MAX Analysis Egypt: January attack by militant group Wilayat Sinai underscores increased capabilities February 24, 2015

Executive Summary

  • The January 29 coordinated and simultaneous attack against multiple targets in northern Sinai, by the militant organization Wilayat Sinai, highlights an ongoing shift in militant tactics, as well as an upgrading of their capabilities and the potential for additional attacks.
  • Meanwhile, renewed accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in the attack and subsequent crackdowns on the group will likely continue to create a divide in the organization over the use of violence to “retaliate” against alleged police and military brutality.
  • This divide will likely perpetuate near-daily militant attacks across Egypt, while carrying with it the risk of further expanding the operational areas of “Wilayat Sinai” to Muslim Brotherhood strongholds and other regions across the country.
  • We advise against nonessential travel to Cairo and Alexandria at the time due to the persistent risk of militant attacks and civil unrest in major cities. Consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations.

Current Events in Egypt
On January 29, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), carried out multiple coordinated attacks on several targets in Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and al-Arish, with the main attack carried out in the latter. In al-Arish, reports indicate that militants attacked the Egyptian Armed Forces’ 101 Battalion headquarters, as well as multiple other targets, including a local hotel, various checkpoints, and the security directorate. Militants used multiple car bombs, in addition to mortars and gunfire to overwhelm local security forces. Reports indicate that at least 32 people were killed and 100 injured. Wilayat Sinai claimed to have used more 100 fighters in the attack, as well as three explosives-laden vehicles, while claiming to have staged the attack during the night hours so as to “minimize” civilian casualties.

  • Additionally Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a public statement regarding the January 29 attacks and unrest, vowing to defend Egypt’s Sinai against “terror” and stating, “I have said it before and I will say it again, we are fighting the strongest secret organization of the last two centuries,” likely referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. Reports indicate that al-Sisi also created a new military entity to combat militancy in Sinai, following a meeting held by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Al-Sisi reportedly named General Osama Roshdy, the current head of the Third Army, as the head of the entity and promoted him to Lieutenant-General.
  • Meanwhile, following the attack in Sinai, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement in English declaring, “We unequivocally condemn all acts of violence” and reaffirming the group’s “commitment to peaceful and political civil resistance”. However, the group also released an article on January 27, quoting Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, urging its supporters to “prepare” for a new phase where “we summon all our strength and evoke the meaning of Jihad”. The statement also refers to the Secret Apparatus, a paramilitary operation created by al-Banna to fight the British mandate in the 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood distanced itself from the organization on several occasions, and the existence of the organization remains subject to controversy. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a document using the statement to show the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged “double speak”.
  • A Turkish-based television channel, affiliated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, aired a statement coming from the “Revolutionary Youth” issuing an ultimatum to all foreign nationals in Egypt during the morning hours of January 31. According to the ultimatum, all foreign citizens should leave Egypt by February 11, all foreign companies operating in Egypt should close down by February 20, and all foreign diplomats should leave and close down their embassies by February 28. In addition, the warning was extended to all tourists planning to visit Egypt, saying they should cancel their plans as they are not welcome. According to the broadcast, whoever chooses to ignore the warning will be targeted.
  • The statement was then condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood in English; however, no such condemnation was issued in Arabic. The Egyptian authorities have reportedly requested that Turkey halt broadcasting the channel; however, unconfirmed reports suggest that no official complaint was lodged in Turkey at this time.

Assessments: Attack in al-Arish underscores heightened militant capabilities, while highlighting possibility for additional attacks in coming months

  • While attacks in the Sinai Peninsula have been carried out on a near-daily basis, the recent attack in al-Arish is notable as it underscores militants’ increased capabilities despite ongoing military operations and the deployment of troops in the Sinai Peninsula. A similar attack was carried out in Sheikh Zuweid on October 24, with militants detonating a car bomb at a heavily protected checkpoint near the city, placing roadside bombs near the site to prevent reinforcements from arriving and then storming the checkpoint with several vehicles and simultaneously firing rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Such attacks underscore militants’ ability to gather intelligence, predict Egyptian military tactics, and carry out multi-stage attacks meant to overwhelm the main military strongholds in the peninsula.
  • In this context, the October 24 and January 29 attacks underscore a shift in militant tactics. Militants had thus far used “hit-and-run” attacks against the Egyptian military, using either car bombs, roadside bombs, localized mortar or rocket attacks, or RPG and shooting attacks. However, the October 24 and January 29 attacks demonstrate  militants’ ability to efficiently use a combination of all of these techniques to maximize casualties. Furthermore, the attack on January 29 underscores militants’ ability to drag the Egyptian military into hours-long ground clashes, as well as their willingness to directly confront the military. Such tactics, which are also riskier for militants, are likely a direct result of the increased militarization of northern Sinai, as militants need to use heavier firepower to attack highly defended military positions. Furthermore, it is possible, in light of the group’s allegiance to IS, that several tactics developed and used in Syria and Iraq were learned by Wilayat Sinai from IS.
  • Despite statements from the military promising a harsh response and claiming the attack was the result of military successes in Sinai, the multi-layered attack likely raised doubts over the efficiency of the Egyptian military’s counterinsurgency campaign in Sinai. In this context, the attack followed a January announcement of the extension of the three-month long state of emergency in Sinai, which was initially declared in the aftermath of the October 24 attack, for an additional three months, as well the launching of the “second phase” in the establishment of a buffer zone with Gaza. With this in mind, the timing of the attack highlights the possibility that militants sought to demonstrate the failure of such measures, while further capitalizing on discontent among locals stemming from these measures. Finally, in light of the main target of the attack, the 101 Battalion headquarters, considered to be one of the most secured and fortified military bases in Sinai, the militants may have sought to “shame” the Egyptian military, and thus heighten the chances for a disproportionate crackdown on the peninsula, and on Islamists in general in the country. Such a crackdown is further likely, in turn, to alienate the local population and legitimize further attacks.
  • Overall, we assess that the militancy threat will likely remain elevated in northern Sinai, in light of the persistent clashes reported after the attack. However, heavy military deployments in this specific area of the Sinai Peninsula, may also encourage militants to relocate and stage attacks in other locations of the peninsula and, to a lesser extent, of the country. In this context, while the positioning of militants in the triangle between al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid was likely strategic for the group in light of the smuggling of weapons to and from the Gaza Strip, increased military pressure on smuggling activities likely have prompted the group to develop other tactics.
  • These may include, for instance, the use of boats to smuggle weapons and militants, given that despite the maritime blockade on the peninsula, the Egyptian navy’s capacities remain limited when compared to its ground counterpart. The group may thus attempt to develop ties with Bedouin tribes in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, while previous upticks in military activities in northern Sinai have also resulted in militants fleeing to other parts of the country. As a result, we assess that in addition to the militancy threat in northern Sinai, the coming months may see an uptick in Wilayat’s Sinai activity in southern Sinai, as well as in the Nile Delta and potentially at the border with Libya.

Assessments:  Sinai attack, resulting crackdowns on Brotherhood likely to perpetuate divide in organization

  • In light of the declarations made by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as past attacks in Egypt since the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood will likely be widened following the attack in Sinai, as has previously been witnessed. In this context, while this trend is not new, the continuing accusation and crackdown has likely created a divide inside the organization between those who continue to advocate for peaceful protests to denounce the regime and those who advocate “self-defense” in light of the security forces’ use of violence to disperse the protesters.
  • In addition, to increase pressure for the group to legitimize “self-defense”, several elements, namely the mass arrest of most of the Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt, its relocation outside the country, and changes inside the organization, have further intensified this divide. This is further underscored by unconfirmed reports that the Brotherhood held two-month worldwide elections that led to leaders of the youth movement as well as reformist movements assuming a broader role, suggesting that new leaders are seeking to reform the group.
  • Should the group’s leadership in Turkey or in other countries maintain its policy of nonviolence, it bears the risk of being increasingly sidelined and losing its remaining influence over the group’s supporters on the ground. On the other hand, should it  decide to shift its stance and overtly promote violent actions, even those deemed to be “self-defense”, the group will likely face increased pressure both inside and outside Egypt, as the military-backed regime will likely use such statements against it. This likely explains the current ambiguity of the Brotherhood’s statements, and the fact that condemnations of violence have been made in English but not in Arabic. The recent statement on the Brotherhood-affiliated channel as well as the article advocating violence likely stem from this divide. Such a divide may further increase the chances that members of the group will leave if they do not agree with the group’s line, or that they will feel that attacks are justified, in light of recent aforementioned statements.

Assessments: Near-daily militant attacks likely to continue, while IS-affiliated group may take advantage of internal Brotherhood divide to further expand operational areas

  • Overall, we assess the attack in al-Arish will likely prompt an uptick in violence in Egypt, both in Sinai and across the country, as a result of the likely impending crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and, as aforementioned, in light of precedent. Such violence will likely continue to materialize in continued IED attacks against the country’s security forces, infrastructure, and transportation system. However, as indicated by an uptick in attacks and threats against foreign companies, such attacks may increasingly expand to civilian targets deemed to be legitimate if they are deemed as “collaborating” with the regime.
  • Moreover, we assess that low-level militant groups may increasingly serve as a gateway for disenchanted and former members of the organization to join the other more radicalized groups. While prior to the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the ideological gap between the Muslim Brotherhood and militants groups, such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis at the time, was significant, disillusioned members of the organization can now gradually radicalize by passing from group to another, given the wide variety of groups using violence, including local Popular Resistance Committees that often claim IED attacks against security forces, the Ajnad Misr militant group, and finally Wilayat Sinai.
  • Furthermore, as several elements of the Brotherhood may leave it and become increasingly radicalized, the operational areas of Wilayat Sinai in Egypt may expand to officially include a group in mainland Egypt. Regardless, the recruitment of disillusioned former members of the Brotherhood, as well as the fact that several members of the group may flee from Sinai to the Nile Delta, the border with Libya, or Libya itself, may increase the potential for sophisticated attacks to be witnessed in these areas other the coming months, as well as in major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria.