Commentary: As ISIS expands its reach, Israel could again become a top priority

After months of violent turmoil in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Islamic State has rediscovered the Palestinian issue.

An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past several weeks, the Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliates have claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut and Paris and are threatening more.
In Ankara, over 100 people were killed in two bombings outside the central railway station; in Sinai, 224 died when a civilian Russian aircraft, Metrojet flight 9268 to St. Petersburg exploded shortly after take-off; in Beirut, more than 40 people were killed by two suicide bombers; and a hail of indiscriminate gunfire and bombings in Paris in mid-November claimed at least 129 lives.
For Israel, closest to home is the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, active just across the border with Egypt, where it threatens not only Israel but a key moderate Arab regime. Indeed, this year has seen an escalation of Wilayat Sinai’s war on the secular Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In early January, despite an intensive Egyptian military campaign against it, the ISIS affiliate staged one of its biggest terrorist attacks: a coordinated strike against 15 military targets in North Sinai, including a siege of the town of Sheikh Zuweid. Two days earlier its gunmen killed the Egyptian prosecutor-general in a car bombing in Cairo.
In early July, another major attack targeted multiple Egyptian army checkpoints in the Sinai and the Sheikh Zuweid police station, in an attempt to expand the territory under its control on the ISIS model in Syria and Iraq. Two weeks later, Wilayat Sinai fighters hit an Egyptian navy frigate off the Rafah coast with a guided anti-tank missile, an attack they celebrated as “the Islamic State’s first naval assault.”
In retaliation, reinforcements from the Egyptian Second Army deployed outside Sheikh Zuweid and F-16 fighter jets targeted militants in the city killing more than 200. On September 8, the Egyptian military launched “The Martyr’s Right,” its largest operation to date, simultaneously targeting terrorist strongholds in Rafah, El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. According to the army, 535 militants were killed.
Two months later, in early November, one of the group’s leaders, Ashraf Ali Hassanein Gharabali, was killed in a shoot-out with Egyptian security forces in Cairo.
The sustained Egyptian offensive seemed to be pushing the terrorists back into their inaccessible Jebel Helal mountain stronghold and containing them there. But the downing of the Russian aircraft by Wilayat Sinai has again projected it as a major protagonist in the fight against the al-Sisi regime and a principal ISIS associate in the Middle East.
Wilayat Sinai did not start from scratch.
It is an ISIS-related outgrowth of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy House – Jerusalem), which emerged in 2011 when Palestinian militants joined the Sinai-based Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group, which the Egyptian authorities blamed for the bloody terrorist attacks against tourism targets in Sinai in October 2004 and July 2005.
The new group started its operations around the same time as the January uprising that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign, repeatedly blowing up the Sinai pipeline exporting Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan. The group also claimed responsibility for a range of attacks on army and police facilities and was linked to virtually every terrorist action in Egypt after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime under Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. In August 2014, following the ISIS example, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis beheaded nine people and vowed to behead anyone caught spying for the Mossad or Egyptian intelligence.
In November 2014, Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acknowledged this pledge as constituting the creation of a new Wilayat Sinai, Sinai province of the Islamic State or Caliphate.
In February 2015 in an “Appeal to Our Dignified Tribes in Sinai,” the leadership of Wilayat Sinai urged locals not to collaborate with the Egyptian government pointing to Egyptian army excesses and portraying Sisi as an “agent of the Jews.” ISIS attributes great importance to Sinai and directs considerable resources to it, such as anti-tank and possibly anti-aircraft missiles. In a speech released in May 2015, al-Baghdadi addressed all ISIS’s regional affiliates one by one. Sinai was mentioned immediately after Iraq, indicating its importance in the ISIS leader’s worldview.
THE STRONG evidence pointing to the fact that Wilayat Sinai militants were responsible for smuggling an explosive device into the Russian plane that exploded soon after taking off from Sharm el- Sheikh airport, in late October, suggests a major change in the capabilities and the strategy of the ISIS affiliate and its mother organization.
French officials involved in the investigation have confirmed that the flight recorder detected a sudden explosion, leading the investigators to conclude that there was a bomb in the cargo hold. Moreover, in the wake of the explosion, most Western air companies stopped flying to Sinai and Russia canceled all flights to Sinai and Egypt.
Russia at first seemed reluctant to acknowledge a terrorist operation, but on November 17, Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian FSB Security Agency, said in televised comments that traces of homemade explosives found on fragments of the downed plane meant that “it was unequivocally a terrorist act.” President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the airliner “anywhere on the planet” and promised intensified air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
Despite the international opprobrium, the downing of the Russian plane has brought Wilayat Sinai substantial gains in its battle against Egypt. For one, Egypt has been trying to project an image of stability following an investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in March, which was designed to lure billions of dollars into its battered economy. Hundreds of top officials and CEOs attended, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng.
In addition to the investor scare, the Egyptian tourism industry, which accounts for 11.3 percent of Egypt’s GDP, 14 percent of the country’s foreign currency revenue and nearly 12 percent of its jobs, could shrink by as much as 70 percent, further destabilizing the country politically and socially.
As for Russia, Putin could see his popularity and public support for intervention in Syria dwindling. Operationally it might compel him to invest even more military assets on the ground in the hope of achieving a quick political and diplomatic fix. Already the Russians have stepped up their long-range bombings and fired missiles from a submarine in the eastern Mediterranean at ISIS’s key Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. Raqqa was also attacked heavily from the air by French aircraft retaliating for the terror in Paris.
The downing of the Russian civilian aircraft could also hurt Western civil aviation interests, as was the case after attempts by Al-Qaeda to smuggle explosives aboard American and British planes in 2009 and 2012. The contingents of the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai (from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, UK, US and Uruguay), monitoring compliance of the Egypt- Israel Peace Treaty, could also be targeted.
Israel was a prime Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis target until the terrorist group started focusing almost exclusively on the Cairo regime and its military. Now as ISIS and Wilayat Sinai deliberately expand their reach, Israel could again become a top priority, especially since, after months of violent turmoil in Jerusalem and the West Bank, ISIS has rediscovered the Palestinian issue.
The suicide bombing in Ankara, the bombing of the Russian plane in Sinai, the twin suicide bombings in the Shi’ite area of southern Beirut and the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris could signal a decision by the ISIS leadership to carry the fight to enemy territory, in an attempt to counter intensified military attacks on ISIS-held areas by a coalition of regional and global powers.
But the new ISIS strategy comes at a price. The more it attacks abroad, the heavier the Western and Russian response is likely to be.
Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Center
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report.