Sinai is the peninsula linking up both African and Asian continents. This is also a place steeped in history, therefore pointless to tell you the Moses, prophet of all three great abrahamic religions, and Jewish people’s (children of Israel for muslims) crossing in this mountainous place. On the other hand, it would be much more interesting to go back to the recent history of Sinai and particularly interaction between Palestine, Israel and Egypt, because this is the key allowing us to grasp current situation.
An excellent article of Orient XXI recounts the spreading of jihad in Sinai, first against Israel and in favor of a Palestinian State, and finally to opt for Tawhid ideology in the strictest sense whose Islamic State claims loud and clear.
It is therefore during the month of November, 2014 that Ansar Bait Al Maqdis group (Helpers of Jerusalem) proclaim allegiance in great majority to the Islamic State through an audio statement. To this occasion, the group releases a video recounting every actions carried out by the group (clashes, bypass shootings, mortar bombing, IED against military convoys). This video ends with a long sequence staging a suicide attack and then assault of an Egyptian Army post located close to Sheikh Zuweid, killing 30 Egyptian soldiers.
Following this allegiance, the new Wilaya Sinai still carries on its security forces destabilization operations, taking same action patterns back, suicide attacks, targeted attacks, assassinations, IED’s. Those kind of action keep going from the allegiance until July, 1st 2015. At this time, IS is leading a simultaneous offensive on fifteen Egyptian Army positions and manage to penetrate temporarily in the city of Sheikh Zuweid. The hours long battle claims the life of 74 soldiers, and a hundred jihadists according to official sources and force Egyptian government to use its aviation to repel jihadists.
Attacks and expansion
Those attacks of various nature occurs every 5 days on average since the tension build-up after the ouster of president Morsi, with respite periods of up to 1 month. Since the pledge of allegiance, the cycle of major attacks (attack causing more than 10 deaths) is approximately of 3 months; this shows a meticulous preparation from the Wilaya to inflict as much damage as possible on Egyptian Forces. This tempo also shows a certain determination from jihadists’ side.
While most of the attacks were done with relatively light weapons, IS in Sinai procured itself with several heavy armament and most notably Kornet anti-tank missiles (NATO code : AT-14 Spriggan) and Igla-S man portable anti-aircraft missiles (NATO code : SA-24 Grinch). These weapons, relatively new, come from Libya and cross the Egyptian desert all the way to Alexandria, then go to Sinai and reach Gaza for a part of them; they also come from neighbor Sudan or even from Jordan.
Since Summer 2015, IS is increasingly relying on these weapons to attack Egyptian Army, most notably its armor (M-60 tanks and M-113 APC’s), but also its rotary-wing aircrafts (AH-64 Apache).
In the beginning of year 2015, IS was mostly confined to desert areas, progressively, it established itself in villages close to both Sheikh Zuweid and Al Arish cities. In the video « The Harvest of the Soldiers » released on September, 1st 2015, IS shows its convoys parading freely, with locals showing sign of sympathies towards them. In response to the video, Egyptian High Command launched operation « Martyrs’ Rigths » aimed at eliminating IS presence in the area.
screenshots of « Harvest of the Soldiers » video showing IS convoys parading in inhabited area
These last days, IS targets local higher staff of Egyptian government: in this way, two generals were assassinated by armed gunmen. This is not the first time that the organization targets such leaders: under the banner of Ansar Bait Al Maqdis, a General attached to the Ministry of Interior and a Lieutenant-Colonel of anti-terror forces were killed by the group; the Minister of Interior, as for him, narrowly escaped a bomb attack. Tribal leaders cooperating with the government are also targeted by an assassination campaign (1)(2).
These assassinations occurs in the middle of an anti-terrorist campaign, portraying a government unable to contain the phenomenon. While the end of the operation was announced on September, 22nd 2015, IS was still able to carry out attacks. From dissident sources, attacks targeted Al Arish and Az-Zohour military base just south of Sheikh Zuweid a few hours after Egyptian High Command statement.
In this conflict, communication also takes an important part: government tries to portrays action of the group like a conspiracy of foreign origin or made by Palestinians. As a retaliation, IS emphasizes reinforced cooperation between Egypt and Israel, the latter being very unpopular in the Arab World.
To face the rise in intensity of attacks on the media battleground, the armed forces command retaliates with statements announcing large casualties in enemy’s ranks. Unfortunately, lacking independent sources, those figures are difficult to verify and some journalists suspects that civilians death are counted as terrorist casualties; moreover, the consistency of numbers rises doubts while comparing announced casualties and the real size of the organization in Sinai. Since September,1st, launch date of « Martyrs’ Rights » operation, almost 421 terrorists were announced killed, previous figures are:
- January – March : 333,
- April – June : 187,
- July : 320,
- August : 1.
This makes a total of 1262 death in enemy’s ranks; but attacks didn’t backed down like the previous graph shows, moreover the group continues to expend its influence on the Al Arish-Rafah area.
Worse, since 1st, July, there are almost no civilian present anymore in casualties figures, some dissident sources contradicts official ones on civilian casualties of the Sinai insurgency. Relations between locals and security forces deteriorated harder with the numerous attempts at closing tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, hundreds of houses were destroyed to establish a buffer zone, with ridiculous compensations ( a few hundred dollars per home). Recently, the Egyptian government decided to flood the area to destroy tunnels, with disastrous consequences on the environment and border constructions in Gaza. These recent actions are coming along with an already tense situation between Bedouins, feeling excluded and government, deaf to people’s grievances.
Security forces are also accused of having committed abuses towards locals, in the first video of Wilaya Sinai, a sequence shows Egyptian soldiers beating Bedouins (they were arrested for curfew violation in Al Arish, they were found dead later); this sequence is used as a justification for the execution of an Egyptian soldier.
example of an Egyptian government official video dated September, 22nd 2015, we can see great troops deployments, no fightings, a few vehicles destroyed, a few supposed terrorists dead.
Government also strengthened laws targeting dissenting voices during the month of July as part of anti-terror draft law. In fact, any journalist contesting official version of the government will be prosecuted and penalties are heavy (2 years in jail minimum). This repression of press freedom has for consequence to offer an unexpected loudspeaker for Islamic State in Sinai who will be almost the only other influential group able to offer another version of Sinai events.
Gaza, the neighbor in trouble
While both the Egyptian and Israeli blockade maintain an ever growing pressure on Gaza Strip, salafists, already cracked down for years are rebelling against Hamas. This Islam branch benefits of the growing unpopularity of Hamas, accused of corruption and power-grabbing, to destabilize Hamas government by attacking Israel to force Tsahal to retaliate militarily against Hamas. The connection with Sinai jihadists takes places because some salafist leaders took refuge in Sinai and may lead operations from the here.
A strategy shift is also to be highlighted: while attacks of Ansar Bait Al Maqdis were also targeting other parts of Sinai, since allegiance to Islamic State, attacks focused on the region between Al-Arish and Rafah. This shift is not insignificant, this is the area bordering Gaza Strip.
Attack patterns, techniques employed, the ever growing harassment against security forces, public figures assassinations, the progressive takeover of terrain and sympathy won in the eyes of the local population, are very similar to events that occured in Anbar between end of 2013 and Spring 2014. Intensity of attacks is getting bigger, IS is using heavy weaponry and IED to counter enemy armor, just like in Anbar while facing Iraqi forces. Numbers of assassinations to cut off the head of command and administration structure are rising. If we pick up the history of previous attacks, there is a high probability that Wilaya Sinai is prepairing large scale attacks in the coming weeks and most probably during the month of October, if we follow the logic of 3-month pauses observed since almost 1 year.
The ultimate goal would be to end presence of Egyptian Army on Gaza border and break blockade in force since years. Once this operation done, IS will be able to slip into Gaza and put in place a local government as well as forward operating base to pursue future expansion activities in Sinai and in the rest of Egypt is the objective is fulfilled.
The symbolic of this potential event will have great media repercussions. Until then, Gaza is isolated and under blockade, the population lives through harsh imposed restrictions, accentuated by Hamas misappropriations. A break of this blockade could lead to rush of sympathy for the Islamic State, where Turkey, Hamas, Iran and Gulf countries failed. IS would assert itself as a major political actor of the region where it remains in great minority despite its expansion.
A total loss of control from the Egyptian government could foster imitators in neighbor countries, notably in Sudan, its current governance suffers contradictions between a supported strict Islam and a need to maintain equilibrium to not be overwhelmed by salafists. Instability lies in wait for the country and the gap is widening between powerful Janjaweed and government, Sudanese are leaving in groups to join Islamic State in Libya, Sinai or Syria, all those parameters are coming along with a bad economic situation in the country, also stricken by the oil glut.
Instability could also reach Jordan already weakened by refugee crisis and Syrian civil war, where sovereign is seen as more and more powerless despite its media stunts. In the city of Ma’an in the southern country, IS is already very popular and the situation with security forces is very tense. The installation of a jihadist territory next to the southern part of the country would weaken it even more, already very anxious of the Islamic State presence on its northern border.
Lacking improvement of the situation, this is potentially a strategic region that would potentially fall into the hands of IS. We have to keep in mind that we haven’t reached yet the next stage but red lights are popping-up for Egyptian government. If the latter is not changing its policies to improve political situation, next attempts to contain the phenomenon will be pointless.