Terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula has escalated, and recently jihadist groups there have pledged their support to the ‘Islamic State’.
In the worst assault in years, two attacks on Egyptian military positions in the Sinai on October 24 killed at least 33 Egyptian soldiers. While no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to reports, Egyptian officials said that there is “no doubt that elements belonging to Palestinian factions were directly involved in the attack”, and in many Arabic media outlets, anonymous Egyptian government sources accused Hamas members of aiding the assault, assisting with planning, funding and weapons supply.
In response, Egypt declared a state of emergency, closed its Rafah border crossing with the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip, and decreed that it would demolish 800 homes along the Gaza border, displacing around 10,000 people, to create a 500 metre wide buffer zone with Gaza in order to prevent fighters and weapons streaming into Egypt. There was little if any international condemnation against the Egyptian housing demolitions, in stark contrast to the reaction Israel receives when it plans to build homes or remove unauthorised homes over the 1967 lines, or carries out operations which affect the lives of Gazans. Egypt has also reportedly completely shut the border crossing from Gaza into Sinai – again an action that would lead to widespread condemnation if Israel did the same with its Gaza border.
Egypt’s war on jihadists
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi believes that Egypt faces an existential threat from jihadists. In a live TV address, President al-Sisi said a plot was being waged against Egypt “by external forces”, adding “This is meant to break up Egypt and the Egyptians …. Egypt is fighting a war of existence.”
Jihadist groups have long operated in Sinai, and have turned a stretch of towns in the north into a no-go zone for Egyptian authorities, as well as having carried out attacks in Cairo, and fired rockets towards Israel. Recently, a leading jihadist group in Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, beheaded four Sinai locals who it accused of being “spies for the Mossad,” the latest in a series of dozens of beheadings by extremist groups in the region. Jihadist groups have also fired numerous rockets at Eilat over recent years.
Is Hamas assisting jihadists in Sinai?
Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer explored this issue in an article in the Jerusalem Post:
“It is worth remembering that the current Egyptian government has, since its inception, sought to link salafi jihadist terrorism with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as part of its strategy of marginalizing and criminalizing the Brotherhood. The current statements seeking to link Hamas directly to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis may form part of this larger strategy. For its part, Hamas indignantly denies any link to this week’s bombing. But what can be said with greater confidence is there is, without doubt, a burgeoning and violent salafi jihadist subculture which encompasses northern Sinai and southern Gaza – with various organizations possessing members and infrastructure on both sides of the border.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis itself and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen both have members in Sinai and Gaza. Working tunnels smuggling goods and weapons exist between Gaza and northern Sinai, despite Egyptian attempts to destroy them. It is also a fact that Hamas is aware of these tunnels and makes no attempt to act against them, benefiting economically from their presence. From this standpoint, Hamas authorities in Gaza are guilty by omission of failing to act against the infrastructure supplying and supporting salafi guerrillas in northern Sinai, whether or not the less verifiable claims of direct Hamas links with them have a basis. Given this reality, it is also not hard to understand the Egyptian determination to build an effective physical barrier between the Strip and Egyptian territory.”
Sinai jihadists support for ISIS?
Then there is the serious concern that some of these jihadist groups in Sinai may have pledged support to the ‘Islamic State’.
Recently Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, denied it had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, distancing itself from a previous statement on November 3 which claimed to be from Ansar and was published on two jihadist Twitter feeds. The original statement said that the group had pledged loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the ‘Islamic State’.
Commenting on the denial, an expert in Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, told the Jerusalem Post, “Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is trying to play it both ways: show sympathy for Islamic State while not actually pledging allegiance.” When asked if Ansar would pledge allegiance to Islamic State in the future, he said it “depends on the group’s fortunes on the ground in Syria and Iraq.”
So is a manifestation of the ‘Islamic State’ now in Sinai on Israel’s southern border? And what about its connection to Hamas?
According to Spyer, whose Jerusalem Post article on this issue was written before Ansar’s alleged statement of allegiance and subsequent denial, these Sinai jihadist groups are certainly ideologically aligned to the ‘Islamic State’ but in terms of their organisation, the “situation is more complex”, he writes:
“According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi… neither Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis nor Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen have formally pledged their allegiance to the caliphate established by Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, Tamimi confirmed, both organizations have expressed ‘support’ for Islamic State and its objectives, while not subordinating themselves to it through a pledge of allegiance.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is known to maintain contacts with Islamic State, which has advised it on the mechanics of carrying out operations. Islamic State, meanwhile, has publicly declared its support for the jihadists in northern Sinai, without singling out any specific group for public support. Tamimi further notes the existence of two smaller and more obscure groups in Gaza with more direct links to Islamic State. These are Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (The Group of Helpers/ Supporters of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis), which carries out propaganda activities from Gaza and helps funnel volunteers to Syria and Iraq, and the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Battalion, a Gazan contingent fighting with Islamic State in these countries.
So, a number of conclusions can be drawn: Firstly, Hamas, in its tolerance of and engagement with smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, at least indirectly permits the jihadists networks operating these tunnels to wage their insurgency against Egypt – even if the claims of a direct Hamas link to violent activities in Sinai have not yet been conclusively proven. Secondly, the most important organizations engaged in this insurgency support Islamic State, and are supported by them, though the former have not yet pledged allegiance and become directly subordinate to the latter.”
Therefore, according to Spyer, the ‘Islamic State’ is not currently on Israel’s southern border, but its close allies certainly are. Moreover, this situation further complicates Gaza rebuilding efforts following the recent conflict, because the ceasefire agreement included easing restrictions on Gaza’s Rafah border crossing into Egypt. With the border now closed, if Hamas feels that it has nothing to lose again, it could tragically provoke another round of conflict to the detriment of Israelis and Palestinians.