As previously discussed, insurgency has been a part of the Sinai for decades now. Militants have operated in small numbers since Egypt reasserted control over the region in the 1980s. They were able to grow in part due to opposition to the Sufi movements that have been a major religious force in the region, and in part due to the relative lawlessness of the region. The vast majority of these militants are Salafist fighters who were radicalised against Israel, against the 1979 treaty, or against the local Sufis. Those militants found a new ally and funding source in 2007 when Hamas gained political control of the Gaza strip. The fall of Mubarak emboldened both the tribal militant groups and the Islamist groups, who have since been the cause of a severe uptick in violence in the peninsula. In this installment, we will have a detailed look into who the various militant jihadist groups in the Sinai are, and examine their tactics and operational abilities.
The most famous of the Islamist groups currently operating in the Sinai is Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM), now known as Wilayat Sinai or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province. ABM emerged in the region in 2011, stemming from various smaller Salafi jihadist groups following the overthrow of Mubarak.1.Gold, Zack. “Wilayat Sinai: The Islamic State’s Egyptian Affiliate” The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, Israel (2016) The organisation has since claimed responsibility for several dozen attacks, and is suspected of several dozen more. They tend to rely on hit-and-run guerrilla attacks as they seem to have limited stores of light weapons. The first attack they claimed was the bombing of the Egypt-Israeli oil pipeline, an important event that signaled the beginning of an organised insurgency. They also claimed a variety of attacks on the Israeli and Egyptian military, as well as the Taba bus bombing and the 24 October Sinai attacks in Arish. The organisation is one of the most underground networks, as while many militant organisations are able to operate moderately openly Wilayat Sinai is unable to do so following the Bir Abed attack. They have been relegated to a loose affiliation of underground cells that will occasionally link up to conduct operations or temporarily control a village. 2.Gold, Zack. “Wilayat Sinai: The Islamic State’s Egyptian Affiliate” The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, Israel (2016)
The shift towards alignment with the Islamic State began when ABM’s most prominent leader, Ibrahim Mohamad Freg, was killed in an ambush in 2013 by the Egyptian military.3.“Egypt kills senior leader of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis” : The World Bulletin In 2014 his successor Shadi el Manaei was killed in an attack by unknown gunmen.4.“North Sinai tribal leader kills 4 Islamist militants” : Mada In November 2014, the next leader of the group was claimed to have been captured by the Egyptian military but turned up again in 2016.5.“Media baffled by mysterious fate of Sinai Province leader in Egypt” : al-Bawaba
The death of the group’s senior leadership sent Wilayat Sinai into disarray. It is unclear who assumed leadership after these events but the group, facing pressure from the Egyptian authorities, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and evolved into Wilayat Sinai.
The current leadership structure is opaque. We are able to make assumptions about the leadership structure of the organisation but are never exactly certain. From November 2014 onward, the brother of Ibrahim Freg appears to have assumed some form of control until his death in 2016. This brother, Abu Doaa Al Ansari, is responsible for the ramping up of attacks by the organisation.6.Gold, Zack. “Wilayat Sinai: The Islamic State’s Egyptian Affiliate” The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, Israel (2016) The official leader is an enigmatic figure named Abu Hajar al-Hashemi. Captured militants claim that all of his instructions are passed through subordinates, but there is no definitive evidence to suggest a leadership structure such as this. Some have also suggested that the group’s leader is a cleric going by the nom due guerre of “Abu Osama al-Masri”.
7.US Department of State official terror designation announcement. Since the new pledge of allegiance, the organisation has been responsible for a string of attacks including the Bir Abed attack, which killed 311 people and has injured 122 as well as the bombing of a chapel near St. Mark’s Cathedral that killed 27. Estimates suggest that the organization has between 1000- 1,500 members, although they appear to be struggling following the collapse of the Islamic State’s core in Syria and Iraq.8.“Sinai Province: Egypt’s most dangerous group” : BBC They have become famous for conducting war on the tribal leaders who opposed them previously, and have released videos showing the execution of elders who voiced opposition to them.
While Wilayat Sinai has made the most headlines, another organization has been in the Sinai for far longer. Takfir wal-Hijra, which translates to “excommunication and emigration”, is the name given to the Jama’at al Muslimin, a radical group which emerged as the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960’s. The group was first formed by Shukri Mustafa, a radical scholar from Asyut, and is one of the oldest organizations currently involved in the Sinai insurgency. It has its origins in the Abu Zabal camp organized with the assistance of the Islamists who attempted to assassinate Nasser.9.
Benjamin, Daniel. “The Age of Sacred Terror” Random House Publications, New York, N.Y. (October 2002) At its height, the group had around 2000 members and was based primarily in Cairo. The organization used the Sinai as a primary training location due to its relative isolation. After a squabble in 1976, which led to several attacks on former members of Takfir wal-Hijra and the kidnapping and execution of the cleric Muhammad al-Dhahabi, the government cracked down on the group and within a few days, and most members were arrested. By 1978, the leaders of the organization had been executed.
10.Mili, Hayder. “Jihad Without Rules: The Evolution of al-Takfir wa al-Hijra” The Jamestown Foundation (29 June, 2006)
Despite these setbacks, the organization managed to reform after Shukri Mustafa’s death. Since the change in leadership, Takfir wal-Hijra has been responsible for several attacks, such as the 2000 mosque attack in Sudan and a shooting rampage in 2011.11.“Amid Egypt Turmoil, More Clashes in Sinai” : The New York Times There are no reliable estimates on the size of the organisation. While the organisation in that emerged in the Sinai in 2011 shares the name Takfir wal-Hijra, it is unclear how deep the connection between the Takfir wal-Hijra of Shukri Mustafa and the Takfir wal-Hijra of today runs. The new organisation uses similar tactics and is built on the same ideology, however there does not seem to be any major personnel connections.12.Takfir wal-Hijra profile While few attacks have been directly claimed by this organisation, many scholars have noted the similarity in style between a variety of attacks in the Sinai and the attack patterns of Takfir wal-Hijra.13.Takfir wal-Hijra profile
Another Islamist group that has been active in the area is the Hasm Movement, known as Harakat Hasm in Arabic. The organization first emerged on July 16, 2016, with the murder of Egyptian Police Major Mahmuh Abdelhamid in an ambush.
14.Johnson, Alexandra. “Is the Hasm Movement the Future of Terror in Egypt?” Center for Security Policy (24 October 2017) As with most other Islamist organisations, their primary target has been the government. However, what sets them apart is their organisation’s attitude towards the Islamic State. Following the December 11th attack of St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Hasm Movement’s media wing condemned the attack, blaming the regime for instigating violence and blaming the Islamic State for carrying it out. Since then, they have become a force of opposition against the Islamic State, attempting to portray themselves as a more moderate jihadist group. The organisation has also claimed several assassinations or assassination attempts of prosecutors. This includes the top prosecutor general’s deputy, Zakaria abd El Aziz, for supposedly sentencing innocent defendants to death. The organisation has claimed that they do not target civilians, and several of their attacks have reportedly been called off due to the presence of civilians
15.Shay, Shaul. “Egypt – The Hasm Terrorist Group” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya (19 March 2017)
The group does not appear to have any affiliations outside of Egypt. There are some purported links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and several of their attacks were similar in style to attacks carried out by the Brotherhood’s militant committees, but there is no concrete evidence. In a similar vein, there is a claim that the organisation is part of the ABM network. This evidence rests on the attempted assassination of former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, which proponents believe was a response to the killing of al-Maqdis’s leader Abu al-Ansari in August.16.Shay, Shaul. “Egypt – The Hasm Terrorist Group” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya (19 March 2017) It is unclear why if they were a part of the ABM network why they would be fighting against Wilayat Sinai, contradicting the claim. To date, the Hasm Movement appears to have not intentionally killed a single civilian, though such a claim can be considered dubious due to lack of complete records. The group, while often using the Quran to justify violence, emphasises nationalist aims as well as Islamic ones. The organisation appears to be growing rapidly and has found plentiful success in targeting high ranking Egyptian officials.17.Shay, Shaul. “Egypt – The Hasm Terrorist Group” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya (19 March 2017) The most well-known attack was the October 21st 2017 ambush near Baharia Oasis which left as many as 55 Egyptian security forces dead. The police were moving to attack what they believed was a hideout for the Hasm movement when they were ambushed. While the Egyptian government claims to have killed 15 militants, most Western sources refute this claim.18.Shay, Shaul. “Egypt – The Hasm Terrorist Group” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC Herzliya (19 March 2017) The recent emergence of the organisation along with its ability to evade security forces means that there are no accurate estimates of the size of the organisation.
Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula
Any analysis of Islamic militant groups in the Sinai would be incomplete without an analysis of Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula (AQSP). They are one of the largest organisations present in the area and function much more as a network and less as a centralized organisation.19.Simcox, Robin. “An emerging threat: al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” The Henry Jackson Society (30 August 2011) Al-Qaeda’s presence in the area was first announced in August of 2006 when the then deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced a faction of a former militant group had pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Despite the claimed allegiance, which was confirmed by a member of the mainland Egyptian militant Islamist organization, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, there did not appear to be any Al-Qaeda operations until 2011.20.Simcox, Robin. “An emerging threat: al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” The Henry Jackson Society (30 August 2011)
AQSP is led by Osama bin Laden’s former doctor, Ramzi Mowafi. Mowafi was spotted in 2011 at the same time as the emergence of large scale use of al-Qaeda imagery. Approximately seven groups have pledged allegiance to AQSP.21.“Former bin Laden doctor reportedly heads al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” : The Long War Journal The first was Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula, which appears to have been formed by Al-Mowafi as the armed wing of AQSP.22.Ansar al-Jihad profile The second group, Jamaat al Murabiteen, (also known as the Community/Organization of the Sentinels) is a jihadi group formed by Abu Omar al-Muhajir, who defected from the Egyptian army’s special forces.23.Jamaat al-Murabiteen profile It appears that soon after being formed, the organisation pledged allegiance to AQSP and is now operating under their label.
The Muhammad Jamal Network was formed by the fighter Muhammad Jamal, who has been an international jihadist since fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. He was arrested in Egypt in the early 2000’s. Upon release in 2011 he established the Muhammad Jamal Network and used his contacts in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to bring foreign fighters to MJN camps.24.“Al-Qaeda’s expansion into Egypt” : The Long War Journal His group is operational across the Middle East but the portion of it in the Sinai has pledged allegiance to AQSP.25.“Al-Qaeda’s expansion into Egypt” : The Long War Journal There is also Jund-al Islam (Soldier of Islam) which formed in 2011, as many of these aforementioned groups did. They conducted a single operation in 2013, bombing the Rafah Military Intelligence building. However, they quickly disappeared from the public eye after this event. In 2015 they briefly came out of hiding to declare affinity with AQSP. In October of 2017 they once again returned from hiding to declare war on “Baghdadi’s Kharijites in the Sinai”. They have recently conducted several operations under the AQSP label.26.“The Re-Emergence of Jund al-Islam: A New Chapter in the Conflict Between al-Qaeda and ISIS” : The Atlantic Council There are a variety of smaller cells that are suspected to be operating under the AQSP label across the peninsula. Current estimates suggest that around 7000 fighters are active under the AQSP label or on friendly terms with AQSP. This compares to the around 1,500 fighters that Wilayat Sinai. While in other theaters there is an ongoing war between IS and Al-Qaeda that same war has not carried into the Sinai. While the appears to be little direct confrontation there also appears to tensions between the groups that remain unresolved.27.ReliefWeb Sinai report
Militant groups have developed the tactics similar to many other jihadist groups, but many groups have begun to develop their own unique Sinai flair.
Pipeline attacks have been one of the most effective tools for Jihadist groups in the Sinai. The Arab Gas Pipeline was created in 2003; the pipeline exports Egyptian oil to Israel and Jordan. It has been the target of at least 26 attacks since 2011, mostly by Jihadist groups, but occasionally by local tribal groups.28.“ISIS-linked group attacks Sinai pipeline to Jordan” : al-Arabiya ABM’s leader Mohammad Frejj was the mastermind behind this tactic, as Frejj felt that targeting the pipeline would be one of the most effective ways to impact Israel without having to leave the safety of the lawlessness of the Peninsula. The attacks have been incredibly successful, and due to a rise of internal demand combined with the stoppages forced by the terrorist attacks, the oil flow to Jordan has been far below the contracted amount. In response, Jordan is now pressuring Egypt for compensation.29.Information on the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP)
Armed commando style attacks have also become an effective tactic for groups in the Sinai. There have been dozens of attacks by groups of armed gunmen who will quickly close on a target, conduct a rapid attack, and then flee the scene. These attacks tend to target security forces at stationary points where the jihadists can be certain the army or police will be. These targets have tended to be police stations, checkpoints, and routine patrols. The most infamous example of this was the November 2017 attack of al-Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abed. Roughly 40 gunmen rapidly entered the town in SUV’s and off-road vehicles, where they used pre-planned explosions to limit escape as they shot through the doors and windows into the mosque, killing over 300 worshipers.30.“Militants Kill 305 at Sufi Mosque in Egypt’s Deadliest Terror Attack” : The New York Times
Other tactics such as suicide bombings and IED’s have been used more commonly in attacks across all theaters. As the conflict has progressed the sophistication of the attacks has grown. The jihadist groups have begun to utilize Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) to disrupt Egyptian helicopters. In 2014 ABM used a MANPAD to shoot down an Egyptian transport helicopter, killing all 5 passengers.31.“Sinai Militants Bring Down a Helicopter, But With Whose Missile?” : VICE News In 2015 ABM used an anti-tank to target an Egyptian coast guard vessel. The militants claimed to have injured or killed several, while the Egyptian authorities claim that there were no injuries. The video that shows the attacks does present a large fireball explosion, it is unclear if there were any deaths but the likelihood of injuries is high.32.“Egypt navy ship ‘hit by Sinai militants’ missile'” : BBC The attacks have also been increasingly evolving into large-scale, coordinated attacks that involve simultaneous explosions backed up by armed assaults.33.“At least 23 Egyptian soldiers killed in attack on Sinai checkpoint” : The Guardian This seems to suggest an increase both in the amount of funding and of trained fighters, only furthering fears that many international jihadists are beginning to move to the Sinai.
While many of these fighters are locals there is also a decently sized foreign jihadi element. It is the local element that is what gives the flexibility to these organisations. Part of the recent push by jihadi organisations has been to attempt to coordinate better with local tribal groups. The jihadi groups, unlike in Syria, do not control any specific territory. It is more a lack of government control that allows jihadist groups to conduct operations, as the government doesn’t have the resources in the Sinai to control territory. The jihadist groups do not have enough resources to counter the influence of the government but they do have resources to evade government interference in their lives. This lack of government control means that the Islamists can set up temporary checkpoints, enforce shortly active Sharia courts, and impact but not control local citizens lives.34.“Islamic State beheads two for sorcery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula” : Reuters
35.“IS militants set up checkpoints in Egypt’s north Sinai” : Middle East Eye
In our next installment, we will look at tribal groups and their current place in the war and in the Sinai. As noted in this article, tribal elements in the peninsula have played an important role in Sinai society as well as in the blossoming conflict. The next article will examine their role in-depth and attempt to understand their backgrounds.