Posted on: 6th September 2016
The announcement on 9 November 2014 that the Egyptian jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was allying itself to ISIS, changing its name to the group's 'Sinai Province', brought the little-known organisation worldwide attention. It also heightened concerns in the international community that the move could herald an upsurge in violence and instability in the region's most populous state.
The declaration, which brought hints of divisions within Sinai Province's ranks, demonstrated the power that ISIS' claims to a caliphate has on jihadi groups elsewhere in the world. But it also left questions: what was Sinai Province, and what was it seeking to achieve?
Egypt is no stranger to jihad: Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, led Egyptian Islamic Jihad until its merger with al-Qaeda in 2001. Sayyid Qutb, widely regarded as the godfather of modern Salafi-jihadism, was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. And the country was host to a campaign of jihadi bombings and assassinations through the 1990s.
Sinai Province grew out of the chaos following the Arab Spring in Egypt. Amid mass releases and escapes from prison, hardline Salafi-jihadis detained in the '90s were free to start again. Neighbouring Libya's swift descent into civil war and the opening of its weapons caches sent the cost of arms plummeting across the region. Egypt's Sinai Peninsula became a natural focal point of jihadi action. The inhabitants, largely consisting of Bedouin tribal groups, have long complained of indifference and neglect on the part of the government, which is also limited in its ability to station troops in the peninsula by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The area has since become increasingly dangerous for tourists, one of the mainstays of the Egyptian economy.
The first attack attributed to ABM was as early as 5 February 2011, even before President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Nevertheless, the group's operations until the summer of 2013 appeared to have mostly targeted Israeli interests: attacks on an oil pipeline between Egypt and Israel, an attack on Eilat that killed 11, including eight Israelis, and attacks on Israeli Defence Forces personnel. But the coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013 prompted a huge upsurge in attacks targeting the Egyptian government and security forces. These included an attempted assassination of the interior minister in September 2013, and the downing of an Egyptian helicopter in January 2014 – an attack that raised concerns over the group's potential ability to down larger aircraft. The group's capacity to cause mass casualties appears to have grown over the years, with an attack in July 2015 killing 21 soldiers, and one in October killing at least 31. Indeed, in October 2015 the group claimed to have brought down a Russian planeflying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg, killing more than 200 people.
Relatively little is known of Sinai Province, which is believed to be have a membership of between 1,000 and 1,500. In August 2016, the group confirmed its leader Abu Doaa Al-Ansari had been killed by Egypt's military in an operation in North Sinai, announcing a new leader, "Sheikh Abdullah," via the ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency. But certain details of its leadership, membership, origins, and financing remain unclear. It was notable that the group's announcement of affiliation to ISIS featured an unidentified spokesman, appearing without even a nom-de-guerre. This opaqueness creates difficulties in knowing how much support any given move has from the group as a whole. The announcement of allegiance came only a week after the same official Twitter account had denied exactly that rumour. It is believed that the group may have split into two factions, one more closely aligned with al-Qaeda, and the other to ISIS: a reflection of the divisions plaguing the global jihadi community. Indeed, it is thought that fighters returning from Syria, while strengthening the group militarily, are worsening divisions.
Sinai Province was previously thought to be closer to al-Qaeda. The group's activities have frequently been cited in al-Qaeda propaganda, and its material has been placed prominently on al-Qaeda networks. The group has also been very willing to quote Zawahiri in its statements and videos. However, particularly since ISIS' gains in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, evidence has pointed to increased support to Sinai Province from ISIS, especially in the form of training. In this respect, the group's formal affiliation should not have been a surprise.
The statements of Sinai Province give us the greatest idea of what its aims are and what it stands for. Its declaration of allegiance excoriated President Sisi: "To our people in Egypt, what are you waiting for after the violation of your dignity? After shedding the blood of your sons on the hands of this reckless tyrant and his soldiers? When will you take out your swords to face your enemies?" It is also deeply opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding an acceptance of democracy as blasphemous. However, the upsurge of attacks since the 2013 coup have demonstrated its ambiguity regarding a Muslim Brotherhood government, and in October 2013 it declared that the coup showed the regime to be "a group of people that fights Allah, His Messenger and the Muslims."
Ultimately, Sinai Province has declared its aim to be to "liberate our Ummah and Muslim people from the slavery of the oppressive, apostate regimes, and establish justice, dignity and freedom for them, and that is only through servitude to Allah alone and implementing His proper shariah." In this respect, it is the claim of ISIS to have established a caliphate, "implementing His proper shariah" that has proven most attractive to the group, as it has to many Salafis across the world. In their statement of allegiance, the group chastised those who had not already joined ISIS: "To what are you aspiring? A state has been established for Islam and Muslims, and a Caliph was appointed for them... yet you slacken through your failure to support it."
Sinai Province is one of the most significant groups outside of Iraq and Syria to have pledged allegiance to ISIS. It demonstrates once again the strength of ISIS' appeal around the world, and the imperative for that appeal to be countered.