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Taking the Sinai Province of the Islamic State seriously without helping it destabilize Egypt


Taking the Sinai Province of the Islamic State seriously without helping it destabilize Egypt

August 31, 2015Sheehan Kane and William Braniff

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.


On November 10, 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis[1] pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), subsequently changing the group’s name to the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. Following this affiliation, ISIL began marketing the Sinai Peninsula as an ideal location for jihadist activity.[2] In an article entitled, “Come to the Sinai to Elevate the Foundations of Your State,”[3] an ISIL member, Abu Musab al Gharib, stressed that the establishment of a state in the Sinai Peninsula would not only unify jihadists in “Libya, Egypt, and the Levant,” but would also be a stepping stone toward activity in Jerusalem.[4] It is not uncommon for jihadist groups to organize within Egypt or for a jihadist group to invoke the specter of attacks in Jerusalem, but to do both while waging an accelerating campaign of violence warrants more attention than the Sinai Province of the Islamic State is currently receiving.

According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[5] there were 346 incidents of terrorism in Egypt in 2014, 52 of which were either claimed by or attributed to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and 17 of which were either claimed by or attributed to the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.[6] According to preliminary GTD data, there have already been 248 incidents of terrorism in Egypt from January - March 2015, 27 of which were either claimed by or attributed to the Sinai Province of the Islamic State; 52% of these Sinai Province affiliated attacks targeted either the Egyptian military or police. Clearly there has been a significant increase in not only attacks carried out in Egypt, but also incidents affiliated with the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.

Since the Sinai Province of the Islamic State’s allegiance to ISIL, the group has attempted to gain popularity by distributing funds and food supplies to those affected by fighting in the area.[7]  For example, on January 7, 2015 the group provided financial resources to those affected by military operations carried out in an effort to construct a “buffer zone” with the Gaza border.[8] The Sinai Province of the Islamic State stands to benefit from a large pool of disenfranchised and disillusioned Islamists at the national level following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood led government, and from a local population in the northern Sinai that does not favor the government.

The group is attacking Egyptian military and police presence in the Sinai Peninsula and appealing to local constituencies to carve out an operational safe-haven, but for what purpose? Beyond serving as a recruitment outpost for ISIL in Iraq and Syria and evidencing ISIL’s propaganda that the Caliphate is “remaining and expanding,”[9] there are two potential goals which the Sinai Province of the Islamic State may be trying to pursue:

  1. The Sinai Province of the Islamic State is attempting to destabilize Egypt.
  2. The Sinai Province of the Islamic State is attempting to carry out a cross-border campaign against the state of Israel.

Both of these scenarios carry severe consequences for Egypt and the region as a whole, and either would constitute a success for ISIL and its associated movement that al-Qa’ida and its associated movement have thus far failed to achieve.

Following the toppling of the Mubarak and Morsi regimes, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State may smell blood and replicate the destabilization strategy played out in Iraq and Syria over the last decade. While it is easy to assume that Egypt’s long history of suppressing Islamist violence would triumph in this instance as well, popular discontent and recent demonstrations of the government’s vulnerability challenge that assumption. If the Sinai Province of the Islamic State can withstand a heavy-handed response from the Sisi government and continue to attack both government and civilian targets, it could undermine the Sisi government’s security-centric rationale for its repressive tactics, helping the Sinai Province propagandize and recruit.[10] Without Egypt playing its traditional regional role as a “stabilizing force,” the nation-state system in the modern Middle East could be threatened as well.[11] If a direct assault against the Egyptian government proves too daunting, it is possible that the Sinai Province may seek an indirect approach to destabilizing Egypt.

The Sinai Province of the Islamic State’s potential to carry out a cross-border campaign in Israel also holds severe implications for the region, as inciting a cross-border response from Israel would jeopardize a long-standing peace between the two neighboring nations and serve as a rallying cry for Egyptian Islamists to line up with the ISIL affiliate. On July 3, 2015 the Sinai Province of the Islamic State claimed to have launched rockets into southern Israel and stated that the attack was carried out in revenge for Israel’s support of the Egyptian military.[12] Prior to this attack, ISIL had indicated the group’s desire to establish a “fiefdom” in the Gaza Strip with the intention of eradicating Israel.[13] According to preliminary GTD data, there have been 10 attacks affiliated with the Sinai Province of the Islamic State on civilians from January - March 2015, some of which have been motivated by the belief that the targeted civilians were working with the Israeli military. Therefore, it appears that the Sinai Province of the Islamic State may be attempting to draw Israel into the Sinai Peninsula.

Drawing Israel into a battle with ISIL plays into the group’s fascination with internecine conflict and al-Malehem, the final apocalyptical battle between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a scholar of Middle East Studies, describes this fascination as a means to “foster recruitment and propaganda.”[14] By establishing a province on the border of Israel, ISIL creates the potential to declare offensive jihad against the Jewish state, outpacing al-Qa’ida’s defensive narrative and outbidding the “resistance” orientation of Hezbollah and Hamas while baiting an invasion of Egyptian sovereignty.

The Sinai Province of the Islamic State will continue carrying out attacks within Egypt, not limited to the Sinai Peninsula, which we have seen with the recent attack on a security building in Cairo on August 20, 2015.[15] This attack may point to the group’s intention of destabilizing the Egyptian government rather than carving out a space in the Sinai Peninsula specifically for conducting a cross-border campaign against Israel, or may just be another indication of greater mobilization towards violence more generally. Either way, as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State becomes increasingly more dangerous, it is pivotal for members of the United States Government to discuss with both Israel and Egypt the potential for both scenarios to play out, and strategies to mitigate them. If domestic constituencies are prepared for an attempted escalation in violence from the Sinai Province, Israel and Egypt may be able to respond in a forceful but measured fashion, and avoid the unconstrained escalation that ISIL so desperately wants.

 

[1] Also known as Ansar Jerusalem.

[2] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Islamic State supporters advertise Sinai as jihadist destination.” The Long War Journal. 1 December 2014. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/12/islamic_state_suppor.php

[3] Zelin, Aaron. “The Islamic State’s Model.” The Washington Post. 28 January 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/28/the-islamic-states-model/

[4] Joscelyn, Thomas. “Islamic State supporters advertise Sinai as jihadist destination.” The Long War Journal. 1 December 2014. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/12/islamic_state_suppor.php

[5] The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) can be accessed at the following website: http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

[6] There were also eight additional attacks claimed by or attributed to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Israel in 2014.

[7] El-Ghobashy, Tamer. “Islamic State Offshoot Entrenches in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.” The Wall Street Journal. 8 July 2015.  http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-offshoot-entrenches-in-egypts-sinai-peninsula-1436393296

[8] Zelin, Aaron. “The Islamic State’s Model.” The Washington Post. 28 January 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/28/the-islamic-states-model/

[9] Dabiq Magazine. “Remaining and Expanding.” 2014. Magazine can be accessed at the following link: https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/the-islamic-state-e2809cdc481biq-magazine-522.pdf

[10] Conversation with Ryan Pereira, a researcher associated with the START Consortium.

[12]  “Islamic State claims it fired rockets from Egypt's Sinai at Israel.” The Telegraph. 3 July 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11717671/Islamic-State-claims-it-fired-rockets-from-Egypts-Sinai-at-Israel.html

[13] Lubell, Maayan and Hashem, Mostafa. “Rockets land in Israel, Egypt’s IS affiliate claims responsibility. Reuters. 4 July 2015. http://reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSKCN0PD26320150704?irpc=932

[14] Taylor, Guy. “Apocalypse prophecies drive Islamic State strategy, recruiting efforts.” The Washington Times. 5 January 2015. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/5/apocalypse-prophecies-drive-islamic-state-strategy/?page=all

[15] “Egyptian security building in Cairo rocked by bomb blast.” BBC. 20 August 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33998536

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Sheehan Kane is a faculty research assistant for the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at START. She holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo and a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Elon University. William Braniff is the executive director of START. Braniff is a graduate of the United States Military Academy where he received his bachelor’s degree. Following his Company Command as an Armor Officer in the U.S. Army, Braniff attended the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he received a master’s degree in international relations.

 

 

 

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