Sinai insurgents using ISIS 'brand' to attract recruits, former top peacekeeper says

The former Canadian commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai says there are few signs the ISIS branch in that region is a global threat.

Local insurgents modelled on Islamic State fight bloody regional battles but not likely a global threat

The Canadian contingent of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai Peninsula, seen here in April 2013, faces increasing threats from ISIS-like insurgents. (Patrick Blanchard/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/DND)

From a distance, the ISIS-inspired bloodshed in the Sinai Peninsula looks fresh and menacing, but the former Canadian commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in the region says the conflict looks awfully familiar.

The violence, which flared up again last weekend near Rafah, along the border with Gaza, carries with it an echo of Afghanistan, said Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson.

They are globally inspired local insurgents.- Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson

Many of the social, economic and cultural conditions that fuel the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan are present in the increasingly troubled desert region between Egypt and Israel, Thompson said.

And, he added, while it doesn't make the news all that often in the Western media, the Egyptian army is fighting a fierce insurgency that appears to be more of a franchise for the Islamic State than deeply rooted extension of the self-described caliphate.

"They are globally inspired local insurgents," Thompson told CBC News in a recent interview. "And their effort is really to use the [ISIS] brand to attract recruits, and locally they're trying to redress many long-standing grievances they have with the Egyptian government."

It is an important point for Canadian policy-makers and the public to understand, given that Canada's contingent in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) is this country's largest peacekeeping mission and one that has become steadily more perilous over the past three years.

Canadian Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, the former commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in the Sinai, says local insurgents model themselves on ISIS but don't seem to be anything like a global threat. (Department of National Defence)

Last year, Canada's top military commander warned that the mission, which Canada first contributed to in 1985, was growing more violent and perhaps less viable.

Gen. Jonathan Vance made the comment as the Liberal government began crafting its new defence policy around promises to return the military to more benevolent UN-flagged operations.

There are roughly 70 Canadian troops among the 1,300 soldiers from 12 nations that make up the MFO force, which operates outside of the United Nations peacekeeping framework and was established as part of the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s.

Mission became more dangerous

It was — until the autumn of 2014 — a relatively benign assignment.

"The mission evolved because of the introduction of a non-state actor known as the Islamic State," said Thompson, who served as the Canadian task force commander in Kandahar in 2008-09, as fighting with the Taliban hit a peak.

The parallels struck him almost immediately.

The northeast Sinai is heavily populated by displaced Palestinians and disaffected Bedouin tribes, three of which have major grievances against the Egyptian government. A local insurgency, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), rebranded itself Wilayat Sinai — Sinai Province — and pledged allegiance to ISIS.

"The presence of the Islamic State in your area of operation certainly makes you sit up and pay attention," Thompson said in his first interview since turning over command of the observer force in early March to an Australian general.

What separates Sinai Province from its extremist parent group in Syria, Iraq and even Libya is that the organization has been unable to seize and hold territory, with the exception of one prolonged battle with Egyptian troops in July 2015 where they took over a police station in the Bedouin town of Sheikh Zuweid, in the north of the peninsula.

Canada has contributed troops to the MFO in the Sinai Peninsula, between Israel and Egypt, since 1985. (Google Maps)

The group was defeated at a cost of several dozen lives, according to local media reports. But that was the turning point, and Thompson says the MFO has spent a lot of time making sure the group "didn't put us in their crosshairs."

Occasional rocket attacks started shortly after that, and areas near the observer force's base were sown with roadside bombs that Thompson believes were mostly aimed at Egyptian forces.

In June 2015, the force's northern base at al-Gorah was hit by a mortar attack. That is where Canadian troops were stationed.

Two months later, an American soldier was shot and wounded by a sniper, and in September 2015 an MFO vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Two Fijian peacekeepers were wounded, and U.S. troops who rushed to the scene were struck by a second explosive.

No one was killed, but Thompson says the injuries represented a significant escalation, and that eventually led to relocation of some elements of the force to another camp further south.

Politics and development

Even still, signs that Sinai Province was morphing into a regional or even global threat were elusive. Intelligence had few indications of an influx of foreign fighters; there was no outside funding and no effort to establish a shadow government.

"Those three elements never existed to a degree that would concern me," said Thompson.

But there are other factors at play.

Canadian military police officers are shown during a transfer of responsibility parade in Sinai, Egypt, in March 2015. (Sgt. Tom Duval, U.S. Army/Combat Camera/DND)

Notably, the rising of Sinai Province has also been fuelled by opposition to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The insurgents count among their number former officers of the Egyptian military who are angry at the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"In many ways it's similar to Afghanistan," Thompson said. "There are a lot of parallels there, and there needs to be a comprehensive approach if Egypt wishes to solve this problem at some point."

He underlined that he's "not critical of Egypt in any way" but says the government has yet to tackle the underlying poverty and economic conditions that are driving the insurgency.

"Eventually — and I know, having spoken to both the North and South Sinai governors — I know they will address the development part of the picture to ensure the people of the Sinai believe their government is working on their behalf," he said.


Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.