ISIS in Egypt: Al-Sissi Locked in Bloody Battle With Islamic Extremists

The group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which shifted its allegiance from Al-Qaida to ISIS, is routing Egyptian security forces in Sinai.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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An image posted by ISIS supporters on Twitter purporting to show a Grad missile being fired from Sinai into Israel, July 3, 2015.
An image posted by ISIS supporters on Twitter purporting to show a Grad missile being fired from Sinai into Israel, July 3, 2015.Credit: Screen grab
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

Instability in Egypt's Sinai region is nothing new; Cairo has long struggled to keep control of the lawless peninsula.

Local Bedouin have been excluded from economic development for decades, with smuggling a key source of income. The Egyptian government has used brutal methods to keep order, and extremists have exploited this disaffection, particularly after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was established in the security vacuum that ensued; it recruited local Bedouin as well as other Egyptians and foreigners, and went on to kill hundreds of police and soldiers in local operations.

The jihadist insurgency in the region has grown since the army led by Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, now president, overthrew the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis had seemed more interested in firing rockets at Israel, but after Morsi’s removal it turned its focus to the Egyptian state. Sissi’s regime has vowed to fight radicalism and has imprisoned thousands of alleged extremists, further enraging the Sinai militants.

In November 2014, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared it was shifting its allegiance from Al-Qaida to the Islamic State. It renamed itself Wilayat Sinai, ISIS' “Sinai Province.”

Attacks claimed by ISIS-affiliated groups soared in the summer of 2015, battering army positions in northern Sinai. Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers are believed to have been killed through the summer of 2015, although it is hard to gauge precise figures as the militants make wildly exaggerated claims and Cairo plays down its casualty numbers.

In late June 2015, Egypt’s chief prosecutor was killed in a car bombing in Cairo. Although Wilayat Sinai did not claim responsibility for this attack, it swiftly launched a massive assault on army targets in northern Sinai.

Site of a bombing that killed Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 29, 2015.Credit: AP

The following month a bomb struck the Italian consulate in Cairo and the Islamic State affiliate even launched a missile strike on an Egyptian navy ship in the Mediterranean in July. A series of strikes that month laid siege to the city of Sheikh Zuweid, although the militants failed to take full control.

U.S. and UN troops stationed in Sinai as part of the Israel-Egypt peace deal have also come under attack, and Washington has sent troops and equipment to shore up the Egyptian army there.

All this presents a massive threat to the Sissi government, which has stepped up already repressive measures in an attempt to stanch the violence. Having already arrested thousands of Islamic militants and handed out mass death sentences, mostly to people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a new law bans the media from contradicting official accounts of attacks. Transgressors face massive fines or even a ban on reporting for up to a year.

Successive security reshuffles have also attempted to bolster defenses, both in the capital and the vulnerable north of Sinai.

But harsh action by the Egyptian army also makes it hard to build local support for the Cairo government in Sinai, an area with a decades-long history of deprivation.

The insurgency finally made international headlines when Russian Airbus 321 was brought down over Sinai on October 31, 2015, killing all 224 people on board. Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was in retaliation for Russian air strikes in Syria.

A Russian investigation concluded that a homemade bomb had destroyed the flight, which had been bringing holidaymakers back from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort. Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those behind the attack and step up attacks on those he called “criminals” in Syria.

Hotels have been virtually deserted since the attack, with British and Russian carriers announcing they were suspending flights to and from the resort. The bombing has dealt a near-fatal blow to the Sinai’s already hard-hit tourist industry, with further consequences for the endemic deprivation that has proved such an effective recruitment tool for the insurgency.

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