On 24 November, in the Egyptian province of Sinai, Daesh carried out one of their most sickening attacks. Killing 305 and injuring hundreds more, Daesh attacked the Rawdah mosque. Gunmen waited to shoot down fleeing worshippers after their bombing.
Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014 and has since been known as the Sinai Province of ISIS. It was founded out of a number of competing factions previously linked to Al Qaeda. It could now be the most capable and dangerous section of Daesh in Egypt. The declaration of a “state of emergency” in Sinai since 2014 has not slowed down their growth.
Since the downing of the Russian Metrojet plane in 2015, the group has been steadily growing in both influence and territory in north Sinai. Their “Hisba” religious morality police patrol the area, confiscating cigarettes and executing Bedouin and Sufi “mystics”. Sinai Province has experienced 1,700 attacks since 2013 and Daesh has claimed direct credit for 800 of them.
The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has vowed to respond with extreme force. That is unlikely to make the situation better. Sisi is determined to present himself as a bulwark against militant Islamism across the region, but in doing so he has created an authoritarian military government that has used the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood (briefly in government after 2012) to crack down on dissent, throwing its leaders and supporters into jail, and also socialists, women’s activists, and LGBT people. He has also shackled the independent unions. Political demonstrations are now banned. There are numerous reports of torture in Egyptian prisons.
The government now faces opposition, not from an insurgent workers’ movement or a social movement for civil rights, but from far-right Islamists who want to wipe out Egypt’s Christian minority and stop the spread of “polytheism” i.e Sufi and other non-Salafi versions of Sunni Islam. So far the Egyptian army has had a marginal impact on the group believed to have intelligence coming directly from sympathisers within the state itself. Growing disquiet with the army’s inability to deal with the problem is affecting Sisi’s credibility.
As as Brooking Institution report puts it: “[Sisi came to power] promising security, stability, and economic prosperity in exchange for near-total political control. Now, that bargain is in the process of breaking down, since he’s failed to deliver on all three fronts.”
Daesh thrives on young disaffected men in a region where unemployment stands at 30%. Repeated failures to deal with the economic depression are likely to push people further towards the jihadists. Sisi enjoys the backing of Trump and a high proportion of US aid to Egypt has been pushed into support for the security services but it’s not enough. The Woodrow Wilson Centre reports that, “foreign fighters —largely from Libya, the Maghreb and Europe — have migrated to the Sinai, where they constituted as much as eighty per cent of the Sinai Province’s fighting force by mid-2017.”
It is not just Egypt who will be concerned by a growth of Daesh in Sinai but, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Libya. All fear the expansion of Daesh-linked groups.