trigger-happy, legally immune and highly incompetent military is too long.
The victims and potential victims included Mexican tourists, the passengers of a British Thomson flight, and more recently the MFO. This in addition to thousands of Sinaians, and other Egyptians, whose tragic deaths rarely make international headlines.
Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.