Middle East

Egypt looks for answers after brutal Sinai attack

Egyptian army troops in Sheikh Zuweid, northern Sinai, Egypt (25 May 2015) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption At least 600 Egyptian security personnel have been killed in militant attacks since 2013

Although the full facts of the so-called "Islamic State" assault on the Egyptian army in Sinai this week are not yet known, it is clear that this was the most brutal attack so far.

There are a few provisos to be taken into consideration when reflecting on the attack.

The first is that, regrettably, much of what we claim to know about what's going on in the peninsula is based on speculation. The north of the peninsula, in contrast to the south where the tourist resorts are located, is very difficult to access.

The tourist areas in the south are well guarded by the state's security forces, but the north and north-east have been incredibly difficult for journalists and others to investigate.

Residents in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, in the north-east of the Sinai peninsula, however, have verified that there was a huge firefight between militants, presumed to be attached to‎ the so-called Sinai Province affiliate of IS,‎ and the security forces.

Dozens of heavily armed militants targeted a police facility, a military facility and a number of different checkpoints.

Before the conflict ended, with the military gradually taking control of the town, several dozen security officials from the army and the police were killed.

Civilians and the militants also suffered casualties - reports of landmines and booby traps by militants may also mean that the death count increases in the weeks to come.

Different force

There will be much speculation about how all of this was possible.

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Media captionEgyptian forces used fighter jets and attack helicopters in their fight against jihadists in the Sinai

But some things are clear. The first is that the people of Sinai, and in this instance, the 60,000 strong population of Sheikh Zuweid, are - as one expert on the peninsula put it - being taken hostage.

The conflict between the Egyptian military and the radical Islamist militants of "Sinai Province" affects not only those involved in the fighting - but the people of Sinai in general.

Security analysts in and out of Egypt seem to be approaching a consensus on one of the key facets of the conflict in the Sinai: and that is that the Egyptian military is treating the fight like traditional military combat.

According to a number of different sources, specific counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism methods and tactics are not being focused upon - and the equipment and training that the Egyptian armed forces is reported to follow show a similar tendency.

Different experts on the Egyptian military are clear that until a durable and regional peace deal between the Arab world and the Israelis is accomplished, the Egyptian military will not change the basic structure of its fighting force.

Yet, the Egyptian military needs a different force altogether in the Sinai to focus efforts on counter-terrorism.

Secondly, human rights groups and civil rights organisations - from what little information they have been able to gather via eyewitnesses on the ground - have also raised concerns that the tactics of the Egyptian military in Sinai have not been focused on gaining the trust and co-operation of the local population.

On the contrary, according to these reports many of the tactics have been heavy-handed, leading to resentment among the local population towards the very forces fighting the insurgents.

If these reports are accurate, and the effect is widespread, then the propensity for recruitment increases - and intelligence gathering against the militants will be adversely affected.

Already, it appears to be the case that Sinai Province members know the peninsula like the back of their proverbial hands - the forces combating them must as well, and that depends on good relations with the locals.

Worse still, if bad relations are the consequence of current tactics, then the Sinai Province group's shelf-life is dramatically lengthened.

Paying the price

If the Egyptian authorities are to successfully address the threat in the peninsula, there are two things that need to be done.

The first is to ensure that all tactics on the peninsula fit a broader, comprehensive counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy, which places addressing the grievances of the residents at its heart, and avoiding exacerbating them.

The existence of those grievances, which predate the conflict by some time, relate primarily to the overwhelming lack of development in the Sinai by the central authorities in Cairo, cannot be ignored. Such grievances do not automatically lead to successful radical recruitment - but it certainly makes the job of the recruiter easier.

Secondly, the Egyptian military needs to focus more on the need for strategic, tactical counter-terrorism equipment and training, rather than the more regular combat strategies that it has been relying on thus far.

If the last few days have shown anything, it is that the current strategy is not succeeding - and Egyptians are paying the price.

HA Hellyer is associate fellow in international security at the Royal United Services Institute in London and Arab affairs specialist at the Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington DC. @hahellyer