After the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, Sinai Peninsula became a safe haven for many radical Bedouins and Jihadists, who used Morsi’s ouster both to legitimize their ideological and political battles in Egypt and to enlarge their strategic range from the Sinai Peninsula to the immediate neighborhood of the Egyptian Peninsula. Indeed, during these years’ attacks and violence increased exponentially of the 69% in Sinai and in Egypt. Despite the killings of several Jihadist leaders – the last but not the least was Mohammad Freij Ziada (aka Abu Duaa al-Ansari), high commander of Wilayat Sinai (WS) –, Sinai continuing to be perceived as the most relevant security threat not only for the Egyptian State, but also for Israel and its Defence apparatus.In this sense, there are many chances in the short term that Sinai-based jihadist cells, more or less directly linked to the Islamic State, will be able to attack the Negev and Israel’s hinterland.
This threat became even more concrete particularly after the Gaza rocket attack that hit the southern Israeli town of Sderot (July 2), after a series of stabbings and shootings in south Hebron (July 1) and, finally, after Shin Bet revealed possible links between the perpetrators of the attack on the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv (June 8) and the Islamic State (IS).
In these three cases, IS and its Sinai- and Gaza-based jihadist cells are the fil-rouge guiding this escalation of violence, with significant threats to Israel’s stability.
At the same time, these trends reveal two patterns of terrorism:
- 1) The stabbings in Hebron and the Sarona Market are an example of non-organized attacks, in which many radicalized individuals (in particular Palestinians or Arab Israelis) hit soft targets without any official instigation from the Islamic State or other Salafi-jihadi organizations. They can be explained as an emerging phenomenon of IS-inspired lone-wolf terrorism in Israel.
- 2) The Gaza rocket attack in Sderot is an example of organized violence perpetrated by Salafi-jihadi groups extremely close to Islamic State’s ideology, operating in the Gaza Strip and in the Sinai Peninsula. It is a typical case of radical Islamic terrorism.
Although the first pattern seems to be more significant and seemingly could become an increasing trend in the coming years for Israel, the second is a real and a concrete threat to national security forces.
Attacks and rocket launchings from the Gaza Strip and the Egyptian border to Israel’s Negev region have been escalating over the last two years, in particular during Operation Cast Lead – the latest war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel in July-August 2014 – when the most lethal Sinai-based armed group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), claimed responsibility for several rocket attacks against Israel. The same group was also responsible for several deadly attacks, such as the one in October 2014 in al-Arish, when militants ambushed and killed 33 Egyptian security personnel. Since then northern Sinai has been in a state of emergency and ABM has declared its intentions, pledging allegiance (bayah) to IS (November 2014). After rebranding into Wilayat Sinai (WS), the group further increased its level of dangerousness and is becoming the main threat not only to Egyptian national security, but also to Israel’s security apparatus. WS is gradually but increasingly serving the Islamic State’s cause, adopting and implementing an IS agenda in the Sinai based on a strong trans-nationalization of military operations and, at the same time, on massive anti-Jewish and anti-Western propaganda and attacks. According to some reports from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Islamic State propaganda finds recruits amongst young people and radicalized Egyptians and Gazawis, promising them the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Israel. This situation confirms the unofficial reports of Israeli security agencies, which believe Islamic State to be building an extensive terrorist network along Israel’s southern border to expand its capabilities for a “spectacular” attack on the hinterland.
This new paradigm marks an important change in the modus operandi of the jihadist cell. In fact, in order to expand its action from Sinai to the Gaza Strip and Israeli Negev, the jihadist group has escalated its terrorist activities, hitting military targets and attacking civil and military symbols of Egyptian and Israeli government. This change of strategy has also led to a heightening of WS’ sophistication and capabilities, making Wilayat Sinai a medium-long term threat to Egypt and Israel. Furthermore, for the Egyptian and Israeli governments, a connection between the violence in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, as well as the use of these two territories as strongholds and operational areas for direct attacks against Egypt’s hinterland and southern Israel are the worst possible scenarios for both states.
After the Russian Metrojet was shot down in October 2015, the IDF raised alerts on the Sinai border to maximum levels. According to Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Islamic State is planning a series of attacks in the Negev, which will include the resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea. In order to prevent this, Israel has been using drones – with Egypt’s blessing – against Islamist militants in the Sinai, and probably the first attack was in August 2013, a few weeks after Morsi’s ouster. At the same time, Israeli security forces have deployed along the southern border the Caracal Brigade, an infantry battalion of the IDF that since the early months of 2016 has been engaged in combat operations against jihadist groups attacking from Egypt, near the Nitzana border crossing (January 2016). The assaults have not been claimed but all the perpetrators used guerrilla techniques similar to those of IS-inspired cells.
To contain Sinai-based militant groups and to prevent a spillover effect in southern Israel, Egyptian and Israeli authorities have increased both their domestic security measures (Egypt has adopted several counterterrorism packages while Israel is planning to reinforce the defensive fence along its southern borders) and their intelligence cooperation, but the results have not been satisfactory. The growing instability of the Sinai and WS’ deep roots in Egypt and the Gaza Strip are thus posing a serious threat to the security of the MENA region. For all these reasons, the crisis in the Sinai Peninsula represents the main challenge to the stability and legitimacy of the Egyptian state, but it is also an important testing-ground for countering an expansion of the IS in the Arab Levant.
Giuseppe Dentice, ISPI Assistant Research Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in Institutions and Politics at the Catholic University of Milan