Not an easy scenario: How will Iraq affect Sinai?

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 13 Jul 2014

Simple as it might appear, in reality it will not be easy for the major current of Jihadist Salafists in Sinai to convert to their Iraqi counterpart ISIL; however, it is not impossible

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai, Egypt (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Security has been tightened in Sinai, with military operations claiming 18 militants since the beginning of this month. Additional measures are expected soon, especially in light of the continuing existence of border tunnels, more of which have been discovered recently.

Even if only on a very small scale, these tunnels permit the infiltration of dangerous elements into Egypt. Since the beginning of the month, security authorities have arrested more than 200 individuals being smuggled through these tunnels. Although most were Africans trying to enter Israel via the Egyptian border, such figures indicate that there are still weak points on the map.

The border situation is not new to Sinai. However, there are growing concerns that a new development in the Arab region may now cast its shadow over the famous Egyptian peninsula. This development is the events in Iraq and the declaration of a state by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Members of this extremist organisation have sworn allegiance to an emir called Ibrahim Al-Husseini Al-Qirshi, a name whose significance reverberates beyond the current Iraqi context.

In his meeting with the editors-in-chief of Egypt’s newspapers last week, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi discussed the question of ISIL. It was Egypt’s strong army that had prevented any repetition of the current Syria and Iraq scenarios in Egypt, which was also the object of a conspiracy to partition it, he said, adding that he had warned the West of the danger of ISIL.

Also last week, Ministry of Interior Spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif stated that there were no ISIL members in Egypt. He was responding to recently circulating rumours that a security agency was conducting investigations into a number of individuals of various nationalities allegedly suspected of being members of the organisation.

The attention given to ISIL on the part of senior officials is clearly intended to reassure a public alarmed by the images from Iraq being broadcast over the satellite news networks and by the organisation’s statements with regard to Egypt.

The fear is that Al-Qaeda affiliates or inspired organisations in Sinai, such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, Al-Furqan, Al-Takfir Wal-Hijra and other such exponents of the Jihadist Salafist current, and, perhaps, some Muslim Brotherhood cells that are fighting the security agencies, will merge with ISIL or “declare allegiance” to that entity that controls large swaths of territory in two major Arab states, namely Syria and Iraq, said a Sinai activist.

According to Gazi Abu Farag, the military strikes in Sinai have caused severe attrition on the militant organisations, but have not eliminated them entirely. He also observed a degree of radicalisation among Bedouin youth “in response to the extraordinary conditions we are experiencing as the result of security policies such as curfews beginning at midnight or the mistaken targeting of [fellow tribal members].”

Such phenomena could drive some Sinai youth “to turn round in a second and declare their allegiance to the new entity in Iraq,” he added.

Adel Habara, chief suspect in the case of the second massacre of soldiers in Rafah, is reported to have mentioned in his confessions that someone from ISIL had contacted him. However, it seems clear that such contacts stem from personal acquaintance and do not indicate the possibility of any broader structural connection.

Yet, as Abu Farag pointed out to Al-Ahram Weekly, if the situation in Iraq persists for another four to six months the security problems in Sinai will need to be addressed even more urgently.

Some observers maintain that, simple as it might appear, in reality it will not be easy for the major current of Jihadist Salafists in Sinai to convert to their Iraqi counterpart. There are other considerations apart from the “iron security fist” that need to be borne in mind.

While it is true that Egyptians have figured prominently in such organisations abroad — the current head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman El-Zawahri, is a prime example — it is equally true that there is sharp discord between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIL.

"There are no Egyptians in the ISIL command hierarchy, and some key Egyptian radical Islamist ideologues, such as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader El-Qaradawi, have refused to recognise the new entity", said Ali Bakr, a researcher on Islamist movements.

Bakr agrees that it is difficult to conceive of a merger between the Egyptian organisation and ISIL. In addition to the foregoing reasons, he suggests that the Egyptian Jihadist Salafists are currently too weak and would be swallowed up by ISIL.

But experts generally agree that ISIL might attract supporters among the extremist militias in Libya or among the ranks of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Such groupings could be a source of grave concern for Egypt.

Perhaps it is possible that some cells are being bred in a different incubator from that which gave rise to the major current of Jihadist Salafist groups in Sinai. For example, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) was formed in the context of circumstances that arose after 30 June 2013, and its members are believed to be a mixture of Muslim Brotherhood members and Jihadist Salafists.

There are also militant cells in other governorates outside of Sinai, such as Al-Sharqiya, characterised by the urban, rural and Bedouin composition of its population and by the desert expanse that connects it with Ismailia, the closest governorate to Sinai. High-level security experts in their assessments of the situation have referred to the strip of territory as a “danger belt.”

"Fortunately, Egypt has a strong army, as El-Sisi pointed out in his meeting with the editors-in-chief. This, combined with the continued coherence of the Egyptian state, which resisted the forces of fragmentation even at its weakest moments, has allayed fears of a repetition of the experiences of other countries on Egyptian territory," said a senior military expert; yet, he pointed out to the Weekly, "We should not exclude any scenario."

"It is crucial to remain alert with respect to the current developments in the region and their potential impact on Egypt," he said, adding that among the greatest sources of concern in this regard were the lack of sufficient intelligence and, sometimes, sufficient resources to contend with the dangers posed by an organisation of the size and capacity to extend its control over large parts of Iraq and Syria.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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