Capri—(Adds links to accounts of Sisi’s tenure) An Islamic State affiliate once known as Jama‘at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (loose translation: the Champions of Jerusalem Group) said it carried out the unprecedented attacks on Egyptian troops in the Sinai. This means that a group once dedicated to liberating Palestine is now fully dedicated to overthrowing the Egyptian state.
The Monday battles in Sinai took the lives of 70 Egyptian soldiers.
JABM pledged allegiance to the Islamic State earlier this year and changed its name to Sinai Province, a symbol of its submission to the Islamic ‘s self-declared caliphate set up in Syria and Iraq. Still open to question is whether the many other groups on the Sinai Peninsula warring with Egyptian forces will fall in line with Sinai Province and unite under the black flag of the Islamic State. If they do, it means big trouble for Egypt, which is already reeling from terrorist violence.
The turmoil in the Sinai Peninsula results from a wave of turbulence there and in the Gaza Strip next door over the past several years. A decade ago, disaffected Sinai tribesmen blew up hotels in the southern Sinai in protest of the Cairo government’s inattention to the undeveloped north.
These groups forged links to Gaza, where radical Salafi jihad groups were chafing under Hamas. The Salafi jihadists did not think Hamas was aggressive enough against Israel. JABM once specialized in attacking Israel and debuted in the Sinai by blowing up gas pipelines that ran to Israel and firing rockets into the Israeli city of Eilat.
A strange sequence of events pushed JABM into Sinai and helped it strengthen. Hamas cracked down on the Salafis, prompting many to flee into Sinai. Unrest throughout Egypt during and following the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak opened the Gaza borders to heavy terrorist traffic; Sinai was effectively out of Cairo’s control. Arms flowed in from anarchic post-Gaddafi Libya. The 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, energized the jihadists to resist the new government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
By the way, ex-JABM Sinai Province no longer bothers to attack Israel.
In Iraq and Syria, victories by the Islamic State brought the group recruits from inside the country and from abroad. Will the current, apparent offensive in Sinai do the same? Probably not for the moment. The name Sinai Province may imply control of the territory, but that is not yet a fact.
It has, however, proved itself capable of carrying out coordinated military attacks, drive by shootings of cops and assassinations both in the Sinai and as far afield as Cairo. And that spells trouble for Sisi and the post-Morsi stability he was supposed to provide.
The Combatting Terrorism Center traces the evolution of Sinai Province.