Wilayat Sinai is a well organized and highly skilled terrorist organization. That’s the impression senior Israel Defense Forces officers have gotten from the Islamic State-affiliated group after its string of attacks on Egyptian security forces in Sinai, culminating in a major attack near the town of Sheikh Zuweid on July 1.
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A senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command told Haaretz that an analysis of the latter incident, including the footage Wilayat Sinai itself shot and posted on YouTube, clearly shows that the attack was planned by professionals. The militants attacked 15 outposts and checkpoints simultaneously, spanning an area 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) wide. “Every Egyptian outpost in this sector took fire,” he said.
How many casualties the attack caused remains in dispute, though: Wilayat Sinai said it killed more than 60 soldiers; the Egyptian army said it lost only 23 soldiers, and killed dozens of terrorists.
The IDF officer said the attack demonstrated a high level of coordination, command and control. It involved more than 100 fighters and a wide range of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
The organization’s combat capabilities are steadily increasing over time, he added, and many of its fighters are willing to sacrifice their lives in frontal assaults on Egyptian outposts or in suicide bombings. Wilayat Sinai has also become increasingly skilled in deploying explosives, including booby-trapped cars. In recent attacks, it has used a tactic familiar from other parts of the Middle East, including Iraq and Lebanon: sending a booby-trapped car to blow up the gate to an army compound, followed by fighters who storm the compound’s interior.
On average, the group has perpetrated attacks on Egyptian forces every two or three days over the past six months. That indicates an ability to regroup rapidly, as well as a steady supply of arms. Wilayat Sinai apparently has a large stockpile of weaponry, and also smuggles in more from Libya and Sudan. Since transferring its allegiance from Al-Qaida to Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in late 2014, the group has benefited from a clear increase in outside financial assistance.
For the past two years, Wilayat Sinai has refrained from attacking Israel, aside from sporadic rocket fire at the south; its top priority is its war against the military regime in Cairo. But the IDF is preparing for the possibility that it might step up its efforts to attack Israel in the future.
In the first half of this year, more than 100 members of the Egyptian security services were killed in terror attacks. Given Wilayat Sinai’s small size – it apparently commands no more than a few hundred fighters – this makes it the most effective Islamic State franchise in the Middle East in terms of the ratio between the number of fighters it deploys and the number of casualties it inflicts.
But despite the group’s steadily improving capabilities, it seems that both Egyptian and Israeli intelligence are still in the dark about the identities of the people running it. The IDF admits it doesn’t know who Wilayat Sinai’s military commander is. And given the extremely close security cooperation between Israel and Egypt in Sinai, this presumably means the Egyptians don’t know, either.
To enable Egypt to fight Wilayat Sinai and other radical Islamist groups in the peninsula more effectively, Israel has gradually allowed Cairo to move far more forces – both infantry and armor – into northern Sinai than are authorized under their peace treaty, and also to deploy weaponry forbidden by the treaty. Among other things, the Egyptians are now using Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters to conduct aerial assaults on these groups.