IEDs and the Doomed Strategy of Egyptian Militants

The ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi saw a sharp increase in the number of militant attacks, particularly bombings, in Egypt. The favourite weapon appears to be the Improvised Explosive Device, and Islamist militant groups are making constant use of this easy-to-manufacture weapon.

The Improvised Explosive Device (IED), or “homemade bomb”, has been a favourite of militant groups for years. Cheap, hard to detect, and requiring very little sophistication to assemble, it provides militant and other groups with the means to strike at conventional military forces when unable to field any of their own. Since the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi last year, bomb attacks, among others, have been on the rise in Egypt – both in the troublesome region of North Sinai, as well as populated areas in and around the capital.

IED usage goes back as far as World War II, when resistance groups would employ them against German forces. They were also used by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) against the British in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century. Most recently, they have been used to devastating effect in Iraq and Afghanistan against American and NATO troops.

In the period following 2001, IEDs have accounted for up to 60% of fatalities suffered by the US army in its deployments, and is a favourite for Iraqi and Afghan militants. It is often hidden somewhere discreet, such as an animal corpse, placed within a strategically parked car, or by the roadside at a time when the militants know a convoy will pass.

The biggest danger with IEDs is the difficulty detecting them. Unless security personnel know where and when to look, chances are that it will go undetected until it is too late. Worse still, in some parts of the world, IEDs are being manufactured entirely of plastic to make them impossible to locate with metal detectors. Such devices use graphite for the electric circuits, and forego metal shrapnel in favour of stealth. While such devices require a certain degree of sophistication to assemble, the more common IEDs require very little knowledge of explosives and can easily be manufactured at home.

An IED has three essential components: the explosive charge, an initiation mechanism, and a casing. The explosive is usually made of agricultural fertiliser, a readily available substance, or can occasionally be made of explosive matter taken from the military. The initiation mechanism provides the electric charge that detonates the device, and includes a switch and power source. The case can be anything from an animal carcass to a soft-drinks can; the more inconspicuous, the better.

Since August of last year, Egypt has witnessed no fewer than 26 such bombings, in addition to numerous other attacks by militants on security checkpoints and the like. The result has been the death of at least 150 police, 74 soldiers, and 57 civilians.

The IED is not designed for use against a specific target, and is equally deadly against military personnel, civilians, vehicles, and buildings. In Afghanistan, 66% of IED casualties have been civilians, while in Egypt so far it has been 20%. Among other things it is a psychological weapon, as the difficulty in anticipating it can create a pervading atmosphere of fear in an area. Terrorist groups in Egypt such as Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis and Ajnad Misr have been targeting security personnel in particular as part of a campaign against what they perceive to be a military regime.

The conflict in Egypt could be showcased as a display of Fourth-generation warfare. The term “Fourth-generation warfare” is often used to refer to a conflict involving a violent non-state actor attacking state security. The unique characteristic of this conflict is that it is not a traditional military confrontation – it is more complex and multidimensional; as it has strategic, political, social, economic, and even psychological aspects. This conflict is often long term, blurry, and decentralised. Generally speaking, the main objectives of the violent non-state actor are to destabilise the state and paralyse state institutions. The use of IEDs facilitates the pursuit of such goals.

In Egypt’s case in particular, the terrorist groups’ objectives lie under the same umbrella. However, when considering the political objectives of these attacks in the Egyptian context, it is imperative to examine the targets.

With regard to the targets, there isn’t any specific pattern in terms of location. The only thing they all have in common is the deliberate targeting of Egyptian security personnel, whether police or army. The diversity of locations makes it rather difficult for security bodies, as well as citizens, to anticipate them.

The most palpable objective of the attacks is to spread an atmosphere of fear and terror.  It could also be perceived as an attempt to challenge the supremacy of the state. This sort of atmosphere leads people to gradually lose trust in the security institutions, regardless of the diversity of the targets.

The Ministry of Interior has given assurances in many statements that it is exerting its utmost efforts to combat these terrorist attacks, especially after their rapid increase after the removal of Morsi. A source from the Civil Security Department told MEMCS that the Interior Ministry is adopting a new strategy to counter these attacks. He further highlighted that the strategy involves many actors, not only the Interior Minister.

The first step in this strategy is spreading awareness among civilians on how to avoid and react in case one of these attacks takes place, and how to quickly report bombs or any strange objects found. The second step is to secure indoor places frequented by large numbers of people. They also plan to increase the number of teams specialised in dealing with bombs (called bomb disposal squads). This will be done in cooperation with the military, and they are providing the teams with training sessions.

Regarding how to anticipate these attacks, he responded that this is the responsibility of data collection agencies such as the National Security Council, as they are responsible for gathering information about these cells and how to foresee their attacks.

Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis and Ajnad Misr both seem to lack a clear long-term objective. Perhaps, like Al Qaeda, they wish to see the creation of an Islamic state modelled after the old Caliphate. In any case, their short-term objective seems clear: the destabilising of the Egyptian state, particularly the security apparatus. These groups cannot hope to take on the Ministry of Interior, let alone the Egyptian Army. Rather, they wish to make these institutions appear powerless to stop them. If this proves successful, they could bring about the disillusionment of the population, who would at that point become frustrated with a state unable to even protect itself, let alone its citizens.

This probably accounts for the high proportion of security personnel killed by these attacks, with comparatively few civilians. Ajnad Masr announced that they wished to not harm any civilians, and Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri instructed as much when he sanctioned attacks on the “American-backed Egyptian military”. It would appear that these attacks aim to simultaneously diminish the authority of the state while not appearing an enemy to the population.

While on the surface it appears that such a strategy makes sense, in reality it stands a good chance of backfiring. While these bombings supposedly do not target civilians, civilians have died nonetheless. An ordinary citizen who sees a bomb go off in their street won’t be feeling lucky that they weren’t targeted because of their civilian status. At the end of the day, no one wants bombs going off anywhere. Furthermore, if one takes into account that almost every family in Egypt has at least one member who is either in the police or the army, even the exclusive targeting of security forces will become a personal matter for ordinary Egyptians.

As a result of this, the outcome may be very different to that envisaged by the militants. Rather than turn on the state, civilians may become more supportive of a state they see as under attack by terrorists. Citizens could become more willing to accept the state giving itself more power to deal with such threats, and less sympathetic of any detained Islamists, whether militant or otherwise.

Instead of creating a disillusionment of the state and its security institutions, militant groups risk demonising themselves and thus uniting the country with the state against what is perceived to be a common enemy.

This feature was originally published in the Middle East Media Center for Studies website on April 30th, 2014. It is written by Adam Woodard, Mariam Mecky, and Nada Salah. 




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