Despite its role as a critical partner for the U.S. in the global fight against terror, Egypt has struggled to quash an extremist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, which has had devastating effects on the country’s security apparatus and economic health. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has pledged to continue his strong counterterrorism campaign, but the government has yet to appeal to many in the Sinai who have felt disenfranchised by the Egyptian government’s lack of interest in the region. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Rob Richer, The Cipher Brief expert and former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA, to discuss Egypt’s ongoing terrorist campaign and the toll it has taken on the country’s economy.
The Cipher Brief: What is the threat level currently posed by ISIS’ affiliate in the Sinai as well as other militant groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula?
Rob Richer: That question is a little more complex than just ISIS or al Qaeda. There are a number of internal issues going on in Egypt, such as the way the Muslim Brotherhood was shut down under Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. That had to happen, but the Sisi-led government pushed literally millions of people on the ground to look towards extremism. So there are a number of issues at play.
Yes, ISIS is increasing activities there because they are finding, particularly in the Sinai, that the Egyptian presence is not as strong as it used to be. ISIS has also received tribal support because the tribes in the Sinai have often felt that the Cairo government has abandoned them and hasn’t devoted resources to them.
There is also al Qaeda who looks for anywhere to operate where there isn’t a strong U.S. presence, just to keep its credibility. That brings it to the Sinai and to parts of Egypt. There are also other frustrated extremist groups, tribes, and political groups that feel disenfranchised because of the type of leadership in Egypt. So there is a boiling pot of different groups who are using violence either because that is their modus operandi, or because they have no other opportunity.
In terms of the current threat level, there is not a week that goes by where there is not some incident where policemen or soldiers are killed, a bus is hijacked, or something has happening. I would say that the threshold there is significant. On a scale of one to five, it’s a four, basically saying that if you go into the Sinai, you go in there at your own risk.
The Cipher Brief: Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi campaigned on a strong counterterrorism platform. How effective has Sisi’s strategy been at countering terrorism in the country? Where can he improve?
Richer: The biggest improvement would be a threefold approach. First would be for Sisi to augment Egypt’s security and military posture in the Sinai, create fusion centers, put teams out there working with the local populous, and position a visible security presence particularly on the main roads.
Second would be developing infrastructure in the Sinai. Letting the people out there, particularly the Sunni tribes – who, as we saw in Iraq, supported ISIS because they felt disenfranchised by the Shia dominated government in Baghdad – feel as though they have been disenfranchised and abandoned by the Cairo government. So the second thing that needs to be done is to take quick and sincere steps to develop schools, infrastructure, water supply, and other similar things.
The third thing Sisi needs to do is to actually sit down with the tribal leaders. Overall, he needs to combine an increased security and intelligence presence with enhanced economic opportunity through development and investment so that the people out there don’t feel abandoned. He also needs to sit down with the tribal leaders, and that has not happened.
The Cipher Brief: What is the level of coordination on the counterterrorism front between Egypt and its neighbors, namely Jordan and Israel?
Richer: It’s excellent. Going back 20 years, these countries have had exceptional intelligence cooperation by necessity and also because of common interest. Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey coordinate quite strongly.
Egypt has experienced a downturn in tourism because of what is going on in the region, such as attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh as well as the aircraft that was taken down by an ISIS bomb in October 2015. It needs economic support, which means Cairo has to focus its resources internally, but Egypt also has a number of domestic security issues.
That said, Egypt’s intelligence and domestic security service are pretty good at ferreting out militants in the more modern and developed areas where they have support. They exchange information on a daily basis through their officers who are residents at foreign embassies. Egypt and Israel specifically have a pretty good venue for exchanging information.
The Cipher Brief: How has the presence of ISIS and militant groups in the Sinai impacted the threat level for Israel?
Richer: It’s an interesting question because Israel, which is generally very vocal when it believes it has concerns, seems to be much more focused on Iran and has not mentioned regional or nearby threats. To date, it has not expressed publicly, at least that I’m aware of, the fact that they are worried about what’s happening in their neighboring countries. Israel was worried with what was going on along the Syrian-Golan Heights border, but it handled that.
I don’t believe that Israel’s internal threat level in terms of ISIS or al Qaeda is significant, nor has it changed over the course of the last two years. Where that may change is if people in the Gaza Strip feel even more frustrated that they have no way ahead of them, and they turn to extremism. That may be ISIS by adoption as opposed to ISIS actually doing something – people carry out acts, and ISIS claims responsibility for it.
But internally, Israel has one of the best security services in the world. They are on top of things, and they really don’t have the populations internal to Israel of which these groups would develop support. The borders are also pretty tightly controlled.
The Cipher Brief: Militants in Egypt have often targeted the country’s Coptic Christian community. Could a further uptick in attacks on this minority spur significant ramifications?
Richer: The continued attacks against the Coptic Christian community in Egypt are going to have economic implications. Within the Egyptian middle class, a lot of the industries, such as textiles, are run by the Coptic Christians. Just like we saw in Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, when those areas had critical internal issues and the Christians came under persecution, they fled and took their resources with them. Egypt can’t afford that to happen. Egypt is a key exporter of cotton, textiles, and plastics, and if those industries shift out of the country, it is going to put thousands of people out of work, most of them Muslims. It will inevitably put greater strains on the internal situation and cause a further economic downturn.
Sisi is doing all he can to protect the Coptic churches and populations. He has to because they’ve been partners to him, and they’ve supported him against the Muslim Brotherhood. But he also needs them economically. So if an increase in those attacks were to take place, Sisi would deal with the perpetrators harshly and would do all he can to protect that population.
The Coptic leadership in Egypt has been supportive of Sisi and have said that the state is doing all it can to protect the Coptic community. So it would take a pretty drastic change in the level of attacks against them or an indication that they weren’t getting support from Sisi and the security services for things to really change on that front.
The Cipher Brief: Has Sisi been a reliable counterterrorism partner for the U.S. and the international community?
Richer: Yes. Egypt, except during that small period of time when former Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi was in charge, has traditionally been a reliable counterterrorism partner, and Sisi continues to be a reliable counterterrorism partner today. He’s doing what he can based on his capabilities by working against groups that are undermining other governments, whether it’s radical factions of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic action fronts.
In terms of the Sinai, think about what’s going on in Libya, Tunisia, many places throughout North Africa, and Chad where there are these remote areas where central governments don’t have an ability to project power. That’s where al Qaeda and ISIS are now taking hold because they can operate out there since those countries don’t have drone technology and lack the ability to conduct remote attacks. They don’t have the technology in the area.
That’s part of the issue for Sisi. He doesn’t have that. And he is also hindered by calls for better human rights, which sometimes restricts the foreign aid he receives. This makes it harder for him to do the job. In a way, some of the restrictions he is operating on are contrary to what our president is saying right now, about how we are not nation-building or changing nations in our image. It’s protecting our partners who are reliable in the war against terror. In that regard, Egypt and Sisi have been reliable.