This is a guest post by Lucas Theriault, author of geopolitics blog 'Flash Point Analysis' The Islamic State has been making numerous headlines for their actions in the Levant and in Libya. Scant headlines about the Islamic State in Sinai have been overshadowed by the group’s much more notable exploits elsewhere. The very fact that their operations in Sinai and nearby Gaza have been mostly quiet is in itself enough to warrant asking what the Islamic State is doing there. What purpose and plans does the Islamic State have for Wilayat Sinai and Wilayat Gaza? This analysis will give a brief look at who they are, where they came from, and where they might be going.
The Islamic State’s governorate in Sinai began its formation on November 10th 2014 when Al-Qaeda inspired jihadist group Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis(ABM) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ABM came about after the Egyptian revolutions, taking advantage of the power vacuum to assert itself in Sinai as state control of the area waned in order to focus on stabilizing itself. We don’t know much about Wilayat Sinai, but we do know a little bit about ABM. We know that as of the beginning of 2014, they were 1000-2000 fighters strong, but have likely increased since their merger. What is interesting to note is that the majority of these fighters are local Bedouins, The large foreign fighter presence like Libya and Syria is almost entirely absent. The lack of this “theater” is theorized by jihadist-expert Aaron Zelin to be the reason that the operations there have not garnered the attention of the other places.
Structurally, we can glean a little bit more. Shadi el-Manaei was the leader and is presumably the Wali, or governor, of Wilayat Sinai. One notable change has been what appears to be an overhaul, or establishment of, their public relations apparatus. Electronic and print media has been developed both electronic and print media to assert their presence in the region to both the Egyptian government and to the local civilian populace. The beheading video of a Sinai police officer posted January 26th is similar in its deployment to many beheading videos posted by the Islamic State. This on its own does not mean much, as Boko Haram has posted similar videos. This situation in this case differs as Sinai is an official Wilayat of the Islamic State. It’s therefore likely that Islamic State leadership has begun to play at least an advisory role to what was once ABM.
Wilayat Sinai clearly does not contribute to overall Islamic State goals in the same way as Libya, but it does not contribute any less. Ten ABM leaders escaped in late 2013 to Gaza from Sinai through the traditional smuggling routes that link the two territories. Since then, ABM has had a minor presence in Gaza and this continued after their pledge of bay’ah to the Islamic State. The Islamic State in Gaza made itself known on October 8th 2014 in a public release after a copycat group had bombed the French Cultural Center in Gaza. This shows that one of the purposes of Wilayat Sinai is to maintain a presence in Gaza. But to what end?
To understand what may happen, we will look at the situation through the lenses of Wilayat Sinai’s modus operandi and the generally conservative strategy of the Islamic State (as bold as they may be, they have been particular about trying not to bite off more than they can chew). Most of the major escalations of force on the part of Wilayat Sinai have been limited engagements with Egyptian security forces. The combination of their continued survivability of this tactic and its effectiveness at asserting Islamic State presence in Sinai demonstrate that there is little reason for the Islamic State to be doing anything else in Sinai. A report from the Institute for the Study of War shows that another escalation may be in the near future, involving large Vehicle-borne IEDs. The violence may escalate as their capabilities do, but as the old saying goes: “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken”.