Analysis: Does ISIS still pose a risk to Israel?

The ISIS branch in Sinai remains one of the most effective in the world.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

In May 2019, ISIS lost its final stronghold in Syria and what was left of its “caliphate” – namely, the territory and population that it had controlled – crumbled. The event was a far cry from its peak in 2012-14, when it controlled entire swaths of Syria and Iraq, and ruled over millions of people.

Now, as the Middle East enters the so-called post-caliphate era, it might be tempting to believe that the international community is safe from ISIS attacks; however, observers in Israel caution that this is unfortunately not the case.

Professor Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, pointed out that while hybrid terror organizations, as ISIS was once, rule over a territory and population, classical terror organizations, which do not control any areas, focus on one thing only: planning and carrying out attacks.

“Hybrid organizations are usually large, well-based and possess clear command and control systems. Usually, alongside military terrorist systems, they develop political-civilian systems that are in charge of providing services to the populations under their control, including food, water, law enforcement, education and more,” Ganor told JNS.

Hybrid terror organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, have wider considerations than classic terror organizations. They are also more visible on the intelligence radar.

ISIS is now reverting to the classic terror stage. “As such, it is perhaps weaker, but at the same time more dangerous due to the lack of an intelligence grasp over the different parts of the organization,” cautioned Ganor.

Still, he said, “Israel need not be overly disturbed by ISIS threats … the central security threat stems from another hybrid terror organization, Hezbollah, which possesses an unprecedented arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles that cover most of the territory of Israel.”

In 2019, no ISIS network was active in Judea and Samaria, while in the Gaza Strip, Salafi-jihadist organizations kept a low profile, according to a recent report by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

A few years ago, there was a strong connection between Salafi-jihadists (who belong to the radical ideological camp of ISIS) in the Gaza Strip and ISIS operatives in the Sinai Peninsula. Yet that connection has grown weak “especially because of the intensive counter-terrorism activities carried out by the Egyptian security forces,” the report said. “In 2019, no rockets were launched into Israel by jihadists from the Sinai Peninsula.”

‘Glory days’

In addition, ISIS seems to be looking for new territory on which to build its next caliphate. That search has led it to focus on areas such as north and central Africa, southeast Asia and Afghanistan, Ganor noted.

“The vacuum created by the decline of ISIS could be filled by the old Islamist trend – Al-Qaeda, which is trying to return to its ‘glory days’ – and could exploit the situation to return to the international terror stage,” he stated. “The vacuum could also be filled by a new trend – a new global terror organization that will form around a radical Islamist figure who today is not at the center of the global arena.”

He stressed that in the coming year, the main threat in the Middle East will not stem from radical Sunni organizations like ISIS, but rather from Shi’ite militias and organizations: “Hezbollah in Lebanon, and some 50 militias active in Syria and Iraq under Iranian orchestration and sponsorship.”

Meanwhile, the remnants of ISIS will continue making an effort to conduct terror attacks around the world through local networks, sleeper cells, foreign fighters returning to their countries, and by inspiring “lone wolf” attacks operating under ISIS incitement.

Thousands of ISIS supporters and members of the organization remain active in eastern Syria and in Iraqi territory. They could recapture territory in these areas and launch fresh attacks from Sinai, said Ganor,

The ISIS branch in Sinai remains one of the most effective in the world, according to Shaul Shay, director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

ISIS in Sinai is built on the Al-Qaeda branch that existed beforehand, and “it is mainly composed of northern Sinai Bedouin recruits,” Shay, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, told JNS.

There have been claims that “ISIS refugees” from Iraq and Syria also found their way to northern Sinai to join ISIS ranks there.

Egypt has launched a massive military campaign against ISIS in Sinai, but Shay noted that the tribal identity of Sinai Bedouin, as well as the sense of discrimination they feel from the central Egyptian government, has helped encourage recruits to keep joining.

“The activities of the Egyptian military are effective on the one hand, significantly damaging ISIS infrastructure, but on the hand, a vicious circle has been created. The military creates damage, which encourages more recruits, who trigger more military attacks. Hence, despite all of the Egyptian efforts, we see that ISIS in Sinai is still active,” said Shay.

Fomenting ISIS

The Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has recognized the problem, and launched a program of investment that attempts to improve the quality of life for Sinai residents, though this is happening at a slow pace.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s campaign has weakened ISIS in Sinai, and the terror organization can no longer take over areas like it could in the past. It still regularly conducts roadside bombings, attacks Egyptian checkpoints and military facilities, and targets Christians and Sufi Muslims.

When 40 ISIS gunmen stormed a Sufi mosque in Sinai,murdering 305 people in 2017, it was Egypt’s worst terror attack to date.

In 2015, ISIS in Sinai brought down a Russian passenger jet over Sinai by planting a bomb onboard, killing 224. Since then, Egypt has invested heavily in aviation security, and flights carrying tourists have started returning to the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said Shay.

ISIS has been able to spread its attacks into the core of Egypt, including Cairo and Upper Egypt, he noted.

Shay called special attention to Libya’s role in fomenting ISIS. Libya has been in a state of chaos since the fall of its dictator Moammar Qadhafi in 2011, and is now the scene of two governments – one eastern and one western – that are at war with one another and backed by various states.

Libya is a main source of security problems for Egypt and other states in North Africa since weapons flow out of it, said Shay, and it is also a safe haven for jihadists.

Libya-based terror cells travel to other countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Chad to launch attacks.

It is “a very central area of operations for jihadists,” he said.