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Sinai metastases of ISIL: Who has forked Russia and Egypt?

Rafah city, Sinai, after battles of Egyptian army and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis militants. Photo: New York Times

On Nov 6, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed to stop flights to Egypt. Russian planes began evacuating Russian tourists from Egyptian resorts. In the meantime, the Russian and Egyptian authorities are investigating into the crash of Kogalymavia’s plane in Sinai. Their preliminary conclusion is that it was an act of terrorism, and this may well be right, as Sinai is known as one of the hotbeds of ISIL.

The ISIL-affiliated Wilayat Sinai group was formed a year ago. On Nov 14, 2014, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis swore allegiance to ISIL “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The mission of the group is to ensure contacts between ISIL fighters in Libya and Egypt, from one side, and Gaza Strip and Palestine, from the other. In Gaza, Wilayat Sinai is threatening Israel, in Egypt it is campaigning for an Islamic revolution. Enjoying control of the north of Sinai, the group constitutes a real threat for the Suez Canal.

A year ago, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis had some 1,000 fighters. Other sources say that it may have from several hundreds to several thousands of fighters.

The group consists of spies in the Nile Valley and armed fighters in the north of Sinai. Local Bedouin tribes, who believe that Sinai is their land, support the latter. In mid-2000s, the resorts of Southern Sinai faced a series of terrorist attacks. As a result, some 125 people were killed and thousands of Bedouins were imprisoned. The rest of Bedouins grew anti-Egyptian and pro-Islamic. The July 2013 coup in Egypt showed that the Egyptian authorities have little control of Sinai.

In order to strengthen their control of Sinai and to weaken local support for Wilayat Sinai, the Egyptian authorities have even resettled 1,500 families from the peninsula. In the meantime, Wilayat Sinai is trying to make loyal the rest of local Bedouins. In Aug 2014, they even tried to kill one Bedouin tribal sheikh for his contacts with the Egyptian authorities.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis was formed during the Islamic revolution in Egypt in Feb 2011. The Egyptian authorities say that the group is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but this is not obvious. The core of the group consists of people who once fought against Israel on the border of Egypt and Gaza Strip. This fight has resulted in a network of tunnels connecting Sinai with Gaza Strip. The very name of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis shows that their initial goal was Pan-Arabian - to win back Jerusalem from Israel and to destroy the Israeli state.

So, they obviously have contacts with the Palestine-based HAMAS. In Hosni Mubarak’s times, the Egyptian authorities regarded HAMAS as a Palestinian affiliation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak called it a “Gaza gang.” It is a fact that all Sinai-based predecessors of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis had contacts with HAMAS, but it is not obvious that they have any connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’s merger with ISIL in Oct 2014 was crucial for Gaza Strip. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis already has an affiliation there. And it was that very force that recently attacked the French cultural center in Gaza. So, we can see that ISIL is moving from Sinai to Gaza.

The July 3 2013 coup in Egypt was a strong stimulus for Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Before that, the group focused on Israel, with one of its attacks aimed against the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. In Sept 2012, the fighters attacked a group of Israeli soldiers.

After the coup, they moved from Sinai to the Nile Valley and began attacking the police, the secret services and the army. The Egyptian authorities counteracted by killing almost one thousand Muslim brothers and imprisoning some of their leaders. But this failed to calm down Islamists, who are indignant about Egypt’s contacts with Israel.

Today, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is revenging for Egypt’s repressions against Islamists. On Sept 5, 2013, they attempted to kill Egypt’s Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. On Oct 21, 2013, they attacked the military intelligence office in Ismailia. On Nov 17, in Nasr-City, they killed Muhamed Mabruk, a security officer who participated in investigation of the President Mohamed Morsi case. As many as 16 people were killed as a result of an attack on the police headquarters in Mansur on Dec 24, 2013.

The crown of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’s activities in Egypt were the attacks of Jan-Feb 2014: on Jan 23, they killed five policemen in Beni Suef, on Jan 25, they shot down a military helicopter and on Feb 1, they bombed the resort of Eilat.

On May 4, they took responsibility for two terrorist acts in Sinai. On July 13, 2014, they shelled the military base in el-Arish.

As a result, in June 2014, western mass media called Sinai a potential Iraq for Egypt. After the attack on the Egypt-Jordan gas pipeline Ansar Bait al-Maqdis was qualified as the most dangerous armed group in Egypt.

After joining ISIL, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis became even more active. On Jan 29, 2015, the group attacked military facilities in Sinai, with 45 people killed and 74 people wounded.

In June 2015, in the center of Cairo they killed Egypt’s Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat. On July 1, 2015, the Sinai fighters attacked 15 check-points in al-Sheikh Zuweid. On July 19, they killed 21 Egyptian soldiers. On July 24, they killed 31 more. As of today, the Egyptians have lost hundreds of soldiers and policemen in Sinai.

In July 2015, Wilayat Sinai attacked the Italian Consulate in Cairo. In August, they killed a Croatian engineer.

On Apr 14, 2014, an Egyptian court called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis a terrorist organization. On Apr 9, 2014, the U.S. Department of State listed it as an international terrorist group. In the U.K. and the United Arab Emirates Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is also in the black list.

So, we can see that over the last two years Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has proved that it can be a serious threat for Egypt’s national security.

Now that they claim responsibility for the crash of the Russian plane in Egypt, they can be qualified as international terrorists.

Terrorist acts are not their only tactics. They also have guerillas, who use mortars, machine-guns and shoulder-held rockets, which they get from Libya.

In 2014, the Egyptian authorities said that Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has contacts with Al Qaeda. The Israelis have confirmed this. Western mass media say that they have just been inspired by Al Qaeda.

Wilayat Sinai is actively campaigning among youths in Egypt and Gaza and is said to have agents in the Egyptian army.

In Jan 2014, western mass media said that Ansar Bait al-Maqdis was not planning terrorist acts against tourists in Sinai as local Bedouins did not support them in the matter. They in the West believe that the terrorists have learned the lessons of the 1990s, when terrorist attacks against tourists repelled most of the Egyptians from the Islamist movement. But, on the other hand, they warned that there was a risk of attacks against planes. In Jan 2014, The Guardian quoted former CIA Director David Petraeus as saying that “that was always our worst nightmare that a civilian airliner would be shot down by them.”

A month later, a terrorist attack on a tourist bus in Sinai claimed four lives. On Feb 20, 2014, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis appeared with an ultimatum that all foreign tourists leave Egypt before it was too late. They warned that they would attack any foreigner who will be in Egypt after Feb 20, 2014.

On Nov 10, 2014, a year before the crash, The New York Times warned that the Sinai terrorists might ruin Egypt’s attempts to boost tourism.

And now Wilayat Sinai has taken responsibility for the Russian plane crash, the Egyptian authorities regard this group as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in their country. According to NBC, the U.S. special services have tapped a phone talk between ISIL leaders and Sinai fighters, where the latter say that they have destroyed a Russian plane.

British intelligence believes that the crash was caused by a bomb. German special services are also inclined to regard this as a terrorist act.

Initially, Russia and Egypt tried to avoid this subject. If this scenario is proved, it will mean that Wilayat Sinai has struck both countries with one move, taking revenge to Russia for its air strikes in Sirya and striking a blow to tourism, the most important sector in Egypt’s economy.

In 2014, some CIA experts were already warning that such an attack might be possible.

Formerly, western mass media regarded Wilayat Sinai’s alliance with ISIL as some formality but they also admitted that nobody knew who their leader was. Even less is known about the group’s contacts with Sinai Bedouins, other Islamist rebels and al Qaeda. It is known that the Israeli special services are acting against Sinai Islamists. In mid-Aug 2014, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis published a video of four pro-Israeli Arabs executed in a desert. So, the Israelis are obviously aware of the activities of Wilayat Sinai. And it is for them to find out who they actually are.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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