Egypt’s anti-ISIS militias in Sinai spark scepticism

Sunday 22/05/2016
Egyptian Army soldier looking on from his postion at checkpoint in Al Arish city

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.”