The Islamic State, or ISIS, and their affiliates are increasingly showing organizational skill and willingness to engage targets on foreign soil. But one of the key frontiers for this ruthless, extremist group is the Sinai Peninsula. Here, ISIS is building a new generation of jihadist fighters. Mohannad Sabry, a journalist based in Cairo, has just published a book based on the security and political situation in Sinai, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare. It was published a day before the Russian plane came down over Sinai, an eery reminder of the frequency of terrorist attacks and, ultimately, our lack of comprehension of the ISIS force.
Sabry talked to Rebel Economy about how ISIS has become a “magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe,” including the young and the amateur. For these young terrorists, the fall of the Metrojet flight to Russia, the killings of hundreds in Europe and beyond, is considered impressive. Sinai, Sabry says, “has become Beit El Harb, a House of War.”
- First thing’s first. Was the Russian plane was taken down by a bomb?
It’s a possibility, but do we have any evidence? I don’t think so. The only evidence we have is residue left on the plane. There’s little hope in having transparency on the subject. But you cannot just say you have a bomb on board without having any evidence. The intelligence didn’t tell us anything detailed. They just said we have theories, but nothing solid. That opens up a lot of speculation. Simple we have a very valid theory, but until we are given more evidence on the ground, we cannot confirm this theory. Is it 90% possible? Yes it is, but it’s not confirmed. We’re not getting any detailed information from the intelligence and the fact that the Russians and Egyptians are running the investigation is not helping, those countries do not have a track record of transparency.
- Why is Egypt so sure that there was no bomb? Is it possible they are not being honest?
They are denying any kind of crisis or scandal which is the usual Egyptian goal, the easiest thing to do for the Egyptian regime is to simply deny anything, and then everyone forgets about it. This is exactly what has happened after every crisis. After the Rabaa massacre, they said we didn’t commit the massacre. They thought they’d deny the scandal and no one would react. But this time the crisis is much bigger than anything they’ve ever handled before. And let’s not forget we are living in the post 9/11 world so anything that involves planes or flight security is terrifying for the world. It is unprecedented and something that Egyptians are not used to.
So now, the Egyptians are using a friendly rhetoric.
By simply holding a press conference instead of not acknowledging the crash, and the fact that one of the investigation team said that he heard the last minute recording of the black box demonstrates a difference in their tactics. The fact they brought Russian and British investigators to Sinai is unprecedented. They’ve been denying other countries access to Sinai and now we’re seeing access given by the Egyptians. But unfortunately it took a passenger flight to crash to change their actions, and 224 lives.
- Do you think Suez Canal security is also a major issue?
The Suez Canal is far from the major Islamist territories of Sinai, it’s more than 200km away. There was one attack in 2013, and since then the egyptian military understands the importance of the Suez Canal. It’s an international investment and there’s an international collective concerned with securing it. We’ve seen groups infiltrate Ismaila, and in the capital where the Interior minister was killed. But the Canal is hundreds of kilometres long. Are they [militant groups] capable of causing more damage? Yes, it’s a possibility.
- Can you explain a bit more about Ansar Beit al-Maqdis? What troubles have they caused? Are they the group people now refer to as Islamic State in Sinai?
In 2011 there was a dozen groups in Sinai, half of them were online and amateurs. Jeish el Islam, Tawhid Wal Islam, and others are among the groups associated with that region, but clearly the main group is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and they are a very understandable dynamic, and the bigger group in Sinai. They are doing what the Al Qaeda campaign did in the 1990s, when declaring global jihad and they ended up attracting other groups to them. What happened then is happening again with ISIS. They are a magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe, including young and amateur Islamists. In the overall context, Sinai has become Beit El Harb – a House of War, not a House of Peace. This is actually more dangerous than having weapons – having a reputation and this is helping lure in the kids and the fragmented groups.
- North Sinai always seems to be in the news for something terrible. Why is it that the Egyptian government can’t seem to regain control of the area?
North Sinai is in the news every couple of days, there’s attacks all the times. Egypt is fighting a war with a guerrilla army, you’re talking about a military institution that relies mainly on conscripts that are simply ill-trained and unfortunately we’ve seen so many of them killed because they’re not trained to deal with a guerrilla war. There has been countless examples of intelligence failure, where in the best case scenario they failed to utilise the intelligence. All of this collectively explains why we are not winning the war.
- Can you explain a bit more about the tribal system in Sinai? How does that affect the ability for the army and/or police to root out IS in Sinai? Why does Egypt military distrust the Bedouins?
The state doesn’t trust the Bedouin community, and they don’t want their help. I’ve met the tribal king pins and they’ve offered the Egyptian military help, but they’ve always refused this.
If it’s a case of why tribes haven’t taken out the Islamists, it’s more complicated than hiring a few Bedouins.
Intelligence requires sources to report what they see, like a Bedouin who sees an Islamist planting a bomb. That’s impossible in Sinai, though, because the Bedouin community is not being protected. Dozens of Bedouins have been beheaded. Yet the Bedouins have proved themselves loyal to the state – who freed the kidnapped tourists? Who freed the kidnapped soldiers under Morsi? But what do those guys get, they get nothing from the state.
Egypt is not willing to cooperate with the Bedouins and trust the community. But the easiest thing to do to gather intelligence is to secure the friendly relations of the people and to protect them from the killing.