Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

An Islamic State in the Sinai

Jantzen W. Garnett

Despite major efforts by Egyptian security forces, ongoing—and intensifying—levels of violence now predominate across the northern Sinai Peninsula. A recent attack targeting the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO) base in North Sinai has drawn renewed international attention to the threat posed by militant groups operating in the area.

Chief among these is Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, an Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) affiliate that was previously known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM). The June attack on the MFO base was claimed by Wilayat Sinai and confirmed by the U.S. government in a formal press release.(1) And while the exact details of the attack are still unknown, the group’s targeting of international peacekeepers represents a clear escalation of the already-fraught security environment in the Sinai—and a potential change in the dynamics of the conflict there.

Indeed, since joining ISIS, Wilayat Sinai has increasingly adopted tactics, techniques, and procedures employed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So far, however, it has by and large refrained from targeting civilians or international forces. As such, the targeting of the MFO base indicates a major shift in the group’s modus operandi, and a potential portent of things to come.

Ideological (d)evolution

Wilayat Sinai originally pledged baya (a religious oath of allegiance) to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, and subsequently reaffirmed its fealty in a video that was released in May 2015.(2) Following its original November 2014 pledge, ABM was formally incorporated into the ISIS structure—rebranding itself Wilayat Sinai and in the process becoming one of ISIS’ first external affiliates.

The merger raised new questions and concerns about the capabilities of the already-deadly terrorist organization. While a simple name change does not in and of itself indicate increased lethality, recent operations carried out by Wilayat Sinai suggest that the group has received expertise and possibly resources from ISIS. It is useful, then, to trace the group’s recent evolution as a way of understanding where it came from—and where it is heading.

Even prior to pledging allegiance to ISIS, Wilayat Sinai (then ABM) was already widely considered to be the most dangerous Salafi-jihadist group operating in Egypt. It had a history of attacks, including a string of stand-alone vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and suicide-VBIED operations in the latter half of 2013 and January 2014. The group, however, suffered a number of setbacks in the early months of 2014; at least nine key operatives were killed in clashes with Egyptian forces, including a co-founder of the group and three veterans of the Syrian jihad. Eight other members were arrested in March 2014, six of whom were subsequently executed by Egyptian authorities this past May.

The lethality and frequency of the group’s attacks dropped significantly after March 2014. Nevertheless, it did manage to carry out a few terrorist attacks, most notably one near al-Farafra in Egypt’s Western Desert. In July 2014, elements of the group conducted an armed assault against a military post there, killing 22 soldiers. The following month, ABM released a video that concluded with photos from the attack and a caption warning of a forthcoming one. A number of deadly roadside IED attacks targeting military convoys in North Sinai followed. And, having gradually reconstituted itself after an operational pause, ABM launched its first complex attack (combining the tactics of an SVBIED followed by a heavily armed assault) against the Karam al-Qawades military post in North Sinai on October 24, 2014. At least 28 soldiers died in the attack.

ABM’s pledge of baya to al-Baghdadi followed that attack, and took the form of an audio statement released on November 10, 2014. A few days later, the group claimed responsibility for the Karam al-Qawades attack—the first claimed in the name of Wilayat Sinai.(3) Thereafter, the militant group increased operations throughout North Sinai, culminating in synchronized and well-coordinated attacks carried out across the region in January 2015, which went well beyond any previous terrorist acts carried out by the group in both sophistication and scope. They included, among other incidents, a triple-SVBIED attack inside the security corridor of North Sinai’s provincial capital, al-Arish, as well as concurrent assaults on a number of security positions across the region.

The exact death toll is still unknown, due to a moratorium imposed on the Health Ministry by the government shortly after the attacks occurred. Wilayat Sinai itself claimed the attack left “hundreds” dead. Some residents of al-Arish estimated the death toll to be nearly 100.(4) Most media reports, meanwhile, put the number at no less than 30 dead with dozens of others wounded. The lack of transparency, and unwillingness to release official figures, suggests that the attacks may have been more devastating than the government would like to acknowledge.

Growing lethality

Prior to the January synchronized attacks, there had been little or no evidence that Wilayat Sinai had obtained technical assistance or advanced weaponry from ISIS. The sort of complex attack carried out by the group at that time, however, indicated improved logistical support, an increase in funds, technical assistance in constructing explosives, and additional recruits. It represented the largest, most sophisticated attack conducted by the group to date—and is the clearest indication that Wilayat Sinai has received support from ISIS, perhaps significantly so. It was against this backdrop that Wilayat Sinai launched a mortar and rocket attack against the international peacekeepers’ base in North Sinai.

At the time, the group claimed it had attacked the base’s airstrip as a response for the arrest of a woman by Egyptian security forces in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuweid. But other reasons were likely behind the attack. For instance, the MFO consists of troop contributions from 12 countries, eight of which have participated to one extent or another in the anti-ISIS coalition now operating in Iraq and Syria. Wilayat Sinai’s decision to target the MFO base, therefore, might be a form of retribution carried out on the periphery of the hostilities taking place in the Levant. It was also a demonstration of sorts. With it, the Wilayat Sinai signaled its willingness to target the peacekeepers and reaffirmed that it is capable of conducting such an attack—and likely will pursue similar actions in the future.

Here, too, the influence of ISIS can be felt. As its ideology has changed, Wilayat Sinai has incrementally adopted many of ISIS’ operational methods. The pace at which they began implementing ISIS’ methods increased steadily after pledging allegiance, but even prior to its formal rebranding the group began adopting some of ISIS’ tactics. ABM’s first public indication of affinity with ISIS was in a January 23, 2014, audio message by the group’s religious leader, Sheikh Abu Usama al-Masry, in which he encouraged the “mujahideen brothers” of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to stand firm and have patience for God’s assistance.(5) Then, in July 2014, during an Eid al-Fitr sermon at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, al-Masry called on God to “grant victory to our brothers in the Islamic State and open Baghdad and all the country to them as well as the hearts of the people.”(6)

Subsequently, in August 2014, the group adopted a campaign of beheadings and executions carried out in much the same manner as that of ISIS, filming and disseminating the videos on jihadi forums and Twitter. The first video surfaced in August 2014 and showed the beheading of four civilians accused of cooperating with Israel’s Mossad spy service.(7) The manner in which they were killed mimicked the high profile beheadings of American and British hostages that have been carried out by ISIS. A second video published by the terrorist group surfaced in early October, showing the beheading of three civilians and the execution of another. All of the victims had been accused of cooperating with Israeli or Egyptian security forces.(8)

In early 2015, the Sinai witnessed a significant increase in the number of summary executions and beheadings. Eight bodies were found beheaded and strewn along North Sinai roadways with dozens of others found shot in apparent execution-style killings. Many local residents blamed Wilayat Sinai for the beheadings, which proved accurate; on February 9th, the group released a gruesome video of the eight beheadings, which were carried out in broad daylight along the side of the al-Arish-Rafah highway.(9) Although the majority of the execution-style killings since have not been publicly claimed, they too are presumed to be the work of Wilayat Sinai militants.

These tactics are designed to intimidate the local population so as to discourage would-be informants from working with the security forces. Another tactic utilized by the terrorist group, albeit to a lesser extent, is home demolitions.(10) In a video released in October, armed militants are shown searching a house late at night for a man accused of cooperating with the Egyptian security forces. Not finding him at home, they remove his wife and two small children and demolish the house with explosives. As the militants are shown clearing the house, an excerpt from a speech by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani is heard, in which he advises “remove their families from their homes and thereafter blow up their homes.” This tactic, along with beheadings and executions, bears a strong resemblance to the intimidation campaign undertaken by ISIS in Mosul prior to its seizure of the city and the declaration of the “caliphate.”

Other signs of a deeper association also persist. Wilayat Sinai has taken efforts to at least appear to distribute money to locals in need, as evidenced by a photo set published by their media office. The photos allegedly depict mujahideen distributing funds to residents whose homes were destroyed by the military during security operations targeting the militants. The alleged funds were distributed in clearly marked Air Mail envelopes with “Islamic State, Wilayat Sinai” written prominently across the front. The distribution of “Islamic State” aid money is, like the fear tactics of executions and beheadings, a hallmark of ISIS social outreach efforts in their Iraqi and Syrian territories. In additional efforts, armed and masked militants were photographed handing out treats to the children of local Sinai residents and photos of militants distributing food aid to the local population were also circulated online.

Furthermore, Wilayat Sinai has—on occasion—enforced, at least to a limited extent, its own interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) by confiscating and burning marijuana during traffic stops at mujahideen checkpoints in North Sinai.(11) In January, photos of militants stopping vehicles, confiscating marijuana, and then burning it along the side of the road were published by Wilayat Sinai’s media office. These sorts of events double as, or perhaps are purely, public relations stunts designed to enhance the group’s image. And since joining ISIS, their media profile has grown dramatically.

Resilient militancy

For all of its counterterrorism efforts to date, it is likely that the Egyptian government has unwittingly assisted Wilayat Sinai’s recruitment efforts.

Within days of the October attack against the Karam al-Qawadis military post, the Sisi government responded by implementing a plan to establish a 500-meter (0.3-mile) wide, 13.5-kilometer (8.4-mile) long “buffer zone” along the Sinai’s border with the Gaza Strip. The plan called for the eviction of 1,156 families and the demolition of 802 homes. Subsequently, in January 2015, the Egyptian military began implementing phase two of the project, which doubled the initial 500-meter wide zone to a full kilometer and required the evacuation of an additional 2,044 families and demolition of another 1,220 homes.(12) A third phase, expanding it an additional kilometer, was announced in April. The buffer zone is intended to stop the flow of weapons and fighters coming from the Gaza Strip through hundreds of tunnels under the border. In all likelihood, however, the forced evictions, loss of homes, jobs, and major sources of income (i.e., the smuggling of licit and illicit goods into Gaza) for the local population has given Wilayat Sinai more fodder for recruitment.

So far, it is unclear how many new recruits the group has garnered as a result. But there is mounting evidence that the displacement caused by Egyptian security measures has the potential to be a boon for the organization; to wit, a recent photo report published in late May depicts some three dozen camouflage-clad militants marching and training in what is alleged to be a new group of recruits for the group.(13)

Nor are there signs that Wilayat Sinai has been significantly impeded by the stepped-up security operations the Egyptian authorities have employed to target it. Indeed, there are indicators that Wilayat Sinai’s operations will increase in frequency, lethality, sophistication, and complexity as the target set grows to encompass international peacekeepers and potentially other foreign interests. The group appears to have received technical assistance, training, and possibly even limited funds from ISIS, and is seizing munitions and likely gaining recruits—all of which have added to its capabilities.

These new capabilities can be expected to increase the frequency of large, complex attacks carried out by Wilayat Sinai, similar in nature to the January triple-SVBIED attack in al-Arish. With their recent battlefield successes, Sinai militants are certain to be emboldened to aim for larger targets. Their growing boldness—and the acquisition of heavy weapons—means that the already-volatile situation in the Sinai is likely to expand still further.

Jantzen W. Garnett is a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, concentrating on militant groups active in the Levant. This article was written prior to the July 1st North Sinai terrorist attacks. Follow him on Twitter at @JantzenGarnett.

1.   Embassy of the United States in Cairo, Egypt, “Press Release: U.S. Embassy Condemns Terror Attacks,” June 11, 2015, http://egypt.usembassy.gov/pr061115.html.

2.   David D. Kirkpatrick, “Militant Group in Egypt Vows Loyalty to ISIS,” New York Times, November 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/world/middleeast/egyptian-militant-gro....

3.   Kareem Fahim and Thomas Merna, “In Egypt, Jihadists Release Video of an October Attack,” New York Times, November 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/world/middle-east/in-egypt-jihadists-r....

4.   Zaki Menna, Amira El-Fekki, and Mahmoud Mostafa, “‘State of Sinai’ Claim Hundreds of Killings in Sinai Attacks,” Daily News Egypt, January 31, 2015, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/01/31/state-sinai-claim-hundreds-kill....

5.   Borzou Daragahi, “Sinai Jihadi Group Emerges at Forefront of Egypt Violence,” Financial Times, January 31, 2014, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b5ad40d0-8a7b-11e3-9c29-00144feab7de.html....

6.   “New Video Message from Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ Abu Usamah al-Masri: ‘Sermon of Id From the Sinai,’” Jihadology, July 31, 2014. http://jihadology.net/2014/07/31/new-video-message-from-jamaat-an%E1%B9%....

7.   Michael Georgy, “Sinai Militant Group Says it Beheaded Four Egyptians,” Reuters, August 28, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/28/us-egypt-beheadings-idUSKBN0GS....

8.   Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis Beheads Three ‘Spies for the Jews,’” International Business Times, October 6, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/egypts-ansar-bayt-al-maqdis-beheads-three-spies....

9.   “Egypt Islamic State Affiliate Posts Beheading Video,” Agence France-Presse, February, 10, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/egypt-islamic-state-affiliate-posts-beheadi....

10.  “Sinai Militants Rise Again,” Al-Monitor, October 8, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2014/10/ansar-bayt-al-maqdi....

11.  Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s Model,” Washington Post, January 28, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/28/the-islami....

12.  Mahmoud Mostafa, “Rafah Evacuation Continues, Amid Efforts to Destroy All Gaza Tunnels,” Daily News Egypt, January 7, 2015, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/01/07/second-phase-buffer-zone-evacua....

13.  Mohamed Taraq, “ABM Claims a New Batch of Terrorists Join the Organization,” Al-Watan, June 1, 2015, http://elwatannews.com/news/details/741859.