Islamic State in Sinai: A Deep Dive on Wilayat Sinai

1.0 Introduction

ISIS-Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai) is the most active and capable jihadist terrorist group operating in Egypt. Since 2014, the group has committed over 500 attacks in the Sinai region, mostly against Egyptian security forces. The group is based primarily in northern Sinai, Egypt. The US State Department designated ISIS-Sinai as a foreign terrorist organisation.

As of early 2023, Wilayat Sinai remains largely inactive after several intensive operations against it by the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) and Sinai Tribes Union. However, the Israel-Hamas conflict threatens the group’s revival as thousands of displaced Palestinians flee into the Sinai via the Rafah crossing.

2.0 History, Motto, and Symbols

2.1 History

In 2011, ISIS-Sinai first formed under the name Ansar Byat al-Maqdis (ABM, أنصار بيت المقدس), variously translated as Ansar Jerusalem, Supporters of Jerusalem, Champions of Jerusalem, Supporters of the Holy House. ABM had ties to al-Qa’ida and conducted attacks against Israel and its interests. In 2013, the Egyptian military removed former President Muhammad Mursi from office, and the ABM escalated its attacks on Egyptian government and military targets. In 2014, the group formally pledged its alliance to ISIS and changed its name to ISIS-Sinai. [source]
EAF has pursued a containment strategy rather than eradication in addressing insurgency in North Sinai, leading to a prolonged conflict without definitive success. Despite declarations to “end terrorism,” the EAF’s actions suggest a focus on containment due to political and institutional challenges. The military’s centralised decision-making structure and reluctance to address root causes hinder effective counterinsurgency efforts. While the current strategy has contained the threat since its peak in 2015, ongoing attacks highlight its persistence. [source]

2.2 Motto

Wilayat Sinai actively employs the ISIS motto “Remaining and Expanding” (باقية وتتمدد in Arabic). The motto signifies a commitment to enduring presence and territorial growth. It reflects the group’s ideology of establishing a global caliphate governed by its extremist interpretation of Islamic law. 

The term “Remaining” underscores persistence and resilience, portraying the group as a lasting entity not easily defeated. Meanwhile, “Expanding” communicates an ambitious agenda to extend influence into new territories. 

This motto serves as a powerful tool in propaganda and recruitment efforts, portraying the group as an unstoppable force and aiming to attract followers who identify with its ideological commitment to radical Islam.

2.3 Symbols

Logo of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province
Logo used by ISIS to represent “Wilayat Sinai”

3.0 Organization

3.1 Place within broader government, terrorist, or other structures

Unlike other militant organisations, Wilayat Sinai does not enjoy formal state support or a large diaspora. Instead, it depends on local mobilisation and neighbouring collaboration, from groups like Hamas in Gaza.

3.2 Financing

When the ABM pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and became known as Wilayat Sinai, it acquired enhanced capabilities to carry out high-profile attacks and coordinated strikes. Receiving funds and guidance from the Islamic State’s central authority in Syria and Iraq, Wilayat Sinai attacks became deadlier and more frequent than its predecessors in the ABM. [source]
In early 2023, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Brukan al-Khatuni, an Iraqi residing in Turkey, for funding ISIS activities. He formerly held the position of head of foreign financing Wilayat Sinai from Iraq. [source]

3.3 Business Structure

Wilayat Sinai shares similarities with the broader ISIS organisation, but specific details might vary based on the local context. Wilayah Sinai is believed to rely on a combination of local extortion, criminal activities, and external financial support from sympathisers. Overall, ISIS primarily derives its funding from a diverse range of sources, including:

  • Smuggling of goods: Wilayat Sinai militants actively smuggled goods through an extensive tunnel network that connected Sinai to Gaza. This included drugs and weapons trafficking. [source]
  • Kidnapping for Ransom: Illegal prisoner camps near the Israeli border in Sinai held women. The source indicates that perpetrators tortured women to coerce their families into paying ransom for their release. [source]
  • Donations: Some sympathisers and individuals sympathetic to ISIS’s ideology have provided financial support through donations. Donors likely came from those associated with Burkan al-Khatuni. [source] [source]

3.4 Key Figures

Salim Salma Said Mahmoud al-Hamadin

Al-Hamadin, identified as the “most dangerous and oldest of the takfiri elements in the Sinai,” orchestrated the killings of hundreds of civilians and Egyptian soldiers. Salim Salma Said Mahmoud al-Hamadin, the leader of Wilayat Sinai, met his demise in 2021 in confrontations with Bedouin and Egyptian forces close to Al-Barth, located south of Rafah near the Israeli border, as reported by Arabic media. [source]

Hamza al-Zamili/Abu Kazem al-Maqdisi

In August 2022, Egyptian Armed Forces killed Palestinian-born IS militant Abu Kazem Al-Maqdisi, who is believed to be behind the Al-Rawda mosque massacre that took the lives of 305 civilians in 2017. Al-Maqdisi’s real name was Hamza Adel Mohammad Al-Zamili. He was born in the Gaza Strip in 1992 but fled to Sinai after being accused of drug trafficking and shoplifting. He joined IS and soon became one of its top leaders in Sinai. [source]

Hamza Adel Mohammad Al-Zamili pictured before his death

3.5 Recruitment

In 2014, the rise of Wilayat Sinai escalated concerns, particularly following its recent extensive media and propaganda campaign targeting increased recruitment in Egypt. The group conducted multiple beheadings of suspected informants, potentially emulating IS and its emphasis on the propaganda and demonstrative impacts of terror. Nevertheless, Wilayat Sinai’s adoption of IS-style tactics, especially the oppression of the local population, indicates signs of alienation, particularly among the Bedouins. [source] [source]

3.6 Connections with Hamas

For many years, militant groups like Hamas and Wilayat Sinai relied on transactional collaboration. Their geographic proximity and isolated safe havens nurtured intimate ties between the militant groups. Additionally, the groups had mutual enemies: Egypt and Israel. For Hamas, Wilayat Sinai was vital in cross-smuggling networks. According to Israeli intelligence, Hamas once transferred tens of thousands of dollars a month into Sinai to secure arms shipments. [source] [source]

In February 2016, a member of Wilayat Sinai penned a letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the central leader of the Islamic State, advocating for the prohibition of ties with Hamas. The argument put forth was based on the perception that Hamas is considered an apostate group by the leadership of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

From 2017-2018, Hamas cultivated closer relations with Cairo which eased border restrictions with Gaza to allow essential supplies in. In turn, Hamas adopted harsher measures to crack down on IS-affiliated fights in Gaza and around the border with Sinai. [source]

In January 2018, a video released by Wilayat Sinai showed member Muhammad al-Dajani executing fellow IS member Musa Abu Zamat. Abu Zamat had been facing accusations of smuggling weapons to Hamas, where al-Dajani had defected from before joining Wilayat Sinai. In the same video, Wilayat Sinai militants called for attacks against Hamas.

Hamza al-Zamli (left) orders the execution of Musa Abu Zamat (bottom right)  in a video by Wilayat Sinai in January 2018.

4.0 Equipment

The ISIS-Sinai Province group has been known to use a range of weapons commonly associated with insurgent and terrorist groups.

4.1 Weapons

Small Arms:

  • Submachine guns
  • Pistols
  • Assault rifles (e.g., AK-47, M16)
    • A Hungarian variant of the AKM rifle (AMD-65) was seized by Egyptian authorities during a 2017 raid in Gaza and Sinai. 

Machine Guns:

  • Light machine guns
  • Medium machine guns

Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs):

  • Rocket launchers
  • RPG-7 and similar models

Explosives:

  • Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)
  • Car bombs
  • Suicide vests

Mortars:

  • Portable mortars

Sniper Rifles:

  •  High-calibre sniper rifles

Anti-Aircraft Weapons:

  •  Heavy machine guns for anti-aircraft purposes

4.2 Vehicles

Wilayat Sinai vehicles are primarily stolen or commandeered Egyptian military vehicles.

4.3 Armor and Kit

Wilayat Sinai use a variety of equipment based on what is available to them through various means, including illicit channels.

Armour and kit typically include a range of items such as body armour, helmets, tactical gear, and other personal equipment that fighters use in combat situations. The specific types and models of armour and kit used by groups like ISIS Sinai would depend on their access to resources and the tactics they employ.

Image of Sini Wilayah fighters from a short video released by the group in 2019

5.0 Tactical-Operational Information

5.1 Operations

The majority of the group’s operations have taken place in North Sinai, but it has also claimed attacks in greater Cairo, Daqhalia, South Sinai, Matruh, Qalyubia, New Valley, and Ismailia. Since 2022, the group has been mostly inactive.

Downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268

Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for bringing down Russian aircraft Metrojet Flight 9268, en route to Saint Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh. On 31 October 2015, a suspected bomb attack on board occurred over Hasna, Egypt. All 224 passengers were killed. On 17 November 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that a bomb attack had caused the flight to crash. [source

El Barth Base Attack

On 7 July 2017, Wilayat Sinai militants encircled and ambushed an Egyptian military base in Rafah known as el Barth, killing 23 Egyptian troops and wounding 26 in northern Sinai. 40 Wilayat Sinai militants were killed and 6 vehicles were destroyed. [source]

Al-Rawda Massacre 

On November 24, a coordinated attack by approximately 25-30 gunmen targeted the Al Rawdah mosque in Bir al Abed, northern Sinai, resulting in the deadliest terrorist incident in Egypt’s modern history, claiming at least 305 lives. The attackers drove to the mosque in five vehicles displaying IS flags, detonating bombs inside and shooting worshippers both within and outside. 

The assault, part of a surge in attacks totalling over 338 in 2017, underscores the increased activities of regional affiliates like the Sinai Province SP following the Islamic State’s territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. Reports indicate SP may have warned residents beforehand and sought to demonstrate its continued lethality, aligning with a broader trend of internal competition among extremist factions. [source]

2022 Water Lifting Station Attack Along Suez Canal
On 7 May 2022, Wilayat Sinai attacked a water-lifting station along the bank of the Suez Canal. At least 11 Egyptian security forces members were killed, including 1 officer, and 5 were injured. The military says they were killed as they tried to foil a Wilayat Sinai attack. [source]

5.2 Tactics

ISIS-Sinai uses small-arms assaults, roadside bombs, suicide attacks, kidnappings, and targeted killings. The group mostly targets Egyptian security forces but also attacks government personnel and infrastructure, Israeli interests, Coptic Christians, local tribal militias, and other civilians who ISIS-Sinai members perceive are working against the group or oppose its interpretation of Islamic law.

5.3 Personnel Size

In 2016, ISIS-Sinai had an estimated 1,500 fighters. According to the National Counterterrorism Center in 2022, ISIS-Sinai had fewer than 1,000 personnel. Sources now indicate that Wilayat Sinai has declined further to 100-500 personnel. [source] [source] [source]

6.0 The Future

Despite ongoing attacks against gas pipelines and the Egyptian armed forces, the strength of Wilayat Sinai has diminished. This decline is attributed to sustained counterterrorism efforts by the Egyptian authorities and the resolution of underlying local grievances.  [source]

The Israel-Hamas conflict will have disastrous consequences. The Rafah crossing is the only border crossing point between the Gaza strip and Egypt. The border is crucial for humanitarian aid coming into Gaza and people leaving for safety. As part of a ceasefire agreement, Egypt promised to open the Rafah crossing to allow Palestinians stranded in northern Sinai back into Palestine. [source]
A document compiled by Israeli intelligence was discovered containing a proposal to displace the residents of Gaza to Sinai once Hamas is toppled. According to the document, Israel will work to evacuate the civilian population to tent sites then to the permanent cities to be established in northern Sinai. [source]

7.0 Conclusion

The influx of displaced Palestinians into Sinai due to the Israel-Hamas conflict creates a volatile situation. The cross-border movement may provide an opportunity for Wilayat Sinai to exploit the chaos, potentially gaining new recruits and resources.The proximity of the conflict zone poses a significant threat to regional stability. The potential for increased radicalization, recruitment, and collaboration between different extremist groups could heighten security risks.

The relative inactivity of ISIS-Sinai in 2023 may be a temporary lull rather than a permanent decline. The group has shown resilience in the face of previous military operations. The conflict-driven displacement could provide an opportunity for the group to regroup, reorganise, and launch new operations.

The future security landscape in Sinai will likely be shaped by a delicate balance between efforts to manage the fallout from the Israel-Hamas conflict and preventing the resurgence of ISIS-Sinai. The Egyptian government, with support from regional and international partners, will need to implement comprehensive strategies encompassing military, intelligence, and socio-economic dimensions.

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