Since the birth of the transnational Salafi jihadist movement in Afghanistan during the 1980s, its leaders have refined a strategy based on "swarming." Jihadists tied to or inspired by al-Qaida look for a conflict where locals are fighting a repressive or ineffective regime, preferably one seen as an outside, impious force. Jihadists then flock to the conflict and join local fighters, cast the clash in religious terms, push the locals toward the Salafist position associated with al-Qaida and, if possible, take over the resistance. Their goal is creation of an independent "emirate" to inspire other jihadists and, eventually, re-create the great Islamic empire of the past.
Salafi jihadists attempted this strategy in Iraq, Libya, Mali and, most recently, Syria. Now they are moving to northern Sinai, where a long-standing conflict between local Bedouin residents and the Egyptian government in Cairo is turning the region into the next big jihadist battle. But most American policymakers and many national security experts have not fully grasped the seriousness and complexity of this rapidly changing struggle.
Sinai has long been Egypt's "most elusive and neglected region." Local residents, particularly the Bedouin tribes, which constitute about two-fifths of Sinai's population, consider the government and its security forces as outside occupiers more concerned with the interests of Cairo than locals’ well-being. The region is rife with organized crime, much of it focused on smuggling arms and goods into Gaza. Historically, this combination of mistrust of the government, the perception that it is an outside force, extensive criminal networks and government repression often generates insurgency. Unfortunately, this pattern is now being played out in Sinai.