ISIS in Egypt: The struggle for the Sinai Peninsula

While the massacre in Orlando has once again focused attention on so-called lone wolf attackers in the Western world, there is a well-organized chapter of ISIS operating in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that continues its murderous mission far from the gaze of the international spotlight.

A well-organized branch of ISIS poses a growing risk on the Israeli-Egyptian border

The Canadian Contingent of Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) training at North Camp in Sinai, Egypt, in April 2013. (Patrick Blanchard/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/DND)

While the massacre in Orlando has once again focused attention on so-called lone wolf attackers in the Western world who have pledged allegiance to ISIS, there is a well-organized chapter of the jihadist group operating in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula that continues its murderous mission far from the gaze of the international spotlight.

Originally known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), the group changed its name to Wilayat Sinai — Sinai Province — and pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014. It is the most active insurgent group in Egypt, and has carried out dozens of attacks that have killed hundreds of soldiers and police officers.

Sinai Province is believed to be waging a war to take control of the Sinai Peninsula and turn it into an Islamist region loyal to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, according to experts who follow the group. They estimate as many as 1,500 fighters support the organization.

The group's militants have launched suicide attacks and gun battles mainly in the northern part of the Sinai — an underdeveloped region, largely forgotten by the country's politicians in Cairo. The marginalization that many residents feel has fuelled support for Sinai Province.

The group also claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed Egypt's prosecutor general in Cairo a year ago.

The fence that runs the length of the Israeli-Egyptian border, with an Egyptian military watchtower in the distance. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Egypt declared a state of emergency in 2014 as its forces struggled to stop Sinai Province attacks, which focused on government forces following the overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.

Now, security officials in Israel are keeping a close eye on their border with Egypt, concerned about possible attacks from Sinai Province.

"The enemy is Daesh," said Maj. Shachar Nachmani of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "We believe that these terror cells will try to hit our forces in order to prove themselves."

Sinai Province has launched several rocket attacks against Israeli territory in recent years. Six months ago, according to Major Nachmani, a "terrorist cell" attacked an army patrol along the security fence that marks the Israeli-Egyptian border. Three of the attackers were killed by Israeli soldiers. "The force was able to respond and to hit back at those who tried to infiltrate the border into Israel." 

Maj. Shachar Nachmani, commander of the Caracal Battalion, at an Israel Defence Forces base on the Israeli-Egyptian border. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Canada has 70 soldiers based in the Sinai, trying to maintain calm between Israel and Egypt as part of an international peacekeeping mission, known as the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO).

In the past two years, the MFO has had to deal with an increase in violence from Sinai Province, which has launched rocket and mortar attacks against at least one of the MFO's two bases in the Sinai.

(A request to interview the Canadian commander of the MFO mission, Maj.-Gen Denis Thompson, was denied by the organization's headquarters.)

Both the Canadian Forces and the federal government have noted the increased security risk posed by Sinai Province. "Until recently, the MFO had not been the direct target of jihadist or terrorist attacks," reads a government briefing note obtained by CBC News. "However, the threat environment has changed over the summer months of 2015."

Canada's top military commander warned recently of the "increasingly dangerous" mission in Egypt.

"Where we once had relatively benign missions conducting peace support operations, such as the MFO mission, [it is] now turning more hostile," said Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff . "Toxic environments where, in the case of the Sinai, [ISIS] in the Sinai is now grown in strength and impedes the conduct of the mission."

Prof. Walter Dorn of Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., a leading expert on Canadian peacekeeping, said the mandate of the MFO mission "has not kept up with the changing circumstances on the ground and the threats."

"I would recommend that the peacekeeping become more robust," Dorn told CBC News. "Not become a counterterrorism mission, but try to influence the local population so that they see peace is in their interest and that they shouldn't support [Sinai Province]."

The latest ISIS propaganda videos show Sinai Province actively training fighters in the area. It also continues to make threats against the Egyptian government, and more recently Israel.

In a video from last month, the narrator in Arabic calls the Sinai the "gateway to Palestine" and promises to "liberate" Jerusalem. One fighter warns that Israeli Jews are "victims in waiting," adding they will meet the same fate as those Egyptians who collaborate with Israel: "The knives used to slice open the necks of your spies will slaughter your soldiers tomorrow."

Screengrab from an ISIS propaganda video released in May, in which the narrator calls the Sinai the 'gateway to Palestine' and promises to 'liberate' Jerusalem. (CBC)

In Israel, the country's army continues to prepare against the threat of the Sinai Province. At a training base not far from the border, young soldiers from the Caracal Battalion are learning counterterrorism techniques.

"We teach soldiers that this is not a fight against an army," said Lt.-Col. Yaron Buskila, who leads the IDF's training base in southern Israel. "It's a group that comes to attack, to try as fast as they can just to take a soldier back into Egypt or hit civilians. So we are teaching our soldiers to work very fast."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.