The Suez Canal Isn’t Safe From Egypt’s Simmering Insurgency
Islamist extremists have already attacked the canal twice
The Sinai Peninsula is swarming with Egyptian soldiers—a response to the spread of a small but growing insurgency which emerged after the 2011 revolution and exacerbated by the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in a 2013 coup.
Since, dozens of Islamist militant groups have together been responsible for car bombings, sabotaging pipelines and killing more than 260 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai during a period of six months last year. One militant group even staged attacks on the strategically important Suez Canal.
It was the Suez Canal attacks that were particularly hair-raising, due to the canal’s strategic and economic importance, if not particularly damaging. On two separate occasions in 2013, members of the Furqan Brigades sneaked up to the canal, aimed rocket-propelled grenade launchers at passing container ships and opened fire.
During the second attack—against the Chinese container ship COSCO Asia on Aug. 31—two RPG rounds smacked into the ship’s port side. The Asia has a deadweight tonnage of nearly 110,000 tons, making the grenade rounds the equivalent of a pair of spitballs. There was only minor damage, including a hole blown into a cargo container hauling black market cigarettes.
According to a new report by journalist Stephen Sarr in CTC Sentinel—the monthly journal of West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center—the fact that militants fired RPG rounds at passing ships isn't an encouraging sign about Egypt’s ability to protect ships in the future.
“In the wake of these attacks, there is concern that militants could successfully disrupt shipments through the Suez Canal, such as by sinking a large vessel and blocking the canal for a period of time,” Sarr writes.
It would require a change in tactics, to be sure. Sarr notes the Furqan Brigades share Al Qaeda’s ideology but there are no clear ties, and the Brigades do not carry out “martyrdom”—or suicide—operations. But other groups active in Egypt and the Sinai, such as the Al Qaeda-linked insurgent group Ansar Jerusalem, have carried out suicide bombings on the police and military.
Sabotage is also a favorite tactic. On Jan. 17, militants blew up a natural gas pipeline in the Sinai that services a cement factory. It was the first pipeline attack in 2014.
One problem for the military is the canal’s size—more than 120 miles long from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The canal’s banks are home to fishing villages, towns and dense brush.
“Even if militants failed to sink a major vessel, a waterborne suicide bomb attack on an LNG or oil tanker, or cruise or container ship transiting the Suez Canal—a tactic used against the USS Cole in 2000 and the M/V M. Star in 2010—would have immediate effects on the use of the Suez as a major shipping route.”
Niklas Anzinger at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs was skeptical that militants could pull of a catastrophic attack—hijacking, sinking or disabling a large ship and blocking the canal for days or weeks. “Thanks to the comprehensive surveillance system in the canal zone, Egyptian security forces can quickly respond to major incidents,” Anzinger wrote.
Nor might the Furqan Brigades have the means or the will. But Sarr notes there are areas of the canal where security is minimal or absent, and there are other insurgents to worry about.
“There are a number of groups operating in the Sinai with proven bomb-making experience that share the same ideological outlook as the Furqan Brigades, and cross training between groups is a possibility,” he writes.
The Egyptian military’s offensive in the Sinai is focused on a problem that’s emerged from neglect. The Sinai is the poorest part of the country, missing much of the development money flushed into the mainland cities and the tourist resorts at Sharm El Sheikh, which have benefited largely mainland Egyptian and foreign developers.
The Sinai is a transit point for weapons, many from Libya, with others heading to Gaza and into service with Hamas. The lack of economic development in the peninsula has also led to a flourishing opium trade in the peninsula’s southern mountains. Combine political turmoil, radicalism and the heavy-handed Egyptian army, and you have the foundation for violence.
All next to one of the world’s most important waterways.