January 28, 2014 | Policy Brief

SAMs in Egypt’s Sinai

January 28, 2014 | Policy Brief

SAMs in Egypt’s Sinai

Just as the rubble was cleared after a series of bombings in Cairo, reports emerged from North Sinai on Saturday that an Egyptian helicopter had crashed. Aside from acknowledging the incident, the army was uncharacteristically quiet. Some security sources blamed the crash on a “technical malfunction.” But the army could not hide the truth: this was the first downed aircraft by terrorists using a surface-to-air missile (SAM) in Egypt’s history.

Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group that now operates throughout Egypt released video of the attack on Sunday. The images were jarring. One Sinai-based journalist said he could not stop watching. He was not alone. One YouTube version of the video has already been watched over 345,000 times.

While the attack may have been a lucky shot, it confirms long-held suspicions that at least some of the SAMs smuggled into Gaza, mostly from Libya, have remained in the Sinai. The exact size of the SAM arsenal in the hands of Sinai jihadists is unknown, but it is hard to believe that Saturday’s attack was the last of it. More SAM attacks in the Sinai could have significant military and economic consequences for Egypt.

Egyptian military operations in North Sinai have, until now, heavily relied on the use of helicopters. The successful use of SAMs will degrade some of the Egyptian Air Force’s aerial supremacy. Tactical adjustments may follow, but they will only exacerbate concerns that the Egyptian military may lack the capability to deal with the Sinai jihadist problem.

The SAM threat by Sinai jihadists goes beyond the battlefield. Egypt’s tourism industry has been hammered by the country’s unrest. Tourism revenue fell a staggering 41 percent between 2012 and 2013. According to Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou, 70 percent of Egypt’s tourism business in recent years has centered on South Sinai and the Red Sea. The near-daily reports of violence in the Sinai, coupled with Egypt’s past few years of instability, have pushed potential visitors to search for more care-free destinations.

Some airlines who operate in the area have been taking notice as well. In October, Dutch charter airline Transavia cancelled its flights to Sharm el Sheikh, the top tourist destination in South Sinai. According to Agence France Presse, the decision arose from fears that one of their planes would be targeted by a SAM.

While the army has still not acknowledged the SAM attack, the downed chopper will surely catch the attention of other airlines, not to mention potential tourists. With Egypt’s financial livelihood at stake, the military’s response is likely to be harsh.

David Barnett is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Salafi jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.