Research note originally commissioned November 2015
Since declaring allegiance to ISIS in 2014, Sinai Province has been increasing the scale and sophistication of its attacks. Rhetorically, it cites itself within ISIS’ growing state-fantasy, as one of many ‘provinces’ in a future far-reaching Islamic state. This is reflected in the group’s as well as ISIS’ propaganda. It has succeeded in attracting foreign fighters and receives support from ISIS. Its strategy is similar to that of other North African ISIS-affiliated groups, in that it seeks to undermine the key industry of the area in which it operates and provoke security forces. In the case of Sinai this is tourism and attacks have targeted foreigners and tourism infrastructure. The group has claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane leaving the tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The other aim is to provoke security forces into a harsher response and so drive instability and resentment. The group may also be seeking to provoke a response from the Israeli military in order to draw on anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt. Sinai Province’s activities demonstrate how crucial the information war is in winning hearts and minds. The coup d’état by General Sisi that brought down Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government may have driven Islamists underground and encouraged some to engage in violence. The region of Sinai itself is underdeveloped and the population marginalized, making it ripe for radicalization.
Active since 2011 as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the group pledged allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to Sinai Province on 2 November 2014. The remainder of Egypt’s Jihadist movements, those not based in Sinai, remained nominally attached to Al-Qaeda. By naming itself a province, or Wilayat, the group places itself firmly within ISIS’ fantasy narrative of a growing Islamic state, with regional provinces. Since its declaration as a province of ISIS, there is believed to have been an influx of foreign fighters.
The amount of attacks in Egypt increased significantly in 2015 and those conducted by Sinai Province demonstrated a hitherto unseen sophistication in coordination and in scale. Suicide bomb attacks were combined with ground assaults, and mortar attacks were combined with small arms attacks. These attacks were directed against the army and police for the most part. The attacks are similar in strategy to those conducted by ISIS and suggest Sinai Province is receiving direct support.
Moreover, the group’s propaganda activities have increased in sophistication, with slicker videos of claimed attacks being produced. The group produced a document detailing its 26 claimed attacks from September to October. Such summary reports are typical of the content produced by ISIS.
Since an attack last year that killed 33 soldiers, the Egyptian government has placed Sinai under a state of emergency and the army has declared it is a state of war.
The area is under-developed and the population is marginalized making it ripe for radicalization. Sinai Province has been providing supplies for people affected by Egyptian military action, including those affected by operations to increase security on the border with Gaza. By doing so the group is hoping to increase its support among the population and play on anti-Israeli and anti-government sentiment.
The probable long term aims of the group involve destabilizing Sinai Province economically, by destroying the tourism industry and provoking harsher military responses from the Egyptian and Israeli militaries. The group kidnapped and apparently beheaded a Czech national, attacked tourists and most recently has claimed the downing of a Russian passenger plane. The impact of the latter has been huge, with a number of countries stopping flights to Sinai. By destroying the tourism industry, the group is likely hoping to increase the number of disaffected, angry people in the region. They have carried out attacks outside of Sinai as well, in Egypt’s Western Desert near the Libyan border, an area also popular with tourists and they claimed a bomb attack against the Italian consulate in Cairo, among others.
The group is increasing has talked of carrying out attacks against Israel. Anti-Israeli rhetoric is nothing new for Egyptian Jihadists, however, the scale and sophistication of Sinai Province’s attacks marks an escalation. If the group is able to carry off a large scale attack in Egypt, directly or through a local proxy, it may succeed in provoking an Israeli military response. This may well be exactly what it is hoping for. An Israeli military incursion into Egyptian territory would likely cause an outcry among the Egyptian population and fuel support for violent Jihadist groups. Similarly, one of the factors lending support to the group in Sinai has been the oppressive nature of the Egyptian military’s activities. An increase in Egyptian military activity might also increase resentment among the local population. A recent claimed missile attack on an Egyptian military vessel is a clear provocation. The desire to increase conflict and involve Israel plays into ISIS’ long-running narrative of bringing about al-Malehem, the final battle between Muslims and non-Muslims, which would herald the apocalypse.
Sinai Province issued a statement early this year concerning an attack on a wedding in Sinai. The statement claimed that the attack was conducted by “agents of the Jews”, linking the attack to Egyptian military intelligence. It is clear that Sinai Province considers the propaganda impact of its activities to be key, demonstrating how vital winning the information war is to holding ground.
The central ISIS leadership promotes victory in Sinai as a means of unifying Jihadist elements in Libya and in the Levent, as well a stepping stone towards activity in Jerusalem. This is far from a serious possibility at the moment but is a powerful extra piece in the ISIS’ growing state-fantasy. Foreign fighters have reportedly joined Sinai Province. Again, being able to provide a better narrative of events on the ground is key to preventing the spread of violent ideologies.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup d’état against the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi may have played a role in driving Islamists underground an increase sympathy for armed struggle. However, it does not seem that the Muslim Brotherhood is aligned with Sinai Province. That is not to say that the two groups would not share sympathisers. It is believed that the targets of Sinai Province’s recruitment efforts are disaffected young men, not Muslim Brotherhood supporters as such.
There are a number of alternatively-governed areas within Egpyt, not just Sinai, including the area to the south of Cairo, known as Middle Egypt. The Bedouin, an ethnic group, often denied citizenship, are seen as a potential fifth column by the military, are another group that holds potentially destabilizing elements.
In addition, Egypt’s densely populated Nile Valley, where 95% of its 84 million live, holds greater potential for insurgency, as it is much harder to control than Sinai where drones can be used to monitor movement more easily.
Finally, sectarian tensions, especially against Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, have shown potential as a thematic area for driving violence.