The Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate Wilayat al-Sina (Sinai Province) claimed responsibility for the firing of three Grad rockets at Israel on July 3. This attack, which caused no casualties, came closely after a large-scale assault by the group against Egyptian security installations in the Sheikh Zuweid area of northern Sinai.
Both events served notice regarding the growing seriousness of the threat represented by the jihadists in northern Sinai.
The Sheikh Zuweid attacks demonstrated a level of tactical proficiency and sophistication hitherto not seen in Sinai’s Islamic State affiliate. The jihadists used sophisticated weapons systems, reportedly including Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles, and antiaircraft missiles. They also deployed suicide bombers as a weapon of war, rather than as terrorism, to telling effect against Egyptian Army positions.
These events in northern Sinai, in turn, followed on from the killing of Egyptian State Prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bomb attack in Cairo on June 29.
All this points to a number of worrying conclusions:
First, the notion that the former Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s declaration of bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State was merely a formality, a proclamation devoid of content, should be abandoned. The tactical proficiency and the tactics utilized by Wilayat al-Sina in the Sheikh Zuweid attacks suggest that Islamic State fighters have been responsible for instructing the Sinai jihadists in their own way of war in the recent period. These methods have been responsible, of course, for Islamic State’s considerable successes in Iraq and Syria over the last two years.
Islamic State has never engaged with an enemy as serious as the US-equipped and US-trained army of Egypt. Still, as unveiled by the Sheik Zuweid events, a force comparable in ability (though not yet in equipment) to Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Anbar and Hasaka is now deployed in northern Sinai.
Second, the killing of Hisham Barakat indicates that the jihadi insurgency in Egypt is spreading, despite the efforts of the army to quell it. It is no longer confined to Sinai but, rather, appears to be able to strike in the heart of Egypt west of the Suez Canal. Barakat was killed in the upscale and well-defended Heliopolis suburb of Cairo, near a military academy.
The Egyptian government is determined to continue to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. But Wilayat al-Sina had issued threats against the judiciary on the day prior to the attack, following the execution of a number of jihadists. It is far more likely that it was individuals from this organization who carried out the bombing, which was officially condemned by the Brotherhood.
But should an Islamist insurgency really take hold in Egypt, it is likely to attract the support of a considerable number of the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The way back to politics for the Muslim Brotherhood has been definitively closed by the Egyptian authorities. Its younger cadres are seeking other means of expression.
Third, the launching of missiles at Israel, though not the first incident of this kind, is a reminder that the jihadists hope to draw the Jewish state into the circle of violence. Israel has largely been successful in keeping Islamic State away from the area east of Quneitra.
The Sinaievents indicate that the jihadists appear set to increase efforts to attain a point of friction with Israel to its south, having failed so far to achieve one in the north.
Wilayat al-Sina first emerged in 2011 (under the name of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), following the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. But the presence of jihadists in northern Sinai long precedes this. In Taba in 2004, Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006, suicide bombers struck, taking a heavy toll on civilian life. The Egyptian authorities then tried to reimpose order on northern Sinai, from where the terrorists emerged. They failed.
Northern Sinai remained a playground for smugglers and formed an important staging post for Hamas as it armed itself via the tunnels into the southern Gaza Strip following its 2007 expulsion of Fatah from the Strip.
It is this latter factor that probably explains Israeli allegations of Hamas support for and cooperation with Islamic State affiliates in this area. If this support is indeed taking place (concrete proof has yet to be offered), it would be with the intention of utilizing the jihadists and their wide base of support among the north Sinai Beduin as part of Hamas’s attempt to rebuild smuggling routes into the Strip.
In the event of the jihadists establishing a de facto autonomous area, this would of course be invaluable to the beleaguered rulers of Gaza.
Ideological differences between the two would not necessarily trump practical cooperation. In any case, there is no clear, hermetic dividing line between Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas adherents and the Salafi trends that spawned Islamic State. Many Izzadin Kassam (Hamas’s military wing) fighters are themselves sympathetic with the Salafi trend. Certainly, Hamas’s crackdown on other, self-proclaimed Islamic State supporting groups in Gaza itself would form no barrier to working together with the officially acknowledged Islamic State franchise to the south.
So the events of the past two weeks mark the arrival of Wilayat al-Sina as an important new player in Islamic State’s ongoing effort to destabilize the region. Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation is already at an all-time high because of this joint threat. Jerusalem will be hoping that Egyptian efforts to root out the jihadists will bear greater fruit in the months ahead. Until they do, Islamic State is in Sinai.