In 2013, following the military ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, an obscure group of militants based in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula began to make news. Calling themselves Ansar Beit el-Maqdis, the group infiltrated Egyptian security checkpoints to launch surprise attacks, assassinated a senior police official in broad daylight and bombed security headquarters in two cities, including Cairo. When the group pledged allegiance to the “Islamic State” (IS) in November 2014, it once again raised alarm.
Now, after rebranding itself as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, the group is suspected of bombing a Russian airliner full of tourists traveling home from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, killing 224 people.
After pledging allegiance to the extremist group based in Raqqa, Syria, experts say Sinai Province has become stronger, more brutal and has departed from its ways of the past when it targeted security forces and largely avoided civilians. The downing of the Russian plane, some experts also say, has highlighted a shift in strategy of the parent organization, IS, toward coordinating and orchestrate terror campaigns in places from Paris and Sinai, far from its central command.
“Egypt has been for about a year been facing the challenge of fighting an Islamic State-aided and increasingly Islamic State proxy,” Mokhtar Awad, a researcher at the Center for American Progress who tracks Egyptian militants, told DW. In the summer of 2014 and the lead up to the group’s pledge of allegiance, the Sinai militants were at their weakest point, Awad said, but their rebranding in November 2014 marked a turning point.
“The number of attacks and lethality of such attacks against security forces increased significantly following Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledge to IS. The group has carried out a number of increasingly sophisticated assaults unlike anything the Egyptian military has ever seen since 1973,” said Awad. “The pledge to IS didn’t simply reinvent the group but resuscitated it and turned it into a more lethal insurgent group.”
Allegiance to IS
Since pledging allegiance to IS, the Egyptian militants have increasingly deployed tactics similar to those of their brethren in Iraq and Syria. Online, the Sinai group also began expanding its social media presence. Attacks increasingly grew more sophisticated and they also began beheading locals accused of spying, copying the punishment characteristic of IS.
Like IS militants in Iraq and Syria who have sought to capture large swaths of land, the group launched a fierce, coordinated assault on the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid in an attempt to take control of the town.
During the summer, the Sinai group claimed responsibility for bombing the Italian consulate in Cairo and used a guided missile to strike an Egyptian naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. After kidnapping a Croatian employee of a French energy company, the group mimicked its parent organization and released a video of his beheading, saying it was punishment for Croatia’s participation in the war against IS in Syria and Iraq.
“Regardless of whether Wilayat Sinai was behind [the downing of the Russian plane], there has been an increased challenge for the Egyptian government in that Sinai militancy has been infiltrated by an increasing number of non-Sinai fighters that do not have the same ties to the local population and therefore are less limited in their actions because of the impact those actions may have on locals,” Zack Gold, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told DW.
“This is clear in the change in militancy toward the local population and in increased harassment of and attacks against the [international peacekeeping force overseeing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel]. Of course, the downing of a plane of tourists…would exponentially emphasize that change,” he said.
Reach out to the locals
While the country grapples with an increasingly deadly insurgency, some say now more than ever is the time to address local grievances among the people of Sinai that in the past that has pushed locals away from the regime and fueled extremism.
“You have a history of a counterinsurgency that is not focused on winning hearts and minds, but to get as many bodies as possible,” Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and an associate fellow at Chatham House, told DW.
Rights groups have long said locals have been caught in the crossfire between militants and the regime. A report released in September by Human Rights Watch also claimed the government’s efforts to build a buffer zone between Gaza and north Sinai had displaced thousands of residents and violated international law.
“The problem is that the most dominate factions within the security and military are saying eradication is the answer, what you need to do is not relent and the problem will go away,” Ashour said. “This policy, it goes back years, has not been effective in ending the insurgency,” he said.
But the changing nature of the Sinai Province could also offer the Egyptian regime an opportunity to win back local support.
“For the first time, the local population needs the Egyptian state to protect it from militancy,” writes Zack Gold in an article called “One Year of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula,” published by The Institute for National Security Studies. “To exploit this opportunity, Egypt should do more than continue with its military campaigns. Sustained, effective military operations are necessary, but Egypt can also counter the IS narrative in both word and action.”