Analysis

Unprecedented Mosque Attack in Sinai May Reflect Shift in ISIS Strategy

Egypt is turning into Afghanistan, where permanent war is part of life

Egyptian children stand near a pile of footwear belonging to the victims of the attack at the Al-Rawdah Mosque near the town of Bir al-Abd in North Sinai, November 25, 2017.
STR/AFP

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has no magic solutions to stop jihadi terror in his country. Since he came to power in 2013 he has faced a Sisyphean struggle against the terror groups in Sinai and the Western Desert that are also carrying out large-scale attacks in major cities.

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Sissi has advanced technology at his disposal, supplied by the United States, and according to foreign sources, Israel has also been generous with intelligence to assist in this battle, which touches Israel directly.

Sissi has largely stopped underground traffic between Gaza and Sinai, which for years allowed safe passage for Sinai terrorists. He flooded Sinai with elite troops and reached an agreement with Israel over Egyptian aerial action in what was hitherto a demilitarized zone – based on the Camp David Accords.  The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is also an important component in fighting radical groups.

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But military forces alone apparently arent enough to root out the terror groups, especially not in the northern Sinai. Some of them still rely on cooperation with Bedouin who supply jihadis with logistics services in exchange for money. This arrangement serves as a substitute for government jobs, which despite the governments promises haven't arrived.

The tension between the Bedouin and the government isnt new. It began back when Israel withdrew from Sinai and the Egyptian government saw the Bedouin as a fifth column that remained loyal to Israel.

Over the past two years, the government has tried to rehabilitate its relations with the Bedouin, marked by impressive development programs and even funds from Saudi Arabia to build homes and small factories. But on the ground, things as usual have moved slowly. Concentrations of Bedouin, mainly in and around El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, are surrounded by military roadblocks, and the main roads leading to them are blocked to civilian traffic – necessary in terms of security but preventing normal life from returning to these areas.

After ISIS losses in Iraq and Syria

The al-Rawdah Mosque in Sinai after the bombing and shooting attack, November 24, 2017.
AFP/ Stringer

In any case, the dense military presence proved insufficient Friday when assailants managed to reach the town of Bir al-Abed and commit a massacre at the al-Rawdah Mosque. Presumably the governor of northern Sinai will carry out the necessary investigation to discover how the terrorists made it to the center of town, but it appears a major intelligence failure contributed.

No organization has taken responsibility for the massacre in which at least 305 people were killed, most of them civilians, along with soldiers and police who were praying at the mosque. But the type of assault indicates that Wilayat Sinai, an Islamic State affiliate in Sinai, was responsible. This group is believed to have between 800 and 1,500 fighters, largely Egyptians and some foreigners who came through the Western Desert from Libya.

This isnt the first attack the Islamic State has carried out in Egypt, but its scale could mark a trend linked to the groups desire for success following its losses in Iraq and Syria. This might be a new strategy resulting from its new situation in which mass attacks in Islamic countries replace taking over territory.

But in Sinai, the Islamic State has a special reason to try to impress its loyalists, and that involves its struggle against Al-Qaida, which is known in Sinai as Jund al-Islam (the Army of Islam). Al-Qaida in Egypt usually doesnt attack civilians but rather government officials, security forces and other military targets.

Drain of ISIS loyalists

Ever since the Islamic State took over regions in Iraq and Syria, its popularity has been on the rise among local groups. Many of them, including in Sinai, abandoned Al-Qaida and swore allegiance to the Islamic State, which used local groups to establish provinces of the Islamic State in those countries.

Now the organization might fear a drain of loyalists in the opposite direction, partly because it believes it can no longer provide the funding that brought local organizations to it in Islamic countries. The existential struggle among terror groups might increase the number and size of terrorist attacks, but might also play into the hands of the Egyptian security forces, as has happened in other countries.

Attacks on mosques have been typical of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, not Egypt. The scale of the attack and the fact that it was carried out against worshippers could also signal a turning point in the Sinai Bedouins view of the group.

The Egyptian media has attributed the attack to the fact that the Sawarka Bedouin tribe, in whose territory Bir Al-Abed is located, increased cooperation with the government, and because of this, the mosques imam, a Sufist, delivered a particularly harsh sermon last week against the Islamic State. Another interpretation holds that the attack stems from the ISIS tenet that any part of Islam that deviates from strict orthodoxy is heretical and therefore a target.

Sufism is recognized in Egypt as a legitimate religious practice and many Sufi orders have received government permits, including the one in Sinai that suffered the attack Friday. But such explanations, even if they have an ideological basis, cant offer a practical solution to the fight against terror in Sinai.

Sissi said he would ratchet up action against these groups, and sure enough, he immediately sent in the air force, claiming that it killed around 30 Islamic State fighters. Still, it seems that an Afghan situation is taking hold in Egypt in which permanent war is part of life.