President Trump declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defeated in December 2018. But the loss of its territorial “Caliphate” is only part of the longer struggle. ISIS remnants are still active in liberated areas of Iraq and Syria, and ISIS affiliates from West Africa to Southeast Asia continue operations apace. In the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, recent evidence suggests ISIS attacks are actually becoming more deadly.
In November 2017, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi ordered his defense chief to destroy the ISIS affiliate in the country’s Sinai Peninsula. Three months later, the Egyptian military launched Operation SINAI 2018.
ISIS-Sinai is one of the more proficient ISIS affiliates and has fought a drawn-out insurgency against Egypt — a major U.S. ally — for years. The area in which it primarily operates, the northeast corner of the Sinai Peninsula, also borders on Israel, another significant U.S. ally. For these reasons, diminishing the ISIS-Sinai threat is a U.S. national security objective.
Unfortunately, it’s not going well. Egypt’s Operation SINAI 2018 continues — though that name is no longer used, so as not to remind anyone that the goal was to defeat ISIS-Sinai in three months. Halfway through 2019, ISIS-Sinai violence has been worse than in last half of 2018, and the trend continues to head in the wrong direction.
This analysis is based on ISIS’s figures, which the group has published since July 2018. These are obviously biased numbers, but the global terrorist group’s standardization of its weekly reporting of 1) number of attacks and 2) number of casualties makes it possible to identify trends, even if the numbers come from ISIS itself.
By its own counting, ISIS-Sinai killed or injured nearly 300 Egyptians from January to June 2019. The vast majority of these casualties are police and soldiers. A smaller number are fighters in militia the military has organized to fight the insurgents. The remainder are what ISIS calls “spies” or “collaborators”: locals who are — or at least are accused of — working with the state.
From the last quarter of 2018 to the second quarter of 2019, the number of claimed ISIS-Sinai attacks actually decreased by a quarter, from 81 to 60. But the number of alleged casualties grew to almost two-and-a-half times larger, from 80 to 196, pointing to a change in the type, target, and size of ISIS-Sinai attacks this year.
In the second half of 2018, ISIS-Sinai’s primary method of attack was detonating roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to target Egyptian security forces. In recent years, the Egyptian military has adapted to this tactic by obtaining and operating more mine-resistant vehicles. This meant that when vehicles hit IEDs, the soldiers inside were less likely to be harmed. Attacks targeting individuals were also smaller — either planned to be smaller or simply less successful. From October through December 2018, number of declared casualties (80) was less than the number of declared attacks (81).
The severity of attacks has jumped in 2019, however. From January through March, ISIS-Sinai claimed 101 casualties in 48 attacks. For example, in February the group raided a military checkpoint south of North Sinai’s capital city, Al-Arish, attacking with explosives and gunfire before stealing weapons from the Egyptian army. ISIS-Sinai then nearly doubled its claimed casualty count to 196 in the second quarter of 2019—in just 12 more attacks than the first quarter of the year.
From April to July, ISIS-Sinai claimed a number of large attacks, usually targeting Egyptian police checkpoints or convoys. In each of the previous three quarters, the group claimed just one week with a casualty count above 20. In the second quarter of 2019, ISIS-Sinai claimed four such high-impact weeks — allegedly killing or injuring 125 Egyptians in those weeks.
In June 2019, ISIS-Sinai twice successfully attacked Egyptian police checkpoints. Perhaps more worrisome, the group claimed the slaughter of 10 construction workers, whose “crime” was helping the Egyptian military build security infrastructure near the airport of Al-Arish.
The uptick in large militant operations and increase in claimed attacks against Egyptian civilians bodes poorly for Sinai security. This suggests that any positive early effects of Operation SINAI 2018 were not sustained. ISIS-Sinai appears to have recovered from military pressure, and the result for the remainder of 2019 is likely to be more violence.