Nearly a week after Islamic State launched a major attack in Sinai, the picture still isn’t totally clear. The organization (also known as ISIS or ISIL) didn’t manage to hold the town of Sheikh Zuweid, and the Egyptian security forces’ casualties were lower than initially claimed.
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But the local Islamic State franchise, Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis), did mount a large-scale, coordinated attack against multiple targets. Even more importantly, the fact it took the Egyptian forces by complete surprise, along with the substantial international attention it received, has further undermined Egypt’s stability and raised questions about whether President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s regime can survive.
According to an official statement from Cairo, last Wednesday’s attack killed 23 members of the security forces. The government also said the jihadists have been pushed out of Sheikh Zuweid – a Bedouin town, near the border with the Gaza Strip – and every day it announces that dozens of additional jihadists have been killed.
The initial reports of last week’s attack, which said 64 soldiers and policemen had been killed, were indeed seemingly exaggerated – presumably in part because some of the terrorists wore Egyptian uniforms. Nevertheless, it’s not unthinkable that the official figure is also inaccurate. Cairo has a clear interest in sending the message that everything is under control, which is also why Sissi visited Sinai last Saturday and declared the government’s readiness to continue waging uncompromising war on the terrorists.
Over the weekend, Wilayat Sinai launched three rockets from the peninsula to the Negev. Israel isn’t the organization’s principal target, but the rockets – like the attack on Egyptian forces not far from Israel’s border – were a reminder of the threat Sinai poses to Israel.
Back when the organization was still known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and affiliated with Al-Qaida rather than Islamic State, it attempted several attacks inside Israel. These included one near Eilat in 2011 that succeeded, and another near Kerem Shalom in 2012 that failed. It also fired some 10 rockets at Israel.
Assuming that neither Israel nor Egypt had advance warning of last week’s attack in Sinai, this also demonstrates an intelligence gap. Israel lacks information about the various Salafi groups like Wilayat Sinai, since they are relatively new enemies compared to, say, Hamas or Hezbollah, about which intelligence has been gathered for years.
The Islamic State threat on the Egyptian border differs from that on the Syrian border. In the north, ISIS rarely comes near the border, which is controlled by more moderate Sunni rebels. But on the other hand, the Syrian government has completely lost control of the area. The Egyptian government is incomparably stronger, but Wilayat Sinai is closer to the Israeli border and Cairo has yet to defeat it.
Israel’s ability to respond to attacks is also more limited in Sinai than in the north. Egypt is currently Israel’s most important regional ally, and any response to attacks from Sinai would violate its sovereignty. Therefore, at least as long as the rockets cause no casualties, Israel has opted for restraint.
The recent events in Sinai also demonstrate the complexity of this arena, which involves multiple actors with often conflicting goals – some of them not immediately apparent. In Sinai, when Islamic State shoots rockets, Israel does nothing, to avoid antagonizing Egypt. In the Gaza Strip, when Salafi organizations – including some indirectly linked to ISIS – shoot rockets, Israel blames Hamas but also does little, on the assumption that Hamas doesn’t want a war right now and can be prodded to restrain the Salafists.
At at the same time, though, in what seems like an effort to turn Egypt against Hamas, Israel accuses Hamas of abetting Islamic State in Sinai and publishes intelligence about the ties between the two groups.
What does Israel hope to achieve? It’s doubtful the government really wants to ignite a war between Egypt and Hamas. But perhaps it thinks more Egyptian pressure on Hamas will persuade the latter to try harder to stop the sporadic rocket fire at Israel from Gaza.
Another possibility relates to the growing rift between Hamas’ military and political wings in Gaza. Ever since last summer’s war in Gaza, the military wing has refused to accept the political wing’s authority. Thus, Israel may have published its intelligence in an effort to spur the latter to reassert control. With a real landlord in Gaza, it might even be possible to alleviate the dangerous situation that has prevailed there for the last year.