February 23, 2018 | Policy Brief

Egypt Launches Massive Anti-terrorism Operation ahead of March Elections

In a surprise move, Egypt launched a massive anti-terrorism operation on February 9, covering northern and central Sinai, plus parts of the Nile Delta, the desert areas west of the Nile Valley, as well as the country’s long border with Libya. Egyptian military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai said “Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018” would involve land, sea, and air forces, yet he did not specify how long the operation would last.

The timing of the operation is consistent with an overly ambitious deadline that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi set last fall. On November 29, 2017, el-Sisi ordered the military to use “all brute force” necessary to defeat terrorists and restore security in Sinai “within three months,” or before the end of February. 

El-Sisi’s November remarks came days after the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history, when as many as 30 militants assaulted al-Rawdah Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abd, a town west of al-Arish in northern Sinai, on November 24, killing 305 worshippers and wounding more than 100. No terror group claimed responsibility for the attack, yet authorities said some of the attackers were carrying the Islamic State’s black flag. Presuming the Islamic State was responsible, the attack signaled a major shift in the tactics of a group that had largely targeted Egyptian security forces and Christians

The new Egyptian offensive comes weeks ahead of the presidential elections, scheduled for March 26-28, in which el-Sisi is all but guaranteed a second four-year term. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have threatened to launch attacks in Egypt ahead of the vote. 

Two days after the military launched its operation, Islamic State-affiliate Wilayat Sinai released a video entitled “Protectors of the Sharia.” In the video, a fighter announces, “We hereby warn the Muslim public in Egypt and Sinai during these polytheist days [the elections] not to come near the polling centers and electoral courts, and to avoid large gatherings, for they are a target for us. We will go forth on this path, God willing, determined to break every idol and eliminate every tyrant.” 

Similarly, in an audio message posted on Telegram on February 16, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Egyptians to topple their government prior to the presidential elections. “I call on everyone … to uproot this apostate, criminal and corrupt regime, and to perform jihad with weapons, money, word and actions, raids and ambushes, strikes and protests,” al-Zawahiri said. 

Egypt’s military said that 71 Islamist militants were killed and five were arrested as part of the new operation. On the government side, seven soldiers were killed and six others wounded.

During the first week of the campaign, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Egypt to support Cairo’s counterterrorism efforts. As Tillerson said, “there has been no gap between Egypt and the United States in our joint efforts to confront terrorists.”

Tillerson also said that the U.S. “supports a transparent and credible electoral process,” reflecting Washington’s nagging concerns about a democracy deficit in Egypt. But even amidst this tension, the U.S. can be expected to back the campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that threaten security and stability in Egypt and the entire region.


Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.