Jihadists in Sinai: The ebb of extremism

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 15 Aug 2016

Islamist militants in Sinai are not just on the back foot, their ability to act has been undermined

Army Patrol in North Sinai
File Photo: An Egyptian army patrol in North Sinai's Sheikh Zuweid (Photo: AP)

The army launched a major military operation last week targeting the command centre of Ansar ‎Beit Al-Maqdis, the jihadist group which affiliated itself with the Islamic State militant group, ‎becoming IS’s Sinai Province.

Military spokesman Mohamed Samir announced that the operation ‎succeeded in eliminating Abu Doaa Al-Ansari, the leader of the organisation, and many of his ‎senior commanders.‎

‎“Based on accurate intelligence, counter-terrorist forces, in coordination with the air force, ‎carried out a special operation delivering precision strikes against strongholds of the terrorist ‎group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in south and southwest Arish,” the spokesman wrote on his Facebook page.

“By means of ‎these strikes the armed forces were able to kill the leader of the terrorist organisation, ‎Abu Doaa Al-Ansari, and a number of his most important aides, and to destroy weapons depots ‎containing arms, ammunitions and explosives. The operation succeeded in killing more than 45 ‎terrorist operatives and wounding dozens of others.”‎

The military spokesman published details of the locations of the strikes and of communications ‎the organisation made before the debilitating attacks.‎

‎“The moment security agencies reach and strike the terrorist command you have a process of ‎severing the head from the body,” says MP and military expert Tamer El-Shahawi. After this the ‎organisation begins to fragment, losing the ability to sustain itself.‎

Ali Bakr, an expert on jihadist groups who argues Ansar Beit Al-Maqdisis structured so as to replace leaders who ‎have been eliminated, remarks that “the group has certainly become much less efficient judging ‎by the military spokesman’s announcement.”

Yet he warns this is far from being the end of ‎jihadist organisations in Sinai. And even if IS were to be eliminated, he believes circumstances ‎may give rise to other organisations.‎

According to Nageh Ibrahim, a leading expert on Islamist groups, “the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis organisation in ‎Sinai is breathing its last.”‎

Ibrahim suspects that Al-Ansari is the brother of Tawfik Mohamed Freij, aka Abu Abdallah, a leader ‎eliminated by the army in 2014. Like Bakr, Ibrahim says the organisation has been dramatically ‎weakened over the past year and is now unable to carry out major operations such as the attack ‎against the military intelligence building in Ismailia in October 2013. It now resorts to car bombs ‎and suicide attacks, most of which the army has been able to anticipate.‎

Two weeks ago IS released a video consisting of a montage of operations purported to have been ‎carried out by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai. The clip was narrated by Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani, the ‎spokesman of IS in Iraq and Syria, suggesting the organisation no longer has a broadcasting ‎network in Egypt. Previously Abu Osama Al-Masri, believed to be the mufti of the organisation ‎in Egypt, would record messages that were then broadcast from inside Egypt in the name of ‎Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.‎

‎“The five main factors on which any organisation depends have been weakened,” says Ibrahim. ‎‎“Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has lost its personnel structure, its funding sources, its weapons depots, its ‎communications network and it has been hemmed in, losing the ability to recruit from Libya and ‎Gaza. This is the beginning of the end of the organisation.”‎

‎“The weakening process began with the first Martyr’s Right operation,” says El-Shahawi. “An ‎extensive store of knowledge has accumulated through the military operations that have been ‎carried out during the past two years. The army is now very familiar with how the organisation ‎works and has infiltrated the organisation.”‎

‎“We are not only seeing the beginning of the end of the organisation in Egypt. It is also receding ‎in Iraq, Syria and Libya,” says Ibrahim.

“IS is on its last legs in Iraq. As a result of the strikes ‎delivered by the international coalition the same is happening in Syria, Libya and in Somalia. The ‎group that broke away from the Taliban and joined IS is probably the next to be targeted. We are ‎seeing the global decline of IS. The organisation is not just religiously and morally bankrupt, it ‎was politically stupid as well. It caused the failure of the Syrian revolution. It gave the Iranians ‎the excuse to intervene in Syria. It undermined the revolution against Al-Maliki in Iraq and ‎cleared the path for Iran to create the sectarian-based Popular Mobilisation Forces, a parallel army ‎in Iraq answerable to the Revolutionary Guards rather than to the Iraqi government. IS claimed ‎to champion Sunnis in Iraq but it caused the return of the US and British.”‎

‎“Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was the first group in Egypt to declare allegiance to an organisation from abroad. It ‎initially declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and then turned to IS. It is also the first militant ‎organisation to include among its members drug traffickers, arms merchants and convicted ‎criminals on the run.”‎

But if this is the beginning of the end of the organisation what comes next?‎

Ibrahim believes that even though the collapse of the organisation is now inevitable the ‎government needs to play a role that extends beyond security concerns to include a ‎comprehensive development drive, something that will entail demographic as well as political ‎changes.

“The government needs to think in another direction. It has to remedy the fallout from ‎the conflict and improve the circumstances of life for people. It cannot employ security measures ‎alone.”‎

Al-Shahawi argues the next phase must involve eradicating the sources of jihadism. Accordingly ‎‎— and here he agrees with Ibrahim — this will require planning and coordination.‎

‎“For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritise a security over a socio-‎economic political response. Now what matters is to instigate development programmes.”‎

Since regaining control over Sinai after the 1973 War to the mid-1990s the government lacked ‎the resources to properly develop the peninsula, says El-Shahawi.

“After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing. The role of ‎the government is to promote remedies now it knows the problems.”‎

As long as the conflict continued at full throttle attempts at remedies would all be undermined. ‎Now, however, the circumstances are favourable for development. EGP 10 billion has been ‎earmarked for the development of Sinai. The government has the upper hand over Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, making ‎the state a greater attraction for local residents in Sinai than the extremists. It is, says El-‎Shahawi, a polarisation that will end in favour of the government.‎‎ ‎

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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