Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is an insurgent’s dream. The corridor between Asia and Africa encompasses deserts, soaring mountains, plunging canyons and an expansive coastline. Most of its 23,000 square miles, roughly the same area as West Virginia, exist outside the control of the Egyptian state. Decades of neglect by successive Egyptian governments and limited economic development have resulted in a Sinai population that is largely disenfranchised and impoverished. Dark networks and crime syndicates proliferate, smuggling everything from drugs and weapons to people, to and from mainland Egypt, Gaza, Israel and further afield. In an area where development is limited and where unemployment is rife, illicit trade has long formed the backbone of the Sinai economy.
In response, beginning in 2013, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s government cracked down on the most important aspect of this illicit trade, the tunnel economy into Gaza. Egypt’s military destroyed more than 1,200 tunnels that ran under the narrow Philadelphi Corridor into Gaza, creating a buffer zone on the Egypt-Gaza border that necessitated the summary eviction of over 800 families and razing much of the city of Rafah. That fueled more resentment against a government already viewed as an occupation force by many in the Sinai, particularly members of the indigenous Bedouin. Egyptian authorities have often regarded the Bedouin as second-class citizens and a fifth column.
The Sinai’s rugged terrain, strategic position between two continents, smuggling networks and restive population make it an ideal operational location for militant groups—and increasingly the self-declared Islamic State (IS). Yet the Egyptian government and military’s scorched-earth tactics in Sinai are only making an already optimal environment for an expanding insurgency more appealing. Recent high-profile attacks in and around Cairo and Luxor, claimed by IS-affiliated militants, show that the insurgency is spreading to mainland Egypt.