In light of the defeats reported within the Syrian-Iraqi scene and the eventual fall of the so-called Caliphate, the Islamic State had to reorganize itself, setting out new strategies and objectives. Most significantly, ISIS has opened new fronts in Asia and Africa and strengthened its local cells in other volatile regions. Therefore, the jihadist group attempted to expand its sphere of influence, establishing new Wilayats (provinces) or consolidating the existing ones. During the reconversion of its original project, Daesh would have reserved a very significant role for Afghanistan, where the IS-K (Khorasan Province) operates and is responsible for multiple local attacks. In addition to the Afghan offshoot, other branches of the Islamic State are incredibly active and therefore dangerous. Among these, it is worth mentioning an Egyptian cell called Wilayat Sinai (Islamic State-Sinai Province, IS-SP), which will be the subject of this analysis.
The Sinai Province was born on the foundations of a previous terrorist organization, known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM). ABM first arose in January 2011 during Egypt's Arab Spring popular uprisings that eventually led to Mubarak's resignation. Since its formation, the jihadist group has placed at the centre of its program a combination of localist claims, together with Sinai Bedouin's autonomist instances, and extremist ideologies linked to Salafi-jihadi armed groups and al-Qaeda. Despite sharing an ideological affinity with the latter, ABM never (officially) affiliated with the terrorist organization first led by Osama bin Laden, and now by Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the jihadist group's original plans, the Israelis (and their interests) were considered as priority hit targets. In 2013, following Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's dismissal (which was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood), ABM changed the focus of its attacks - directing primarily at Egyptian security and police forces. This development takes revenge on the new government (led by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the primary perpetrator of Morsi's removal), which has undertaken harsh repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists. ABM's targets also included politicians, tourists and civilians - the latter being affected indiscriminately.
In 2014, after a pledge of allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ABM lost its original connotation taking on the new guise of Wilayat Sinai (Islamic State-Sinai Province, IS-SP). Its affiliation to the Caliphate has involved tangible improvements in Sinai militants' military strategies and guerrilla actions, as well as the use of a language and communicative system similar to that of the Syrian-Iraqi motherhouse. Therefore, beyond their strategic alliance, a close ideological and military identification has emerged between the two groups. Following the transition from ABM to Wilayat Sinai, the organization has dramatically increased the frequency of attacks against civilians. In fact, between January 2016 and July 2017, WS killed nearly 200 civilians - an amount equivalent to the previous three years' death toll. Also, the jihadist cell has often perpetuated attacks against Egypt's Coptic Christians. The decision to strike at the local Christian community, which represents 10% of the population, is not solely motivated by a religious factor but draws upon a broader plan: to increase the divisions within the country and erode support for the al-Sisi regime, which has not been considered sufficiently able to protect minorities. Among the various attacks against the Christian faithful and places of worship, we must first mention those occurred on 9 April 2017 (Palm Sunday) - when two suicide bombers struck the Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta respectively, causing more than 40 deaths. The Islamic State promptly claimed responsibility, adding that the terrorist action was conducted by a "detachment" of its own (clearly referring to Wilayat Sinai). Another target of the jihadist group is represented by the Sufis, namely those who profess Sufism - Islam's most mystical and spiritual expression. Their quest for inner refinement has made them unwelcome to those currents that favour orthodoxy, which is considered the straight path to "true Islam". As a result, the Sufis are targeted by extremist groups because they are being considered as heretics and unbelievers. On 24 November 2017, a terrorist commando attacked a mosque frequented mainly by Sufis in Bir-al-Abd, a town located in northern Sinai. The attack was the bloodiest and deadliest-ever in Egypt's modern history and has resulted in more than 300 deaths and countless injuries. Although Wilayat Sinai did not formally claim the attack, the evidence and testimonies confirmed the responsibility of the IS jihadist-affiliated cell and the presence of the Islamic State's flags during the ambush.
Together with the Christian and Sufi community, the security and police forces are IS-SP militants' most affected targets. As previously mentioned, the jihadist group has sometimes also been the author of terrorist actions against high-ranking political/military leaders and government headquarters. Moreover, ABM unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate former Egyptian Prime Minister Mohammed Ibrahim already in 2013. In 2014, Wilayat Sinai perpetrated an attack against the Department of National Security, causing several casualties. Four days later, two members of the IS-SP killed General Mohmmad Said, an associate to the Home Secretary. And again, in December 2017, the organization tried to kill (yet failing their objective) Egyptian ministers of defence and interior during their visit to Al-Arish airport in the Sinai Peninsula.
In February 2018, President al-Sisi launched an extensive anti-terrorism campaign, which primarily aimed to restore central authority in northern Sinai, known as a stronghold of jihadists affiliated to the Islamic State. According to the armed forces' reports, almost 700 fighters have been killed since the beginning of the offensive, while more than 40 Egyptian soldiers have lost their lives in the clashes. Although military operations have resulted in a reduction in the number of attacks and an improvement - albeit partial - in Egypt's reputation as a tourist destination and attraction for foreign investment, Northern Sinai is still being affected by profound internal instability.
With that said, the IS-SP continues to pose a real threat to Egyptian national security. Moreover, the action of the Sinai cell is part of the Islamic State's reshaping strategy, which focuses on strengthening its local affiliations in Asia and Africa. Finally, it is good to underline Egypt's centrality into the panorama of radical jihadism, as many armed Islam's believers, groups and leaders were born or have militated in this area.
Translated by Vittoria Visconti