Sinai is the theatre of a protracted war against terrorist organisations that have proliferated in the northern part of the peninsula, thriving on the porous border with Gaza and profits from the illicit smuggling trade in drugs, arms and human beings through the network of tunnels that run beneath it.
One of the basic rules of war is to “know thine enemy.” But do we really know that enemy in Sinai? Do we know its resources and capacities and the aims it is trying to achieve? Do we know who supports and funds it, supplies it with information, and who engineers its movements and comes up with its plans?
We may have good estimates and conjectures, but according to many experts we still have a long way to go before we can claim that we have narrowed the information gap in spite of the progress that has been made as a result of the arrest of a number of first-tier leaders from the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist organisation.
As chief of staff Hisham Al-Halabi has put it, “the war is now an intelligence war.” Many research centres and think tanks in Egypt are now monitoring and analysing the diverse dimensions of the war in Sinai, he said, and these have indicated that a new and different chapter has begun in this “asymmetrical war” with its non-conventional threats to security that have created a new mode of warfare with new types of challenges.
Some believe that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is merely the instrument for the realisation of the aims and objectives of others. Certainly, the nature, structure and members of the organisation that the security forces are dealing with in Sinai today are a far cry from those of the local Sinai organisations that existed 15 years ago when Khaled Salem, by profession a dentist from the Sawarka tribe, formed the Tawhid and Jihad group dedicated to targeting Israeli and US tourists in Dahab, Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba and other Sinai resorts in order to embarrass the Egyptian government.
The capture of a single chief operative from that organisation was enough to discover the group’s organisational capacities, aims and members, and the death of its first-tier leaders in confrontations with the security forces was sufficient to interrupt its operations and activities for extensive periods of time.
The second phase in the struggle brought a rise in the number of jihadist Salafist organisations on the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of the Rafah border. Since 2007, dozens of such groups have emerged, locking horns with Hamas, which they rivalled ideologically, as well as in the tunnel trade and smuggling businesses. At one point in 2009, Hamas bombed a jihadist Salafist mosque in Rafah, the Ibn Taymiya Mosque, after tensions between the two sides had reached a state of war and the leader of the Jund Ansar Allah, an Al-Qaeda affiliate on the Gaza side of Rafah, had proclaimed his intention to establish an “Islamic emirate” there.
Those jihadist Salafist groups had counterparts on the Egyptian side of the border and remained active until recently. Analysts believe that the structure of the organisations has not totally collapsed and that they have merely frozen their activities due to the security measures that have been implemented by the Egyptian government along the border.
In the third phase, these organisations merged beneath the umbrella of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group which for three years now has been the chief enemy of the army and police. There are indications that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood and that one of its wings is not only ideologically oriented toward the Brotherhood but is also structurally related in that the Brotherhood would give the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and associated tribes free rein to practice smuggling in exchange for promoting Brotherhood interests through their activities in Sinai.
It was therefore never very clear what the group’s aims were. Was it truly dedicated to fighting Israel, as it claimed, or was it always more intent on war against the Egyptian army?
According to available information from reliable sources in Sinai, some of the wings of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis dissolved when it declared its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group. This applies in particular to the Shadi Al-Maniei wing after its tunnel commerce collapsed. From interviews with its operatives from 2011 to 2013 it is possible to ascertain that it was affiliated with Al-Qaeda and dedicated primarily to eliminating Egyptian state authority in Sinai.
According to reliable information, Shadi Al-Maniei, the former (and last) commander of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis military wing, managed to escape to Gaza through a secret tunnel. He was accompanied by his uncle, Ibrahim Al-Maniei, one of the main funders of the group. IS, meanwhile, is believed to have actively campaigned to acquire Al-Qaeda affiliates and agents in the area. Indeed, in its first years it succeeded in obtaining 12 Al-Qaeda franchises in ten countries, and one of these was Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai.
A fourth phase: It can therefore be said that the story of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis ended there, ushering in a fourth phase characterised by the growth of the pro-IS jihadist Salafist wing initially commanded by Kamal Allam, who was killed during a “victory” celebration by the group along with three other leaders of the organisation.
In addition, a number of other senior operatives were apprehended during their assaults against main and subsidiary security checkpoints in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid earlier this month. This was when some 28 terrorist teams were formed to stage the organisation’s largest operation in Egypt to date, an operation that was successfully aborted by the Egyptian army which launched a counter-offensive that forestalled an IS drive to occupy Sheikh Zuweid.
Although Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has declared itself to be an IS affiliate in “Sinai Province”, this so-called Province certainly has no “wali” (governor). In contrast to IS operations in Iraq and Syria, it is clear that the organisation has failed completely in its bid to establish a foothold in Egypt in spite of the many operations it has undertaken in Sinai.
According to some estimates locally and internationally, three years ago Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis had around 12,000 members. This is the figure cited by General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Military Studies Centre, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. Sources in Sinai dispute this figure, however, and maintain it is exaggerated. One source observed that while it is impossible to give a precise estimate, the number of members could not have been as high as this figure indicates.
At all events, it is more important to identify the sources from which the new organisation (IS Sinai Province) derives its members. These are either from the jihadist Salafist organisations in Gaza that declared their allegiance to IS last year shortly before Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai did, or from the Bedouin tribal society in Sinai.
Kamal Habib, an expert on the Islamist groups, has underscored the importance of analysing their evolution in terms of their equipment. In an interview with the Weekly, Habib described this development as going from the initial use of booby-trapped cars to missiles used to target a naval vessel that was fired from a location beyond the Egyptian borders.
In other words, we are looking at the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies, greater magnitudes of destruction, and larger numbers of casualties. Habib also noted a shift in outlook. Whereas the first group claimed to be inspired by the Palestinian cause, the current one has set its sights on a regional framework that stretches from the Levant to North Africa.
The IS now aims to eliminate the border between Sinai and Gaza and create an “emirate” that straddles the two areas from Sheikh Zuweid to Gaza, where it seeks to topple the Hamas government. This was confirmed by events last week in Gaza, when vehicles belonging to Hamas security and the Islamic Jihad group were set on fire, with IS claiming responsibility.
Sources in Sinai say that measures to tighten border security and the counter-offensives undertaken by the Egyptian authorities have frustrated the group’s designs in the peninsula and that it has become clear that the Egyptian front is too strong and resistant for it at present. As Sinai activist Gazi Abu Farrag explained, based on impressions gleaned from other Sinai sources, the more fragile environment in Gaza offers better prospects to the group, which is why it has been focusing its presence there. It believes that this could help it carry out attacks against Egypt in order to weaken the Egyptian front.
New attacks: Last week, the group carried out an assault against an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast of northern Sinai, this new maritime tactic suggesting that the terrorist group possesses sophisticated capacities in terms of its ability to monitor the movements of its targets and to plan and execute their destruction.
However, according to General Mohamed Samir, the attack against the naval vessel was met by an exchange of fire, and he cautioned against believing claims circulated by the group via the Internet. Nevertheless, the operation marks a departure from attacks against security checkpoints and facilities on land to naval operations and is indicative of resources and capacities that are not available to any local groups in Sinai however big they may be.
As General Mohamed Qashqoush, a national security specialist at the Nasser Military Academy in Cairo, said in an interview with the Weekly, “look for the party that benefits and then you will know who the agent is and who your enemy is. These groups are only tools.”
He said that when it comes to the Egyptian case in Sinai it is important to bear in mind how the mother organisation, IS in Iraq and Syria, which he described as the “third generation of Al-Qaeda,” has evolved. “Initially, it started as a weak organisation, though strategic environmental factors subsequently helped build up its strengths. At that time, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Egypt was suffering from debilitating blows from the security forces. Therefore, there was a sort of integration with IS. The same occurred with all the other groups that converted to allegiance to IS.”
What sets the problem in Sinai apart is the crisis in Gaza that Israel has sought to export to Egypt since the unilateral disengagement there a decade ago. Consequently, Qashqoush explains, “all the problems of Gaza have been shifted to Egypt, not least the population explosion there. Moreover, Israel has aggravated these problems through restrictions that have hampered fishing and other economic activities, thereby increasing unemployment.”
“Israel also sought a land-swap deal with Egypt in order to solve the crisis. It had its sights set on some excellent land in Sinai, citing passages in the Torah about the “great river” that once existed in Wadi Al-Arish which is still rich in subterranean water. In exchange, it would offer some extremely poor quality land. But the late president Anwar Al-Sadat established an important principle regarding sovereignty and borders when he initiated a nine-year battle in the international courts over a few square km of land in Wadi Al-Dom in Taba. Israel tried repeatedly to overcome that principle, but Egypt clung to it.”
“As a result, Israel wanted to open up the narrow strip of border between Gaza and Egypt in order to export the Gaza problems to Egypt. The US tried to accomplish the same objective through the Muslim Brothers. The government of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi then granted Egyptian nationality to around 6,000 Gazans, half of whom belonged to Hamas. We can only begin to imagine what would have happened had they established a generation in Egypt, not only in demographic terms but at all strategic levels.”
The second problem in Sinai involves tribal elements that support the Islamist militant groups, whether for the purposes of revenge against the security forces since the era of Habib Al-Adli, former president Hosni Mubarak’s interior minister, or because of the lucrative material returns that come from cooperating with them.
Whatever the case may be, this does not obviate the fact that other tribal elements are cooperating with the government. “There is the case of the Bedouin man who resisted attempts to raise an IS flag above his home and was killed in the process. He needed weapons to defend himself, however, and this is a question that is under study by the armed forces,” Qashqoush said.
In the final analysis, Qashqoush concluded that Israel was the main beneficiary of the situation in Sinai. “We have to identify the real enemy behind all of this, the one who benefits from all of this, and the one who uses instruments of war to attack us while claiming to help us,” he said.
Qashqoush cited remarks attributed to Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon to the effect that it was not as pleasant or politically rewarding to kill your enemies with your own hands when you can get others to do the same thing for you. This, he said, was Israel’s new policy: to create militias for the enemy to use such that both the killers and the killed will be from the ranks of Israel's enemies.
*This story was first published in Ahram Weekly on 23 July 2015.