Egyptian security sources have confirmed the death of the Sinai Province commander Mohamed Abdel-Latif Abu Jazr, aka Abu Jafar Al-Maqdisi, during a raid launched by the military in Sheikh Zuweid. The army had not issued an official statement on the raid by the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to print.
A Palestinian source appeared to confirm the news: “Mohamed Abu Jazr was a member of Hamas’ Ezzeddin Qassam brigades before he joined a group run by Abdel-Latif Moussa which opposes Hamas and is closer to the jihadist Salafist trend.
He then infiltrated Sinai where he moved in the circles of jihadist Salafist groups until eventually joining Islamic State [IS].”
IS was the first to report Abu Jazr’s death via its account on the messaging application Telegram.
This is the second high-level assassination in IS ranks in Sinai in the last three months. On 18 April Nasser Abu Zaqoul was killed in Central Sinai.
Sinai Province divides the peninsula into six sectors which overlap with the Egyptian government’s administrative divisions though in practice it only ever operated in three locations, between Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, before being driven back by Comprehensive Operation Sinai (COS) 2018.
The policy of “cutting the heads” of the terrorist organisation is a sign of how well counter-terrorist operations in Sinai are progressing, says security expert Brigadier General Khaled Okasha.
Ali Bakr, an expert in extremist organisations, says the strategy will have a significant long-term impact on terror structures in Sinai.
While in the short term it undermines morale as terrorists see the battle shifting in favour of the government and the army, in the longer-term the organisation’s ranks are depleted of individuals with command and leadership skills, reducing its capabilities.
In recent months command positions in Sinai Province have been filled by operatives from Gaza who have defected from Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
According to Mohamed Abu Shaar, a Palestinian researcher from Gaza, these operatives either fled Hamas’ wrath, as was the case with the breakaway Moussa group, or they emerged surreptitiously within the ranks of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, stealthily taking advantage of these organisations’ infrastructure to grow, network and infiltrate Sinai.
There has been little visible organisational presence of IS-affiliates in Gaza, perhaps for fear of a repetition of the Ibn Taimiya Mosque incident of 2009 when Hamas attacked members of the takfiri Jund Ansar Allah group.
Interestingly, the Ibn Taimiya Mosque is one of the most frequently used mosques for the funeral ceremonies of Gaza extremists killed in Sinai.
Bakr picked up on the irony that many of those extremists use the nom de guerre Al-Maqdisi (referring to Quds — Jerusalem).
“Here we have an organisation that claims to be dedicated to the defence of Jerusalem. Yet instead of fighting the occupation in Israel they direct their weapons against the Egyptian army. If, on a rare occasion, they hurl a missile into Israel it is only smokescreen, a means to win support among radicals in Gaza and to lure recruits.”
According to Bakr, IS terrorists in Sinai whose funeral services were held at Ibn Taimiya include Mohamed Abu Dalal, aka Abu Khaled Al-Maqdisi, killed in an aerial raid in September; Ahmed Mahmoud Zaqout, aka Abu Omeir Al-Maqdisi, an IS affiliate from Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza; Mahmoud Nimr Zaghra, aka Abu Bilal Al-Maqdisi from Sheikh Radwan in central Gaza and Mohamed Adel Al-Zamili, aka Abu Khatab Al-Maqdisi, from the Gaza side of Rafah.
The irony noted by Bakr brings to mind another, which is that IS infiltrators into Sinai from Gaza were initially rejected and attacked by their jihadist counterparts when they first appeared.
The organisation in Sinai was at the time closely linked to Hamas by virtue of interrelated interests, and resisted the encroachment of the IS operatives from Gaza where it also worked to undermine them, as was revealed in a communication intercepted by Mossad in 2015.
It appears the decline and eventual defeat of IS in Raqqa and Mosul has been mirrored in the structures of IS franchises elsewhere, most notably in Sinai Province.
IS may have trumpeted Abu Hajer Al-Hashemi’s assumption of command of its Sinai branch but as an Iraqi he proved unable to generate the qualitative shift that would have boosted the local organisation’s profile regionally for the simple reason the central model had collapsed in its own stronghold.
That collapse created an opening for Palestinian operatives who attempted to resuscitate Sinai Province.
Gaza fighters infiltrated Sinai, especially returnees from IS battlefields in Syria and Iraq. They had crucial technical and operational field experience in terrain similar to that in Sinai. It is this transfer of expertise to the Sinai theatre, says Okasha, which makes the infiltrators such a threat.
Meanwhile, Cairo has resumed its mediating efforts to promote Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas, in recent days, has given the impression that it welcomes Cairo’s endeavours.
Media connected with Hamas report that it has responded positively to Cairo’s initiative and taken measures to tighten border security. However, a number of Egyptian sources remain sceptical.
“I believe that, contrary to the commonly held opinion that Hamas sees it in its interests to eliminate those [terrorist] groups, there is a current in Hamas that is utilising them to further its interests,” Okasha told the Weekly.
Bakr agrees: “One should not be taken in by the Hamas political bureau’s political claims. Ultimately there is a military wing to Hamas that has a strategy which it is implementing. That wing saw Sinai as an open field which it could easily penetrate for the purposes of storing and procuring arms, and for smuggling operatives. This wing continues to entertain the desire to take advantage of the situation in Sinai in ways that conflict with Egyptian national security.”
What appears clear is that Gaza constantly exports threats to Egypt while Egypt is searching for solutions to Gaza’s humanitarian and political crises.
As security and political experts say, the two sides often seem to be working at cross purposes.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Decapitating terror