A series of attacks by the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) jihadist group against military checkpoints and facilities in northeast Sinai on January 29 killed at least 32 Egyptian soldiers and policemen, making this among the deadliest attacks in Egypt in decades (al-Ahram, January 30). The attack followed an earlier assault on October 24, 2014, when militants launched two attacks on Egyptian army positions in Sinai, killing at least 33 security personnel (al-Hayat, October 24, 2014). The attacks are the most deadly since the military’s overthrow of Muhammad Mursi, the former president who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July 2013, and dramatically illustrate that the Egyptian government is still struggling to contain or counter an 18-month insurgency by ABM, which swore allegiance to the Islamic State on November 10, 2014. Northeastern Sinai has been the site of extremist attacks for several years, but violence rose markedly following the ousting of Mursi in July 2013, whose Islamist administration appeared to have prompted militants to temporarily scale back their level of attacks.
Allegiance to the Caliph
The latest attack by the group came after the ABM swearing bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in November (Reuters Arabic, November 3, 2014; al-Hayat, November 11, 2014). It also raised fears about the extent of any support that ABM receives from Islamic State’s main headquarters in Syria and Iraq as well as from the Islamic State’s franchises in neighboring Libya and over the potential flow of arms and militants through Egypt’s vast and porous Libyan and Sudanese borders. The attack also came soon after the Egyptian military announced that it had destroyed tunnels stretching from the Egyptian border town of Rafah to Hamas-controlled Gaza. Following the January attack, the Egyptian authorities designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, claiming it had supported insurgents who have staged attacks in the Sinai Peninsula (al-Ahram, February 28).
Since swearing allegiance to the Islamic State in November, ABM supporters have described themselves as Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai), indicating their loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate. The destructive nature of the January attack, which involved the use of multiple suicide attackers against well-defended targets, coming so soon after the group’s pledge to the Islamic State, suggests that the group may be now actively accessing Islamic State expertise. In particular, both attacks employed RPGs, Grad rockets and mortars, while the group is also reported to possess man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) (al-Watan, January 31). Additionally, since pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, there has been a dramatic advance in ABM’s media capabilities, as well as an overall rebranding, that further underline the group’s strengthening ideological, and perhaps actual, ties to the Islamic State. That said, ABM has not yet employed the Islamic State’s advanced video production techniques, at present mainly posting propaganda photos showcasing their operations against security personnel as well as photos of their social activism; these are aimed at winning local residents to their side. They have also distributed leaflets threatening local residents with decapitation if they collaborate with the army (al-Arabiya, March 1). 
Differences however remain between the Islamic State and ABM. For instance, the Islamic State regularly conducts brutal execution-style murders, including beheadings and immolations, against individuals whom the group’s scholars consider as infidels and/or alleged criminals. Sinai militants, on the other hand, generally prioritize targeting the Egyptian security forces, including both soldiers and policemen, on the grounds that these are guilty of greater infidelity than ordinary citizens because they support a “tyrant” ruler whom ABM regards as “un-Islamic,” and because they do not apply Shari’a in the country (al-Jazeera, May 28, 2014). That said, these different approaches also reflect that the Islamic State has full control over territory in Syria and Iraq, which makes it easy for them to enforce their rule, while as ABM is still operating as a guerrilla or insurgent organization, leading to it focusing on fighting the government rather than on applying their interpretation of Islamic laws.
Al-Sisi Steps Up
The apparently increased capabilities of ABM have prompted Egypt’s military and government to step up efforts against the group. In the aftermath of the deadly January attacks, al-Sisi formed what he called “the unified command of the east of the canal,” under which both the Second and Third Field Armies will participate in the anti-terrorism mission in Sinai, instead of the Second Army alone (al-Arabiya, January 31). Al-Sisi also allocated ten billion Egyptian pounds ($1.3 billion) to counter-terrorism missions in Sinai (al-Ahram, February 2).
These moves follow earlier government initiatives in the Sinai region. Almost a month before the group pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and following the October deadly assault, al-Sisi called for a security meeting. As a result of this, a three-month state of emergency and curfew were imposed in North Sinai. Additionally, the Rafah border crossing with Gaza was closed, a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt was initiated and a Hamas delegation was refused entry into Egypt (Reuters Arabic, October 21, 2014). The latest escalation of government efforts should therefore be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that these earlier steps had not proven sufficiently effective.
Following the latest initiatives, the Egyptian government has claimed several successes. For instance, the army’s spokesperson announced on his Facebook page on March 1 (the army began using social media after the 2011 revolution to announce official statements) that the Egyptian Army killed 172 militants in February 2015 (al-Shorouk, March 1). Brigadier General Mohamed Samir Abdel Aziz Ghonim also said that jihadists had been killed in February in the North Sinai cities of al-Arish, Shaykh Zuweid and Rafah. Another 229 suspected militants were arrested in these operations, while 85 militant hideouts were destroyed (al-Ahram, March 1).
Despite the government’s recent steps and notwithstanding its claimed successes, Egypt is likely to continue to struggle to contain the challenge of ABM in Sinai. Not only does ABM have advanced weaponry, but it also receives moral, and perhaps material, support from various elements of the Islamic State. This may include veterans of Islamic State operations in Iraq, Syria and Libya (al-Arabiya, February 5). In addition, ABM is likely to continue to draw support from former Mursi supporters, who are aggrieved by the government’s heavy-handed crackdown during the last few years, as well as local people alienated by the government’s security-led measures in Sinai. It is also not clear if the military has sufficiently accurate information about militant groups’ strategy, numbers and locations, or whether it is capable of mobilizing religious institutions like al-Azhar to combat the ideological challenge posed by the Islamic State and ABM. The government is also inclined to respond to ABM attacks with conspiracy theories, for instance, blaming Muslim Brotherhood or foreign countries for attacks, even after ABM has claimed responsibility. One government security source told the Egyptian media in late January that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member was leading and coordinating the terrorist operations in Sinai (Dot Msr, January 31).
It is also unclear if the al-Sisi government has a strategy to work with Bedouins in Sinai or to address their grievances, which typically include claims that northern Sinai has been ignored by the government, that they have not benefited from tourism in southern Sinai and that they are subject to arbitrary arrest by government troops. Further underlining the government’s challenges are questions over the army’s ability to fight a counter-insurgency campaign. For instance, one recent media report quoted an officer who allegedly participated in the recent military operations in Sinai as saying that the government’s recent failures were due to the Egyptian Army’s overdependence on traditional and routine strategies, which were unsuitable in a fight against a militant group that is highly familiar with Sinai (al-Monitor, February 11). In light of the above, ABM’s 18-month insurgency can be expected to continue, increasing galvanized by the rise of the Islamic State group elsewhere.
Muhammad Mansour is an investigative journalist who covers a broad range of topics related to Egyptian politics and global affairs.
1. The group formerly used the Twitter account @Ansar_B_Almqds, but this has since been shut down.