By Özer Khalid
1 July, 2015, will go down as one of the darkest most deeply disturbing days in Egyptian history. Wilayat Sinai (State of Sinai), an incestuous Sinai-based “Islamic State” (IS) affiliate, mercilessly massacred at least 17 brave members of the Egyptian armed forces. IS`s Wilayat Sinai orchestrated attacks on 21 security facilities and checkpoints stretching from Al-Arish to Rafah, with Sheikh Zuweid being the nucleus. What motivated IS and their splinter groups to carry out such callous carnage in this holy month of Ramadan, a month where Muslims are meant to stir self-reflection from within, is that this Ramadan marks the one year anniversary of “Islamic State”, Al-Baghdadi`s faux caliphate. Symbolism and sadistic grandeur are their hallmarks; therefore they needed to mark their first year anniversary with blood-letting. IS official spokesman, Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani Ash-Shami, has warned of many more attacks against “infidels”, especially in this month. With two more weeks left in Ramadan, more attacks might be imminent.
IS` stomach-churning savagery in Northern Sinai is not surprising, for the region strategically borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. Israel`s occupation of Palestine remains a pivotal rallying point which IS feels it can exploit due to foreign policy grievances and galvanise popularity out of Palestinian misery. Securing territory in North Sinai over the long-haul implies gaining a pivotal foothold into the occupied territories of Palestine, thereby strong-arming Hamas and eventually accessing the Promised Holy Land of Jerusalem, a cradle for all faiths. In North Sinai, IS also attacked positions around the road to Al-Jura, where a Multi-National Force Observer airfield is used. The airbase was previously attacked earlier in the month. This is strategically significant as IS remain allergic to any foreign, especially coalition-led, military presence or airbases in the Islamic world. The Sheikh Zuweid assault was deliberately orchestrated to drive Egyptian security forces out of Sinai, but also to muscle-flex power against Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), a rival radicalised insurgency force in the region, whose wings were further clipped by the death of Ajnad`s leader, Mohamed Attiyah in 2014.
Just like the Sousse and Bardo attacks in Tunisia, the Sheikh Zuweid assault, as well as an ill-fated car-detonated assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, seeks to cripple Egypt`s economy which so heavily relies on tourism. The tourism sector contributes to more than 11% of Egypt`s GDP and 14.4% of its foreign currency reserves. Egypt, the cradle of civilisation, is not out of the woods yet, especially not its tourism sector, as the psychotic IS vows to demolish Egypt`s most cherished historic monuments out of “religious duty”. These include statues that encourage “idolatry”, such as Egypt`s Great Pyramids, Pharaoh monuments and the Sphinx. IS is literally wielding a sledgehammer to some of humanity`s most admired ancient treasures. IS` pitiless decimation of Hatra, Nimrud and the statues in Mosul, as well as pillaging Dur Sharrukin and Palmyra, bear testimony of how IS constitutes an affront to our collective civilisation and humanity.
An unprecedented global wave of terror was witnessed on 26 June, 2015, when three terrorist attacks in three continents unfolded within three hours. The Isère attack, in Southern France, like that of Garland, Texas or the Copenhagen shooting, was IS inspired. It involved the beheading of Hervé Cornara, a corpse engraved with a message, in a US factory, alongside black and white flags on the fence, and a sadistic “selfie” sent with the severed head, all emblematic of IS executions, who have turned beheadings into a voyeuristic sport. The perpetrator, Yassin Sahli, was monitored by intelligence for being in cahoots with radical Salafi or Wahhabi outfits.
Next was Tunisia. Pristine beaches of golden sand where tourists indulged in the limitless blue of the Mediterranean, abruptly found the coastline turn from blue to an unnerving deep red, stained in an unimaginable blood-bath. The Sousse perpetrator, Seifeddine Rezgui, never set foot abroad and was likely radicalised on home soil. Such gunmen are trained to fight to death to prolong the attack duration, so as to afflict maximum casualties and media attention, which IS starves for. Rezgui deployed the “Fedayeen“ attack manoeuvre, guerrilla warfare of those who “sacrifice themselves”. Sousse and Bardo dented Tunisia’s tourism industry, which accounts for 15.2% of GDP. Just as Egypt`s unemployment currently hovers high at 12.8%, Tunisia also has a giant pool of alienated, angry and jobless young men, a few of whom are prone to violence, especially ripe for IS recruitment. A fear is that heavy-handed arrests of many of them, without sufficient cause or legal reasonable doubt, and brutalising them may further lead them into the willing arms of a despotic yet well-funded and organised IS.
Tunisia is under fire for birthing the Arab Spring. Tunisia is a target for IS, especially because it is one of the only post-Arab Spring states that successfully incubated a secular government set-up. Disenfranchised Tunisians, unhappy with secularism trickle into neighbouring Libya all too easily. Libya is a hotbed of chaos and a visceral IS recruitment breeding ground. Also IS wants to attack Tunisia more frequently to muscle-flex its supremacy over a rival Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade, part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a challenge to IS, just as is Egypt’s Ajnad Misr. As a result of violence incited after Sousse, Prime Minister Habib Essid officially declared that he will close down 80 mosques that remain outside the purview of state control. This mirrors President Al-Sisi`s tough stance vis-à-vis terrorists and harsher deterrents in Egypt by means of stricter anti-terror legislation.
Finally, a suicide bomber, Abu Suleiman Al-Muwahed, went into the Kuwaiti Imam Sadiq Mosque, and blew the place up to smithereens, killing 27 Shi’a worshippers. That the Mosque is located nearby Kuwait`s Interior Ministry is no coincidence. Kuwait`s being part of the anti-IS alliance, along with their air bases, such as the Ali Al-Salem air base, designated for operations by the US air force, is what IS objects to, just like Egypt`s foreign operated airbase on the road to Al-Jura. IS also wants to destabilise the relative social cohesion of Kuwait, which is one of the few countries where Shi’as and Sunnis live in harmony, where Shi’as make up 23% of Kuwait`s population.
The common thread weaving together all such terror is the theocratic fascism of “Islamic State”, which has claimed responsibility for Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait and Yemen. IS maybe medieval in their beliefs, but are über-modern in their execution. All these attacks exhibit evidence of sophisticated logistics, an effective global network, aligned co-ordination and social media savvy, and advanced weaponry.
IS has a world-wide support base. US intelligence indicates that 20,000 foreign fighters have flocked over to the IS nest, including at least 3,400 Westerners, ready to behead humans or blast themselves up at a moment`s notice, anywhere on earth.
Operationally speaking, all the attacks accentuate the heterogeneity of radical terrorism today, in terms of tactics deployed and in their selection of targets. IS’s operatives in Kuwait, Tunisia and Yemen struck a mosque, a tourist location, and a funeral, respectively. Each of these locations is a “soft” civilian target with minimal security. And each of those attacks involved a small number of terrorists. However, IS are also willing to attack “hard” targets. Egypt`s Sinai operation was distinct from the other recent attacks, however, as it deliberately struck hardened targets, such as military and police installations, using dozens of fighters and an eerie arsenal of weaponry.
Terrorism is not monolithic, it is a fragmented moving target, which makes it all the more challenging an affront. There is “homegrown” radicalism, especially common in the West, such as the Charleston shooting with Dylann Roof. Then there are “exported” hardened brain-washed IS/Al-Qaeda type operatives, with global networks and capabilities, involving militant training overseas, like the Kuwaiti suicide bomber. What renders IS tough to defeat is that coalition forces cannot deploy conventional manoeuvristwarfare, utilising air force to capture delineated land and disrupt supply routes. Neither can it use a frontal assault, due to the ever-adapting battle lines of the IS insurgency. The capability required for IS type insurgent guerrilla warfare is much more high-tech, agile and spread-out. Also in asymmetric warfare, such as that waged against IS, traditional forces withdraw as these wars are deemed too costly and protracted.
Above all, this is a rhetorical warfare of ideas, being waged deliberately over traditional and electronic media. This is a long-term generational challenge, where ideological counter-radicalisation campaigns, education, civil society-led social mobilisation movements need to proliferate, promoting plurality, inter-faith harmony and addressing economic and foreign policy grievances. Better screening of social media platforms, international suspicious activity reporting hotlines and youth-led electronic campaigns are needed. Along with a plethora of other measures, it is high time to exercise soft power and restraint in foreign policy along with a fairer redistribution of resources in the Middle East.
A key motivation for the IS attacks was that they recently suffered setbacks on the battlefields of Syria and especially in central and northern Iraq, in cities like Tikrit and Tel Abyad. Nobody wants to join losers. So to preserve their recruitment and relevance, IS have to deviate attention from those territorial setbacks by inflicting gruesome attacks abroad, especially on soft civilian Western targets, which gives them cheap and immediate publicity. Such attacks keep them in the media spotlight, fuel their recruitment drive, propagate their divisive anti-Western propaganda, and continue their image of initiative, of shocking, of reshaping the world – which is what they have done, with alarming alacrity.
Özer Khalid is a Senior Consultant, Geo-Strategist, and a Contributing Editor to the Daily News Egypt. He can be followed on Twitter @ozerkhalid