ISIS in Sinai: Battered, weakened but still dangerous

The members of the Sinai Province of the Islamic State are fueled by a never-ending sense of divine mission.

EGYPTIAN MILITARY forces look on in the northern Sinai. (photo credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
EGYPTIAN MILITARY forces look on in the northern Sinai.
Jihadi organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which morphed into “the Sinai Province of the Islamic State” when it pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, is slowly losing steam. Torn apart by internal strife and new enemies it is less and less active.
Terrorist attacks plummeted from 594 in 2015, to fewer than half that in 2016 and 2017, according to a recent report of Al-Ahram Weekly. This is due to several factors, first and foremost, the Egyptian Army which is doing much better since it killed the organization’s leader Abu Anas el Ansari in May 2016.
ISIS appointed in his stead Abu Hajer al-Hashemi, who is not Egyptian and is rumored to be a former Iraqi Army officer. More non-Egyptians were appointed to the leadership of the group or swelled the terrorists’ rank and file. Among them were deserters from the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, who fled the Gaza Strip because they were dissatisfied with what they perceived as the lack of resolve of Hamas against Israel and against the Palestinian Authority.
The growing influence of these “foreigners” led to significant changes. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis no longer took into consideration the tribal intricacies of northern Sinai and did not hesitate to target local civilians and Beduin, even those who in the past had demonstrated sympathy toward the jihadists. The new policy was following the basic tenet of Islamic State: Apply maximum savagery to terrify to reach its goal: setting up an Islamic regime based on the Shari’a and ruled by a caliph.
The November 24 massacre at Al-Rawdah Mosque, linked to the Sufi school of Islam, was a stark demonstration of that new policy. More than 300 civilians were killed in the attack carried out during the Friday morning prayers. The large Tarrabin tribe, which in the past had helped the jihadists, supplying them with information and affording them sanctuary, then turned hostile and greatly hampered their movements. According to reports, armed tribesmen had started unspecified operations against the jihadists last summer. Meanwhile, there were bitter conflicts between the “Egyptians” and the newcomers among the terrorists.
The tribe’s hostility combined with the growing pressure from the army led to the desertion of many militants. Some went back to Gaza, others departed for Libya. Those who did not want to leave the Sinai Peninsula joined another terrorist group, The Army of Islam, which protects them from the vengeance of Daesh. It is a small organization affiliated with al-Qaida that appeared in 2011 and lately carried out two attacks, against the army and against Daesh.
Worse, there were incidents between the two sides inside Daesh. Some weeks ago, 20 bodies were found in a desert area south of El-Arish, apparently the result of an armed confrontation between their followers.
Egypt launches air strikes on militants they say connected to Sinai attack (REUTERS)
DETAILS ABOUT the parlous state of the Sinai Province of Islamic State were revealed in a series of letters sent at the end of last year by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, apparently from Syria, to the leaders of the movement in Libya. They fell into the hands of another terrorist group linked to al-Qaida and somehow found their way to a Saudi daily published in London, Asharq al-Awsat. On November 30 the paper published letters dispatched in October and November when ISIS was suffering a string of defeats in Iraq and Syria and lost Sirte, its last outpost in Libya.
The tone of these letters reveals the feeling of frustration and defeat of the leader. He calls on his followers in Libya to go south and regroup taking advantage of the difficult and desert areas carved deep into the wadis and offering protection against drones and warplanes, urging them to keep on fighting, and to welcome militants fleeing from Iraq and Syria. He gives them detailed instructions on how best to reorganize and to mastermind from there operations in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Mali. They are told to recruit children and send them to watch the fighting and absorb the spirit of the movement to become the next generation of militants. It may thus be that those desert regions of southern Libya will become one of the new centers of operation of Islamic State.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is angry at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, because many of its members have fled to Libya. “Your unseemly behavior was brought to my attention,” he writes, “it was caused by militants who came from the Bayt al-Maqdis Brigades, and distorted the spirit of jihad.” He then explains that the Sinai front is part of the grand scheme and must not be abandoned.
It is not known how the deserters from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were received in Libya and if indeed they were made to go back to the Sinai Peninsula. However, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State is still active despite the many threats it is facing, such as the “reconciliation” between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and the pressure applied by Egypt to Hamas to stop all cooperation with Daesh.
Hamas did install a buffer zone between Palestinian and Egyptian Rafah, preventing contact between terrorists of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai and their supporters in Gaza and the Salafi organizations, while arresting dozens of them. Daesh had always considered Hamas as infidel, the movement having abandoned the path of jihad, and relations between them have always been ambivalent, born of their common interest against Egypt and Israel and kept to a minimum. Gaza was a place of refuge for jihadists wounded and at times for terrorists fleeing the Egyptian Army. It may have also been a convenient site for experimenting with weapons and ammunitions.
In return, Daesh let open Hamas supply routes in Sinai, bringing a steady flow of contraband ammunitions and weapons as well as necessities from Egypt and Libya to the Gaza Strip. In fact, it often helped the transit. No more. Now jihadists are attacking those routes and Gaza, deprived of civilian and military supplies, is feeling the pinch.
A video of the barbarous execution of a Daesh member who attempted to smuggle weapons from Sinai to Gaza was recently put online. The victim was a former member of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades who had deserted to join Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis; so was the executioner. To all intents and purposes, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State is blockading Hamas in Gaza, and there are murderous fights between the two groups.
THIS IS NOT the only woe to plague the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. As seen above, there is intense infighting within the organization; and ISIS in Syria and in Iraq, to which it had pledged allegiance, is collapsing and gradually losing all possibility of supplying it with weapons and money it needs not only to fight but also to keep functioning. At the same time, it is facing an all-out offensive of the Egyptian Army while having to deal on its own territory with hostile Tarrabin tribesmen and with Hamas which is not ready to abandon its supply routes.
Nevertheless, it is not to be expected that Sinai Province will disappear anytime soon. Its members are fueled by a never-ending sense of divine mission, and are fiercely dedicated and deeply committed to the Koran, the undisputed supremacy of Allah and the commandment to fight his enemies to the bitter end.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.