Prior to 2011 and the events that transpired after the Arab Spring, the Sinai Peninsula was mainly known as an Egyptian hot spot for tourism. Six years later, the area, once popular for its biblical history, rich coral reefs and trendy hotels makes headlines as the hotbed for the Islamic State terror.
Constant clashes between the militants and government forces made the U.S. Department of State declare parts of Egypt a safe haven for terrorist organizations.
“For most of the year, the situation in Sinai continued as a low-grade armed conflict involving forces linked to external terrorist movements and those with longstanding local grievances,” the department said in its latest terrorism report for 2016.
The dangerous situation in the region forced the U.S. to seek ways to assist the Egyptian authorities with securing the country.
In October, US Central Command (CENTCOM) head Gen. Joseph Votel said the U.S. military had started training Egyptian forces to enhance their ability to deter ISIS attacks in the Sinai.
During a visit to Cairo in February, the general also stated that Washington was looking to resume military exercises with Egypt. Former President Barack Obama scrapped the drills with the Arab nation in 2013 over a crackdown on protesters in the country.
CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. Josh Jacques told The Globe Post the command does not discuss specifically each engagement with nations in the region but noted that joint activities usually include combined exercises, security assistance, combined training and education, military contacts and humanitarian assistance.
“This level of activity mandates maintaining access to facilities and building strong relationships with regional leaders,” he said. “Exercises include training at all levels, from company small unit tactics to large-scale multi-national exercises.”
Despite boosted levels of engagement, the U.S. efforts have produced only modest results so far. The State Department’s terrorism report, released earlier this month, painted a gruesome picture.
Aiming to defeat ISIS, the U.S. has supplied Egypt with Apache helicopters, mine-resistant vehicles, mobile sensor towers and provided counter-improvised explosive devices training. In addition, Washington worked with Cairo to enhance the country’s border security capabilities, but the situation remained complex.
“The Egyptian army has increased combat operations in northeastern Sinai but was not able to defeat fewer than 1000 ISIL-Sinai Province (ISIL-SP) fighters,” the report said.
Professor James Gelvin from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told The Globe Post there are two main problems with the way Egypt approaches the issue of terrorism in the Sinai: deliberate misrepresentation of the nature of the conflict and lack of equipment suitable for the needed counterinsurgency campaign.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “defines the conflict as part of the Global War on Terrorism, in large measure because that justifies his rule and his harsh repression. It also paints with those who are committing acts of violence and those who support them with the same brush. In fact, the Egyptians are fighting an insurgency,” Mr. Gelvin said.
A smart counterinsurgency strategy would address issues that allow ISIS to find a safe haven in the Sinai, he noted, adding that the wretched state of the Egyptian economy as a whole, along with the overall lack of good governance, would make it difficult to do, if not impossible.
Another issue with the Egyptian approach to the Sinai problem is tied to the lack of appropriate military equipment.
“For years the Egyptian army has bought the sexiest force-on-force military equipment from the United States – much to the dismay of many in the Pentagon,” Mr. Gelvin stated.
The sort of equipment the Egyptians currently have is useful for fighting a conventional war, he explained, but since the Egyptians have a peace treaty with its only possible opponent – Israel – there is little likelihood that equipment will be used.
The UCLA professor highlighted that the Americans have wanted the Egyptians to move toward a military posture that is more suitable for fighting the sort of threat the Egyptians are currently facing.
“Ordinarily, I would say it is unlikely the United States will get further involved, but given the unpredictability of the current administration in Washington nothing can be taken off the table,” Mr. Gelvin concluded.
US President Donald J. Trump met Mr. Sisi for the first time in April and declared that Egypt and its leader have a great ally in the U.S.
“We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt,” Mr. Trump said. “And the United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.”
Max Abrahms, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, told The Globe Post that since Mr. Trump likes his Egyptian counterpart that could result in more cooperation for a number of reasons.
“Sisi is helping to fight ISIS and ISIS is decentralizing away from its stronghold of Iraq and Syria. Trump is not only quite hawkish against ISIS, but he’s very pro-Israel and Sisi is also an Israel ally,” he said.
Mr. Abrahms noted that continuous ISIS attacks in the Sinai are not necessarily an indication of incompetent government response.
“Terrorism is very difficult to stop because it’s so easy to perpetrate. ISIS terrorists are happy to kill pretty much anyone and are prepared to die,” he concluded, adding that the Sinai is teeming with terrorists and Mr. Sisi would have troubles in that area regardless of the response.
On July 19, the State Department issued a travel warning for Egypt. The note said terror attacks could happen anywhere in the country. U.S. diplomatic mission personnel are currently prohibited from traveling to the Western Desert and the Sinai Peninsula for security reasons.