Analysis

ISIS Settles Score With Israel for Egypt's War on Sinai Jihadists

In light of the threat from Sinai, Egypt has deployed 20,000-25,000 soldiers to the area, far exceeding the amount allowed by the Israel-Egyptian peace accords. But with Israel's blessing and intelligence cooperation, Wilayet Sinai's 1,000 fighters are on the back foot.

This photo posted online on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, by ISIS in Sinai, shows an explosion as militants attack an Egyptian police checkpoint on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in el-Arish, north Sinai.
Uncredited/AP

Egyptian security forces have registered a series of successes in their war against the ISIS branch in Egypt called Wilayet Sinai in recent months, according to intelligence sources in Israel. It seems the Egyptians managed to hit a relatively large number of ISIS members, among them senior commanders in Sinai. As a result, the organization has struggled lately to carry out the kind of widespread terror attacks it used to do, as the number of weekly assaults has declined.

Wilayet Sinai blames Israel for giving the Egyptians intelligence for their war on the organization and for joining aerial attacks aimed at its leaders. Israel and Egypt confirm that there is security coordination between the countries. Four Grad-type Katyusha rockets were fired at Eilat last Wednesday. Israel’s Iron Dome took out three of them, and the fourth fell in open space. Wilayet Sinai took official responsibility for the rockets, which were fired from an approximate range of 40 kilometers.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi told Egyptian radio last month that 41 battalions containing 20,000-25,000 soldiers have been deployed in northern Sinai, where the campaign against ISIS is concentrated. He asserted in the interview that Egypt is winning the war against terror in the desert peninsula. The Egyptian deployment includes the use of jet fighters, combat helicopters and tanks. The troop deployment far exceeds what the security appendix to the Israel-Egyptian peace accord permits. Nonetheless, the moves were made in coordination with Israel, in light of the threat both sides see ISIS posing.

Sissi was interviewed after an attack in northern Sinai’s Al-Arish, in which a bomb inside a booby-trapped garbage truck killed nine security officers. However, the force of the attack was exceptional for the recent period. Wilayet Sinai had managed to kill about 1,000 members of Egypt’s security forces between October 2015 and October 2016, according to statements by the group that are deemed reliable. Estimates are that security force casualties have dropped to 10 or fewer a week – a prohibitive figure by Israeli standards, but apparently a price the Egyptian public is willing to pay.

Wilayet Sinai, the current edition of the Ansar Beit Al-Makdas organization, swore loyalty to ISIS in late 2014. It expanded its territorial hold in the following months in northern Sinai, where many Bedouin live. However, an ambitious attempt in the summer of 2015 to capture the area around the town of Sheikh Zavid failed, despite the attack ending with dozens of members of the Egyptian security forces being killed. Since then, the organization has struggled to keep absolute control on the territory it can define as its own, despite its presence in the northeastern part of the peninsula.

Wilayet Sinai still manages to carry out an average of five to seven attacks a week, mostly bombs but also sniper fire and shelling of Egyptian forces. An Israeli security source told Haaretz: “In recent months we see a dramatic change in the outcome of the fighting in favor of the Egyptian army. The Egyptians are aiming [massive firepower] at the area, which Wilayet Sinai is struggling to cope with.”

Wilayet Sinai has about 1,000 fighters, most of them native Sinai Bedouin, but there are believed to be volunteers who previously fought in Iraq and Syria. Foreigners are among the main activists in Sinai. Besides heavy attacks on ISIS, the Egyptian army is making numerous arrests, interrogating dozens of suspects a week.

There have also been signs in recent months of a certain decline in contacts between Wilayet Sinai and the military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It seems Hamas has been seeking to reduce its ties with ISIS as it has grown somewhat closer to Egypt, hoping that the generals in Cairo will agree to easing measures on traffic with Gaza through the Rafiah Crossing.

At this stage Israeli intelligence does not see any particular interest of Wilayet Sinai in ambitious attacks against Israel. The general opinion is that fighting Egyptian security forces remains at the top of the group’s agenda. Still, the group occasionally attacks Israeli targets, like the Katyushas on Eilat last week, to preserve a measure of deterrence against it and to signal its ability to settle accounts for the help it accuses Israel of providing Egypt in its war against the jihadists.