July 2, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Assaults Sinai
The Islamic State's series of attacks in Sinai, Egypt is unlike anything seen in the troubled area since the 1973 War with Israel. In well-coordinated attacks on up to 15 police and military checkpoints and outposts, the group's affiliate in Sinai, called Wilayat Sinai (or the province/state of Sinai), killed almost 70 Egyptian soldiers, policemen, and medical responders. There are conflicting reports regarding the number of casualties; while the Egyptian Army put out a statement that 17 of its members had been killed along with 100 terrorists, its count is at odds with nearly all other reporting from the area.
While the extent of the casualties might be unclear, what is very clear is that the attack represents a fundamental shift in how the terror group in the area operates. The attacks in northern Sinai and on the town of Shaykh Zuwayd are evidence that the Wilayat Sinai group has adopted much more than the Islamic State’s name; it has adopted its successful tactics as well.
The attack on Shaykh Zuwayd, a bedouin town near the border with Gaza, resembles a smaller version of what the Islamic State did in Ramadi in May. While extremist groups in the Sinai have a long history of hit-and-run attacks on the police and army outposts or convoys, yesterday’s attack was a full-on assault in which the group took territory, if only briefly. Using the devastatingly effective combination of multiple car bombings and heavy machine gun fire, the fighters were able to inflict massive casualties, and even surround a police station, trapping the officers inside. In classic Islamic State fashion, they booby-trapped egress and evacuation routes, inflicting more casualties and slowing down rescue and military responses. The Egyptian military was forced to call in fighter jets with air-to-ground capabilities to beat back the fighters. Given that the influence of the government in Cairo does not extend to much of the area, more attacks will follow.
Of note, in Iraq, Syria, and now in Egypt, when ‘official’ Islamic State units attack, they tend to attack security forces, or so-called ‘hard targets’. Contrast this with the external operations of the group carried out by sympathizers or small cells. Those attacks, like the most recent one in Tunisia, are against soft-targets: civilian, commercial, or tourist locales. The Wilayat Sinai feeds off of the latent anti-government sentiment of the local population; recent evictions by the government of some tribal settlements only added to the resentment. The Sinai group does not attack civilians because it would provoke a negative backlash, while attacking the government has no downside. The Sinai has bedeviled Egyptian rulers from Mubarak to Morsi, and now Sisi, yet the recent escalation is unprecedented. The change in tactics—going from hit-and-run to hit-and-hit-again—bodes poorly for the area and Egypt at large.
Most worrisome is if this change in tactics represents a change in the group’s overall strategy in Egypt. The level of coordination or communication between the group in Sinai and the group’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq is unclear, but there is clearly a stronger connection than perhaps thought when the group pledged its loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last fall. The group in Sinai, if current trend lines persist, will continue to more closely resemble the group in Iraq. First, it will attack areas not so much to prove that it can hold them, but that the government cannot. Later, the group will set out to hold territory, and then repeat the pattern elsewhere, establishing an archipelago of extremist strongholds in the desert, linked by roads and the absence of government control. Since joining the Islamic State, the Wilayat Sinai has morphed from violent bedouin criminal gangs specializing in smuggling to organized militants successfully attacking multiple police and army outposts. Any hope that the group has simply adopted the Islamic State’s name, but not its lethality and ambition, was put to rest yesterday.
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