Analysis: Egyptian Islamist group is emerging as ISIS’ most powerful branch
By Joseph Fitsanakis: Through a series of meticulously planned terrorist strikes and assassinations, Wilayat Sinai has emerged as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to some experts. Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268. All 224 passengers and crew, most of them Russians, died when the plane blew up in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The incident marked the worst aviation disaster in Russian history.
The same group, Wilayat Sinai, was behind last month’s attack on the Al Rawda Sufi mosque in bir al-Abed, Egypt. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 311 people, making it the worst terrorist attack in the history of modern Egypt.
According to leading Israeli defense and security expert Amos Harel, Wilayat Sinai’s most recent strike demonstrates that, aside from operational expertise, the group also possesses formidable intelligence collection capabilities. In an article published on Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Harel focuses on the group’s assassination attempt against Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar. The attack took place on December 19 at the Al-Arish military airport in north Sinai. Wilayat Sinai guerrillas fired an antitank missile at a parked Egyptian Air Force helicopter, which had just transported the two ministers to the area. Footageof the attack, released last week by ISIS, shows the helicopter exploding after being hit by the missile. Three people died in the attack, a security guard, a helicopter pilot, and a senior aide to Defense Minister Sobhy.
Although neither minister was harmed in the attack, that is not the point, says Harel, and points to the fact that the officials’ trip to northern Sinai was part of a surprise visit, which had not been announced in advance. It seems, therefore, says Harel, “that Wilayat Sinai obtained intelligence information that exposed the minister[s] to attack”.
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Interestingly, the group’s membership is not large. American and other Western intelligence sources estimate that its armed nucleus consists of no more than a thousand fighters. However, Wilayat Sinai members have access to advanced weaponry, which is routinely smuggled into Egypt from Libya and the Sudan. It is thus the weaponry, coupled with advanced organization and intelligence capabilities, that makes Wilayat Sinai so dangerous, says Harel.
In the past three years, the militant group has killed in excess of 1,500 people in Egypt. But as its attacks become increasingly surgical and sophisticated, Egypt may be forced to respond with increasing firepower, which could further-destabilize the volatile Sinai region. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces are preparing for the possibility of cross-border raids by Wilayat Sinai, warns Harel. The Egyptian-Israeli border region could become the next front in the war against ISIS.