For Egypt, Islamic State One Threat Among Many

8 MINS READJul 7, 2015 | 09:01 GMT
Smoke rises on July 2 from northern Sinai, where Egyptian soldiers clashed with Islamic State militants the previous day.

The Sinai Peninsula, long an outpost for terrorist groups, has been racked by another spate of violence since last week, when Islamic State franchise Wilayat Sinai carried out a series of coordinated, large-scale attacks in the town of Sheikh Zuweid on July 1. The tactics used by the group exhibit a marked change from previous Sinai attacks and were adopted from methods employed by the Islamic State to capture and control territory in Syria and Iraq.  

The Sinai attacks come in the wake of the targeted assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 30 and an uptick of violence elsewhere in Egypt that the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will have to manage. Egypt faces multiple internal threats from different and even competing jihadist groups. While they do not currently pose an existential threat to the government, Cairo will have its hands full combating its increasingly varied Islamist and jihadist antagonists.

The attacks on Sheikh Zuweid highlight the Sinai Peninsula's long history of militancy. The region is a vast, mostly arid expanse containing the Sinai desert. It is the only part of Egypt that is considered part of the Asian continent, and its strategic significance is rooted in the fact that it historically has been a valuable route for overland trade between Africa and Asia. The peninsula's harsh terrain and lack of natural resources have left it relatively unpopulated and underdeveloped, making it an ideal place for smuggling weapons and supplies.

Stratfor has been watching the evolution of militancy in the peninsula for well over a decade. Violence has intensified in the region since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Militants have engaged in attacks of varying severity, mainly on Egyptian military and security installations, but also on an Israeli border fence in 2012. In recent years, often in response to attacks, the Egyptian military has periodically deployed significant firepower to Sinai with Israel's blessing to curb jihadist activity in the region.

Yet the tactics Wilayat Sinai employed on July 1 deviated from other attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. Previous attacks in the area have used suicide bombings and roadside bombs but not in the concerted and coordinated way they were used this time. In the assault on Sheikh Zuweid, militants claim to have used at least three vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices on multiple points in an overall operation involving 15 targets. Ahram reported that five of the targets were military checkpoints, and one of the primary targets was Sheikh Zuweid's main police station, which at one point was under siege by militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The use of multiple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to overwhelm defenses in the process of penetrating and taking control of terrain is a very common tactic used by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In May, when Islamic State militants routed the Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, they did so by setting off over 20 car bombs and suicide vests over several days of offensive operations.

After the initial suicide attacks on July 1 breached the perimeter of their targets, the militants massed their forces and launched armed assaults on their chosen targets, supporting their assaults with technicals (improvised fighting vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns). Among the various mortars, anti-aircraft guns and missiles used by the militants were Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles. The militants' use of anti-aircraft missiles was reportedly so effective that Egypt was forced to respond with F-16 fighter jets instead of Apache helicopters for air support. In addition, the militants laid mines and improvised explosive devices in the vicinity to delay reinforcements and disrupt the military's supply lines.

The recent attacks in Sinai also mirrored the core Islamic State's planned offensives in its complexity. Reports on casualties vary; an Egyptian army statement claimed 17 soldiers and over 100 militants were killed, while other sources, such as The New York Times, claimed as many as 64 soldiers were killed. Whatever the precise numbers, this operation was no simple raid, ambush or suicide bombing — it was a complex assault that was skillfully planned, coordinated and executed.

The close similarity between Wilayat Sinai's new tactics and those used by the Islamic State core sheds light on the character and source of the fighters themselves. There have been varying reports as to how many militants were involved in the July 1 attack, with some saying as few as 70 and an Egyptian military source telling Ahram that it involved more than 300. And while Stratfor has not yet been able to verify numbers or identify nationalities, we suspect that at least some of the militants involved in this attack had returned to Sinai after fighting in Syria or Iraq — or that foreigners with experience fighting with the Islamic State's core were on the ground shaping the battle plan. This would explain why, for the first time, an Islamic State regional franchise such as Wilayat Sinai has adopted and utilized the tactics of the core group.

The Assassination of a Prosecutor

The Sinai attack was thus significant in that it revealed the evolution of an Islamic State franchise's methods and hinted at the movement of jihadists between battlefronts. But it was not the only well-executed terrorist attack in Egypt in the past week.

Stratfor believes a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was responsible for the June 30 targeted assassination of Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, who had overseen the trials and sentencing of hundreds of Islamists. Stratfor's Scott Stewart analyzed this attack in a Security Weekly: The assault proved that whoever perpetrated the attack, whether Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or some other group, was a sophisticated terrorist actor capable of planning and executing complex attacks against hard targets in Cairo itself.

However, while the timing of the Sinai operation and the assassination of the prosecutor general has raised questions about possible cooperation between Wilayat Sinai and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, it would be a mistake to link these two very different attacks. Though Wilayat Sinai was a faction of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis until it broke away in 2014, the two groups have very different heritages and affiliations, making them more rivals than allies. 

Wilayat Sinai, which seeks to make Sinai a province of the Islamic State's caliphate, has its roots in the Egyptian affiliate called Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded in Iraq in 1999. Despite a concerted effort on the part of the Egyptian government to destroy it, the grassroots terrorist organization endured, continuing to perpetrate attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. In 2004, the founder of Tawhid wal-Jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and subsequently renamed his group al Qaeda in Iraq. But the affiliation did not last. Eventually, al-Zarqawi's group split from al Qaeda in part because Zarqawi wanted to be the preeminent al Qaeda faction in Syria. Tawhid wal-Jihad was then renamed the Islamic State, the group to which Wilayat Sinai has firmly pledged its fealty.

On the other hand, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which likely carried out Barakat's assassination, comes from a different jihadist lineage. Some reports link the organization to the Muhammad Jamal Network, a group formed after the release of its founder and namesake from an Egyptian prison in early 2011. Muhammad Jamal had a close relationship with jihadist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who today leads the entire al Qaeda organization, and this connection points to a link between Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and al Qaeda, the Islamic State's major rival.

In addition to the personal connection between its founders, the advanced terrorist tradecraft exhibited by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is reminiscent of al-Zawahiri's group. In fact, Stratfor believes that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is actually a full-fledged al Qaeda franchise, attempting to downplay its connection to the al Qaeda core by eschewing the al Qaeda brand name. This would explain Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' target set; the group has gone from attacking Egyptian security posts in the Sinai Peninsula to conducting targeted hits in Cairo and other populated areas in Egypt, not just in Sinai. The scope of its attacks alone suggests a connection to an organization with a global reach.

Competing Jihadist Groups

That these attacks likely occurred separately and without cooperation highlights the fact that Egypt is facing multiple internal threats at once. In response, Egypt has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Ever since the Egyptian military took power by coup d'etat in July 2013, deposing President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian state has moved to crush the party and its political influence. In 2013, Egypt designated the party a terrorist organization and has carried out a series of crackdowns ever since.

One of the harshest of these crackdowns came immediately after the Sinai attack, when Egyptian security forces killed nine Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the Six October city. The next day, July 2, 24 Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested for planning attacks and damaging public and private property, and even without Barakat, Egypt's military justice court handed out 36 prison sentences to party members. Thirteen more Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested July 6 for allegedly planning to place bombs near the Suez Canal.

Cario's strategy plays directly into the hands of the jihadists. The more the regime cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the more disillusioned party members become, making them more vulnerable to the militants' recruitment efforts. This is especially true of the young generation, which saw Morsi ascend to power and never experienced the violent suppression of the group in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, the crackdowns are radicalizing the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Indeed, a Stratfor source indicated recently that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing a transformation, shifting from an emphasis on imparting religious values to the younger generation and instead preparing them for a potential violent confrontation with the al-Sisi government.

Egypt is thus not facing just one sophisticated campaign in Sinai; it is facing multiple jihadist groups with proven abilities to strike hard targets. And by cracking down so harshly on the Muslim Brotherhood, failing to differentiate between the various jihadist and Islamist forces vying for influence in Egypt, Cairo is essentially creating a recruiting pool for the very organizations it is fighting.

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