Egyptian Military Strategy Against ISIS From 2018 to 2021
• Combat strategy and the Sinai 2018 OP
• Unit level tactics
• The impact of the operation
• ISIS Sinai behavior before and after the operation
• Egyptian government “Dual Strategy”
The Rawda mosque attack in Sinai that took place on 24 November 2017 had huge implications on the ISIS branch in Sinai, both internally and externally. The attack, which was on civilians in a mosque during their prayer in Al Rawda village in Sinai, created an internal wedge in ISIS and a wave of mutiny that caused some of the most senior leaders in ISIS Sinai to surrender themselves to the Egyptian military checkpoints, in addition to other non-senior members who continued to surrender themselves to the Egyptian military over the next 4 years.
The attack also had a huge external impact on ISIS Sinai, as it prompted the Egyptian military to start its largest operation to date against ISIS and maintain the largest Egyptian military presence in Sinai since the Yom Kippur War.
Combat Strategy of the Sinai 2018 Operation
The Egyptian military had started a number of operations from 2012 to 2017 to combat ISIS (the group formerly known as “Ansar Bait el Maqdis” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014), however, these operations were limited in scope, with the main aim of uprooting ISIS’ local presence in some areas, residential areas or farms in specific areas in northern Sinai as well as hostage rescue.
These operations included ‘Operation Eagle’ which took place starting late August 2011, then ‘Operation Sinai’ again in May 2013 and then the ‘Martyr’s Right Operation’ in 2016.
These ops were scheduled to take place for a specific time period, achieve a clear small set of objectives then the troops would return to their bases/checkpoints, that remained in motion, achieving the desired results of slowly exhausting the manpower of ISIS, and disrupting any large presence.
However, that also caused ISIS Sinai to look for weak points and retaliate in Egypt and later on in Sinai only and benefit not only by seizing any ammo and supplies available, but also proven via their propaganda (ex. Amaq) that they are scoring victories. These videos have also proven to be essential for ISIS in terms of recruitment.
The “Operation Sinai 2018” also known as “Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018” was a rather novel strategy applied by the Egyptian military. The operation relied primarily on focusing the scope of targets on warehouses, underground storage facilities and the ISIS Sinai logistical supply network, most of which relied on underground tunnels.
During this operation, drone surveillance and airstrikes were relied upon extensively. The main focus was attacking pre-planned targets, with information that was obtained by the Egyptian military through various sources, including reconnaissance operations and a robust information network that was built through cooperation with the population in Sinai and the Sinai Tribes Union (STU).
The extensive aerial surveillance and airstrikes focused primarily on any storages, vehicles and motorcycles that ISIS Sinai maintained in the area and killing high-level ISIS leaders, with a specific focus on targeting Egyptian police officers who defected and joined ISIS.
Picture of the Egyptian Police-Central Security Forces that joined ISIS.
Unit Level Tactics and Coordination
The OP Sinai 2018 witnessed the systemic upgrade and replacement of weaponry and tactics against ISIS Sinai, in addition to incorporating more all-volunteer special forces to participate in the operation and relying on extensive drone use (of various types) for different purposes, which included:
• Advanced reconnaissance for ground patrols
• Providing extended period of surveillance
• Conducting airstrikes on pre-determined targets
The drones that were heavily incorporated in the OP Sinai 2018 included:
• Wing Loong
• RQ-20 Puma
During OP Sinai 2018, great emphasis was placed on countering the IED threat. This was incorporated into Patrols, in a systemic manner, unlike previous military operations. Countering IEDs included attaching to patrols:
• Husky VMMD
• Forward military EOD teams (Explosive Ordnance Disposal)
• Mine protection upgrades for the M-60A3
A lot of emphasis was placed on the structure of Egyptian patrols, M-60A3 tanks were further equipped with mine protection upgrades, vehicle spacing, and systematically replacing IED prone vehicles like the Fahd and Humvees in patrols with MRAPs. In addition, MRAPs were equipped with jammers to prevent radio-controlled improvised explosive devices (RCIED).
A standard military patrol prior to OP Sinai 2018 (before 2016) would primarily rely on Fahd, Humvees and M113.
In OP Sinai 2018, the Humvees were mostly replaced by Nimr vehicles, and the Fahd was replaced by MRAPs. In addition, using RQ-20 Puma for surveillance around the patrols and also dealing with ISIS motorcycles. ISIS motorcycles would usually drop roadside IEDs before the arrival of patrols.
It’s important to highlight the flexible Egyptian procurement strategy that helped in combatting the inadequacy of equipment. The Egyptian military was able to procure thousands of MRAPs and partake in various indigenous projects, like the Timsah MRAP family and make partnerships with other companies such as IMUT and the ST MRAPs family that’s scheduled to enter service later next year, having already gone through field trials.
Comparison between the Fahd and IMUT MRAP ST-500
An Egyptian Patrol before and During Operation Sinai 2018.
During Operation Sinai 2018, the coordination between the Egyptian Air Force and the army was enhanced significantly, and during operations, jets would be called to provide air support in no time, unlike prior to 2018.
The impact appeared more during the period where Egyptian military positions repelled large ISIS attacks and conducted successful counterattacks and mop-up operations, partially thanks to quick aerial support, plus.
The protection levels of Egyptian checkpoints and perimeters were increased, including the introduction of HESCO barriers, and more TOW launchers were incorporated into checkpoints to counter vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs).
Special forces were also incorporated into patrols, in increased numbers, this helped to maintain a standard of capabilities regarding the task groups, something that was missing during the previous operations, which relied more on rigid, fixed patrols.
Egyptian personnel deployed into Sinai were given educational courses by NCOs and officers before deployment to enhance their capabilities, plus, during the mid-stages of OP Sinai 2018, personnel also began receiving extensive first aid training and EOD training to assist with the situational behavior.
The Impact of the Operation
During the OP Sinai 2018, specific operations and raids were conducted by the Egyptian military on specific warehouses belonging to ISIS led to the disrupting of the logistical networks and capturing items utilized by the ISIS Sinai.
These small warehouses mostly included various weaponry of different calibers, explosives, electrical circuits used in the building of IEDs, plus, motorbikes, vehicles, solar panels and satellite comms and in some cases, tunnel networks would be discovered below.
Pictures highlighting an example of what was captured during one of the raids during the Sinai OP 2018.
Operation Sinai 2018 also witnessed the wiping off of the entire ISIS Sinai upper echelon and most of the veterans that had been joined the ranks since 2013.
These included Abu Ossama el Masri, the de-facto leader of ISIS at that time and one of the founders of Ansar Bait el Maqdis, which was the group formed before ISIS, then later swore allegiance and rebranded as the ISIS branch in Sinai, and Nasser Abu Zakoul, one of the main ISIS leaders, who was already on the wanted list for participating in various terrorist attacks, including the Taba Explosions that took place in 2004.
One of the often-ignored aspects of the OP Sinai 2018 (Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018) was sealing off the smuggling operations, both through Gaza and from Libya, through both land and sea routes. This is also what differentiated OP Sinai 2018 from any other operation: it was comprehensive and made to sustain a large presence, a long continuum of operations.
This move proved to be crucial in shutting down any sources of supply that were available to ISIS Sinai. Which relied primarily upon:
• Ghaneema (weapons taken from the Egyptian military after an attack)
• Weapons bought through smugglers
Not to mention the fact that, during the OP Sinai 2018, both defensive and offensive operations were intensified, which included doubling the number of checkpoints, reinforcing numbers, and the defensive points. This also prevented ISIS from gaining any supplies. This limited any presence ISIS had in regard to main roads in northern Sinai where, prior to 2018, ISIS fighters would show up, make footage of them setting up checkpoints and then leave.
This led to a severe deterioration of the state of the ISIS fighter, which after the OP Sinai 2018, lacked a lot of weaponry and vehicles that he enjoyed in abundance before, it was visible in the personal kit of the ISIS fighters. Upon analysis, it would show that, prior to 2018, ISIS fighters not only were able to inflict casualties but were better armed and better trained compared to their post-OP 2018 counterparts.
The starvation of ISIS Sinai, in terms of both food, supplies and ammo proved to be crucial in dismantling ISIS Sinai, not just defeating it militarily. The harsh living conditions due to this siege, the inability to properly retaliate, in addition to the religious/moral wedge caused by the Radwa mosque attack on the 24th of November 2017, led to wave after wave of mutiny.
Those who surrendered eventually supplied the military with highly valuable information.
The impact of the operation Sinai 2018 was also reflected in the statistics of the attacks committed by ISIS in both Sinai and mainland Egypt.
Estimated Number of Terrorist Attacks in Egypt (Both ISIS and Non-ISIS Affiliated Groups):
Estimated Ratio of the Attacks Compared to the Previous Year:
ISIS Sinai Behavior Before and After Operation Sinai 2018
During 2013-2017, ISIS Sinai attacked Egyptian checkpoints periodically, with the attacks mostly repelled, however, these attacks also did inflict casualties and highlight fragilities in the defense strategy of the Egyptian military, despite the casualties inflicted upon ISIS Sinai.
From 2013-2015, ISIS Sinai was still gaining a foothold in Sinai, and it was in 2014 that they suffered setbacks. It’s essential to point that ISIS Sinai never managed to hold any region nor maintain control over specific areas, except they would openly exist in some civilian areas in northern Rafah, which prompted the civilians to cooperate with the Egyptian military, through giving information.
ISIS Sinai’s January 2015 attack was their first and final attempt for the group to try and seize ground, replicating the same stratagem used in Syria and Iraq, however, that attempt prove to be a catastrophe for the group, who failed to seize areas and lost almost all of the attackers.
ISIS Sinai realized that seizing grounds would be almost impossible, given the large numbers of military checkpoints in northern Sinai, the manpower and the inability to maintain any holdings due to airstrikes, and it was after that period that ISIS fully shifted its behavior from a hybrid strategy aiming to both act on a guerilla warfare-like basis and seize grounds to a full guerilla/insurgent like strategy.
The attacks were very similar and often replicated over a broad period of time and would stick mostly to vehicle-borne IEDs for an initial shock/damage against the main defensive buildings then swarm the locations.
However, after Operation Sinai 2018, ISIS Sinai eventually remained on the defensive, with attacks being mainly sniper attacks and roadside IEDs, these attacks were also limited to Egyptian military patrols.
Egyptian Government “Dual Strategy”
In many cases, ISIS and other terrorist groups would try and capitalize on weak central governance to prove to be an alternative and hence be able to gain segments of the local population then eventually hold grounds.
This proved to be impossible to replicate in the Sinai, first due to the inability to hold any grounds and the Egyptian government’s “dual strategy”, fully secured areas in the Sinai, would, in short notice, be planned for an implementation of an infrastructure project, which pressured ISIS Sinai for a period of time to attempt to disrupt these projects.
It’s obvious that Operation Sinai 2018 managed to neutralize the bulk of threats posed by ISIS Sinai, which paved the way for the Egyptian government to pursue infrastructure and massive development projects in Sinai. After the initial request of asking the residents to leave some of the areas in northern Rafah, the new Bedouin settlements in Sinai, water desalination plants and healthcare projects being pursued by the government, helped increase the presence of the central governance in Sinai, filling any potential gaps that would have been used by ISIS Sinai.
Around EGP 600 billion has been spent on development, construction, and reconstruction projects in Sinai since 2014, according to a report issued by the cabinet. The third-year plan (2020/2021) of the medium-term plan for sustainable development revealed a total of L.E. 8.22 billion of government investments during the current fiscal year of 2020-2021 to develop both North and South Sinai governorates.
The Major Infrastructure Projects by the Government in Sinai:
• The Ismailia and Port Said tunnels
• Upgrade of Arish & Maleiz military airports in Sinai
• 11 integrated residential agricultural development clusters, the new city of Rafah.
• St. Catherine Hospital and Rowaysat Medical Centre,
• Tens of water desalination plants
• The largest wastewater treatment plant in the world, Bahr el Baqr — this water will be transferred to the lands of North Sinai to contribute to the reclamation of 400,000 feddans as part of the national project to develop Sinai and enhance the optimal use of the state’s water resources.
“Populating Sinai is central to Egypt’s national security objectives, and the main pushing power for this is the National Project for Developing Sinai, one of the first initiatives launched by President Al-Sisi following his election in 2014,” said the Egyptian PM.
Major General Ihab Al-Far, head of the Armed Forces’ Engineering Organization, said that “the Armed Forces are participating in developing Sinai through two kinds of projects: building 34 seawater desalination stations to produce 442 million cubic metres of drinking water to meet the needs of the population of Sinai, and constructing 36 wastewater treatment stations to process 473 million cubic metres per year of water to irrigate agricultural lands.
Other Economic Projects in the Sinai Included:
• The marble factory in North Sinai
• Foam production plant in Lake Bardawil
• Ice production plant in Lake Bardawil
• Reclamation of 15,000 acres in Bir al-Abd
• Abo el Golood water station: its components are 3 surface wells, desalination unit and reservoirs.
• Desalination plants in the Masa’eed neighborhood
• Desalination plants in Lake Bardawil
• Desalination plants in Ras el Malaab area
• King Salman University
• El Tor Port development
• Taba desalination plants
• Development of Nuweiba seaport
• El Tor city desalination station
• Nabak Desalination plant
• Abu Gherdak solar power station
• Nuweiba and Dahab desalination plants