If 2013 revealed any lessons for the Egyptian leadership struggling to halt the violence gripping the Sinai and the Israeli government hoping its southern border does not descend into another jihadist magnate, it was that the current Egyptian ‘War on Terror’ is not working. The heart of the problem however does not lie within the realm of military tactics or fine tuning intelligence gathering, but is rather embedded in Egypt’s decision to succumb to the dominant War on Terror narrative. By framing the Sinai this way, the Egyptian response, with Israel’s support, has essentially internationalized what is at its heart an Egyptian affair.
It should not come as any surprise that the violence in the Sinai has been largely defined through this all too familiar post 9/11 security narrative. A cursory glance at some of the media releases coming from organisations such as Ansar Jerusalem, or Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, one of the most active jihadist groups operating in the Sinai, definitely lends merit to the view that Al Qaeda sympathizers have found fertile ground in the Sinai with which to take up their struggle. Ansar Jerusalem, which publishes its media through Al Qaeda’s official media forum, Al Fajr Media Centre, and whose fighters have been known to fly Al Qaeda’s black flag, have been instrumental in releasing a steady flow of media urging its sympathizers to take up arms against the Egyptian state and defeat what they view as attempts by Egyptian authorities to impose Western and Jewish influenced control over Egyptian Muslims. Furthermore, reports by Israeli intelligence have also suggested that Ansar Jerusalem has been linking up with the Muhammad Jamal Network, another jihadist organisation that has been spending Al Qaeda funds on building training camps in Egypt and Libya.
While perhaps understandable given these definite jihadist footprints, the Egyptian decision to launch its own War on Terror in the Sinai is still nevertheless improperly focused. Security narratives, such as the War on Terror, are essentially stories that provide a lens through which to interpret events and shape behaviour. By their nature they are simplistic versions of complex phenomena that emphasize events that support their validity, while downplaying those that do not. For the War on Terror, the emphasis has squarely been on defeating Al Qaeda, and since Afghanistan and Iraq, its network of sympathizers. Guided by the transnational threat posed by Al Qaeda and its adherents, conflicts involving disenchanted Muslim communities have now been elevated from existing as local affairs driven and sustained by local issues with local agenda’s, to now constituting as a vulnerability through which Al Qaeda and its network are able to exploit and co-opt into their global insurgency. And as Sinai’s recent history attests to, the region has not escaped this desire by jihadists. Seeking to capitalize on the security vacuum that emerged during Egypt’s post revolution turbulence, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Egyptian Islamic Jihad veteran, Mohamed Jamel al-Kashif have stated that the Sinai is “the next frontier of conflict with the Zionists and Americans”.
Yet, despite these threats from Al Qaeda and its believers, by connecting the global ideology of Al Qaeda and its network of organisations and sympathizers to local Muslim disenchantment, the War on Terror narrative has effectively downplayed the significance local grievances play in perpetuating conflict. Bedouin resentment, which has been decades in the making due to discrimination from Cairo, the absence of real employment options and any desire to provide services to the region, has resulted not only in a Bedouin population particularly vulnerable to jihadist propaganda, but one unhappy with the status quo and willing to take up arms to change it. Responses in the Sinai that are therefore founded on the belief that every Muslim conflict exists as part of a global insurgency are therefore inevitably going to be improperly focused and in the long run ineffective. The Egyptian response so far has followed this script well by focusing purely on defeating terrorists and dismantling terrorist networks while largely, if not entirely, ignoring Bedouin resentment that has been at the heart of Sinai’s troubles.
If Egypt and Israel both hope to see the Sinai situation defused, both must elevate the local grievances giving Sinai’ inhabitants cause to fight to the level they requires and not simply default to the standard narrative that has come to define our age. While organisations such as Ansar Jerusalem make such a move appear seemingly more risky, Ansar Jerusalem is only able to operate on the backs of Bedouin resentment; resentment that has everything to do with Egypt and less to do with Al Qaeda’s push for global insurgency.