In terms of terrorism and jihadist non-state actors, July was the single most momentous month since the Arab Uprisings began, and perhaps since September 2001. The impact of some of the past month’s developments are obvious, and will play out in the near term; for others, the significance will likely only be appreciated months or years down the line. At this point, however, the three most important story lines appear to be escalating violence in Egypt, the “jailbreak season” we’ve seen in multiple countries, and developments in Tunisia.
Conflict in the Wake of Egypt’s Military Ousting Mohamed Morsi
There are two levels to the conflict in Egypt following President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. On the one hand, the Egyptian military has been giving in to its own worst impulses, both in the generalized crackdown it launched against Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, and also in the ugly incidents where it killed scores of protesters. The confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood’s members and supporters naturally raises the question of whether the Brotherhood will return to employing violence against the state, something that many commentators believe it had definitively abandoned. A return to violence need not be a top-down decision that is echoed throughout the organization to have a significant impact: if large enough factions decide to abandon involvement in politics and choose the bullet over the ballot, it could change the situation on the ground markedly.
One place where terrorist violence has significantly risen since Morsi’s ouster is north Sinai. Though the military has sometimes blamed the Brotherhood, salafi jihadists are known to operate there. It is difficult to say with completeconfidence which of the many attacks have been carried out by a particular faction, since the perpetrators are often neither captured nor killed, but it is a virtual certainty that salafi jihadists are a part of the problem.
In July, at least thirty people were killed and over 150 injured in Sinai-based attacks. However, these statistics do not do justice to the pace of attacks:
- July 6: A Coptic priest named Mina Aboud Sharween was shot and killed in what the Guardian described as possibly “the first sectarian killing since the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi.”
- July 9: Militants attacked a north Sinai security checkpoint with RPGs. Reuters reported that “two Egyptians were killed and six wounded.”
- July 11: A 59-year-old Christian who had been kidnapped, likely by Islamic extremists, was found decapitated, with his body mutilated, in a graveyard in Sheikh Zuweid.
- July 12: An RPG attack on a Sinai checkpoint killed an officer.
- July 15: Militants hit a bus carrying workers in El Arish with an RPG, killing at least three and wounding seventeen. Their actual target may have been security forces.
- July 17: A gunman attacked the police station in Sheikh Zuweid, killing three and injuring three.
- July 19: A rocket attack on an army checkpoint in El Arish killed two civilians and wounded one when it missed its target and hit a residential home. The same day, machine gun fire hit two police stations, and “militants fired rockets at an army camp.”
- July 21: All Africa reports that “unidentified gunmen have intensified attacks on security checkpoints in Arish by firing three Grad rockets from a long distance leaving a number of people dead and injured. All members of one family were killed in the attack.”
- July 23: Two citizens in El Arish were hospitalized after being injured in a shooting. The same day, a police sergeant was shot and killed by gunmen near his house. Gunmen also struck at least a dozen other targets in the Sinai that day.
- July 24: A car bomb struck near a police base, and two soldiers were killed in separate attacks. Militants also attacked a Sinai hospital.
- July 25: Three members of the security services were injured when gunmen fired on a checkpoint in El Arish.
- July 28: Militants fired at a security checkpoint in El Arish.
- July 29: An attack on a military camp killed one soldier and injured eight.
- July 30: Gunmen killed one and injured ten in attacks on checkpoints.
Basically, attacks have occurred on a daily basis. This pace is indicative of the militants’ raw numbers, their capabilities, and the security forces’ inability to contain the problem. National Journal has warned that Sinai, as a result, “has become a hotbed for terrorists.”
After Ayman al-Zawahiri released a statement promising to free detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Foreign Policy’s J. Dana Stuster wrote that “it’s officially jailbreak season.” Zawahiri’s announcement came on top of major jailbreaks in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya.
The July 21 jailbreak from Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison (and also a prison in Taji, perhaps as a diversionary measure), is by far the most consequential. Tactically sophisticated, the operation freed about 500 prisoners from a facility that boasted a high concentration of skilled jihadists. Though we don’t yet know who all of the escaped prisoners are, it’s clear that a significant talent pool is back out on the streets that may even include expertise in unconventional weapons. I noted at the time of the incident that much of the increased jihadist capability in North Africa over the past two and a half years can be traced back to militants who were freed from regional prisons. Similarly, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s regeneration began with a 2006 jailbreak in which Nasir al-Wuhayshi and some of hiscompanions escaped. The newly escaped Iraqi prisoners will join an Al-Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham franchise that has already significantly increased its pace and lethality of attacks.
The Pakistan prison break on July 30, in which almost 250 prisoners escaped, was claimed by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. It was, like the Abu Ghraib operation, sophisticated in nature—and was the second major prison raid conducted by Pakistani militants in the past two years.
And on July 28, prison riots coupled with an external attack freed 1117 inmates from Benghazi’s Kuafiya prison. It is not entirely clear at this point whether the attack was a jihadist operation, though Interpol has suggested that it was. Nor is it clear whether a significant amount of militants were freed: press reporting speaks of Qaddafi loyalists escaping, but not jihadists. If it was a jihadist operation, then the perpetrators may either have been interested in freeing inmates who haven’t yet been mentioned in open-source reporting, or else they may have intended to buy the loyalty of those whom they freed. And even if it weren’t a jihadist operation, the jailbreak nonetheless demonstrates that a similar jihadist-led initiative is well within the realm of possibility in that country (which is unsurprising, given the instability that has haunted Libya).
The July 25 murder of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was the second assassination of a secular Tunisian politician in less than five monthsand has brought demonstrators to the streets. Though the salafi jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) has denied responsibility, the government has fingered it as the culprits. One thing to watch is the potential for increased conflict between AST and the state. Such conflict has been simmering for some time, and this event might ultimately bring it to a boil.
Also, the fighting between Tunisian security forces and jihadists in the Jebel Chaambi mountains has escalated. In a recent incident, eight Tunisian soldiers were killed in an ambush, five of whom had slit throats. The fighting in this mountain range will no doubt continue, as Tunisia launched major operations in Jebel Chaambi, but was closed-lipped about the details, as August began. Compared to its neighbors, Tunisia has relatively low capabilities for tackling such threats.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of twelve books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy.