Islamic State in Egypt: Sinai Province

On June 19, 2019, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province (ISIL-SP) or ‘@Wilayat Sinai’ (Sinai Province) publicly renewed their allegiance to ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In a published video, the group stated that they will remain committed to ISIL’s caliphate despite the claims that it had been defeated. The video was posted 4 days after the Islamic State’s West Africa province (ISWAP) posted a similar video, renewing their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. This indicates an organised effort among ISIL’s branches to continue fighting to establish ISIL’s caliphate. ISIL-SP is among the most dangerous militant groups in Egypt. Analyzing their activity is important in understanding the ongoing insurgency in Sinai as well as crucial in detecting future attacks. This report will provide insight on ISIL-SP’s ideology and background. It will also analyze the group’s activity within the past year, with consideration to their attack methods, targets and locations of operation.

 

ISIL-SP was originally known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) and it has been Egypt’s most active militant group since 2011. Initially, ABM’s ideology was mainly based around ousting the Israeli government out of Jerusalem. The former was achieved by conducting attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. After President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power in June 2013, the group reportedly changed its tactics. It started to focus on attacking Egyptian security forces such as the police and the military, as revenge for the suppression of Islamist dissidents and for the army's insurgency in Sinai. On November 10, 2014, the militant group officially pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi through Twitter - allegedly having financial motives. The group acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority and urged Muslims worldwide to support ISIL’s cause. Since then, ISIL-SP has been fighting to establish and spread the ISIL caliphate in the Sinai peninsula.

 

Figure 1: ISIL-SP Flag

 

 

Members of ISIL-SP hail from various backgrounds and nationalities. It is indicated that most fighters of ISIL-SP, originate from areas within North Sinai province, where the group operates. However, similarly to ISIL in Iraq and Syria, ISIL-SP also attracts foreign fighters. One source reported that the group has received many fighters from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine, many of which were active members of Hamas. European fighters have also joined the group, such as the German/Russian national Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir - one of the assailants that attempted to attack a Egyptian police checkpoint at Oyun Musa on April 14, 2019. Among the group recruits, there have been multiple Egyptian police or military officers that have joined ISIL-SP. In terms of the group’s size, in 2018 there were approximately 1,000-1,500 active fighters, a number that appears to be consistent since November 2015.

 

Recent Activity of ISIL-SP

 

Between August 2018 - July 2019, ISIL-SP conducted 16 attacks, as illustrated in Figure 3. This does not include unconfirmed incidents that resemble ISIL-SP’s methods. Those attacks resulted in 63 victims killed, 50 wounded and two kidnapped. As shown in Figure 2, the number of attacks the group conducted per month remained consistent, with a slight increase in July 2019. The absence of reported activity in May 2019 but more importantly in March 2019, is judged to be due to ISIL’s defeat in Syria that took place around that time. ISIL-SP is believed to have suffered large financial losses both in terms of technical and monetary assistance. As illustrated in Figure 3, the group conducted nine of these attacks via ambush that involved either roadside bombs, the use of arms or IEDs. Suicide bombings accounted for three of these attacks, all of which took place only after ISIL’s defeat in Syria. This may be due to the group’s lack of access to arms as it had suffered a severe loss of resources. ISIL-SP also conducted two kidnappings, one of which resulted in the victims being beheaded. Both kidnappings occurred in remote areas, west of el Arish. 

 

The compiled information suggests that ISIL-SP is highly inclined to conducting attacks via ambush whether their target is a military base or civilians travelling by vehicles. However, the recent occurrence of suicide attacks may indicate that the group will continue to use such method. The group also appears to kidnap travelers in remote locations potentially because of their isolation and lack of security. 

 

Figure 2: ISIL-SP attacks Aug 2018 - Jul 2019          Figure 3: ISIL-SP methods Aug 2018 - Jul 2019

 

                                 

As Figure 4 shows, ISIL’s targets are mainly comprised of Egyptian security forces such as the police and the military as 11 out of the 16 attacks were on security workers. Three of the attacks targeted civilians, two of which targeted construction workers. Also, two attacks targeted Coptic Christians, both of which occurred while the victims were travelling by vehicle. This information suggests that Egyptian security forces are at the highest risk of being attacked by ISIL-SP. However, civilians, including Coptic Christians, are also likely to fall victims of ISIL-SP attacks. 

Figure 4: Targets of ISIL-SP Aug 2018 - Jul 2019

 

Reported attacks have occurred in nine separate locations. Most incidents have taken place in the North Sinai province. 6 attacks occurred in the city of el Arish, one of which was at el Arish International Airport while three attacks occurred at Sheikh Zuweid town. The mountain Jabal al Halal, the cities of Minya, Rafah and Bir al-Abd, the town of Uyun Musa as well as a remote unnamed location 30km west of el Arish, suffered from one incident each. The North Sinai province seems to remain at the highest risk of attacks by ISIL-SP. However, remote locations are also hotspots for events, notably kidnappings. Locations near Cairo may also suffer from attacks, indicating that the group is potentially interested in conducting terrorist activities closer to the capital.   

 

Figure 5: Locations of ISIL-SP attacks Aug 2018 - Jul 2019 

 

 

The video of ISIL-SP renewing their allegiance to al-Baghdadi confirms their intentions of continuing to commit acts of terrorism. Though unconfirmed, the recent increase of the group’s activity suggests that there may be an increase of terrorist attacks in Egypt. The methods followed may be armed ambushes in both populated and non-populated areas (such as rural locations) or even suicide bombings. Security forces and civilians, particularly Coptic Christians, are at heightened risk of becoming casualties. Even though the group appears to mainly operate in North Sinai, especially near el Arish, areas close to Cairo are not immune to terrorist incidents.

 

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) AFRICOM Team is actively monitoring and tracking developments and attacks related to ISIL-SP. AFRICOM should coordinate with Behavior and Leadership (B/L) and Weapons and Tactics teams in order for this report to be utilised for future intelligence production. Leadership analysis should be conducted to determine al-Baghdadi’s potential influence on the actions of ISIL-SP. Imagery analysis should also be conducted to identify the weapons used by ISIL-SP and all events must be recorded, in order to further analyze the group’s tactics. CTG works with private and public partners in order to accomplish our mission to Detect, Deter, and Defeat terrorism. If you are interested in what CTG can offer you and your organization, please feel free to contact us


 

1. Egypt armed group pledges allegiance to ISIL, Al Jazeera, November 2014, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/11/egypt-armed-group-pledges-allegiance-isil 2014111062135628610.html

2. Islamic State - Sinai Province, Center for International Security and Cooperation, December 2018, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/islamic-state-sinai-province#_edn1

3. Egypt faces new threat in al-Qaida-linked group Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis, The Guardian, January 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/31/egypt-alqaida-terrorist-threat-ansar-beyt-almaqdis

4. What Is Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis? The Egyptian Militant Group: Explained, International Business Times, November 2014, https://www.ibtimes.com/what-ansar-beit-al-maqdis-egyptian-militant-group-explained-1722035

5. Wilayat Sinai logo by BBC licensed under Public Domain

6. Islamic State – Sinai Province (ISSP), McKenzie Institute, January 2016, https://mackenzieinstitute.com/2016/01/islamic-state-sinai-province-issp/

7. Israeli Intelligence Infiltrates ISIS in the Sinai, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, January 2019, http://jcpa.org/israeli-intelligence-infiltrates-isis-in-the-sinai/

8. ISIS attacks in Saudi Arabia and Sinai, GroundBrief, April 2019, https://groundbrief.substack.com/p/groundbrief-isis-attacks-in-saudi

9. If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!, Human Rights Watch, May 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/05/28/if-you-are-afraid-your-lives-leave-sinai/egyptian-security-forces-and-isis

10. The Islamic State in Africa: Estimating Fighter Numbers in Cells Across the Continent, Combating Terrorism Center, August 2018, https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-africa-estimating-fighter-numbers-cells-across-continent/

11. Fallout expected on Egypt’s Sinai branch from ISIS collapse in Levant, Arab Weekly, March 2019, https://thearabweekly.com/fallout-expected-egypts-sinai-branch-isis-collapse-levant

 

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