ISIS: NEXT STOP SINAI
has taken foothold mainly in the north of the Sinai peninsula,
around El Arish, where they control portions of the coast. It is
thus not a coincidence that the recent attack against the Sufi al
Rawdah mosque in Bir el Abed, where over 300 people were killed,
took place in that area. Sufism is considered a heresy by ISIS
affiliates, who feed themselves on the precepts on Wahabism.
Sinai is the new frontier of terrorism. After the downfall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the dreams of a caliphate and a refuge for the surviving mujahedin can be found in Egypt. Furthermore, the Sinai can provide a series of advantages for Islamic terrorists:
• it’s deserted, scarcely inhabited, often mountainous lands can help terrorists hide or move around, with the adequate precautions of course;
• the return of a military regime in Cairo, the demise of an Islamist President and the continuous persecution of the Muslim Brothers provide a fertile ground for Islamic terrorism, especially for those believers ready to label as takfir any other Muslim who doesn’t share their views;
• Sinai’s proximity to the Gaza Strip and Israel potentially allows ISIS to strike targets and fight in the name of issues widely supported across the Arab world.
The Beduin tribes
Beduin tribes in the Sinai, an estimated 700 thousand people scattered across 60 thousand square kilometers, were not affected by radical Islam until ISIS terrorists came along. But they had widely supported President Mohamed Morsi. The subsequent restoration of a military regime in Cairo and the advent of Abdel Fattah al Sisi have fueled resentment and sympathies for radical Islam.
Traditionally, the Beduin tribes in the Sinai have never been involved in political or religious disputes, as they preferred to focus on their traffics. Their relationship with the authorities in Cairo, and particularly with the military deployed in the peninsula, was based on a tacit cohabitation agreement. As a matter of fact, the beduins in the peninsula do not recognize central authorities, but were allowed to continue their smuggling activities nonetheless. The arrival of the ISIS terrorists has broken this social equilibrium.
The deployment of the military
Egypt has decided to deploy two Divisions in the Sinai: the 2nd Division, that controls the north of the peninsula and the 3rd Division, which occupies the central portion of the peninsula all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal. The border area with Israel is under the control of the Ministry of Interior (see Invisible Dog Issue #24 in December 2013: "Sinai, no man’s land").
The 2nd Division controls a smaller portion of territory, but one which is more densely populated by terrorists. It has been recently reinforced by helicopters, drones, tanks and artillery. The outcome, given the recent attack on the mosque in Bir el Abed, was not satisfactory. The 3rd Division, instead, covers a larger portion of territory that it tries to monitor by setting up check points here and there and that often become the target of attacks. A string of incidents that have caused the death of over 2 thousand soldiers. Military convoys in the Sinai can only move with a heavy escort.
Despite the deployment of over 30 thousand men, it is a fact that the Egyptians were not able to neutralize some one thousand, or even two thousand (although estimates are not reliable) terrorists.
The support of the Beduins
Nor ISIS, nor the Egyptian military can win this war of attrition without the support of the local Beduin tribes that are, in fact, the only ones that control this territory. There are three main federations of tribes that live in the peninsula: the Suwarka along the coast around El Arish and up to the Gaza Strip, the Tarabin in the central-northern part and the Tiyaha in the center-south.
According to information from Israeli intelligence, there have been contacts and negotiations between ISIS leaders and the Tiyaha tribal chiefs to grant them access to the south of Sinai for their terrorist activities. Their initial target would have been the Egyptian military and, in the foreseeable future, the maritime traffic between Aqaba and the Suez Canal. According to some analysts, the terrorist attack in Bir el Abed targeted the Suwarka tribes, accused of collaborating with the Egyptian security forces.
The paramilitary militias
The Egyptian army is relying on the collaboration of a series of armed local militias known for their brutality. They carry out the dirty work and the summary execution of alleged terrorists. They also target the local population, which doesn’t help the cause of the cooperation between the Beduins and the Egyptian army. But rather fuels the resentment against military authorities.
The brutality of the Islamic State is now matched by these paramilitary militias that bring yet more bloodshed to this conflict. The state of emergency decreed in 2014 that grants security forces the freedom to abuse also helps the militias cover up their crimes. What the Egyptian military lacks is proper intelligence. And this cannot be achieved without the support of the local tribes.
Hisham Ashmawi aka Abu Omar al Muhajir
Terrorism on the rise
The recent influx of fighters fleeing from Iraq and Syria has swelled the ranks of local terrorism. The new arrivals have a significant military expertise that the locals did not have. This means terrorism in the Sinai is both qualitatively and quantitatively better. This was evident in the attack against the al Rawdah mosque, which was carried out in full military fashion. The group that until 2011 went under the name of Ansar Beit al Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem), pledged its allegiance to the caliphate in 2014 and changed its name to Velayat Sinai (Sinai Province). It is now a full member of the Islamic State.
An Al Qaeda affiliate also operates in the Sinai. Jamaat al Jund Islam (Group of the Soldiers of Islam) resurfaced in October 2017 declaring a war on ISIS, accused of kharijism, or of killing other fellow Muslims. The divide between the two groups is on who should be fought; while the Islamic State kills all non-believers, the takfir, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shia, Al Qaeda focuses on the infidels, the kafir.
Jund al Islam gained the spotlight in September 2013 for an attack against the Egyptian military in Rafah. Al Qaeda’s leader in Egypt is Hisham Ashmawi, aka Abu Omar al Muhajir, who can count on groups such as Ansar al Islam and Morabitoun in urban centers. Instead, the head of ISIS in the Sinai is Mohammed al Isawi, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Osama al Masri, who was a host of Egyptian jails until his escape during the insurrection in 2011. He became the chief in 2016 of the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State after the previous leader of the group, Abu Dua'l al Ansari, was killed during an Egyptian air strike.
A risky future
Terrorism in the Sinai is strongly influenced both by events in the Middle East and by internal Egyptian affairs. It is thus not a coincidence that terrorist attacks have taken place elsewhere across the country. Hence, the fight waged by the authorities in Cairo against the terrorists in the Sinai is a war for the survival of the regime. Urban centers are witnessing the soldering between Al Qaeda and the most radical factions within the Muslim Brotherhood that following the downfall of Morsi and the systematic persecution of their brothers have decided to take up arms. They have one common denominator: the legitimacy of a battle in the name of a religious goal. The Muslim Brotherhood was a political and mainly legal movement that has been forced to resort to terrorism to survive. And if they come together with ISIS and Al Qaeda, Egypt will see its stability in great peril.