The issue of Sinai and its jihad is increasingly important, also considering Hezbollah’s new strategy in Southern Lebanon, as well as the current deployment of Iranian, Syrian, Russian and various Sunni and jihadist forces between the Golan Heights and the Bekaa Valley, on the border between Syria and Israel.
The “sword jihad” in the Sinai peninsula, however, dates back to many years ago.
In 2011, precisely at the peak of tension both in the West and within some of the so-called “moderate” Islamic forces operating in the Maghreb region, during the various national “Arab springs”, the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group (ABM) was created in the Sinai peninsula.
As was easy to foresee, unlike what CIA believed at the time, the destabilization of the old regimes had strengthened and not weakened the jihadist organizations.
ABM was the new network of exchange, training, intelligence and fundraising of the local jihad that, for the first time, played its own autonomous role.
For all the organizations of the Egyptian-Palestinian “holy war”, the opportunity of Mubarak’s fall was too fortunate to be missed.
In the void of power (and of welfare for the Sinai populations), the newly-established ABM easily succeeded in winning the local populations’ support.
It should also be noted that, albeit always careful in its approach – except in the strategic void occurred with Morsi’s government linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which lasted from June 30, 2012 to July 3, 2013, when the coup of the Head of the military intelligence services, Al Sisi, ousted him from power – Egypt was interested only in the security of Sinai’s oil networks, not in the support of local populations.
Even currently, with the emergence of Sinai’s jihad, Egypt bears the brunt of its strategic oversight and the poor social and political analysis of the peninsular system around its canals.
Nevertheless Al Sisi-led Egypt has very little money- hence some simplicity in its analyses is quite understandable.
The activity to make the Sinai networks safe had already started as early as Mubarak’s time and has continued until the current government of Al Sisi, who knows all too well that – after the “cure” of the Muslim Brotherhood -he cannot completely trust his own police forces or his intelligence services, and hence is thinking of somehow “delegating security” for the Sinai peninsula also to third parties.
At that juncture, however, the news was spread that the Israeli forces were using precisely Palestinian elements to collect primary intelligence on the Sinai’s Isis, one of ABM current developments.
ABM was one of the first groups outside the Syrian-Iraqi system to swear allegiance to the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi.
Israel used those intelligence networks only to support Egypt in its specific local war on terror, considering that Daesh-Isis still had at least 2,000 active elements in the peninsula that, for the time being, were not specifically targeted to the Jewish State.
On January 11, 2019, for example, the Egyptian Armed Forces successfully hit and hence killed 11 terrorists, who were already making operations against the city of Bir-el-Abad in Northern Sinai.
It was even said that the Israeli intelligence had infiltrated the local Daesh-Isis. This was also confirmed by Egyptian President Al-Sisi himself who, in an interview with the American TV channel CBS on January 3, 2019, reaffirmed the existence of close cooperation between the Israeli intelligence services and the Egyptian forces in all the anti-jihadist operations in Sinai.
Clearly, the goal of ABM – which had meanwhile quickly converged into Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” –was the stable deterioration of relations between Egypt and Israel.
It should also be noted that the continued terrorist action against the oil and gas networks in Sinai forced Jordan to look for and buy oil and gas elsewhere.
Obviously the permanent insecurity of networks in Sinai slowed down and often blocked the prospects for expansion of the Israeli gas and oil in their connection both with Egypt and with the long Arab Pipeline network reaching Damascus and, through Turkey, the European market.
Hence, since 2013, with the successful coup staged by Al Sisi, the ABM – which was already part of the pseudo-Caliphate system – has been focusing on one goal: the fight against the Egyptian armed forces and power.
Hence Sinai’s new jihadist network is composed of Wilayat al Sinai, i.e. the pseudo-Caliphate network; some groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as Jund al Islam, a structure operating above all in Sinai’s Western desert, as well as Ansar al Islam and other groups, always active in Sinai’s Northern peninsula.
There are also militant groups that are explicitly linked to the Islamic Brotherhood, such as Hassm (the acronym of the “Army of Egypt’s Forearms”) and Liwa al Thawra, also known as “the Banner of the Revolution” which, however, operates above all in Egypt, between Alexandria, Cairo and Suez.
It should also be noted that last February both the Islamic “State” of Daesh-Isis and Al Qaeda itself uploaded a video in which Ayman Al Zawahiri harshly criticized the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and above all in Sinai.
Hence in 2014 Al Sisi militarized Sinai.
Although not much is known about it, it is a low-intensity war that has already exacted a toll of several thousand victims.
The ABM, renamed Wilayat al Sinai after its affiliation with Daesh-Isis, was still supported by much of Sinai’s population, while the economic crisis of the region worsened with the embargo imposed by Egypt, with a view to stopping oil smuggling and the widespread arms trafficking.
At that juncture, Al Sisi launched its great Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, a military action which began on February 9, 2018, and was organized between the Nile Delta and Northern and Central Sinai.
In fact, everything began after the attack on the Al-Rawda mosque of November 24, 2017. It should be noted that Al-Rawda is a mosque linked to the Jayiria Sufi sect, a mystic “order” widespread particularly in Sinai, especially in the Bir el-Abed area.
Thanks to the effective results of that great operation, Egypt also closed the Gaza border and the Rafah border that, however, has been recently reopened.
It is worth noting that the “great operation” had been launched shortly before the Egyptian political and presidential elections of March 2018.
Hence these are the terms of the equation: strong anti-Egyptian jihadist threat in Sinai; limited forces available to the Egyptian army and intelligence services and above all the issue of the International Monetary Fund’s loan to Egypt, which has strategic and military importance also in Sinai.
Therefore Al Sisi’s military credibility is one of the essential factors of his financial salvation.
In fact, in November 2016, the IMF granted to Egypt an Extended Fund Facility worth 12 billion US dollars.
All the applicative reviews, including the last one of February 4, 2019, have already been approved by the Fund’s board.
So far, however, the reforms implemented by Al Sisi’s regime have always been evaluated positively by the aforementioned board.
And also by many private investment banks, which could also take over from the IMF at the end of the Extended Fund Facility.
Hence macroeconomic stabilization but, first and foremost, resumption of the GDP growth.
Tourism, the primary sector of the Egyptian economy, has again started to perform very well. The same holds true for migrants’ remittances and for the product of the non-oil and manufacturing sector, which the IMF has identified as the key to Egypt’s future – a sector which is recovering and, anyway, is also growing steadily.
The social protection put in place by the Egyptian government, essential for “keeping the crowds under control” (and, often, also local jihadist terrorism) provides food for children, basic commodities and medicines, with a recent and significant increase of the liquidity available in the many smart cards already distributed to the poor people.
The takafol and karama programs, designed to support the poor families’ standard of living, already apply to over 2.2 million households, i.e. 9 million Egyptians.
Too many poor people and hence many candidates to swell the jihad ranks, with a very effective network now available, including para-Caliphates, Al Qaeda and all the rest, but especially the network of Muslim Brotherhood’s “young people”, who are refocusing on a “slow-paced”, but equally cruel, brutal and effective jihad.
Hence, without making it explicitly known to Israel, Egypt has already placed Hamas in the frontline of its low-intensity war in Sinai.
In late November 2018, the former ABM group in Sinai had also already seized a shipment of Iranian weapons, especially kornet missiles, that went from Iran to Hamas through the Gaza Strip.
For some years, however, the relations between the Palestinian Islamic jihad and Egypt have weakened, thanks to the well-known support that the Palestinian group of Gaza, also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has provided to the Sinai jihad. Hence currently the real strategic link lies in the structural clash between Daesh-Isis and Hamas in the Sinai peninsula.
Obviously, the primary goal of the Israeli secret services is always to get good intelligence on the Al-Baghdadi system in the peninsula, but Hamas does not certainly remain silent.
In fact, in early January 2019, the Interior Minister of the Gaza Strip – obviously a Hamas leader – arrested as many as 54 aides of the Israeli forces who, according to Hamas, were operative of Shabak, the Israel Security Agency.
In Sinai, however, Isis still has a very close relationship with Hamas and is still the main carrier of arms smuggling in the Gaza Strip.
Currently, however, the real news is that the “Caliphate” has harshly broken with the Muslim Brotherhood’s group that rules in the Gaza Strip.
As a result, as previously said, Egypt has enlisted precisely Hamas in its fight against the so-called “Caliphate”.
Therefore also Qatar’s portentous funding granted only to Al Sisi’s regime is not useless here. This is an essential factor to understand the new strategic equation of both Qatar and present-day Egypt.
It was exactly in early January 2018, however, that the “Caliphate” openly declared war on Hamas.
Later, in March 2019, there have also been severe attacks on Israeli civilian positions, starting from the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli intelligence services have also ascertained that the specifically military wing of Hamas, namely the “Izz-ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades”, have already agreed with the Egyptian Armed Forces to fight the “Caliphate”, especially in the areas on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptian intelligence services have also notified Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia of the fact that they know the military-financial transactions of the Egyptian regime with Qatar very well. They have also informed Russia that the agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian forces is designed to permanently “recovering” Gaza’s Palestinian group, while in October 2018 Egypt had also arranged a short agreement between Hamas and Israel to reduce tension between the two areas.
In essence, pending the forthcoming end of military activities in Syria, a new tripartite order is being created, in the Middle East, between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates. All these three actors really want Israel to participate in the whole stabilization of the region.
This obviously implies the stable solution of the Palestinian issue, possibly with a new joint leadership –also different from the current one – and hence a new division of the areas of influence also within the Palestinian world.
Egypt wants to directly control the Gaza Strip, i.e. Hamas and the smaller local networks of Fatah and the Palestinian Jihad again in the Gaza Strip, but without forgetting the military and financial ties of these three organizations with Iran.
In the design of the new Arab tripartite agreement, Iran shall leave quickly.
Egypt is here imagining a sort of unification between the various groups of the old Palestinian resistance movement, with new organizations of political representation within the Gaza Strip and possibly also in the PNA’s Territories.
Nevertheless many problems will obviously emerge: the Palestinian National Authority, de facto expelled from the Gaza Strip, has had no news or ideas about the state of security in the Gaza Strip for at least ten years.
Egypt, however, does not want to put only in Hamas’ hands the whole issue of Sinai stability, as well as its sensitive, but fundamental relations with Israel.
Al Sisi is mainly observing – with extreme care – the role played by the number 2 leader of the PNA, Mohammed Dahlan, who has good relations with Hamas, but is still accused by Fatah of being “the one who lost the Gaza Strip in 2007”.
In any case, currently Egypt and Israel have excellent relations (Al Sisi and Netanyahu have regular phone conversations every week), while it should be recalled that it was exactly the emergence of the Sinai jihad that enabled Egypt to militarize the areas in which that had been forbidden exactly by the Peace Treaty with the Jewish State.
Another central issue is the cooperation between Israel and Egypt on energy issues.
Recently an agreement has been signed to enable Egypt to import Israeli natural gas to liquefy it.
Egypt absolutely needs the Israeli support, considering that – in this context – the struggle against Turkey was and still is an all-out struggle.
Nevertheless this new collocation of the military agreement between Egypt and Hamas has also put Israel in difficulty, which was not consulted, before this alliance, about the Gaza Strip.
The pact between the group of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip and Egypt became known to Israel only when Hamas pointed out to Egypt that there had been breaks in the “truce”, which the Israeli army still did not know in all its strategic value and relevance.
In any case, Israel has tripled the sale of electricity to the Gaza Strip, while as many as 11,000 trucks were sent from the Jewish State to support the population of the Gaza Strip.
Qatar alone provided over 15 million US dollars of aid to the political and humanitarian organizations of the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, Hamas wanted above all a refund or monetary support from Israel, but much greater than expected, at least for the funds that the PNA’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had decided autonomously to remove from the autonomous administration of the Gaza Strip.
As usual, the response was obviously a terrorist one, with bombs thrown at the IDF troops and the Jewish population outside the border.
Despite of the above mentioned stabilization projects, Hamas wants to make the most of the climate prevailing for the Israeli upcoming elections scheduled for next April.
Certainly the next target of the Palestinian groups will be the joint Israeli-US exercise scheduled for March 4 next.
It will be a very important military exercise: a United States European Command (USEUCOM) battery composed of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles will be made operational, right on the border between the Gaza Strip and the Jewish State.
The THAAD system will soon be added to the Israeli defense systems, along with the Iron Dome, mainly operating against short-range missiles; the Arrow system, intercepting long-range missiles in their exo-atmospheric phase and David’s Sling to hit tactical ballistic missiles.
Both the THAAD and the Arrow systems are already included in the USEUCOM’s early warning network, using a series of radars located on a US base in the Negev desert.
A base that, however, already monitors any missile launch from Iran.
Obviously the THAAD network is a US implicit suggestion not to give in to the flatteries and blandishments of the Sunni treaty on the new areas of influence between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – a treaty which is still written in the Sinai sand.