Dozens of Coptic families have fled North Sinai as jihadist attacks against Christians grow in number. Simultaneously, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis fired missiles across the border into Israel, prompting an Israeli response that killed several Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis operatives in Egypt, and security forces launched a new sweep of Gabal Al-Halal, a notorious militant hideout.
The developments raise questions not only about the capabilities of Islamic State-affiliate Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, but the ways in which the war against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq and the shrinking spheres of IS influence there are playing out in Sinai.
According to sources interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly, the connection is clear. It is reinforced, they say, by the growing role played by Gaza jihadists in the leadership of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, a role they claim is reflected in the ferocious campaign to discredit Cairo’s policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process, which has included leaks from the Aqaba summit and the spreading of rumours of a land exchange that would allow Palestinians to settle in Sinai.
The targeting of Copts in Sinai increased following the posting of a video explicitly calling for attacks against Christians on Al-Nabaa, a website closely associated with IS in Syria.
Analysts say the call was driven by several factors, not least attempts by IS to further foment sectarian conflicts now it finds itself on the back foot in what until recently were the group’s heartlands in Syria and Iraq. Analysts also believe the attacks against Copts are part of an attempt to place Egypt in an awkward situation internationally. The recent incidents occurred in tandem with a number of high-profile visits — of the British foreign secretary and the German chancellor — and ahead of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s upcoming visit to the US.
MP Tamer Al-Shahawi, a member of parliament’s National Security Committee and a former Military Intelligence officer, is not surprised by the tactics now being adopted by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Targeting Israel is a ploy it regularly used before it declared allegiance to IS and the increase in attacks against Copts is lifted directly from the 1990s playbook of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The tactical shift “had been anticipated months ago in view of the progress made in regaining control over areas in which takfiri organisations have operated,”Al-Shahawi told the Weekly.
Al-Shahawi argues that “the correspondence between militant organisations now extends beyond Salafist jihadists to other groups.”
“Just as Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Egyptian Jihad called for attacks against Copts and the plundering of Coptic-owned jewellery stores in order to fund their operations in the 1990s, so we see Sinai-based groups now targeting what we might term soft targets. In Sinai Copts are the target. Elsewhere targets have included individuals who are not so closely guarded — former grand mufti Ali Gomaa, artillery division commander General Adel-Ragaai and Assistant Prosecutor-General Zakaria Abdel-Aziz.”
The idea of “correspondence” between radical Islamist organisations begs the question of Muslim Brotherhood involvement.
Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist groups, believes there is a Muslim Brotherhood connection.
“There has been ample evidence of the existence of what is, in essence, a trans-ideological coalition since Mohamed Morsi’s rule,” Bakr told the Weekly. “Parties to the coalition may differ ideologically but they share a common interest, to target the Egyptian state. We know that the Muslim Brotherhood was implicated in the kidnapping of soldiers. We also know that it negotiated with jihadist forces in order to smooth relations with Israel. It was as a result of Brotherhood intervention the bombing of gas pipelines in Sinai stopped.”
A security source points to the resemblance between the video claiming responsibility for the bombing of St Peter’s Church in December and the video posted on Al-Nabaa calling for attacks against Copts. Both, he says, display “a distinct Brotherhood tone perceptible in the rhetorical details suggesting that the Brotherhood media machine or, more precisely, rebel factions within the Brotherhood such as Hasm and the Revolution Brigade, had a hand in its making.”
Nageh Ibrahim, former member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Shura Council, disagrees. He argues that the Brotherhood is unlikely to be connected to the latest attacks because it is too busy trying to distance itself from anything that might help the US authorities place it on the State Department’s list of terrorist organisations.
Salah Salam, a native of El-Arish and head of the North Sinai Doctors Syndicate, says terror recruits “come from all over and you can’t distinguish between them”.
“Many people from the Nile Valley who came to live in Sinai have adopted Salafist-jihadist ideas. Others have come from Gaza, from the Gulf, from Jordan and Libya. They have established a presence in Sinai and play a role in extremist organisations. It is not limited to attacking Copts, they also harass Muslims. They stop women in the streets and buses and warn them to wear the veil and not to go outside without a male relative.”
“At the level organisations involved none can be excluded from what is happening in Sinai, from IS to Al-Qaeda to local groups.”
“As far as Washington is concerned, minorities, rights and freedoms are unlikely to be prioritised by the Trump administration to the extent they were by the Obama and Bush administrations,” says Amr Abdel-Ati, a specialist in American affairs. “Yet the issue could still be problematic because of the attention it receives in the American media, attention which might cast Cairo as incapable of providing Copts with security and stability, or which could portray the military campaign against terrorism in Sinai as a failure.”
“Of course, the US administration could think it best to offer Egypt greater support in its war against terrorism. Indications this might be the case emerged during Sunday’s meeting between the head of US Central Command Joseph Votel, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the minister of defence."
The army’s sweep of Gabal Al-Halal was ordered because of signs that the missiles fired into Israel were launched from that area. Twelve jihadist operatives were killed in the operation and a number of weapons depots destroyed. Commentators, though, chastened by hailing previous operations as success stories signalling a collapse in the terrorists’ capabilities, now sound a more cautious note. North Sinai MP Hossam Al-Rifaai has even called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to inspect the security situation on the ground in Sinai.
Al-Shahawi, however, insists “the security forces have succeeded in performing the tasks assigned to them.”
“I am perfectly satisfied with their current performance. More than 98 per cent of the places that were under control of the terrorist organisations have been recovered. The problem, ultimately, is that we are fighting ghosts, not a distinct force, otherwise they would have been defeated in the first round.”
Al-Shahawi suspects regional and international intelligence agencies of stirring the Sinai pot. “The conspiracy is not over yet,” he says. “Some countries might be saying that they are reassessing their relations with Egypt in a positive light, but I don’t trust them. Even the US, in my opinion, will not play an effective role in the fight against terrorism.”
Counterterrorism expert Khaled Okasha stresses the importance of differentiating between security performance and security policy.
“Those who agreed to the relocation of Coptic families from Sinai have contributed to the realisation of the goals of the takfiris,” he says. “The security forces can be blamed for this. They should have kept the families in El-Arish and furnished them with the necessary protection.”
Salam agrees. “Security policy needs to be reassessed. It causes more harm than good because it equates criminals with the victims in Sinai.”
“A media chorus portrays Sinai Bedouins as terrorists, broadening the scope of suspicion and the use of unwarranted force against civilians, which ultimately creates a support structure for the terrorist organisations.”
Okasha agrees with the experts who say it is the Gazan jihadist component in Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis that is behind the resumption of missile attacks on Israel. He also believes the recent thaw in relations between Cairo and Hamas, leaks regarding the secret Aqaba summit and rumour mongering of land exchanges in the framework of some solution to the Palestinian cause are part of the same picture. Both the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ayoub Kara and the Muslim Brotherhood were equally responsible for the rumours, says Okasha.
“Why should we exclude Israel from being involved in what is happening in Sinai?” asks Nageh Ibrahim. “It is, after all, the party most capable of infiltrating jihadist organisations.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly