Although the American-led coalition has successfully put down the Islamic State and forced most of its operatives out of the last areas they controlled in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, the group’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula is continuing to function without any noticeable problems.
More than a year after the collapse of Islamic State strongholds and its main command centers of Mosul in Iraq and in Raqqa in Syria, there may have been somewhat of a drop in the scope of the attacks by the organization in Sinai but it continues to battle the Egyptian army and its police force, causing them numerous casualties.
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The rise in activity by global jihad organizations in Sinai began in the last decade. At the beginning of this decade the most prominent among them was Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. In 2014, not long after ISIS declared the establishment of its “caliphates” in broad territories of Iraq and Syria, the operatives of the Sinai organization swore allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and changed the name of their group to Wilayat Sinai (“Sinai Province”).
Among the serious attacks attributed to them was planting a bomb on a Russian aircraft flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg in October 2015, which exploded and crashed the plane, killing 224 passengers and crew members. Two years later, in November 2017, the group’s operatives committed a multipronged attack that included suicide terrorists and gunmen that killed 309 worshipers in a mosque in northern Sinai.
In the summer of 2018 the Americans seized control of Mosul and Raqqa. Since then, it seems that some of the Islamic State fighters who fled the region managed to find their way to Sinai. The relatively direct transfer of funds and orders from the commanders in Iraq and Syria was cut off by the coalition’s success. Two months ago the American assassinated Baghdadi, who had fled to Idlib in northern Syria.
Also that summer, the Egyptian authorities announced a wide-ranging operation against Islamic State, which apparently had some success. Hundreds of Islamic State operatives were killed in the operation. Afterward, Islamic State moved most of its people to areas much further from the border with Israel, in an effort to evade the Egyptian attacks. Some of them are hiding in tent camps in the middle of the desert. Others have found refuge in neighborhoods of Bedouin towns.
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According to reports in Arab and U.S. media outlets, Israel has for years aided Egypt in its airstrikes against Islamic State targets, primarily using drones. In January, in an interview with the U.S. television network CBS, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi confirmed that Egyptian cooperation with Israel is especially close. Israel refused to comment on his remarks.
But despite all this, Wilayat Sinai has adapted remarkably well to the new situation and continues to function and operate. Most of the attacks it initiates take place in the triangle between the cities of Rafah, El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai, and they are generally aimed at Egyptian military and police bases.
Egypt has positioned heavy security around the tourist spots on the Red Sea coast, in an effort to prevent attacks and allow the increase in tourism to continue. During the past year, Egypt even built a concrete wall to protect Sharm el-Sheikh from attacks; the wall is reminiscent of the wall that Israel has built along some of its border.
From the beginning of the year through the start of December there were 282 Islamic State attacks in Sinai that caused 269 deaths, most of them Egyptian security personnel. In 2018 there were 333 attacks and 377 deaths. In 2017, the height of Islamic State’s activity, there were 603 attacks and 742 deaths (41 percent of which were from the mosque attack).
Wilayat Sinai continues to regularly post videos of its attacks on YouTube and other websites. Analysis of the images show that the group’s fighters are following a systematic combat doctrine and have an orderly chain of command and control; they have relatively advanced weapons and are using car bombs, suicide terrorists and Strela anti-aircraft missiles. Like the Iraqi and Syrian branches, in some instances it is relying on foreign fighters who have joined the ranks during the past year.
It seems that the organization still sets great stock in publicizing its activity, in an effort to encourage new recruits and intimidate Sinai residents and the Egyptian security forces. Many attacks are filmed using GoPro cameras worn by the fighters.
Some of the attacks are carried out in broad daylight, testifying to Islamic State’s confidence and daring. In an attack documented a few months ago, group operatives stopped a car with two Egyptian lawyers inside that was traveling in midday on the Sinai’s northern coastal road. They executed the two, claiming (falsely) that they were collaborating with the Egyptian authorities. In November they posted images of an attack on an Egyptian military checkpoint that took place just before 2 P.M.
In another attack in June, operatives killed 20 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint near El-Arish. Some 25 Islamic State fighters took part; they were carrying light weapons, rifles, RPG rockets and explosive devices. The attacking force was divided into sub-cells that were assigned the tasks of closing off the area and storming the checkpoint.
Over the past two years Wilayat Sinai has avoided attacks on Israeli territory. The last such attack was in October 2017, when rockets were fired from Sinai into Israel. Nevertheless, the defense establishment is concerned there could be attempts at a showcase attack along the Egyptian border – an attack on an Israel Defense Forces position, the abduction of soldiers or a combination of the two. In addition, the increase in Israeli tourists visiting Sinai may result in attempts to attack the tourist sites along the Red Sea coast.