Fighting ISIS in Sinai

Smoke rises in Egypt's North Sinai as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt July 1, 2015. Islamic State militants launched a wide-scale coordinated assault on several military checkpoints in Egypt's North Sinai on Wednesday in which 50 people were killed, security sources said, the largest attack yet in the insurgency-hit province. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The terrorist attacks in Sinai reveal several significant and dangerous developments.

This week brought the murder in Cairo of Egypt's top prosecutor, but in Sinai the news was even worse: well-coordinated terrorist attacks that displayed new capabilities.

The New York Times offered this summary:

Just two days after militants assassinated Egypt's top prosecutor on a Cairo street, the military on Wednesday called in F-16 war planes and helicopters to beat back a coordinated assault in Northern Sinai by a jihadist group affiliated with the Islamic State. Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles.

Israeli analysts noted three things.

First, despite the much larger Egyptian military activity in Sinai, the Egyptian Army has been incapable of crushing the terrorists. Under the Egypt/Israel peace treaty, Egypt must limit its military presence in Eastern Sinai. But Israel has permitted the Egyptians to forget about those limits entirely. Acting freely, then, the Egyptians have still not succeeded and the terrorist activities have grown. The Egyptian Army has given no evidence that it knows how to combat the terrorists effectively.

Second, the terrorists are getting better at it. Last year they appeared as a ragtag bunch holding Kalashnikovs ("armed Bedouins," one Israeli journalist said). Now they have attacked several targets in one day in a well coordinated movement, they wear uniforms and they have more advanced equipment such as anti-tank missiles. This is the ISIS we have come to know in Iraq.

Third, there are connections between the terrorists in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza. There are accusations that Hamas has done some training of these jihadis in Sinai, has provided them with funds and has given medical treatment to wounded jihadis in Gaza hospitals.

Israelis know that developments in Sinai will present threats to Israel sooner rather than later. One must hope that in addition to protecting their border, the Israelis are giving the Egyptians some advice on counter-terror strategies.

President Sisi's overall strategy is a blunt one: repression. It is not going to work–in Sinai or anywhere in Egypt. This is partly because the targets of repression are not only the terrorists but any critics of the government.

The Government of Egypt now has about 40,000 political prisoners, and it is crushing all political activity–moderate, secular, liberal, democratic as well as extremist. That's a formula for instability in the medium and perhaps even short term. Moreover, it is not going to work because the Army and police don't seem very effective in their counter-terror actions and strategies.

So, look for worse trouble in Sinai, and in all of Egypt. Of course, an unstable Egypt and a terrorist war in Sinai are very alarming news for Israel. In three visits to Israel this year I have found virtually all Israeli officials in love with Sisi. I can see why: he threw Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi out, he is opposing Hamas and the Brotherhood, and he is fighting terror in Sinai.

Israelis should step back and ask themselves whether the method Sisi is using–blunt repression–will work in post-Tahrir Egypt. And if not, where is Egypt headed? Judging by the last week, it is headed for more violence and instability.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations website.