Year 2 - Week 47
ISSN 2603 - 9931
After about 72 hours of Egypt’s most deadly terrorist attack, details start to slowly leak so information sources. The number of casualties reaches almost the five hundred, among them more than three hundred deaths. Less than a month ago, another worship house suffered an attack, that time in the United States, meaning the third most lethal mass shooting in the history of the United States, after Las Vegas and Virginia Tech. This time, in Egypt, the proportion has risen dramatically.
1.- The context: terrorism and geopolitics.
Sinai is a peninsula between Israel, Gaza Strip and Egypt, and bathed by the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the South. Due to its geostrategic position, flanked by the Suez Canal and the Aqaba Gulf (also bordering with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), Sinai has been scenario of battles, both diplomatic and military, and even has been occupied twice by Israel in the last sixty-one years. But historically Sinai has meant more than that, since the triangular peninsula –with her mainly Bedouin and nomadic population- has been a traditional route of commerce, and later one, of smuggling. These networks, set along centuries and based on kinship ties, have evolved jointly with radical groups linked to the ideology of global jihad. Let’s see why.
In historical terms, Egypt is the land where the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, group where modern jihadism find his roots –especially in the works of Sayyid Qutb. Leaving aside for a future article doctrinarian issues, moderate and radical branches of the Muslim Brotherhood spread around all the Middle East in the following decades. Among them, outstands the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Gaza Strip, that even undercover once that the whole movement was proscribed under the government of Nasser, it kept alive a working structure that remained active until 1987 where it refunded itself into the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas. This is not a trivial issue, since even though the main hotspot of Hamas is Gaza Strip, which remains separated from Egypt by the border, during the government of Hosni Mubarak –Egyptian president until 2011 and the Arab Spring uprisings- the border security between Sinai and Gaza Strip was mainly neglected and the relations between both populations, even linked by family ties, where continuous. Likewise, these relations strengthened after 2005, with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza Strip –and the consequent Israeli blockade of the Strip, and especially after 2006 and 2007, when first Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections, and secondly on the verge of a civil war, expelled the al-Fatah administration in Gaza, taking the de facto control over the whole territory of the Strip. Hamas control took advantage of the family ties with the north Sinai Peninsula to enhance the flourishment of a smuggling thriving industry based on the construction of an underground network that allowed to enter in Gaza supplies, goods and weapons that couldn’t be acquired otherwise through the Israeli border.
But this relation brought an unexpected consequence: in a historical context of global jihadism expansion, it was only a matter of time that this perverse ideology also arrived to an area with a de facto vacuum of power as Sinai, where it could survive thanks to the secular smuggling activity and with an escape route in the Gazan tunnels. Despite the tight control of jihadist activity by the Hamas government in the Strip, some al-Qaeda groups took ground in the area at both sides of the border, as is the case of Jund Ansar Allah, right now almost inactive, and especially, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis.
It was Bayt al-Maqdis the one gaining power in Sinai Peninsula, especially thanks to the Egyptian turmoil and Morsi’s beneficial government. So, in coincidence with Morsi overthrowing and al-Sisi arrival to the president office, during the rising star of the Islamic State, Bayt al-Maqdis changed banners and abandoning al-Qaeda network pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi’s group, under the name of Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province). Even though its initial targets were mainly the Egyptian security apparatus, the group has evolved towards civilians –such as the Christian Copts bombed during this year Palm Sunday-, and more sophisticated attacks as the plane taken down in 2016 or some rockets launched to the Israeli city of Eilat.
2.- From theory to practice: the attack.
But what can we say about last Friday, November 24th attack? The by-now called “Sinai Mosque Massacre” took place in the city of al-Radwa, near al-Arish, capital of Sinai province. The mosque was frequented by Sufis, a Muslim branch considered heretic but jihadist and Salafist groups. That is the range of victims: infidels. The physical target isn’t either chosen by chance: a mosque as a soft target, lacking specific security measures, during the praying, when the level of awareness in the victims is at its lowest.
The modus operandi reveals a high level of sophistication and planning. According to witnesses accounts, a group of around twenty gunmen arrived to the mosque in 4x4 and surrounded the building, opening fire over worshipers through the windows. When victims tried to run away the mosque, a bomb planted in the runaway exit exploded and the gunmen went inside to continue the active shooting and finishing off the victims, shooting at head and stomach. After that, they withdrew and while abandoning the place they set fire to a number of vehicles in the area to delay the arrival of the emergency services, and according to different accounts, even shooting to the first ambulances reaching the place of the attack. Attackers carried with them Islamic State flags. Both the delay of the first responder ambulances and the overload of regional hospitals with the amount of casualties increased in a matter of hours the death toll to 305, so this tactic should be considered also as part of the modus operandi and the goal of maximizing the number of victims, as the Islamic State operative guidelines suggest.
Finally, no group has claimed responsibility by now. The last stage in the terrorist planning cycle is the mediatization of the attack, that is, exploiting its mediatic impact with the goal of increasing the victim target audience perception of threat and the supporter target audience perception of success. The problem comes when because of the nature of the victims, the perpetrators find it difficult to justify the attack. Attending to the fact that in this case victims were Muslims the attack has been condemned in the last hours even by other marginal jihadist groups operating in the area –and probably linked to al-Qaeda allegiance. In this sense, claiming responsibility not only wouldn’t achieve the purpose of strengthening the Islamic State supporters’ confidence, but even it would be counterproductive since the legitimacy of the attack remains unclear and difficult to justify.
The worst terrorist attack in Egypt in recent decades has taken a toll of more than four hundred casualties. An active shooting incident, combined with explosives and delaying tactics in order to maximize the number of casualties, found inside a soft target at a carefully chosen moment. Even though no group has claimed responsibility, the pattern is quite similar to the Islamic State guidelines. But probably one of the most remarkable changes is the number of attackers, closer to a guerrilla-like operation than to a terrorist cell one. The strategic implications are noteworthy: guerrilla involves territorial control and military organization, and although probably the Wilayat Sinai is facing the currently stronger Arab army, the structure of the operation reminds past actions of the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. That makes undoubtedly this attack a beginning for monitoring from a broader perspective the evolution of Sinai Peninsula situation.
 In 2009 Hamas, making use of both the Gaza Strip Security Forces and the al-Qassam Brigades –its military branch and acting-like army- bombed a mosque in Rafah, in the border with Sinai, where Jund Ansar Allah had its headquarters, and where they had just declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and Gaza Strip as part of the Islamic State –controlled at the time by al-Qaeda. After a brief siege of the mosque, all the jihadist movement was reduced, its leaders blew themselves up, and the jihadist presence in the whole Gaza Strip was limited to very marginal numbers. Although in the last three years there has been cases of young Palestinian operatives enlisting in jihadist groups, their activity takes mainly place in Sinai.