Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Hamas and ISIS in Sinai

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Update from AIJAC

Dec. 18, 2015
Number 12/15 #03

This Update is devoted to new evidence of increasing cooperation between Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, and ISIS - especially in terms of their branch in Sinai fighting the Egyptian regime, calling itself their Sinai Province ("Wilayat Sinai"). It also looks at Israel's challenges in confronting the growth of ISIS in Sinai.

We lead off with world-renowned Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, who uses as his starting point the recent visit to Gaza of IS Sinai's military chief Shadi al-Menai to hold talks with his Hamas counter-parts. Yaari says the trip was likely about arms smuggling - the key element of the ongoing relationship between IS Sinai and Hamas which has allowed IS Sinai to obtain some advanced weapons systems it has used against Egyptian forces. But Yaari says the relationship is controversial within Hamas, risking encouraging internal opposition from IS supporters in Gaza, angering the Egyptians, and annoying Hamas patrons such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey. He urges pressure on Turkey and Qatar to push Hamas to end the IS alliance. To read his analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More on the financial cooperation between Hamas and IS Sinai - said to amount to tens of thousands of dollars transferred to the latter a month - comes from Alex Fishman of the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot.

Next up is veteran Israeli journalist Evelyn Gordon who argues the cooperation between ISIS and Hamas disproves the claim often made that the two should be seen as totally different, with Hamas only interested in fighting Israel, as opposed to everyone like ISIS. She points out that not only does Hamas put out violence-celebrating videos like ISIS and provide IS Sinai with both funding and other essential support, it also speaks of fighting for a global caliphate when it defeats Israel, just like ISIS. She says the main difference between Hamas and ISIS is that Israel is keeping Hamas pinned down - and the last thing one should want to do it create a Palestinian state in such a way that Hamas would end up controlling it, creating a new terror base. For her complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli counter-terrorism expert Eli Karmon examines the strategic problem for Israel of IS Sinai, and the likelihood that Israel will soon be a target for its efforts in the near future. He reviews the growing Egyptian pressure against the group but says IS Sinai is still expanding its reach and ISIS is rediscovering the Palestinian cause in its propaganda and prioritising Sinai as its second most important "province" after Iraq and Syria. Karmon also notes that the bomb that destroyed a Russian passenger jet from Sinai in late October was likely placed there by IS Sinai - showing its growing capabilities, and also helping destroy Egypt's tourism industry in a major blow against the government. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Plus, another noted Israeli counter-terrorism expert, Dr. Boaz Ganor, explains how to develop a counter-terrorism strategy that deals with both parts of the terrorism equation - motivation and operational capability.

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Hamas and the Islamic State: Growing Cooperation in the Sinai

Ehud Yaari

PolicyWatch 2533
December 15, 2015

Hamas has long sought to stymie Egyptian control over the peninsula and keep its weapons smuggling routes open, but its latest opportunistic gamble on local jihadists carries wider dangers that should be nipped in the bud by sponsors Turkey and Qatar.

In recent months, Hamas has been increasing its clandestine military cooperation with the Islamic State's so-called "Sinai Province." This cooperation culminated in a prolonged secret visit to Gaza this month by IS Sinai's military chief Shadi al-Menai, who held talks with his counterparts in Hamas's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (IDQB). Menai has been at the top of Egypt's most wanted list since an attempt to kill him failed in May 2014.

No information has been provided about the discussions, and some Hamas officials denied the initial report (made by this author) that a visit was taking place. Yet one can safely assume that Menai's trip, via one of the few remaining underground tunnels along the Egyptian border, was dedicated to increasing arms deliveries through these tunnels and expanding Hamas military assistance to IS Sinai operatives.

CROSS-BORDER SMUGGLING AND TRAINING

Over the past two years, IS Sinai helped Hamas move weapons from Iran and Libya through the peninsula, taking a generous cut from each shipment. Hamas relies on Bedouin guides to avoid detection by the Egyptian army and reach the few tunnels that have survived Cairo's aggressive flooding and closure campaign. In this manner, IS Sinai acquired the advanced Kornet antitank missiles it has used to sink an Egyptian patrol boat off the coast of al-Arish and destroy several tanks and armored carriers stationed in the peninsula's northeastern sector. Hamas has also provided training to some IS Sinai fighters and assisted with the group's media campaign and online postings.

One of the main Hamas officials involved in this activity is Ayman Nofal, former commander of the IDQB's Central District Brigade. Prior to his 2008 arrest by Egyptian authorities, he was in charge of developing Hamas's system of safe houses and collaborators among the Bedouins. He managed to escape from a Cairo prison in 2011 during the riots accompanying the Arab Spring and soon resumed his work in Sinai.

LITTLE PROGRESS IN EGYPT DESPITE WARNINGS

Since 2013, Israel has agreed to effectively modify the military annex of the 1979 peace treaty by permitting Cairo to introduce attack helicopters and more than a mechanized division's worth of ground forces into previously prohibited areas of the Sinai. Despite this escalation, however, the Egyptian army's campaign has not curbed the local IS branch. Around a thousand heavily armed Bedouins affiliated with the group still pose a serious threat to Egyptian troops and government offices. Attacks occur almost daily on administrative facilities, roadblocks, and mobile patrols, while the group's improvised explosive devices are becoming more effective.

In response, Egyptian forces now refrain from night patrols, barricade themselves in camps, and move around only in armed convoys. Similarly, the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) has pulled its personnel from some outposts and discontinued certain inspection missions. Egypt's intelligence-gathering capability in the peninsula is still lacking, and local commanders are reluctant to venture into IS Sinai strongholds such as Jabal Halal and Wadi Amr, preferring to target such areas from a distance with artillery, F-16 bombing runs, or attack helicopters.

Therefore, despite losing dozens of operatives, IS Sinai remains confident enough to press forward with its goal of exporting terrorist operations across the Suez Canal into mainland Egypt. In this context, one should bear in mind that sizable communities of Sinai Bedouins live in Cairo, mainly from the Tarabin tribe. IS could also try to cultivate an alliance with Salafi groups that oppose President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

It should also be noted that Israeli intelligence has been alerting Western and Arab security agencies for over a year now to the growing cooperation between Hamas and IS Sinai. Until a few months ago, these warnings were met with skepticism because Israel was reluctant to share its sources. Lately, however, a sufficient body of evidence has led to a reassessment by the MFO, spearheaded by veteran U.S. diplomat David Satterfield and various intelligence agencies. Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate and military intelligence officials are convinced that Hamas is engaged in a sustained effort to undermine government control over the Sinai, even as it publicly seeks a rapprochement with Cairo. This conviction is frequently manifested by vitriolic anti-Hamas rhetoric in the Egyptian media, especially on television.

HAMAS'S INTERNAL CALCULUS

The ongoing cooperation with IS Sinai has been quite controversial among Hamas's top echelons, since many leaders are concerned that it will poison their already-tense relationship with Sisi's government. Therefore, the group's Shura Council and Political Bureau have seemingly refrained from making a  decision about reaching out to IS Sinai. Instead, the cooperation is reportedly managed by a handful of high-ranking IDQB commanders as a semi-independent initiative, without prior approval by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Qatar or even his deputy in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. Both of them turn a blind eye to the continuing flirtation with IS Sinai.

In fact, Hamas has been cultivating relations with tribes and minority Palestinians in the Sinai since before it took over Gaza in 2007. The group needed consent from the tribes -- especially the Sawarka, Breikat, Ramailat, and Tarabin -- to move weapons through their turf, and it has gradually established a network of local collaborators to store rockets for use against Israel. It already arranged for some of these rockets to be fired against the resort town of Eilat and other areas during past ceasefires with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood administration of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi only facilitated this major expansion of Hamas activity.

As a result, Hamas operatives have witnessed firsthand the rise of Salafi jihadist groups among Sinai Bedouins during the past decade. After the Brotherhood was ousted from government in 2013 and Egypt instituted its blockade of Gaza, Hamas responded by assisting the main terrorist organizations in the peninsula: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, most of whose cadres swore allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year, forming the Sinai Province.

For Hamas, such cooperation is intended to ease the pressure of tough Egyptian military measures to isolate Gaza from Sinai. Despite the deep ideological rift between Hamas and IS and the traditional animosity between Muslim Brothers and Salafis, Hamas sees IS Sinai as a partner in preventing Cairo from asserting its grip over the peninsula (for more on these ideological nuances, see "What Is Salafism?"). Both organizations share deep hostility toward Sisi -- so much that they are even willing to overlook rising tensions with pro-IS groups in Gaza that oppose Hamas's policy of maintaining calm with Israel. IS Sinai has not offered public support for such groups, including the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, which occasionally fires rockets against Israel. And while IS leaders in Syria and Iraq have denounced Hamas openly, the Sinai affiliate refrains from echoing these statements.

Interestingly, Hamas's mentors are also keeping quiet about its dealings with IS Sinai. Neither Iran nor Qatar nor Turkey has publicly expressed any concern about this development. Tehran has continued arms deliveries to Hamas through the Red Sea and the Sinai even though it must be aware by now that some of these weapons are destined for IS Sinai; Doha has maintained its aid program to Gaza in full coordination with Israel; and Ankara still provides shelter to some Hamas military operatives.

CONCLUSION

Hamas cooperation with IS Sinai presents a double challenge: it undermines Egypt's counterterrorism efforts, and it opens the door to IS gaining more ground among the Palestinians. Indeed, further recruitment efforts could eventually turn IS into a powerful competitor against Hamas and Fatah, whose popularity keeps declining. IS entrenchment in the peninsula would also expose international shipping through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba to potential attacks.

One way to forestall these scenarios is by encouraging Hamas's main sponsors -- Qatar and Turkey -- to dissuade the movement from continuing its undeclared alliance with IS Sinai. Confronted with insistent demands to sever ties with the group, Hamas may have no choice but to drop its opportunistic gamble on Menai and his jihadists.

Ehud Yaari is a Lafer International Fellow with The Washington Institute and a Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television.

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Is Hamas Becoming a Second ISIS?

 

Evelyn Gordon

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Hamas to the Islamic State after the Paris attacks, he was widely scorned. But as several recent news reports make clear, the analogy was quite well-founded. Hamas, like ISIS, glories in its own brutality and boasts of it to the world. It actively arms, funds, and trains Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate. One of its senior officials has vowed that as soon as it gets rid of the pesky Zionist state, it will set its sights on the rest of the West. And the West seems determined to eliminate the one remaining difference between the two groups.

Hamas’s glorification of its own brutality was on display this week, when the group celebrated the 28th anniversary of its founding. In honor of this event, the Israeli daily Israel Hayom reported, Hamas posted a video on its website featuring highlights of its greatest terror attacks and listing all its other achievements, which were as follows: It has fired 16,377 rockets and mortars at Israel, reaching as far north as Haifa, and now manufactures most of its rockets locally. It has perpetrated 86 suicide bombings, 250 shootings, 36 stabbings, and over 500 cross-border raids. And it has kidnapped 26 Israelis, “both dead and alive.” Note what’s missing from this list: any effort to improve the lives of the Palestinians it has ruled in Gaza since 2007. That, of course, is because there weren’t any. But the reason there weren’t any is because, like ISIS, Hamas has no interest in actually improving the lives of the people it rules; what interests Hamas is killing infidels. This order of priorities is why it builds tunnels to attack Israel but no bomb shelters to protect its civilians from Israeli counterstrikes, or why it keeps its people imprisoned in Gaza rather than accede to Cairo’s conditions for opening its border with Egypt. And it’s also why Hamas’s promotional video highlights its brutal murders of Israelis, just as Islamic State’s promotional videos highlight its brutal murders of Westerners.

Then there’s the actual cooperation with Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, detailed by both Ehud Yaari for the Washington Institute and Alex Fishman for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Hamas provides logistical support to the Sinai group, ranging from training to medical care, and Wilayat Sinai’s top military commander has visited Gaza to further this cooperation. But the main joint activity is arms purchases.

Hamas is the one with the money, provided by Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. Ostensibly, the latter two only fund civilian projects, but Hamas takes a generous cut for military purposes; for example, about a third of the cement imported for Qatari-sponsored construction projects in Gaza was diverted to Hamas’s tunnel-building enterprise. Wilayat Sinai, in contrast, is the one with physical access to the arms; it procures them from Iran and Libya and delivers them to Gaza in exchange for either cash or a cut of the shipment.

Finally, there’s the issue of Hamas’s stated ambitions. As researcher Pinhas Inbari noted last month, Hamas parliamentarian and cleric Dr. Yusuf al-Astal has declared for years that once Israel is defeated, Hamas will move on to the rest of the world. As he put it in one 2008 speech, “We will conquer Rome, and from there continue to conquer the two Americas and even Eastern Europe.”ael

Al-Astal is no fringe figure. He regularly writes articles for the Hamas journal Al-Risala, is interviewed by Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, gives sermons in Hamas-controlled mosques and universities, and was included on Hamas’s parliamentary slate. Nor is Hamas-run Gaza a democracy with free speech for all; if Hamas disapproved of Al-Astal’s message, it wouldn’t let him promulgate it in Hamas-controlled institutions.

These boastful ambitions might sound laughable. There’s no reason to think Hamas could achieve them, and so far, it hasn’t ever really tried. ISIS, by contrast, controls large parts of Syria and Iraq and perpetrated the deadly Paris attacks, while even Wilayat Sinai has killed hundreds of Egyptians and recently bombed a Russian passenger plane.

Yet there’s a reason why Hamas is training Wilayat Sinai rather than the other way around; Hamas has far more experience and, in many ways, better tradecraft. Indeed, the Paris attacks themselves underscored Hamas’s skills: Though the gunmen were well-trained and deadly, the three suicide bombers collectively managed to kill exactly one person. By contrast, Hamas suicide bombers routinely produced double-digit fatalities until Israel figured out how to arrest most of them before they struck. In short, a Hamas free to focus on the West would be no laughing matter.

Fortunately for the West, Hamas isn’t free to do so, because the pesky Zionist state is still in the way. ISIS is what happens when a terrorist organization encounters a power vacuum it can fill – i.e. when there’s no strong, stable state like Israel to contain it. Hamas is what happens when a terrorist organization does run up against a state like Israel: Its ability to harm the rest of the world is minimal.

Yet instead of leaving well enough alone, much of the West is ardently trying to create a new Mideast power vacuum tailor-made for Hamas to fill: a Palestinian state. Obviously, a Hamas-run state isn’t the goal. But the last time the Palestinians held anything approaching free and fair elections, in 2006, Hamas won. And according to a new poll published this week, the same would happen if elections were ever held again, which shouldn’t surprise anyone: The poll also found that two-thirds of Palestinians support murdering Israelis, while sizable majorities oppose both the “two-state solution” and the “one-state solution in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equal rights,” meaning the only “solution” they’d accept is Israel’s eradication. So obviously they’d prefer the party that consistently espouses both goals to the one – Fatah – that does so only in Arabic while saying the opposite in English.

Last month, veteran peace processer Aaron David Miller shattered peace process Orthodoxy by asking whether another weak, failing state is really what the Mideast needs right now. Given the similarities between Hamas and ISIS, anyone who doesn’t want a second ISIS in the region ought to answer “no.”

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Commentary: As ISIS expands its reach, Israel could again become a top priority

By ELY KARMON

Jerusalem Post, 12/15/2015    

After months of violent turmoil in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Islamic State has rediscovered the Palestinian issue.

Over the past several weeks, the Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliates have claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut and Paris and are threatening more.

In Ankara, over 100 people were killed in two bombings outside the central railway station; in Sinai, 224 died when a civilian Russian aircraft, Metrojet flight 9268 to St. Petersburg exploded shortly after take-off; in Beirut, more than 40 people were killed by two suicide bombers; and a hail of indiscriminate gunfire and bombings in Paris in mid-November claimed at least 129 lives.

For Israel, closest to home is the Islamic State’s Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, active just across the border with Egypt, where it threatens not only Israel but a key moderate Arab regime. Indeed, this year has seen an escalation of Wilayat Sinai’s war on the secular Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In early January, despite an intensive Egyptian military campaign against it, the ISIS affiliate staged one of its biggest terrorist attacks: a coordinated strike against 15 military targets in North Sinai, including a siege of the town of Sheikh Zuweid. Two days earlier its gunmen killed the Egyptian prosecutor-general in a car bombing in Cairo.

In early July, another major attack targeted multiple Egyptian army checkpoints in the Sinai and the Sheikh Zuweid police station, in an attempt to expand the territory under its control on the ISIS model in Syria and Iraq. Two weeks later, Wilayat Sinai fighters hit an Egyptian navy frigate off the Rafah coast with a guided anti-tank missile, an attack they celebrated as “the Islamic State’s first naval assault.”

In retaliation, reinforcements from the Egyptian Second Army deployed outside Sheikh Zuweid and F-16 fighter jets targeted militants in the city killing more than 200. On September 8, the Egyptian military launched “The Martyr’s Right,” its largest operation to date, simultaneously targeting terrorist strongholds in Rafah, El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. According to the army, 535 militants were killed.

Two months later, in early November, one of the group’s leaders, Ashraf Ali Hassanein Gharabali, was killed in a shoot-out with Egyptian security forces in Cairo.

The sustained Egyptian offensive seemed to be pushing the terrorists back into their inaccessible Jebel Helal mountain stronghold and containing them there. But the downing of the Russian aircraft by Wilayat Sinai has again projected it as a major protagonist in the fight against the al-Sisi regime and a principal ISIS associate in the Middle East.

Wilayat Sinai did not start from scratch.

It is an ISIS-related outgrowth of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy House – Jerusalem), which emerged in 2011 when Palestinian militants joined the Sinai-based Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group, which the Egyptian authorities blamed for the bloody terrorist attacks against tourism targets in Sinai in October 2004 and July 2005.

The new group started its operations around the same time as the January uprising that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign, repeatedly blowing up the Sinai pipeline exporting Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan. The group also claimed responsibility for a range of attacks on army and police facilities and was linked to virtually every terrorist action in Egypt after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime under Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. In August 2014, following the ISIS example, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis beheaded nine people and vowed to behead anyone caught spying for the Mossad or Egyptian intelligence.

In November 2014, Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acknowledged this pledge as constituting the creation of a new Wilayat Sinai, Sinai province of the Islamic State or Caliphate.

In February 2015 in an “Appeal to Our Dignified Tribes in Sinai,” the leadership of Wilayat Sinai urged locals not to collaborate with the Egyptian government pointing to Egyptian army excesses and portraying Sisi as an “agent of the Jews.” ISIS attributes great importance to Sinai and directs considerable resources to it, such as anti-tank and possibly anti-aircraft missiles. In a speech released in May 2015, al-Baghdadi addressed all ISIS’s regional affiliates one by one. Sinai was mentioned immediately after Iraq, indicating its importance in the ISIS leader’s worldview.

THE STRONG evidence pointing to the fact that Wilayat Sinai militants were responsible for smuggling an explosive device into the Russian plane that exploded soon after taking off from Sharm el- Sheikh airport, in late October, suggests a major change in the capabilities and the strategy of the ISIS affiliate and its mother organization.

French officials involved in the investigation have confirmed that the flight recorder detected a sudden explosion, leading the investigators to conclude that there was a bomb in the cargo hold. Moreover, in the wake of the explosion, most Western air companies stopped flying to Sinai and Russia canceled all flights to Sinai and Egypt.

Russia at first seemed reluctant to acknowledge a terrorist operation, but on November 17, Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian FSB Security Agency, said in televised comments that traces of homemade explosives found on fragments of the downed plane meant that “it was unequivocally a terrorist act.” President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the airliner “anywhere on the planet” and promised intensified air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

Despite the international opprobrium, the downing of the Russian plane has brought Wilayat Sinai substantial gains in its battle against Egypt. For one, Egypt has been trying to project an image of stability following an investment conference in Sharm el-Sheikh in March, which was designed to lure billions of dollars into its battered economy. Hundreds of top officials and CEOs attended, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng.

In addition to the investor scare, the Egyptian tourism industry, which accounts for 11.3 percent of Egypt’s GDP, 14 percent of the country’s foreign currency revenue and nearly 12 percent of its jobs, could shrink by as much as 70 percent, further destabilizing the country politically and socially.

As for Russia, Putin could see his popularity and public support for intervention in Syria dwindling. Operationally it might compel him to invest even more military assets on the ground in the hope of achieving a quick political and diplomatic fix. Already the Russians have stepped up their long-range bombings and fired missiles from a submarine in the eastern Mediterranean at ISIS’s key Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. Raqqa was also attacked heavily from the air by French aircraft retaliating for the terror in Paris.

The downing of the Russian civilian aircraft could also hurt Western civil aviation interests, as was the case after attempts by Al-Qaeda to smuggle explosives aboard American and British planes in 2009 and 2012. The contingents of the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai (from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, UK, US and Uruguay), monitoring compliance of the Egypt- Israel Peace Treaty, could also be targeted.

Israel was a prime Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis target until the terrorist group started focusing almost exclusively on the Cairo regime and its military. Now as ISIS and Wilayat Sinai deliberately expand their reach, Israel could again become a top priority, especially since, after months of violent turmoil in Jerusalem and the West Bank, ISIS has rediscovered the Palestinian issue.

The suicide bombing in Ankara, the bombing of the Russian plane in Sinai, the twin suicide bombings in the Shi’ite area of southern Beirut and the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris could signal a decision by the ISIS leadership to carry the fight to enemy territory, in an attempt to counter intensified military attacks on ISIS-held areas by a coalition of regional and global powers.

But the new ISIS strategy comes at a price. The more it attacks abroad, the heavier the Western and Russian response is likely to be.

Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya-based Interdisciplinary Center. 

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