Egypt’s anti-ISIS militias in Sinai spark scepticism
CAIRO - A plan to establish anti- Islamic State (ISIS) militias among Bedouin tribes in Sinai could backfire and put sophisticated arms in the hands of people who are potential enemies of Egypt, military and political experts warn.
“We do not need to forget that most ISIS fighters in Sinai are originally Bedouins who joined the terrorist group in its ongoing showdown with the army,” retired army general Mamdouh al-Kidwani said. “This is why I say empowering Sinai’s Bedouins is a potential danger.”
Egypt is implementing an ambitious plan to establish anti-ISIS militias in Sinai among Bedouin tribes, according to media reports. Three militias have been created and efforts are under way to establish more as Egypt tries to eradicate militancy from the peninsula, the reports add.
The plan was drawn up by US counterterrorism experts who advised Egypt to operate the same way the US military does among Sunni tribes in Anbar province in western Iraq, where American instructors set up local militias to prevent ISIS fighters from entering or passing through areas under the tribes’ control.
ISIS has become a serious problem for the Egyptian Army in Sinai, a territory in north-eastern Egypt inhabited by about 400,000 people — mostly Bedouins — and sharing borders with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
ISIS has attacked troops and civilian police and made parts of North Sinai governorate dangerous despite heavy casualties inflicted on the terror group by the army, which has used Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets to pound ISIS positions.
ISIS militants have planted bombs on roads. Egypt has received the first shipment of what will total 762 mine-resistant vehicles from the United States.
Egypt is expected to use part of a Saudi grant — worth $1.5 billion — for the development of Sinai and to buy Bedouin loyalties against ISIS, which is reported to be using money to secure the same.
Nevertheless, local experts say the government plan is risky and could be counterproductive.
“Apart from the fact that the Bedouin tribes offer ISIS with an endless supply of recruits, most of these tribes are extended over vast territories, including in Israel and Gaza,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of parliament well-versed on the tribes.
“This means that these tribes harbour more loyalty to either Gaza or Israel.”
What makes the new Bedouin militia plan even less appealing to Ghattas is that the Sunni militias being formed in Anbar are not expected to fare well when fighting ISIS in Iraq, given the limited number of their members. The quality of their equipment is also inferior to that of ISIS.
The idea is a revival of what was known as the Sahawat, Sunni militias formed by the United States in 2007 with the aim of fighting al- Qaeda in Iraq. Sahawat were, however, a tool of Anbar tribal leaders and not effective in the fight against al-Qaeda, Iraqi analysts say.
Egypt has been trying to involve Sinai tribes in the fight against ISIS for a long time but the drive seems to have bumped into one failure after another.
ISIS, Kidwani said, always reacts with heavy-handed vengefulness against those who cooperate with the army or pass on information about its fighters.
He added that relations between Sinai’s Bedouins and Cairo have been bad because of the failure of Egyptian leaders to include Sinai in development plans.
He said Cairo did not trust Bedouins, which was why Bedouins were not been heavily recruited in the army for a long time or enrolled in military or police colleges.
“Nevertheless, the army can still use the Bedouins in getting information about the militants, their hideouts and their moves,” Kidwani said, “but by putting arms in their hands, we will be creating a state within the state, especially if these Bedouins become out of the control of the authorities.”