On May 7, days after Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi claimed terrorism was on the brink of eradication in Sinai, Islamic State in Sinai Province (ISSP) carried out the largest terrorist attack in Egypt since July 2020 (Masrawy, April 26). ISSP militants killed eleven Egyptian soldiers and wounded at least five others at a military checkpoint near a water pumping facility in Ismaili province (Egyptian Army, May 7). While ISSP capabilities in Sinai have decreased over recent years amid tribal militia and military operations, the attack highlights the unrealistic nature of al-Sisi’s claims.
Throughout 2022, ISSP militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula has been constant. The militants’ main theatre of operations around Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Bir al-Abd have seen regular assaults, sniping, and IED attacks on military and tribal militia positions.  Moreover, soldiers and locals suspected of collaborating with the military have been kidnapped or assassinated (The New Arab, April 2). Attacks on energy infrastructure have also been frequent, with two attempted bombings of a natural gas pipeline in Bir al-Abd in April alone (Arabi21, May 1).
Despite al-Sisi’s optimism, the authorities do not seem to be preparing for any imminent triumph over ISSP. Toward the end of 2021, Israel even assented to an Egyptian request to increase the number of Egyptian troops deployed to the Sinai (Al-Monitor, November 9, 2021). Furthermore, in April, a Presidential Decree extended the ongoing state of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula for a further six months, when additional security measures were imposed, including curfews, entry bans on certain areas, and a prohibition of the use of motorbikes (Sharq al-Awsat, April 4).
Reduced ISSP Capabilities Post-2018
While al-Sisi’s claims are overstated, the scale of the ISSP insurgency has declined significantly since 2018. In the four years following the start of the insurgency in 2014, ISSP had managed to shoot down civilian and military aircraft and launch regular complex attacks on civilian and military positions (Al-Jazeera, July 16 2015). However, the insurgency, while persistent, has since become increasingly small-scale, with the majority of attacks only resulting in single fatalities or casualties. Additionally, since 2020, ISSP has rarely been able to operate outside of the North Sinai Governorate. It is no surprise that the May 7 attack gained substantial international media coverage, given the unusually high number of fatalities and the attack’s location outside of ISSP’s usual area of operations.
Egypt’s success in degrading ISSP capabilities results from two factors: the 2018 Comprehensive Operation Sinai and the increased participation of tribal militias in counter-ISSP operations. Egypt’s initial response to the insurgency could aptly be described as a scorched earth policy. The 2014 creation of a militarized buffer zone along the Israeli border saw the destruction of thousands of homes. Mass evictions, demolitions of farmland and homes, arbitrary arrests and even executions became a common tactic throughout large swathes of the North Sinai Governorate.  In total, nearly a quarter of North Sinai’s 450,000 residents left the region. The Comprehensive Operation Sinai, in contrast, saw more effective channeling of Egyptian brute force. The operation, which came after the Rawda Mosque attack in late 2017 that killed over 300 civilians, targeted ISSP supply lines with checkpoints established on all major roads linking towns and cities throughout the peninsula.  While the operation made civilian life extremely difficult, with supplies of food and essential goods at times limited, ISSP militants were starved into surrendering and the group’s capacity to import arms and explosives was significantly reduced (Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2021).
In counter-ISSP operations, the increased participation of tribal militias, such as the Sinai Tribal Union (STU), helped the military benefit from its local geographic knowledge (al-Monitor, January 3). The normalization of Bedouin collaboration with the military also increased effective human intelligence networks. From 2020 onwards, enticed by economic incentives and encouraged by government promises of redeveloping the region after ISSP’s defeat, more and more tribe members joined pro-military tribal combat units. Now in 2022, tribal militias have taken a lead role in recapturing territory lost to ISSP. In what the STU calls “cleansing operations,” the STU has recaptured villages, such as Sabat, Mozahlef, Mahdia and Moqatta, that had been controlled by ISSP for years (Madamasr, May 24).
Faced with an increasingly hostile local environment and gradually losing territorial control as a result, ISSP has increased operations aimed at deterring local collaboration with the military and anti-ISSP tribal militias. Kidnappings and assassinations of STU militants and their families have occurred on a near-weekly basis since March (The New Arab, April 2). Meanwhile, ISSP social media campaigns aimed at portraying those collaborating with the military as anti-Islamic have also increased. ISSP, through associated media outlets, has described the STU and other pro-military tribal militias as “Mossad groups,” alleging that they collaborate with Israel. ISSP will also likely seek to use the May 7 attack to aid recruitment. The attack’s location outside of ISSP’s usual operational hub in an area only roughly 30 kilometers east of the Suez Canal highlights the group’s relevancy and capabilities despite its current difficulties.
While the Egyptian military’s increased reliance on tribal militias to combat ISSP has been largely successful, the Egyptian government will have to redevelop the peninsula’s infrastructure and regenerate the local economy if it wants to avoid future instability in North Sinai. The fighting has devastated the local economy, which relied on tourism and farming before the insurgency. With economic opportunities stripped away, many have turned toward to fighting in government-aligned militias as one of the sole economic opportunities available. The slow return of displaced residents and the newly announced state agricultural and residential development plans both highlight the government’s intent to support the tribal community (Madamasr, January 20).
However, the extension of curfew measures and increased troop deployments to the peninsula suggest that normal civilian life is not expected to resume anytime soon. The longer emergency rule in the peninsula continues, the longer tribal communities will be forced to rely on militancy for subsistence, and the harder eventual reintegration into the economy will become. Even if ISSP is eradicated from the peninsula, so long as post-insurgency life does not recover economically, the local population will remain just as marginalized and disaffected as in the pre-insurgency period. This time, the only difference will be that the population will be significantly more armed, militant, traumatized, and hostile to the state. This, in turn, would benefit any potential ISSP revival.