Small Wars Journal

Disrupting the MFO: ISIS in Sinai

Tue, 10/20/2015 - 4:53am

Disrupting the MFO: ISIS in Sinai

Matthew J. McGoffin


On September 3, 2015, Reuters reported that four American soldiers were wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated near their convoy in Egypt. The soldiers are part of a little-known United States Army mission in support of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent international force established following the Camp David Accords of 1978 and subsequent Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace.

The mission of the MFO is to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms.” Accordingly, the American observers focus attention on Egyptian and Israeli military concentrations and troop movements, seeking to prevent violations of the security provisions of the peace treaty. The September 3 attack, however, was initiated not by a conventional military party, but by a local insurgency—previously known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, now known as the north Sinai branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This threat, in other words, exists outside the mandate, or purpose, of the MFO. In light of the deteriorating security situation, “the Obama administration is quietly reviewing the future of America's three-decade deployment to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, fearful the lightly equipped peacekeepers could be targets of escalating Islamic State-inspired violence. Options range from beefing up their protection or even pulling them out altogether, officials told The Associated Press.”

Apart from these two extremes, is there a way that the American force in Sinai could continue to accomplish its three-decade-old mission, but through alternative means? One solution would be to reorganize the current US presence into a smaller force, augmented with remote sensing equipment.


First let’s define terms. The MFO is an independent international organization, not a United Nations force. Its narrow support—primarily split between the US, Israel, and Egypt—means the MFO’s future is more precariously balanced than that of a similar UN force. With fewer state sponsors and stakeholders, the MFO could be more susceptible to unanticipated shocks and changes in the local environment. Corroborating this, Colonel Thomas O’Steen, a former commander of the US task force in Sinai, wrote a paper in 2013—prior to the rise of ISIS in Sinai—which states that “although the MFO still keeps the peace between Egypt and Israel, it does not address key changes in the environment such as Bedouin unrest, the emergence of violent extremist organizations, and the trafficking of weapons throughout the Sinai”.

Noted counterinsurgency theorist and former Australian Army officer David Kilcullen wrote in Out of the Mountains that “even where policy makers’ intent is to resolve a conflict, monitor a truce, or police a cease-fire, putting peacekeepers into an urban conflict zone amounts to laying out an attractive array of targets for terrorist groups, local insurgents, street gangs, organized crime, or just commercial kidnapping networks, and this can force peacekeepers into combat at short notice” (Kilcullen, 2013, pg. 267). In a parallel to north Sinai, radical Islamist insurgents in Syria have overrun peacekeepers of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), commandeering the force’s armored vehicles and repurposing them as vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). If the recent IED attack in Sinai is any indication, sending more American soldiers to beef up force protection within the MFO could very well result in an exacerbation of attacks on peacekeepers, with potentially catastrophic results.

ADRP 1-02 defines disrupt as “a tactical mission task in which a commander integrates direct and indirect fires, terrain, and obstacles to upset an enemy’s formation or tempo or interrupt his timetable.” What happens when conventional peacekeepers are disrupted by domestic insurgents, as in Sinai? The mission of the peace operation, its purpose, and its endstate must be reevaluated. At this juncture, the temptation is to stay the course, with familiar tactics and predictable results. Instead, military leaders and policymakers must recognize the need to adapt to the challenges that a flatly networked insurgency presents. Without an offensive mandate, but with the need to fulfill a critical regional security requirement, those responsible for the US mission in Sinai must evaluate policy alternatives outside of the typical Manichean options of withdrawal versus an increase in troop strength.


In Sinai, why change a formula which has worked for so long? Because the Egyptian-Israeli security relationship is evolving, as the common threat of ISIS in Sinai brings both governments together. New amendments to the security provisions of the peace treaty enable greater troop movements against the insurgents—the enemy of my enemy being my friend. In light of such cooperation, one alternative to the current peacekeeping arrangement would be for the US to consider substituting remote sensing equipment for some of the American observers, obviating much of the need for a distributed, overt US troop presence.

Of course, such a change should be the result of cooperative dialogue with the Egyptian and Israeli governments. Policymakers must weigh the relative costs and benefits of replacing these Soldiers, and the resulting net impact on regional security, the preservation of which is the sole reason for the MFO’s existence. However, one fact stands clear: if we are to succeed in achieving outcomes in this mission, we must periodically revisit the conduct of our operations in light of the changing environment, threats, and available technology. This can only occur by bringing focused attention and constructive conversation to the issue of the future of US peacekeeping. A lack of focused attention on this mission—indicated by much of mainstream media’s inability to accurately report what kind of force the MFO is—casts into doubt the potential for the development of the sort of change that needs to occur.

About the Author(s)

1LT Matthew J. McGoffin is the executive officer for the Headquarters & Support Company, Headquarters & Headquarters Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division. Previously, he led a scout platoon with USBATT 59, Multinational Force & Observers, 2014-2015. His views are his own and do not represent official policy of the Department of Defense or US Army.


Move Forward

Tue, 10/20/2015 - 9:22am

Good article. As he points out with his end-of-piece linked CNN article that got it wrong, not many folks know much about this long-time example of U.S. Army forward presence.

The then-Soviets blocked the MFO from being a UN force so the unique multi-national force and observers (MFO) was created. Unmentioned in this article is that the primary force contributors other than the U.S. are Columbia and Fiji which each provide infantry battalions that frankly are in the most dangerous areas in small OPs that potentially are vulnerable to suicide bomber vehicles. The main FOBs are pretty secure and well defended as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also as in OEF, the few roads are vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes affecting resupply and troop transport vehicles.

The U.S. O-6 in charge at the time once asked us to provide more airborne spot reports and intelligence during/after each utility helicopter flight. The problem was the Sinai in most areas we flew had little to no visible activity during exclusively daytime flights. There is no water, no towns or structures, or arable land out there and few roads in most places. No local humans or vehicles were visible for entire flights of many hours with few places to hide. We did not fly much in the northern Sinai or near the Gaza Strip or Suez Canal which is where more of the Sinai population lives (and where most Sinai ‘67 and ‘73 battles occurred) and where Palestinians smuggle arms under the Gaza-Egypt border through tunnels.

The U.S. battalion and its isolated OPs are more oriented on the coast leading from Sharm el Shiekh, Egypt to the southernmost coasts of Israel and Jordan at the end of the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. The Sinai’s center mountainous area (think Mt. Sinai) is uninhabited and not an MFO mission other than the mountainous coast leading to Israel. There have been attacks along that coast at Naama Bay near Sharm el Shiekh, which is a European beach resort similar to the attacked Tunisian beach recently in the news.

However, although the U.S. South Camp FOB is near Naama Bay, they do not provide security for it or anyplace else in the Sinai. The MFO simply observes and reports throughout the Sinai which I suspect <strong>UAS</strong> could accommodate, flying safely/inexpensively at night from the North Camp’s FOB. The ground OPs which are more like small COPs observe only small areas. Manned utility helicopters remain essential for many missions carrying troops and civil observers, supplies, and performing occasional MEDEVAC. If events continue to get more serious, perhaps some MFO UH-60s could mount machine guns and function as short-notice aerial QRFs carrying squads to vulnerable OPs and convoys.