The jihadists swear loyalty to al-Baghdadi and unite under the Islamic State of Sinai.
Since the Sinai returned under Egyptian rule in 1982, the state has failed to promote any development policies for the north of the peninsula, large sections of which have no access to drinking water or electricity. For decades, the inhabitants of North Sinai have suffered discrimination and repressive policies under successive governments. And since the 1990s, jihadist movements have been exploiting the local population’s resentment.
From the 1973 Yom Kippur War onwards, the Sinai has been a pawn in relations between Israel and Egypt, but also within Egypt’s own internal politics. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi based his credibility on the fight against the terrorist threat in Sinai. His claim to fame came in May 2013 (as defence minister) with the successful release of seven kidnapped policemen. From then on, his rise has been unstoppable. As a ’man of the people’, he ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from his role as president in July 2013 before securing election as president himself in May 2014.
The recent Gaza war and al-Sisi’s role in the ceasefire negotiations held in Cairo have helped to revive Egypt’s standing as an international mediator, restoring relations with Israel and the trust of the Americans, particularly after last November’s announcement that granted Israel the opportunity to establish a ‘buffer zone’ along the Egyptian border with Gaza (500m by 13km at first, now expanded to 1km by 13km).
The 10,000 refugees from Rafah sheltering in tents and shantytowns near the North Sinai governorate’s capital, al-Arīsh, have now been joined by those fleeing the military offensive ongoing since July 2013. According to local sources, nothing remains between the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid but the ruins of Bedouin villages that are now used as strategic bases by the jihadis. Following the 2011 revolution, the Bedouin tribal fabric disintegrated significantly with changes in the crony relationship between state and tribes. Tribal heads have lost their power on the ground and many members of the weaker families, attracted by weapons and power, have gravitated to the jihadis, who are seen as having greater resolve than the clans or the state.
This context enabled the jihadi militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) to form and evolve. It was initially conceived in 2011 as an umbrella organisation for all jihadi groups in North Sinai with the express purpose of boycotting Egyptian-Israeli relations. Once the government embarked on Operation Sinai, the ABM concentrated its attacks almost exclusively on the Egyptian state. On 14 November 2014, the group swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and to the Islamic State (IS), changing its name to Wilayat Sinai or State of Sinai.
The jihadis now aim to extend the Caliphate across Egypt and to target the embassies of countries involved in the US-led coalition operating in Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, Wilayat Sinai’s alliance with IS gives the Egyptian armed forces reason to escalate their interventions in North Sinai, yet on the other hand, it guarantees the group access to considerable finance, training and support in spreading the IS brand. This also means a larger recruiting basin, not from abroad but from inside Egypt where many disillusioned youngsters view IS as an alternative to the repression they suffer in their own country.
For the most part, the main active cells are local. They number around 3,000 according to Egyptian security service sources, though Sinai experts put that figure closer to a couple of dozen. Operations have a local emphasis too and new developments are emerging in this sphere. On 5 January 2015, Wilayat Sinai distributed compensation to civilians whose houses had been destroyed to create the buffer zone, proof that the jihadis have now added the tools of propaganda and welfare provision to their armoury.
Egypt’s response remains confined to its antiterrorist operations, a battle that has garnered praise for al-Sisi from Western governments, though these actions have often turned out to be inefficient and counter-productive. According to sources close to military intelligence, al-Sisi appears to have pensioned off people with decades of experience in counter-terrorism in Sinai, and even though the operations are carried out in desert or mountainous conditions, he has only rarely deployed special forces. The fight against terrorism is being spearheaded by foot soldiers from North Sinai, terrified out of their wits and poorly trained. They open fire on anything that moves, knowing full well that, “if you kill civilians in Sinai, it is not a problem for the military”.
After all, so long as the terrorist threat remains, the political legitimacy of the current government is also in the balance.