Sinai Bedouins: A Regime Gambit against Islamic State in Egypt?

Sinai Bedouins: A Regime Gambit against Islamic State in Egypt?

Recently, media outlets throughout Egypt raved about the creation of a new paramilitary force in the Sinai Peninsula meant to help the Egyptian Armed Forces tackle the growing security threat of the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis). This new force allegedly united 30 Bedouin tribes on May 10, to form the “Sinai Tribal Federation”, or STF, and was meant to provide volunteer intelligence about the militant group’s activities.

The creation of the STF was preceded by several acts of animosity between Wilayat Sinai and mainly members of the Tarabin tribe, including localized harassment, and tit-for-tat killings of militants and tribesman. These every-day run-ins gradually escalated, causing the Tarabin tribe to stage a large scale raid on a Wilayat Sinai stronghold south of Sheikh Zuweid on April 26, as well as to issue a one million Egyptian Pound (EGP) bounty for the killing of Wilayat Sinai’s leader, Shady al-Meneiey, who may have fled to Gaza. On the day of the STF’s creation, Wilayat Sinai kidnapped, raped, and beheaded a woman of the Tarabin tribe, leaving her body with a warning against any cooperation with the Egyptian regime.

Despite sensational media reports subsequently heralding the end of the troubles in the Sinai Peninsula, the STF had very little actual effect on the ground as of yet, and is expected to have even less in the future. Throughout the two months that have passed since its formation, the STF has had only one direct confrontation with Wilayat Sinai, when on May 23 it arrested three militants carrying weapons and explosives, and turned them into police custody. While it is true that the force was meant less to carry the everyday burden of counter-militancy operations in the Sinai Peninsula, and more to provide quality intelligence information by covert means, results on the ground bring into question whether there were any contributions in this field as well.

For example, during the night of June 9-10, members of Wilayat Sinai were able to bombard the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) airfield in El Gorah with mortar shells and surface-to-surface rockets. Despite the attack not being particularly impactful, it represented an escalation in the group’s activities by directly attacking a multinational force in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as an increase in its capabilities, as it was the first time that it deployed rockets in an attack against targets on Sinai soil. This latter point, combined with reports of a possible infiltration from Gaza the night before, affirms that the group is still able to move across the Sinai-Gaza border to bring men and material. All this combined points very clearly to a massive failure on the strategic intelligence level, of which the STF was deemed to be a major pillar.

With this in mind, Bedouin-army and Bedouin-militant relationships in the Sinai Peninsula are likely based more on personal interests and tribal cost-benefit analysis, rather than on any ideological reasons. These tribal interests are derived from a number of factors that can lead tribes to support either the military or militants such as Wilayat Sinai. This includes on the one hand, a long period of mistreatment of the Bedouins by the current Egyptian regime (and its similar predecessor), while additionally, tribes may fear that opposing the militants will risk the tribe’s safety and means of livelihood. On the other hand, tribes such as the Terabin hold ongoing blood feuds with militants, while smuggling activities upon which they depend have been threatened by Wilayat Sinai’s activities.

As a result, while it is possible that additional low-scale, or passive resistance to Wilayat Sinai exists among the Bedouin tribes, the general animosity towards the regime is probably higher, leading the locals to support the militants. This trend is expected to continue, unless the Egyptian regime will be able to significantly change the local Bedouins view of it, and therefore be able to recruit their support. That said, such a change will likely require years and significant governmental reforms in order to be successful, with little impact expected in the immediate time frame. Until that time, the Egyptian government will likely continue to find it increasingly difficult to counter Wilayat Sinai’s momentum through the STF.

Oded Berkowitz is a senior intelligence analyst at MAX security, specializing in the North African region. Oded holds a B.A in Political Science and Middle Eastern StudIes and is currently pursuing graduate studies in Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security, while also serving as an infantry captain in the Israel Defense Forces.