Egypt's Failed Counterterrorism Policy

By Yousuf Abdelfatah

This past Friday, Egyptians experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history. During the Friday prayer militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula attacked a mosque, leaving 305 dead, including 27 children, and another 128 injured. The terrorists detonated a bomb inside of the crowded mosque and then shot at the panicked Muslims fleeing the building.

The attack has been attributed to the Wilayat Sinai, a local Egyptian affiliate of ISIS, and locals have stated that they saw the gunmen carrying the group’s black flag although as of the time of this writing no group has officially claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack on the mosque is yet another demonstration of the so-called Islamic State’s willingness to target Muslims, especially those who do not conform to their narrow interpretation of the religion, in order to further their aims.  

To many, this latest tragedy is yet another example of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s failed counterterrorism strategy. Egyptian forces have been battling the insurgency in Sinai for years with little to show for it aside from hundreds of civilian casualties. Since 2013 roughly 1,000 security personnel have been killed in the region. Journalists are banned from the area amid what is believed to be a heavy handed and indiscriminate government campaign involving significant human rights abuses. A video that surfaced earlier in the year depicted the extrajudicial executions of suspected militants by Egyptian security forces.

Predictably, the government’s response to the tragedy was to promise that the attack “would not go unpunished”, that justice “would be served”, and that they would respond “with brute force.” In the hours after the attack Egyptian warplanes were sent to target what the government claimed were terrorist outposts. However, these brute force tactics seem to be doing more harm than good. The government’s reported heavy handedness in dealing with the situation has left many tribes in the peninsula mistrustful of the authorities and increasingly sympathetic to militants. According to activists, family members of militants are targeted and arrested as well in a sort of collective punishment. Soldiers in the region abuse their power and care little about civilian casualties, alienating the population from the government that in theory should be acting to protect them. Citizens in the Sinai peninsula are trapped between extremist militants and a brutal military regime and suffer at the hands of both.   

Sisi has also been using the threat of terrorism to justify brutal levels of repression. The government has branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has been engaged in a country-wide crackdown on the group. Members are often jailed and then exposed to Islamic State ideology in prison, fueling the cycle of radicalization. Additionally, he has continued the mistakes of his predecessors, attempting to tackle the problems in Sinai through aggressive military action rather than addressing core social and economic issues in the region, issues that Cairo has long ignored.

One of Sisi’s core promises has been to crack down on militants and keep the country safe. His inability to deliver on this promise weakens his position and calls into the security value of the coercive measures and suppression of rights that he claims is so essential to the safety and security of the country. The Egyptian government faces even more pressure to deal with the terrorist threat for economic reasons. They have been trying to lure back investors and tourists who had been scared off by the country’s instability. Such massive acts of violence are likely to make this an even more difficult task. The government’s approach thus far has been a resounding failure. In order to make progress on the issue of militancy in Sinai the government requires a radical rethinking of its current counter terrorism strategy.  


Yousuf Abdelfatah is a senior at Rutgers University, where he studies Economics and Political Science. He is the Blogger for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs.


[1] Mahfouz, Heba Farouk, and Kareem Fahim. "Militants Kill 235 at Sinai Mosque in Deadliest Assault on Civilians in Egypt." The Washington Post. November 24, 2017.

[2] Tisdall, Simon. "The 'iron fist' response to terror attacks in Egypt never works | Simon Tisdall." The Guardian. November 25, 2017.

[3] Walsh, Declan and Kirkpatrick, David. "In Egypt, Furious Retaliation but Failing Strategy in Sinai." The New York Times. November 25, 2017.      

[4] Saleh, Heba. "Deadly Attack in Egypt Adds to Pressure on Sisi Regime." Financial Times. November 25, 2017.