Militants of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, an Islamic State affiliate operating in Sinai, launched the bloodiest terrorist attack in Egypt in months last week. As The Financial Times reports:
Militants in Egypt’s troubled northern Sinai region killed at least 27 people in simultaneous mortar and bomb attacks against police and army targets, according to reports citing health and defence officials.Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an armed group, affiliated to Isis and based in the region, has in the past claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks which killed hundreds of police and army personnel.
This attack suggests that ISIS, which has long been interested in outreach, may have developed the capacity to expand its operations into Egypt. While there are myriad jihadist groups from Indonesia to Nigeria who have pledged some sort of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, many of these affiliates are local groups looking to up their profiles. Their capacity to coordinate with the Islamic State is likely to be minimal, in no small part because ISIS’s organizational structure is rather minimal itself. But the ferocity and professionalism of the recent attacks in Sinai suggest a higher level of coordination between the Egyptian militants and ISIS’s base in Syria. As The Wall Street Journal notes:
While all of these groups operate autonomously, they are establishing increasingly close connections with Islamic State’s leadership in Syria, diplomats and security officials say. That includes funding and expertise and travel by jihadists to Syria.The “Province of Sinai” so far appears to be the most dangerous of these Islamic State franchises, inflicting serious casualties on the Egyptian army in what’s likely to be a prolonged and increasingly vicious insurgency.“In a way, what is happening in Sinai looks a lot like what was happening in Iraq in the mid-2000s,” said Issandr El Amrani, director of North Africa at the International Crisis Group think tank. “There is a cause for alarm because Islamic State has a methodology and a network of expertise based on causing splits in society to rally people around them—which is how it worked in Syria and Iraq.”
While this growing connection is cause for alarm in Egypt, it will likely strengthen President Sisi’s case for himself to his somewhat reluctant Western backers. His main selling points to the West, for which he receives everything from aid to tolerance of the coup that brought him to power, are his opposition to Islamism and the Egyptian military’s capacity to crush Islamist terrorists (in the Sinai, at home, and reportedly in Libya). Often, this can feel like a con, as the Army has done everything it can to remove all other options besides itself and Islamic groups, and uses broad anti-terror policies to crack down on civil liberties and political freedom. But to deal with the threat of ISIS’ cancer metastasizing, we’ll have to work with Egypt—and it will need to be able to stamp out more than just street protests.