Lessons from Egypt and Algeria's counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1990s

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Lessons from Egypt and Algeria's counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1990s

Basem Aly

07 Aug 2018

4min min read
  • Civilians in war
  • Terrorism

The British Army Field Manual defines counterinsurgency (COIN) as "those military, law enforcement, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken to defeat insurgency, while addressing the root causes." Unlike the case with inter-state wars, in which armies can determine each other's weapons depots and military bases, conventional troops can hardly have access to this amount of information when fighting an "asymmetrical" war against a group of insurgents, for the latter are typically backed by locals who help them to hide their weapons and personnel. Hence, as was the case with the US war in Vietnam, being unable to "capture the hearts and minds" of the local people results in failure to achieve strategic objectives.   

The approach of "capturing the hearts and minds" of local populations in insurgency-hit areas is an important contributing factor to the success of counterinsurgency campaigns. As explained in the US Army Field Manual, winning hearts involves "persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success", while winning minds means "convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless". 

During the 1990s, North Africa saw two important counterinsurgency operations against Islamist insurgents in Egypt and Algeria. A combination of "hard" and "soft" tactics were used in both campaigns, and their outcomes have some impact on the current security situation in both countries. 

In the 1990s, Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic Group (Al-Gama‘a Al-Islamiyya) and Islamic Jihad carried out attacks in different parts of Egypt, while seeking shelter in Upper Egypt. The government struggled to access and impose control over this part of the country, and sought out the co-operation of the Hanafy family , who controlled the Nile island of Nekheila, to combat the extremists. 

Ezzat Hanafy was a notorious arms and drug dealer and leader of a strong clan in the southern island of Nekheila. Hanafy’s men had knowledge of the topography, politics and social norms of the population in Nekeheila and the capacity to contribute to the fighting missions. Their involvement and ‘inside knowledge’ enabled the counterinsurgents to kill and capture dozens of Islamist insurgents.

However, Hanafy had personal ambitions to grow his political influence and control over territories in Nekheila after the end of the insurgency. As his illegal empire grew, the government could no longer turn a blind eye to his criminal activities. In 2004, Egyptian security forces launched a massive operation, storming the village, and finally arresting Hanafy after six-day operation.

Socio-political measures enhanced the success of Egypt’s counterinsurgency campaign, including giving the militant groups access to moderate Islamic texts, starting a dialogue between the latter and Egyptian Islamic scholars, allowing visits by Islamist militant leaders to prisons and agreeing to transform their armed groups into peaceful, preaching entities.


During the Algerian civil war, the government established the so-called Legitimate Defence Groups (GLD) in 1992 to help its troops in fighting a coalition of Islamist insurgent groups in rural and mountainous areas. The GLD was responsible for mobilising the local population against the insurgents, collecting information, sending early warnings about possible attacks from insurgents and conducting ground missions in parallel with air strikes by state forces. The Algerian government, as incentive for the insurgents to stop fighting, offered them jobs in state institutions, encouraged them to speak on television and even allowed Islamist political parties to run for elections if they agreed to work within the political boundaries provided by the regime.

Algeria was less of a success story than Egypt. The civil war claimed more than 150 000 lives and ended with a presidential amnesty that covered most parties to the conflict in 2000. But the Islamist insurgency re-emerged in 2006, with attacks carried out against security forces. These scenes are mainly seen in the northeastern parts of the country in which groups –such as those linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS as the case with Jund Al-Khilafa movement—can conduct effective operations. 

It can be argued that the Algerian counterinsurgents failed to win the total support of the population for their campaign as they failed to establish control over the GLD. Many reports by human rights bodies refer to the crimes committed by the GLD against civilians, with some of them questioning the lack of control imposed by the government troops over the actions of their paramilitaries. Hence, the popularity of the insurgents in war-hit areas remained strong, which allowed them to rise again. It is hard to deny the efficiency of the GLD's ground operations, but the absence of total control over their actions eventually forced the government to give the amnesty to all parties to the conflict in order to end the existing deadlock in the war. 


In Egypt, the situation was somehow different as the Islamist insurgency reached its end in the 1990s. But a new Islamist insurgency emerged in Sinai Peninsula by the early 2000s, involving attacks against security and civilian sites. As the security forces focused on dealing with militant threats in Upper Egypt and terrorist operations in urban cities, lesser focus was placed on Sinai, which, during the 1980s and 1990s, was reportedly used by the Islamist militants for training only. 

The security conditions in Sinai became much worse following the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising, a shocking event that the Islamist insurgents such as ISIS-affiliated groups took advantage of to constantly conduct large-scale operations against police and army forces in North Sinai. Egypt saw several changes in political leadership, endless rounds of mass protests, strikes and sit-ins and deterioration in security conditions throughout the post-uprising years. Though not expanding beyond the borders of North Sinai, the absence of a security policy and the preoccupation with handling the unrest in urban areas inevitably led to less focus on tracing the ongoing threats in remote areas. One can conclude that a lot of work has to be done to successfully finalise the ongoing counterinsurgency operation in Sinai.

Egypt and Algeria differ from states that are arguably categorised along the lines of “fragility” or “failure”. They enjoy relatively strong security control over most of their territories. However, dealing with paramilitaries was challenging for their governments.

A new insurgency is an expected outcome whenever there is a lack of investment in efficiently imagining, developing and implementing a strategy for winning the hearts and minds of people living in non-urban, remote areas.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.