The Rise of “Wilayat Sinai”: A Significant Challenge for the Sisi Regime

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Egyptian relatives of the members of security forces who were killed in North Sinai province during an attack the day before, arrive at al-Maza military airport where the bodies had been flown on January 30, 2015 in the capital Cairo, Egypt. AFP/Mohammed al-Shahed

By: Thabit al-Maamour

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2015

While the focus has been on the growth of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, overshadowing the events in Sinai, the genie is now out of the bottle, so to speak. In Sinai, a province — or a wilaya in Arabic — with formidable military and human capabilities has gradually emerged .

This raises a two-part question: Is this jihadi group the result of “local expertise,” or has it been inspired by the experiences of the mother group in Syria and Iraq? How can Cairo counter the new tactics used by the group in a theater of operations as large as Sinai? The answer begins with the moment the declaration of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was ignored.

Cairo — After operating under the name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Arabic for “Supporters of Jerusalem”), and claiming responsibility for numerous attacks from northern Sinai to east Cairo, the expected shift towards allying with ISIS, which most analysts had predicted, finally took place. It occurred on November 2, 2014, when Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis declared its allegiance to ISIS and its emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “caliph” in Iraq, Syria, and all Muslim lands. The group changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, or the province of Sinai, of the Islamic State.

The shift was completed when ISIS flaunted a map that showed its planned expansion into the majority of Arab countries. After ISIS got a strong foothold in Syria and Iraq, it found a similar opportunity in Egypt. It was no coincidence that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis made its move after the creation of Wilayat Barqa, or the Cyrenaica province, in neighboring Libya, another development that has been widely ignored.

The declaration of allegiance is not the only link between Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and ISIS. Weeks earlier, the Egyptian authorities revealed the group had established close links with ISIS, and posted videos of beheadings of people it said they were spying on it for Israel — the same tactic used by ISIS against its enemies.

Less than a week after the establishment of Wilayat Sinai, Baghdadi issued an audio statement, on November 8, 2014, commenting on the air strikes conducted by the international coalition. Baghdadi said they will not be able to prevent the expansion of the “caliphate,” citing the allegiance declared by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

Baghdadi, in the recording posted by Al-Furqan, ISIS’s media arm, added, “We give you the good news of declaring the expansion of the Islamic State to new countries...to the country of the two shrines [Saudi Arabia], Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. We declare that we accept the allegiance of those who gave it to us among our brethren in these countries, thereby abolishing the names of the groups there and declaring them as new provinces of the state, for which we shall appoint governors.”

In the official and media narrative, the transformation of the armed group into a “wilaya” was treated as a fleeting event. In reality, however, the repositioning was well-prepared, and arguably had required a lot of planning.

By all indications, the restrictions on Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis did not push it into ISIS’s arms. Rather, it seems that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was expanding and growing in strength before becoming Wilayat Sinai, as evident from the military parades in Sinai’s streets with SUVs carrying unmasked militants flying ISIS’ flags.

Moreover, the way the group has documented attacks on the army and police confirms its high level of preparedness and its capabilities. For example, the rapid communication on the internet and quick posting of videos on forums affiliated to jihadi groups raises questions about the authorities’ supposed restriction on communications in the Sinai.

Wilayat Sinai also followed in the footsteps of ISIS by creating a media arm called the Fata al-Maarik Group. The group claims to care about humanitarian issues, promoting reports that it has been distributing money to those affected by the fighting, in an attempt to reinforce the bond with, and expand, its popular base of support.

To understand the secret of the group’s rapid success, recall that multiple factors in Sinai are working in its favor. These include the absence of development plans for the peninsula by the Egyptian state, and the longstanding feeling of injustice among the people of Sinai. In addition, there is a notable absence of security forces in the border region, which is difficult to police. Furthermore, Cairo has prioritized the military and security solution over all else, while the sheer size of the Sinai allows the group great freedom of movement, including access to the sea.

There is an important story behind this sea access, linked to the attack of Black Thursday. Some accounts, specifically in al-Arish where the attack took place, claim an unidentified boat had appeared 20 days earlier on January 10.

People in al-Arish say the boat was full of supplies and equipment that would last a long time for a group of fighters. Fishermen in al-Arish doubt that the boat could have drifted to shore because of the weather, and say it had travelled to shore in a straight line, which means that it was deliberately sent to the shores of their province.

Although there were reports that the boat had also carried militants, the authorities did not investigate the matter, while in the media, some claimed the boat was linked to the Gaza Strip.

Much can be gleaned from how quickly the Wilayat Sinai group claimed responsibility for the recent attack; indeed it hints at details that the government had wanted to keep secret. The Egyptian authorities had only stated the number of military casualties, but not the civilian casualties inside the prison of Battalion 101.

On a strategic level, the attacks took place after the Egyptian armed forces made statements saying they were nearly done with the mission to cleanse the Sinai. Egyptian websites ran more than 80 stories over the past three months claiming dozens from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were arrested or killed, or that its caches and hideouts were destroyed. In this context, the attack demonstrated that this “war on terror,” which the authorities were claiming had borne fruit, has not even begun yet.

Another serious issue that was not revealed by the official accounts is that the armed group is larger than previously thought; nor is it made up of small unconnected groups or individuals. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a sophisticated group with a solid structure, and with formidable military and operational expertise, active in Sinai today.

The Egyptian authorities have been talking about returnees from Syria. The fact that Baghdadi has accepted the declaration of allegiance from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis meant essentially that he was aware of its capabilities and resources, and his allusions to appointing governors means there is a strong bond between the two sides.

Without going into the similarity in ideology and strategy between ISIS and Wilayat Sinai, much can be gleaned from what was mentioned in the latter’s statement claiming responsibility for the most recent attack. The statement revealed an evolution in the group’s capabilities, a marked departure from previous attacks, including the attempt to assassinate Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim in Nasser City (part of Greater Cairo) on September 2, 2013.

In the attack, Wilayat Sinai assaulted more than one security headquarters — not checkpoints. The attack targeted Battalion 101, the Officers Club, and the North Sinai security directorate. The group’s statement contains details about the attack, such as the fact that three vehicles were rigged with explosives, including a water tanker that was laden with ten tons of explosives.

All this represents a major challenge to Cairo at the military and security level. Indeed, how could the group obtain this quantity of explosives and deploy it effectively? Could it have used a large part of its stockpiles in one operation, or does it have a large amount of explosives in its possession, allowing it to operate this comfortably? How did the three vehicles move, and from where did they come to central al-Arish? Why did Wilayat Sinai not content itself with car bombs, and chose to use mortars and direct attacks?

The group’s statement might contain some answers. The group said that 100 fighters had taken part in the assault (though security forces put the number at 60). In addition to hinting through this declaration that the group has grown in number and armaments, Wilayat Sinai was also demonstrating that it could move comfortably. This could attract many to join its cause from both inside and outside Egypt.

It is worth noting that the group prefers foreign fighters, who are better trained. This is evidenced from the fact that the group requires “those willing to do the jihad” to be trained and prepared to participate directly in combat. What this means is that Wilayat Sinai has a surplus of fighters that allows it to be selective.

These recent developments suggest that the interaction between the emerging group and the mother group will go beyond ideology and mutual interests. It is likely that Egypt will become a new hub for jihadi groups, be they rivals or allies, although the latter option is unlikely given the depth of the rift between the respective factions. What seems clear is that Egypt is now the center of broader jihadi attention, and not just in Sinai. This can explain the announcement by the Egyptian Interior Ministry on November 20, 2014 that it had arrested an Egyptian extremist who fought in Syria with a group linked to al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, and who had returned to Egypt to train Egyptians on making bombs.

The ministry’s statement said that the man, named as Hani Shaheen, had confessed to receiving orders from the Golan Based Al-Furqan Brigades to train Egyptians in the Western Governorate, where five terrorist cells comprising 38 extremists had been captured.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

By whatever name these so-called Islamic terrorists are called, they are all illegitimate children of Western intelligence services created with the aim of getting rid of stable governments and creating wars and chaos. Ideologically and cult-wise they are very close to Saudi Arabians, and let’s hope they go to Riyadh and get rid of 10,000 free-loading princes first.

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