Up until Wednesday, July 1, just two Arab rulers and two Arab capitals were in the sights of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Bashar Assad in Damascus and Haidar al-Abadi in Baghdad. But that day, ISIS attached Egypt’s President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and Cairo to its hit list with a massive military-style offensive. Egyptian security officials report at least 300 jihadi fighters stormed the Egyptian military, security police positions strung across northern Sinai. This broad expanse of Sinai desert, spread over 27,574 sq. km (and bigger than the entire Israeli area of 22,072 sq. km), borders on Israel and the Gaza Strip. This wasteland is dotted by just three towns – Sheikh Zuwaid – focus of the ISIS offensive; El Arish on the Mediterranean coast; and Rafah which is divided between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
See attached full-size map for the details.
The ISIS assault brought home a perilous fact already known to US, Israeli and Egyptian counter-terror security agencies: The Sinai Islamist terrorist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which now called itself the Sinai province of the Islamic State, was transformed in the last two years into a regular army and outstanding fighting machine.
It now commands 5,000-7,000 men under arms, a figure that could be doubled by ad hoc enlistment of fighting men from the Bedouin tribes, which are in fact the true rulers of the Sinai Peninsula, rather than the Egyptian army.
Muslim Brotherhood’s rise gave Sinai terrorists first leg up
Through its Sinai affiliate, ISIS has made Sinai not only the launching pad for attacking Cairo, but also a copious source of revenue. Running across the peninsula is a vast transit web for the clandestine movements of weapons, fighters, funds, drugs, cigarettes, and many of the cars and trucks stolen in the Middle East by local crime gangs or the pirates infesting African coastal regions on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and parts of the Indian Ocean.
ISIS-Sinai has evolved into an army in every respect. It is at least as well trained and armed as the Islamist forces fighting in Syria and Iraq, and funded no less powerfully by Sinai’s thriving smuggling trade.
Nearly two years ago, Islamic State officers were sent out to Sinai to slap the terrorist group into shape and run its operations. Among them were a group of highly professional commanders formerly of the late Saddam Hussein’s armed forces.
Three major events invested the Sinai branch of ISIS with its exceptional capabilities and gave it the chance to shine on the high-end Islamist stage.
1. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in 2012: Khairat al-Shater, the party’s strongman and treasurer, was given the task of establishing a paramilitary underground ready to strike if the Brotherhood was evicted from power. Outwardly, Shaiter, who was condemned to death by a Cairo court on June 16 this year, cultivated good connections in the Obama administration, paid several visits to Washington and was acclaimed by US media as “a pro-American” Egyptian leader.
Moslem Brotherhood secret army party to US Benghazi consulate attack
But he did not neglect his main task. Shaiter chose Libya and Turkey as the two foreign venues for the paramilitary organization to operate in secret out of sight of the regular army and security services. Secret networks were also set up locally in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.
When Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, this underground apparatus was ready to spring into action.
Mahmud Izzat Ibrahim, who was head of the MB’s clandestine operational networks, had escaped in good time and had set up a covert command headquarters at the Gaza Beach Hotel. From there, he began organizing an uprising against the Egyptian military – not just through the Hamas rulers of Gaza, but in league with three armed Sinai Islamist groups
2. The Brotherhood’s pact with Libyan Islamists: But, while the Brotherhood was still in power, the secret network also formed an alliance with the Libyan Islamist Ansar al-Sharia of Benghazi and Darna. This pact had immediate, but also long-term, consequences: The new partners first organized a mob to try and capture and torch the US embassy in Cairo. This incident was followed in September 2012 by the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered.
Both attacks were set up from Cairo and members of the secret Brotherhood organization took active part in them.
Sinai smuggling empire first founded by Brotherhood, Libyan partners
While never acknowledged by the Obama administration, the pact between the Libyan, Sinai and Egyptian armed groups has since come home to roost. It evolved this year into a useful service the Brotherhood’s clandestine partner, Ansar al-Sharia now provides for ISIS, namely, bases in Libya for training and running terrorists in foreign countries.
It was from one of those bases in Libya that an ISIS terrorist reached a hotel beach in Tunisia Friday, June 26, and massacred 39 tourists, most of them British.
3. The great Middle East smuggling route: The outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and violent Libyan Ansar al-Sharia were also partners in laying the foundations for an illicit system that has since grown into the most flourishing smuggling empire in the Middle East.
DEBKA Weekly’s counter-terror sources offer an exclusive rundown on how this multibillion network functions.
Guns and other merchandise purchased on the Libyan black market (and to a lesser degree in Sudan) are ferried to Sinai by Muslim Brotherhood cells in Egypt, and handed on to smuggling gangs controlling both banks of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez. At an agreed rendezvous point, a fleet of small boats run by those gangs picks up the contraband and loads it onto waiting cargo ships, which carry the freight to its assigned destinations.
Egyptian army powerless against interwoven Brotherhood-ISIS networks
That is one strain of the web. In the second, smuggling routes crisscrossing the Sinai Peninsula deliver the contraband via Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to any Middle East address selected.
For various reasons, the Egyptian authorities have proved unable to quell this illicit traffic and nail its prime movers. As matters stand now, neither the Egyptian army not its security services have the strength or resources to subdue the interwoven Brotherhood-ISIS networks.
This was demonstrated by the assassination of the well-guarded prosecutor general Hisham Barakat Monday, June 26, outside his home in the up-market Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, while an armed convoy waited to escort him.
The presence of undercover Muslim Brotherhood adherents in the Islamist army of Sinai may partly account for ISIS’s extraordinary success in inflicting a mortal blow on the Egyptian army in northern Sinai Wednesday, July 1, and its zeal to keep going against President El-Sisi and his regime in Cairo.