Days after Egypt’s deadliest terror attack claimed the lives of 305 civilians, including dozens of children, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has ordered the military to use all force necessary to secure the restive peninsula.
“It is your responsibility to secure and stabilize Sinai within the next three months,” he told his new chief of staff in a speech.
“You can use all brute force necessary.”
Hours after the massacre at the Al-Rawda mosque in the North Sinai city of Bir El-Abed on Friday, Sisi promised to “avenge our martyrs” and has launched a largescale military operation, including air strikes in North Sinai against hideouts used by terrorists involved in the attack.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the massacre, it is believed to be the work of Islamic State’s most effective franchise outside Syria and Iraq – Wilayat Sinai.
According to a report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Wilayat Sinai has carried out over 800 attacks across Egypt since it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in November 2014.
The defeat of ISIS and the fall of its territorial “caliphate” in Syria and northern Iraq has led Israeli intelligence officials and Sisi himself to warn that ISIS fighters might now choose to go to the Sinai Peninsula and join the group’s affiliate there who, despite being small, have committed many deadly attacks.
Sisi has waged extensive military operations against ISIS in Sinai, even getting the Beduin tribes in the peninsula to cooperate with the army against the ISIS group.
It is believed that the cooperation of the local tribe with the army and its refusal to cooperate with ISIS is what led to the deadly attack.
Director of Intelligence of the Africa Division and Senior Analyst at MAX Security Oded Berkowitz told The Jerusalem Post: “The relationship between Wilayat Sinai and (part of) the Beduin population already reached a boiling point around March and resulted in a partial rebellion, with Beduin militias fighting against ISIS both independently and in support of the military and police.” That, Berkowitz said, “was the most important turning point in the Sinai conflict.”
According to Egypt’s daily newspaper Ahram, the Beduin Union of Sinai Tribes issued a statement following the attack saying that Beduin tribes will exact revenge for the victims of the al-Rawda mosque.
“There can be no mourning before revenge is exacted against the takfiris... We will kill you and will show no mercy,” the statement said. “The massacre that was committed against Sinai and its tribes will turn us into fire that will burn you in this life before you burn in the next.”
Israel has a 240-kilometer border with the Sinai and since Sisi rose to power Cairo and Jerusalem have been closely cooperating to combat ISIS terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula.
According to Zack Gold, non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center, Israel is very concerned about ISIS activity in Sinai, but “the good news for Israel is that, despite the horror, the mosque attack was not complex.”
While ISIS continues to attack Egyptian troops with small-scale attacks, Cairo has “managed to disrupt and contain the larger, more complex attacks with advanced weaponry. That complex planning and heavy arms would be necessary for an attack that would successfully damage Israeli national security,” Gold said.
According to Berkowitz, Israel is already assisting Egypt “extensively” with its fight against ISIS. “Israel- Egypt relations warmed up significantly under Sisi to a point where Israel sees Egypt as a potential strategic partner, and to that end Israel would probably be willing to invest more in assisting Egypt, should they request.”
While Israel is not Wilayat Sinai’s principal target, and incidents along the Israel- Egypt border are rare, there have been several attacks, some deadly, in recent years. Gold told the Post that “despite many threats against Israel, actual attempts at cross-border attacks have been limited since 2013.”
Nevertheless, those attacks, and Friday’s massacre at the Al-Rawdah mosque, are a reminder of the threat that the group could pose to Israel if the group decides to turn its eyes north in an ambitious attack against the citizens of the Jewish State.