Despite Non-Territorial Gains Sinai Province Still Fights On

Sinai Province, the ISIS-affiliated group in the Sinai Peninsula (It has a prominent presence in Sinai, but there is no accurate media reports released to show the real influence of the group as the Egyptian military bans media coverage there.) As a result, the group’s influence is mainly based on speculations and analysis.

The Atlantic Council published a report on Sinai Province and its influence in the Sinai Peninsula as well as the Egyptian military power and capabilities to crush the militants.

The report prepared by Zack Gold was titled: “After Failed Siege, Sinai State Fights On”. It sheds  light on Sinai Province’s power in Sinai within a year.

The report states that Sinai Province has failed until now to control a complete territory in the peninsula. However, their threat is still there and should be taken into consideration.

According to the report, Sinai Province has launched various attacks to control cities but they have not succeeded. On July 1, 2015, Sinai Province launched a massive operation across the Egyptian border governorate of North Sinai Sheikh Zuweid: North Sinai’s third-largest city called, “The Battle of Sheikh Abou Sohaib al-Ansari” (named after the group’s deceased founder), but it failed to take over a city of 60,000.”

After several hours of fighting, the Egyptian armed forces wrested areas of Sheikh Zuweid besieged by Sinai Province  when the military launched air strikes over the area. Although Sinai Province maintains basic freedom of operation in less inhabited areas of northeast Sinai, ISIS-linked fighters incorrectly judged that the Egyptian military would fold in a populated area as had the army in Iraq.

The report stated that “It was a costly mistake. In the five days that followed, the Egyptian military claimed to have killed 241 Sinai militants in the process of repelling and retaliating for the July 1 attacks.”

But the medium- and long-term impacts of Egypt’s short-term military response initially seemed unimportant. During the post-siege military campaign, Sinai Province fired its first rocket at Israel under the ISIS banner. The report said, “It was a lame and ineffective attack, but displayed that Sinai State both survived and was able to continue operations during the onslaught.”

In the same context, before Sheikh Zuweid siege, Sinai Province targeted the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission in North Sinai. Throughout the summer, Sinai militants continued their harassment of the MFO. In early September, Fijian and US troops ran over two of the tens of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid down around MFO checkpoints and outposts). As a result, Obama administration announced the probability of the relocation of MFO forces in Sinai. Moreover, the Egyptian army launched “Operation the Martyr’s Right.” According to data tracked by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the military claimed to have killed 2,918 suspected militants in 2015 alone.

The report stated that, “although there is no independent reporting in North Sinai, Egypt’s military campaign appears to have interrupted Sinai Province’s ability to launch complex, multi-pronged attacks like the siege of Sheikh Zuweid—which was the culmination of quarterly large-scale strikes in Sinai since October 2014.”

However, ISIS threat is still ongoing in Sinai even if they have not controlled territory. “If the group could not hold territory like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it could at least serve as an operational arm for ISIS in Egypt: exacting revenge against Bashar al-Assad’s Russian ally and the broader anti-ISIS coalition.”

The ISIS affiliate has launched many operational attacks as it claimed IED attacks on Egyptian military and police vehicles, hit and run attacks on security checkpoints, and shootings and other attacks on policemen and soldiers on a semi-daily basis in the past year; but it was almost nine months before Sinai province attack killed more than a handful of policemen in a single strike: at least 13 dead in a March 19 strike on the al-Safa police checkpoint south of al-Arish.

Moreover, the ISIS affiliated group tend to adapt with the pressure imposed by the Egyptian military, “It is possible that, in the face of Egyptian military pressure, Sinai Province has adapted its operations, “said the report.

There were many evidence for this theory includes the hundreds of IEDs on the roads of North Sinai in the past year, attacks against security forces further south and west in the governorate than the group’s standard area of operations, and certainly the October 31, 2015, downing of Metro jet flight 9268: in one terrorist attack the group killed 224 foreign civilians flying from Sharm al-Sheikh back to Russia.

However, the report points to the fact that, “without insight into Sinai State’s internal planning, each of the above could also be evidence that Sinai State is weaker today than a year ago: unable to carry out larger insurgent attacks, the group settles for attacks carried out by smaller cells.” It also added that while the impact of the Metrojet downing was significant, it did not require the numbers needed to execute a major attack. “

Another sign of hint at Sinai Province’s weakness is another failed operation, “The Battle of Sheikh Abu Ali al-Qaram”—another deceased Sinai jihadi on January 14, 2016.

ISIS claimed Sinai province launched this multi-pronged operation south of Rafah near the Egyptian-Israeli-Gazan border crossing. The group claimed it engaged Egyptian border guards and used an anti-tank missile for the first time in three months; but using airstrikes the Egyptian military airstrikes crushed the attempt given the naming of the operation, likely intended to be a much larger attack.

However, the report stated that despite all the setbacks in for an ISIS-inspired state-building project in the short term, Sinai State has not given up its intention to govern territory and its threat can’t be taken for granted.

It is true that Egyptian military has stopped Sinai Province from resembling a state, but that does not mean eradication of the group is near.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has recently said terrorism is confined to 2-3% of the peninsula—which, if accurate, is still 460-690 square miles in a strategic border area where much of the North Sinai population is concentrated. “The regular attacks on police, soldiers, and civilians; the increased harassment of international troops and threats against Israel; and ISIS’s ability to send weapons and Egyptian recruits to the isolated governorate suggests Sinai Province is still a threat to Egypt and its international partners,” said the report.

In the same context, the report highlights the paradox facing the Egyptian regime in Sinai as its maneuvers during Operation The Martyr’s Right seem to have put pressure on Sinai Province but at the same time they have also put real pressure on the local population, as cooperation from which both the government and military recognize as necessary to defeat Sinai Province. In September 2015 the Egyptian cabinet announced measures for easing civilian life in its comprehensive plan to combat terrorism in, “but it is unclear if the positive steps outlined have been realized,” said the report.

The report also stated that “US government and Egypt’s other international partners can help in two major areas: countering IEDs—the greatest cause of casualties and destruction in North Sinai—and border security assistance to block ISIS-guided assistance.”

The United States and the United Kingdom have assisted Egypt by cooperating  with Cairo-area Ministry of Interior specialist units to build capacity for IED detection and disposal. In the same context, increasing the number of Egyptians that can effectively counter IEDs may also strengthen personal security ties between Egyptians and their international partners.

Finally, the report stated that Egypt may be keeping Sinai Province under pressure within North Sinai and its attempt to isolate the governorate seems to be ineffective. But another threat raised by the Egyptian government is the diffusion of foreign-trained militants to Sinai borders. However, the international support could help Egypt in securing the borders. In May, the US Treasury Department identified a Libya-based Sinai Province leader serving as a conduit of ISIS financial and material support to North Sinai. “The United States, Cyprus, France, Greece, and other NATO partners can assist Egypt with border security tools and training to better monitor the Libyan border, the Gulf of Suez, and North Sinai’s coastline for infiltration,” said the report. In addition, US, French, and Russian naval craft recently purchased by Egypt could be especially effective along the country’s long Mediterranean border.

It is believed, “with operational adjustments that protect the local population and with support and assistance from international allies and partners, Egypt could be in a position to solidify its gains for the long term and rid Sinai of an ISIS threat for good.