On February 9, Egypt announced “Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018” [#Sinai2018]: the country’s largest counter-terrorism operation to date. At the launch of the operation, Egypt's President al-Sisi tweeted: “I proudly follow up the heroic acts of my sons in the armed forces and the police to purge the land of precious Egypt from terrorist elements who are enemies of life." The Egyptian army also initiated an information operation (IO) campaign in support of the operation, publishing footage of Egyptian fighter jets and attack helicopters taking off and Egyptian special forces deploying in Sinai, in a clear display of strength and resolve in the face of the persistent insurgency in Sinai. Photos published on social media also showed Egyptian special forces and armed vehicles preparing to participate in the Sinai operation.
The primary target for this large-scale operation is Wilayat Sinai, the IS's Egyptian affiliate and one of its most active and deadly branches worldwide. Among other attacks, Wilayat Sinai downed a Russian jet in October 2015, killed hundreds of Egyptian troops in Sinai, carried out the bloody attack on the al-Rawdah mosque in Northern Sinai in November 2017, and attempted to assassinate Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy by firing an anti-tank missile at an Egyptian air force helicopter later that month. Unsurprisingly for an IS-affiliate, Wilayat Sinai responded to the Egyptian military's show of force with its own propaganda: on Sunday, the group published a teaser for a new video. Several hours later, the full video was published, showing what Wilayat Sinai defined as "the crimes of the apostate al-Sisi's crimes against the Sunnis in service of the Jews and the Crusaders."
The video showed some of Wilayat Sinai's attacks in 2017: IED attacks against Egyptian army convoys, close-up shots of the bodies of dead Egyptian soldiers, and footage of the explosion of the military helicopter of the Egyptian Defense Minister, which was considered by many analysts as the group's greatest tactical success. Interestingly, the video did not feature footage of Wilayat Sinai's massacre of the Copts or of its massacre of Muslim worshippers who it attacked in the al-Rawdah mosque, focusing instead only on its attacks against military targets and presenting itself as the defenders of the Sunnis in Egypt. This line is consistent with many of the IS's messaging in Iraq and Syria in recent years, as the IS sought to position itself as the only defenders of Sunnis from Shiʿi and "apostate" governments.
Egypt's latest military operation is first and foremost part of an ongoing battle of perceptions between the Sisi regime and the jihadis: the terror attacks against civilians, including Muslims praying in a mosque and Copts attending mass in churches, exposed the continuing vulnerability of Egypt to terrorism and the failure of the Egyptian army's attempts to crush the insurgency in Sinai. Despite being presented as the largest-ever counter-terrorism operation in Egypt, this isn't the first campaign against the jihadis in Sinai: however, in the past such campaigns helped raise the media profile of the IS and Wilayat Sinai by providing them with further publicity. The coming days will tell how Egypt's counterterrorism operation will unfold – both in the media and on the ground.