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November 26, 2017

Tragedy in Sinai


November 26, 2017

Egypt has largely escaped global attention amidst all the chaos in the Middle East. The country’s struggle with terrorism has gone unnoticed. But on Friday, the northern Sinai region saw one of the deadliest organised terrorist attacks – with almost 300 worshippers brutally killed in a mosque during a combined bomb and gun assault. First, a bomb explored in the mosque at the time of the Friday prayers. Then, at least 20 attackers dismounted from four off-road vehicles and opened fire on those fleeing the scene. It was carnage the likes of which Egypt has not seen before. The slow build up of terrorist groups inside Egyptian soil had obviously escaped global attention. Although no group has as yet claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, suspicions point to IS affiliates particularly Wilayat al-Sinai (the Governorate of Sinai). The trouble is that calling groups IS proxies tends to mask over a range of local factors that create them, and also differentiate them from IS. Moreover, IS remains a diffused group of actors claiming to act together, but with little coordination. If terrorism is to be tackled, it cannot be done without tackling the local factors that provide a recruiting ground for terrorist groups.

In Egypt, it is important to remember that the rise of terrorism follows after the military coup that followed the Arab Spring. The elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood was removed by El-Sisi and the group was declared a ‘terrorist outfit.’ This was not based in reality. If anything, the Muslim Brotherhood had participated in the elections and been able to form government. The state repression against the group is providing a recruiting ground for would-be terrorists. The same people could have been integrated into a democratic process. The other thing to notice is that the attack was followed by a knee-jerk decision by the Egyptian army to use fighter jets to pound the mountains in North Sinai. It is illogical – or arguably even criminal – that the Egyptian state was sitting on actionable intelligence of a terrorist attack and waited till it after the carnage to take action against the groups responsible. The Sinai region has been in a state of emergency since 2014. The          Friday attack confirms the current strategy is not working. If anything, extremist groups are only becoming stronger in their capacity to orchestrate deadly attacks. A re-think of how to fight terrorism is needed – but not just in Egypt.

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