Analysis: Egypt looking for answers to Islamic terror in Sinai

The terrorists who killed over 300 people at a Sinai mosque on Friday provided the first major test for Egyptian Field Marshall Muhammad Farid Hegazy.

By: Yoni Ben Menachem, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

The attack on the Al-Rawdah mosque is the first test for the new Egyptian chief of staff, Field Marshall Muhammad Farid Hegazy, who recently toured Sinai upon assuming the post.

The Islamic State branch in northern Sinai has changed its tactics and extended its activity to new regions. It has distanced itself from the areas of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, where there are large Egyptian army deployments, and begun to operate in the relatively quiet Bir al-Abed region with its large Sufi population. The Islamic State branch has shifted from attacks on military and police targets in northern Sinai to the mass killing of civilians who support the Egyptian security forces in the war on terror.

The massacre at the mosque indicates that the Islamic State terrorists are no longer settling for attacks on Coptic churches and have decided to strike Islamic places of worship as well.

The lawless Sinai

The Egyptian army suffers from a difficult problem securing quality intelligence, hampering its war on terror in Sinai. The terror organizations there, which number 2,000 to 3,000 operatives, can merge into the population. They enjoy financial support and a regular supply of weapons which, according to Egyptian intelligence, comes from Qatar.

The Islamic State is continuing to pursue its strategy of destabilizing Egypt and wearing down its security forces.

Egypt’s security establishment believes that the Islamic State branch in Sinai was recently reinforced by terrorists fleeing from Iraq and Syria in the wake of the organization’s defeat there.

The terrorists coming from Iraq have experience in attacking mosques, having blown up Shiite mosques there.

One of the goals of the Islamic State branch in Sinai is to cause a mass flight of the residents of northern Sinai. In the past, President Sisi rejected a proposal of the top military brass to evacuate the civilians from northern Sinai and make it easier for the military to fight the terror nests.

Egyptian officials believe that the Sufis in Sinai will now join the large Al-Tarabin Bedouin tribe. This tribe is a member of the Jund al-Islam organization in Sinai, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Clashes likely to intensify

Recently Jund al-Islam broke off from the Islamic State branch in Sinai and began to carry out attacks against it.

The Sufis’ desire to take revenge against the Islamic State for the mosque massacre appears likely to intensify the clashes in northern Sinai between the different armed groups, including the Bedouin tribes and the Islamic State branch in Sinai.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.