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