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Opaque Sinai terror network

Andreas Gorzewski / dcNovember 9, 2015

Clues about the attack on a Russian airplane over Sinai are focusing attention on an Egyptian terrorist group in the region. Aside from "Islamic State," many other groups are active there.

Ägypten Sinai Grenze
Image: Reuters/A. Cohen

"Islamic State" (IS) affiliates on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula have been boasting about causing last week's crash of a tourist jet in the region, killing all 224 people on board. "The soldiers of the caliphate have managed to crash a Russian plane in Sinai Province," a member of "Sinai Province," the regional IS affiliate, wrote on Twitter. The group claimed to be seeking revenge on Russia, which launched airstrikes on IS positions in Syria in September. Egyptian investigators looking into the crash have so far denied that Sinai Province was responsible, but international intelligence services agree that it's possible the terrorist network is to blame. Sinai Province is just one of many terrorist groups active in the peninsula's mountainous terrain. Among others, al Qaeda affiliates are rivaling IS for domination of the region.

Sinai Province is IS's strongest, most well-known extremist group in northeastern Egypt. It emerged out of the Ansar Bait al-Makdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) group, which formed in 2011. In November 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the self-declared IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and changed its name. IS controls a large amount of territory in northern and eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. A number of groups in the region have declared themselves to be "provinces" of the caliphate.

The group's early name reflected its aim of taking over Jerusalem, and Sinai Province initially launched attacks on neighboring Israel. But, according to Shaul Shay of the Israel-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, al-Baghdadi ordered attacks on embassies and citizens of countries that belong to the US-led coalition against IS. The group mainly targeted Egyptian military and security positions. In January 2015, it carried out a series of attacks on targets in northern Sinai, killing more than 30 Egyptian soldiers.

Russland Ägypten Flugzeug-Katastrophe Trümmerteile
After initial skepticism, terrorism is increasingly seen as the cause of the crashImage: picture-alliance/AA/A. El Kassas

Unknown number of fighters

Estimates about the number of fighters active for Sinai Province range from several hundred to more than a thousand. According to the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the group has modern weapons, including a mobile air defense system.

Much like the aforementioned Ansar-Bait al-Makdis in its initial phase, the Salafist-inspired group Mujahideen Schura Council is mainly targeting Israel. The Israeli army has blamed the group for a series of rocket attacks on Israel. According to a report by the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the group sympathizes with Sinai Province.

Competing with IS is the group Ansar al-Jihad (Supporters of Jihad), which some experts have identified with the organization Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. Others see them as two separate organizations. AQSP is believed to have originated in December 2011 under the command of Mahmud al-Ramsi Mowafi. He once reportedly served as the personal physician of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Ansar al-Jihad is said to have carried out attacks on gas pipelines on the peninsula.

Earlier link to Hamas

An organization that has existed in the region for many years longer than most of the others is the Army of Islam. Mumtaz Durmush, a clan leader from Gaza, built up the group in 2006. Durmush is said to have formerly been a member of the radical Islamic Palestinian group Hamas before moving the majority of his activities to Sinai. Army of Islam was likely involved in the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip. After many years in Hamas captivity, Shalit was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

An organization calling itself Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) attacked a site used by the Egyptian intelligence service in Rafah on the border with the Gaza Strip on September 11, 2013. Six people were killed. The date of the attack recalled al Qaeda's attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. The group is said to share al Qaeda's ideology.

Beyond these organizations, there are a number of smaller terrorist groups in the region. After the fall of long-term Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, an organization called Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Emigration) emerged. A group by that name had existed in the 1970s and was deemed responsible for numerous attacks. But, according to the Washington-based Tahrir Institute, the new group has no serious links to the former group.

All of these organizations are benefiting from the Egyptian security forces' weak control over the sparsely populated mountainous region in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. In the north, several radical movements are working with extremist groups in the Gaza Strip. Smuggling, corruption and neglect of the Bedouin in the region by the government in Cairo are other reasons why terrorist groups have been able to settle in this area.