Egypt through the Lens of the State Department’s Terrorism Reports

The Department of State (DOS) recently released its 2014 Country Reports on Terrorism, offering an in-depth look at terrorism around the world and efforts various countries are taking aimed at its eradication. Several trends can be identified from the 2014 reports’ discussion of terrorism and counterterrorism efforts in Egypt, which are especially relevant given a recent expansion in the scope of attacks. While it is clear the Egyptian government is taking efforts to address terrorism, the DOS reports, in conjunction with developments in 2015, paint a grim picture of the current situation.

Border Security

The report notes that the Egyptian government has continued to take counterterrorism measures aimed at improving its border security, particularly along its borders with Gaza and Libya.

On October 29, Egypt began clearing residents from the border with Gaza, demolishing hundreds of homes to establish a buffer zone. The operation came five days after two attacks in the Sinai Peninsula killed thirty-three security personnel, the perpetrators of which are suspected of entering the Sinai through tunnels from Gaza, according to the report. Tunnels along the border with Gaza have persistently posed a security threat to Egyptian forces in the Sinai. In 2013, an Egyptian court ordered the destruction of the tunnels, and by March 2014, the military said it destroyed 1,370 smuggling tunnels. The State Department’s report notes that smuggling activity through tunnels along the Gaza-Sinai border in 2014 “was ultimately severely restricted by persistent counterterrorism activity by Egyptian security forces.” The government also continued to maintain tight control over the border throughout 2014, restricting the opening of the Rafah Crossing.

The border with Libya remains a key concern due to the threat of spillover from the violent conflict in the country and weapons smuggling. The report notes that “Egypt has increased its military presence along the border, but continues to face challenges with policing the 715 miles.” A 2014 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report noted that “Libya is fueling conflict and insecurity — including terrorism” in countries including Egypt. The UNSC report adds that there have been significant seizures of arms smuggled in from Libya in various parts of Egypt. An incident on January 24, in which militants used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter, killing five soldiers, raised concern about the movement of man-portable air defense systems from Libya into Egypt. Six months later, militants attacked a border checkpoint with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, killing twenty-one Egyptian soldiers, after warnings from officials of a spillover of violence from Libya.

Egypt closed its border with Libya multiple times in 2014, in May, October, and December, and continued to do so in 2015. Egypt is also working with the United States to enhance its border capabilities. At a hearing in early July, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey highlighted US support for Egypt’s armed forces to secure the Egypt-Libya border. He said the United States conducted a “joint staff integrated vulnerability assessment” with Egypt, resulting in the introduction of new equipment to enhance communications and movement techniques.” A day later, the Defense Department announced the sale of high-tech border surveillance equipment to Egypt for $100 million. The system is intended to bolster Egypt’s border surveillance capabilities and provide an early warning system for Egypt’s Border Guard Forces, which currently lack “remote detection capability along unpatrolled areas of Egypt’s borders.”

Regional and International Cooperation

The DOS report outlines several ways in which Egypt engaged in regional and international cooperation on counterterrorism in 2014, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for more cooperation within the African Union on counterterrorism. Egypt has been active in seeking support for its counterterrorism efforts and cooperating globally on shared threats.

Officials from Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria met in 2014 to coordinate efforts aimed at countering militants in Libya. The three countries also coordinated to close their respective borders with Libya. The report also notes that Egypt joined the US led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), providing it with logistical and political support. It also restricted travel without prior permission to Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Qatar, in an attempt to prevent citizens from joining terrorist groups. However, in October, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said Egypt has no plans to provide the United States with direct military assistance in the fight against ISIS. At the time, Mahlab said the priority for Egypt’s army was its “borders and the stability of its country.” Sisi has also said that any international coalition “should be comprehensive and not exclusively target a specific organization or eradicate a certain terrorist hotspot.” Egypt has called on the anti-ISIS coalition to intervene militarily in Libya against militants linked to the group, suggesting that Egypt’s priority remains countering ISIS expansion closer to home, rather than in Syria and Iraq.

Cooperation on counterterrorism continued into 2015. On July 12, an Emirati official said the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is establishing a commission to examine supplying financial and military aid to its Arab allies, including Egypt, for counterterrorism efforts. Egypt reportedly cooperated with the UAE in an air campaign to bomb Islamist militias in Libya in August 2014, before openly spearheading airstrikes in coordination with the Libyan air force in February following the beheading of twenty Egyptian Christians by ISIS affiliates in Libya. In February of this year, Sisi called for the establishment of a united Arab force, an initiative supported by the majority of Arab League states.

Egypt has also gained international support for its counterterrorism efforts. Countries expressing support for Egypt’s fight against terrorism include France (which recently delivered three of twenty-four Rafale fighter jets purchased by Egypt), Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, Sudan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The European Union has also affirmed its commitment to support Egypt’s counterterror efforts. The United States, despite periodic criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, resumed military aid to Egypt in March and has consistently expressed support for Egypt’s “fight against terrorism.”

Sinai Safe Haven

The report notes that areas in Sinai serve as a major safe haven for extremist insurgent groups. Sinai is a crucial base in particular for Egypt’s ISIS affiliate, Sinai State, formerly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM). While most of the groups’ operations have occurred in North Sinai, the DOS report acknowledges that ABM “has demonstrated capability to conduct attacks throughout Egypt.” According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), the group has launched attacks in North and South Sinai, Greater Cairo, Daqhalia, Matrouh, Qalyubia, and Ismailia. ABM also reportedly sent “emissaries” to Syria to “seek financial support, weapons, and tactical advice” from ISIS and exploit the “publicity and recruiting advantages” that accompany the ISIS brand.

In contrast, Ajnad Misr, described by the DOS report as a splinter of ABM, is based in Cairo and focuses primarily on attacking government and security targets in greater Cairo. The DOS report notes that Ajnad Misr claimed attacks on Egyptian security forces at government buildings, public spaces, and universities, often injuring or killing bystanders.

More Attacks, More Targets

Since 2014, the scope of militant attacks in Egypt has expanded in terms of numbers, locations, and types of targets. TIMEP found that the number of attacks countrywide increased sharply from December 2014 to January 2015, and that the number of attacks outside North Sinai grew from January to February 2015. By February 2015, only 29 percent of the 109 attacks that month occurred in North Sinai. In contrast, in February 2014, less than thirty attacks occurred throughout the country as a whole, and throughout 2014, around 41 percent of all attacks took place in North Sinai. In May 2015, out of 138 reported attacks that month, the highest reported number in one month on record, only 28 percent took place in North Sinai. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2015, Egypt faced near daily attacks, many of them occurring outside of the Sinai.

Another growing trend is attacks on economic and infrastructure targets. Egypt’s electricity ministry announced that 778 attacks were carried out on electricity-related infrastructure during the first quarter of 2015. TIMEP reported a ten-fold increase in January on public and private property attacks, compared to December. In March, the Popular Resistance Movement (PRM), which TIMEP describes as an affiliation of local actors and groups across Egypt, launched several small scale attacks on international economic targets. According to the New York Times, the group “signaled” that the bombings aimed at sabotaging Egypt’s Economic Development Conference at the end of March. While TIMEP recorded a slight decrease in attacks on economic and property targets from March to April, the number sharply increased again in May.

The last few weeks alone demonstrate the growing reach of militant activity in Egypt.  On June 29, Egypt’s general prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated—the first assassination of an Egyptian government official since 1990. It remains unclear who was behind the attack. Two days later, Sinai State launched a highly coordinated assault on Sheikh Zuweid and at least six military checkpoints, in a battle that lasted the entire day. It was reminiscent of a series of attacks in January by the group on over a dozen targets that killed at least thirty-two, including soldiers and civilians. Several other attacks on international and Egyptian military targets were also carried out recently, including one on the Italian consulate in Cairo, claimed by a group calling itself the Islamic State in Egypt. It appears to be a separate entity from the Sinai State, with some experts claiming this suggests ISIS is attempting to expand its presence in Egypt beyond Sinai.   


During the release of the reports, Tina Kaidanow, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, explained that they allow for an assessment of “effectiveness” of counterterrorism strategies and responses. She urged countries to do more “to address the cycle of violent extremism and transform the very environment from which these terrorist movements emerge.” As Egypt struggles with an insurgency in Sinai and violence throughout the country, Ambassador Kaidanow’s remarks are especially relevant. An evaluation of the counterterrorism strategy and an in depth look into the triggers of violent extremism could contribute to understanding this major security challenge. 

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Image: Photo: Egyptian soldiers keep guard during a military operation in the Egyptian city of Rafah, near the border with the southern Gaza Strip October 30, 2014 (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)