Non-international armed conflict in Egypt
The Egyptian Government is involved in a non-international armed conflict against Wilayat Sinai, an armed non-State actor that has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group. Furthermore, Israel has conducted air strikes against Wilayat Sinai in Egypt with the consent of the Egyptian Government.
Two criteria need to be assessed in order to establish whether the violence in Egypt meets the threshold for non-international armed conflict:
- First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
- Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.
Intensity of the violence
Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.
Since the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, there has been increasing instability in the Sinai Peninsula. Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the situation further deteriorated and violence escalated. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Egypt (Sinai)’, Armed Conflict Database.
Confrontations between Egyptian forces and Wilayat Sinai are reported to be occurring with high frequency. Clashes have involved a high level of sophistication, with the Egyptian Army deploying its full range of capabilities, and have resulted in significant violence and displacement. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Egypt (Sinai)’, Armed Conflict Database.
A number of illustrative confrontations reinforce this conclusion. For example, in 2016 the Egyptian security forces launched an air attack on Jabal Halal, which resulted in the killing of 88 militants and the destruction of a number of supply caches. A. Issacharoff, ‘Sinai Attacks Decline as Egypt’s Fight Against IS Yields Results’, The Times of Israel, 29 August 2016. During the same year, the Egyptian Army also initiated a series of air strikes in response to deadly attacks conducted by the Wilayat Sinai armed group. ‘Over 30 Gunmen Said Killed in Egyptian Strikes in Sinai’, The Times of Israel, 29 June 2016; ‘Egyptian Army Kills Over 100 ISIS Militants in Response to Deadly Terror Attack’, The Jerusalem Post, 15 October 2016.
Sustained armed confrontations continued in 2017, when Wilayat Sinai carried out numerous armed attacks against governmental armed forces. For instance, in January 2017 an attack by several gunmen and a truck bomb at a police checkpoint in El-Arish resulted in 13 deaths and 22 injuries. T. Batchelor, ‘Egypt Suicide Attack: Bomber in Truck Full of Explosives Kills 10 at Sinai Security Post’, The Independent, 9 January 2017. On the other hand, the armed group has perpetrated terrorist attacks against civilians, especially against the Christian population. Notoriously, in April 2017 coordinated attacks against two Coptic churches resulted in the death of 44 people, and became known as the Palm Sunday church bombings. A. Gaballa and A. Tolba, ‘Palm Sunday Bombings of Egyptian Coptic Churches Kill 44’, Reuters, 9 April 2017. On 24 November 2017, the deadliest terrorist attack carried out by Wilayat Sinai was launched against the Sufi al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed, North Sinai Governorate. The mosque was attacked by around 40 gunmen during Friday prayers and caused the death of 235 people, while more than 120 were injured. D. Walsh and N. Youssef, ‘Militants Kill 305 at Sufi Mosque in Egypt’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack’, The New York Times, 24 November 2017. Consequently, at the beginning of 2018 President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi launched a military campaign called ‘Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018’ against Wilayat Sinai, with the aim of restoring order over the Peninsula before the elections, which took place in March 2018. The operation resulted in the further militarization of the area. G. Dentice, ‘The Battle for Sinai: The Inside Story of Egypt’s Political Violence’, Al Jazeera, 1 April 2018; State Information Service, ‘Communiqué 2 – Army: Operation Sinai 2018 Continues to End Terrorism’, 10 February 2018. Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, 167 attacks have been claimed by Wilayat Sinai, which have resulted in 211 casualties. ‘Egypt Security Watch Weekly Brief’, Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), 7-13 September 2019. For instance, on 9 June 2019 members of the armed group attacked state forces at a check-point; as a result of armed confrontations, eight members of governmental forces were killed. ‘Eight fighters killed after Sinai attack: Egyptian officials’, Aljazeera, 7 June 2019. Furthermore, on 16 September 2019 Wilayat Sinai claimed two attacks in Sheikh Zuweid. Specifically, ‘in one attack, the group detonated an improvised explosive device in an attack against a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle. In a video released by the group of another attack on a military checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid, militants were shown firing at least one mortar shell.’ ‘Egypt Security Watch Weekly Brief’, Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), 14-20 September 2019.
Violence has continued in 2020. For instance, on 30 April Wilayat Sinai conducted an attack against an Egyptian military vehicle, where several military personnels were killed and wounded. ‘Islamic State claims responsibility for Egypt's Sinai attack’, The Jerusalem Post, 1 May 2020. The Ministry of Interior announced that the Egyptian armed forces have killed 39 members of Wilayat Sinai in May 2020. It is worth mentioning the attack that was conducted on military installation in Bir al-Abed area, which caused the death of 18 fighters and two soldiers. In September 2020, the armed forces regained control over several villages in Bir Al-Abd area, over which the armed group gained control in July 2020. Clashes have continued in 2021 and 2022 as well. For instance, on 1, 3, 11, and 26 January 2021, the group conducted a spate of IED attacks which costed the lives of at least four Egyptian soldiers in Bir al-Abd area. Moreover, between 3 and 10 January, armed attacks in and around Rafah city, close to the border with Gaza strip, left an unknown number of victims. While in the second half of 2021 violence declined in the Sinai Peninsula, clashes started increasing in March 2022. For instance, on 7 March Wilayat Sinai fighters attacked a base of the army in Al-Arish area, killing an unspecified number of soldiers. Between 11-14 March, fighting took place between state forces and rebel forces in Shibana and al-Barth areas south of Rafah town, where up to 14 soldiers and several fighters were killed. In the following months, fighting has remained particularly intense. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Egypt.
With regards to equipment and weaponry, it is reported that in most attacks involving Wilayat Sinai, gunmen used four-wheel drive vehicles and combinations of light and heavy weaponry. However, RPG-7 launchers, most likely smuggled from Libya, have also been used. The G-7 grenade is capable of penetrating armoured vehicles. ‘Suspect in Kidnapping of Egyptian Security Men Arrested’, Reuters, 30 May 2013. In June 2019, state forces seized five automatic rifles, an explosive device, and two explosive belts. ‘Eight fighters killed after Sinai attack: Egyptian officials’, Aljazeera, 7 June 2019.
In light of the foregoing, the required threshold for intensity of violence has been met.
A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.
Wilayat Sinai was formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and is currently called also Islamic State – Sinai Province, IS-IP or IS-SP. It is a Salafi jihadist group that was founded in 2011. It operates primarily in North Sinai, although it has also claimed responsibility for attacks in other parts of Egypt. In spite of the paucity of precise information regarding its internal structure, the number of members of the group is estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 active fighters. Wilayat Sinai is led by Abu Osama al-Masri, a former senior Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis (ABM) leader. I. al-Iskandarani, ‘War in Sinai: Combatting Terrorism or Strategic Shifts in Cooperation and Hostility’, Siyasat Arabiya 7 (March 2014), Arabic Center for Research & Policy Studies.
Wilayat Sinai has demonstrated an ability to plan and conduct concerted military operations, as shown, for instance, by the attack against two Coptic churches, which resulted in the death of 44 people. A. Gaballa and A. Tolba, ‘Palm Sunday Bombings of Egyptian Coptic Churches kill 44’, Reuters, 9 April 2017. Furthermore, it has the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms. Notably, It has an assortment of light arms, man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), rocket-propelled grenades, and 60-mm mortars. More recently, the group showcased its possession of, and ability to effectively use, Katyusha rockets and Kornet anti-tank missiles. The origin of its armaments is not altogether clear, although Libya is a likely source. R. Nordland and C. J. Chivers, ‘Heat-Seeking Missles Are Missing from Libya Armed Stockpiles’, The New York Times, 7 September 2011.
Thanks to the alliances between Wilayat Sinai and jihadist organizations based in Gaza and Libya, the group benefits from training and weapons capabilities. Furthermore, after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014, it has recourse to foreign fighters for train-and-equip programmes. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Egypt (Sinai)’, Armed Conflict Database.
In light of the foregoing, Wilayat Sinai satisfies the organization criterion associated with non-international armed conflict.
In recent years, Wilayat Sinai has sporadically launched attacks against Israel with rockets. See, for instance, A. Ahronheim, ‘Rocket Attacks on Israel Fuel Fears of ISIS Pivot from Syria to Egypt’, The Jerusalem Post, 16 October 2017. Worried by the developments in the Sinai Peninsula and the alliance between Wilayat Sinai and the Islamic State group, Israel has conducted a covert air campaign in the region. Notably, between 2016 and 2018, Israel has had carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Egypt, using unmarked drones, helicopters and jets. D. D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K.’, The New York Times, 3 February 2018; G. Jaffe, ‘Israelis target ISIS fighters in Egypt as part of covert counterterrorism pact’, The Washington Post, 3 February 2018; ‘Aiding Egypt, Israel Conducted 'Over 100 Airstrikes' Against ISIS in Sinai’, Haaretz, 4 February 2018. Since Israel intervened in Egypt with the consent of the Egyptian Government, its involvement in the conflict does not affect the classification. D. D. Kirkpatrick, ‘Tapes Reveal Egyptian Leaders’ Tacit Acceptance of Jerusalem Move’, The New York Times, 6 January 2018. Under the ‘support-based approach’ suggested by the ICRC, T. Ferraro, ‘The applicability and application of international humanitarian law to multinational forces’, International Review of the Red Cross (2013), 95, 561–612. Israel is bound by IHL of NIACs even if the hostilities it conducts against the Wilayat Sinai do not reach the level of violence which would be necessary to make IHL of NIACs separately applicable. Accordingly, we can conclude that Israel was party to the conflict at least between 2016 and 2018. Based on the information at our disposal, no other military operations have been conducted by Israel in Sinai, therefore the country is not party to the conflict anymore.
All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.
All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.
In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.