Written by Ahmed Sayed exclusively for SouthFront
Terrorism in Sinai Peninsula began in 2002 when Khaled Masa’ad formed the first jihadi group in Sinai. This group was called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. It was influenced by al Qaeda ideology and the Second Palestine Intifada. Its main goal was to help the Palestinians, though its objective soon changed and the group started their armed actions in Sinai.
The first phase of attacks in Sinai Peninsula occurred in 2004 with an attack on a tourist hotel in Taba that was followed by a similar attack on a key tourist destination in Dahab 2005, then Sharm el Sheikh in 2006. In response, the Egyptian police carried out a large security campaign in Sinai Peninsula, managing to limit terrorist activities in the peninsula until 2011.
After the Egyptian Color Revolution in 2011, chaos spread widely in Sinai and jihadi groups resumed their operations on the peninsula where they consolidated under united leadership. There are several terror groups in Sinai, including Tawhed and Jihad, Aknaf bit al maqdus in Sinai, Ansar bit al maqdus , and other smaller jihadi groups, all of which consolidated under the name on Ansar Bit al-Maqudis after 2011.
Its first public appearance was in 2011, when it declared itself as a jihadi group in Sinai defending the Palestinians attacking Israeli interests in Egypt.
In 2011 the group blew up the gas pipeline linking Egypt with Jordan and Israel several times, attacked an Israeli patrol near the border killing a solider, and launched several missiles at Israeli territory
The great breakthrough occurred in 2012, during the rule of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when the group carried out its first big attack against the Egyptian army August 2012, known as the first Rafah attack which took place in the border area near Gaza. The group has links with Hamas movement in Gaza where they have received training. After parting ways with Hamas, the group moved into the Sinai where they still receive weapons and munitions through tunnels from Gaza. Moreover, thanks to presidential pardons of veteran jihadis in prisons, by late 2012 jihadis numbered some 3,000 fighters in north Sinai.
There many other factors helping the emergence of jihadi groups:
- Camp David peace treaty: the treaty divided Sinai into three sectors, A, B, and C, with the army unable to deploy heavy weapons in sector C. After 2012 the authorities demanded Israel to allow Egyptian army to deploy heavy military equipment, now it’s believed the Egyptian Government will change the terms of treaty claiming the circumstances in Sinai have changed.
- The rugged nature of the terrain that’s an ideal place for guerrilla war and the tribal community that resides in this area facilitatie the existence of those terrorist group
- Egyptian higher command has always considered north Sinai as the place for any upcoming war with Israel so this area was excluded from any development plans.
Muslim Brotherhood’s Overthrow
After the overthrow of MB regime in Egypt the situation in Sinai deteriorated even more. Ansar bit al maqudis in Sinai, supported by some HAMAS factions, launched massive attacks against police and army. Militants started mine warfare against army convoys on undefended or unsecured roads. A single attack on a bus by roadside bomb killed about 25 soldiers. By the end of 2013 Ansar bit almaqudis group was conducting both mine and sniper warfare against the army
The militant attacks in north Sinai became systematic and followed the tactics used in Iraq and Syria, including large numbers of VBIED attacks. They even acquired a MANPADS and downed a helicopter in February 2104, but the most powerful and prominent attack that changed the course of events was the well-coordinated attack on army checkpoints in Rafah and Arish, the attack on (karam al qawadis) where the militants killed about 31 soldiers, including high ranking commanders, and seized a considerable amount of weapons and ammunition. This attack was a turning point, for a month after the attacks Ansar bit al maqudis declared allegiance to Islamic state and proclaimed Sinai province to be part of Islamic state. This move drew a large amount of resources to the militants in Sinai to fund their operations, and from this moment the militants took the upper hand, being now able to conduct weekly attacks
In 2015 the attacks continued at a high rate. The militants attacked several military locations, including the attack on security sites in January 2015 , the central security camp in March 2015 , checkpoints, and Arish police station in April 2015. After intense preparations, ISIS-aligned jihadists conducted a massive synchronized attack on July 1, 2015 on all security forces locations in order to seize a city or a strip of land and declare their caliphate. ISIS launched its most powerful attack on Shiek-zouied and Rafah city in hope of taking both cities, but the army repelled this attack killing about 400 ISIS militants in a four day battle. This battle was another turning point in war, but this time with the army took the upper hand and started a huge campaign to destroy terrorists’ shelters, destroy smuggling tunnels from Gaza, establish a buffer zone near the borders, and most importantly to establish check points on the local roads used by the militants south and west of Rafah and south of shiek zouied. This move decreased militants’ ability to mobilize their forcex to make concentrated attacks.
In 2016 militant attacks on north Sinai declined considerably, they lost the ability to launch concerted concurrent attacks but were to inflict casualties on Egyptian forces. By the end of 2016 the militants opted for new strategies.
- The militants started targeting Christian minority in northern Sinai and in central Egypt;
- The militants started to conduct operations outside of the main presence areas in central and upper Egypt to lift the pressure imposed by the army.
The main funding sources
There are many sources of funding and suppling militants in Sinai.
Donations: the militants receive donations from MB members in Egypt, local supporting population, and from MB members in Qatar and turkey
Isis affiliation: Ansar bit al maudis declared allegiance to Islamic state. This move draws large amount of funding and resources to the militants in Sinai.
Main sources of weapons: The prevalence of small arms in the tribal community helped the militants in acquiring a huge number of small arms.
Gaza tunnels: There are hundreds of tunnels linking Gaza band and Rafah. The tunnels’ exits are located inside buildings on both sides of the border, and tunnels are used to transfer medium and heavy weapons and supplies in both directions. They also smuggle weapons by sea in small boats
Libyan arsenal: After the fall of regime in Libya the former Libyan army weapons depots represented an important weapons source for militants, including ATGMs and MANPADS.
Tribes and ISIS: the tribal community in north Sinai helped the militants to melt into the population. Some local youth joined the militants, but the situation between tribes and militants ultimately deteriorated
- Tribes use local road to smuggle goods and gain profit, while the militants used the same roads to deliver supplies ISIS militants and raided a number of tribe convoys
- The army depends on human intelligence from the tribes, so ISIS member assassinated members and elders of tribes who collaborated with the army.
This led to escalation, and the tribes decided to join the fight against the militants in an organized manner. The tribes formed a force assisting the Egyptian Army numbering at up to 1500 members from different tribes in Sinai.
The militants’ situation in Sinai is deteriorating rapidly for the following reasons. The army gained enough experience to face asymmetric warfare, the IS empire in Syria and Iraq is shrinking dramatically, the new alliance between the army and tribes also represents a massive blow to militants, and most importantly the growing cooperation between Egypt and Hamas in order to boost the security collaboration and reach consensus to settle the dispute between Fatah and Hamas movements.