Wilayat Sinai

Wilayat Sinai
ولاية سيناء

Ansar bayt al-maqdis

Other Names: Abbreviated as WS; translated as Sinai Province or Islamic State in the Sinai; formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (أنصار بيت المقدس or ABM), variously translated as Ansar Jerusalem, Supporters of Jerusalem, Champions of Jerusalem, Supporters of the Holy House

Location: 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.

Characteristics:

Size

Given the group’s heightened operational security, its exact size, membership composition, and organizational structure are subject to speculation. Some intelligence assessments have estimated its size at around 1,000 members; first-hand accounts of the Sheikh Zuweid assault put its numbers at a few hundred. While official statements suggest that counterterrorism initiatives like “Operation Martyr’s Right” have substantially reduced its numbers, the group’s continued operational capacity underscores its ability to quickly replace lost fighters. It should be noted, however, that these fighters are both vetted (presumably for prolonged periods) and subject to ideological and paramilitary training, the lengths of which would likely impede this efficient replacement.

Structure

Regardless of exact numbers, the group is undeniably the most coordinated and operationally effective group in Egypt. Likely sometime in 2011, Tawfik Muhammad Freij Ziyada (a.k.a. Abu Abdullah) co-founded Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis with a number of jihadist elements; according to reports, many of these individuals, including followers of organizations like Tawhid wal-Jihad, met in prison sometime before the January 25 Revolution. Tawfik’s deputy, Muhammad Ali Afifi Bedawi Nasif, and Muhammad al-Said Hassan Ibrahim al-Toukhi (more commonly known as Abu Obayda” transformed the nascent group into a conglomerate of regionally- and functionally-oriented cells.

Built around a number of second-tier leadership figures like Ahmed Muhammad Abdel Aziz al-Sigini, Mahmoud Muhammad Suleiman, and the recently killed Ashraf Ali Hasanain al-Gharably, regional cells operated at that time within their respective jurisdictional purviews. These satellites included cells in Cairo, Matariya, Ismailia, Beni Suef, Daqhalia (specifically Mansoura), Kafr al-Sheikh, Sharqia, 6th of October, Fayoum, Qena, and Giza. A number of parallel, functionally oriented, cellular structures tied these groups together. These included groups specializing in media production, engineering (i.e., mechanical aspects of improvised explosive device (IED) construction, rocket propulsion, and aerodynamics), chemical engineering (i.e., production of efficient explosive compounds), and weapons storage. Ancillary cells, like those specializing in reconnaissance, training, and road observation, were also likely formed on an ad hoc basis.  Absorbed into the organization were elements of other, independently operating groups like Tawhid wal-Jihad and al-Furqan Brigades, both of which had their own complex cellular structures and operational knowledge. (TIMEP has separately profiled Tawhid wal-Jihad and Kitaa’ib al-Furqan.)

The organization’s current structure, and whether any internal changes have occurred, is unclear. Two possible transformative influences include ABM’s organizational affiliations (with Gaza factions, al-Qaeda, and, most recently, the Islamic State) and the activities of security services, the potency of which has evolved markedly over the past four years. Despite this, the group’s ongoing attacks in the greater Cairo area may suggest that some of these elements—i.e., those outside of its North Sinai stronghold—remain active.

Operational Security

Wilayat Sinai’s particular structural design portended sustained counterterrorism activity. According to sources, the organization’s recruitment cycle included a rigorous vetting process—one which was originally overseen by deputy head Muhammad Nasif. Nasif also tasked his recruits with changing their names, severing their relationships with people outside the group, disposing of their cell phones and other trackable means of communication, and avoiding prayer in mosques. To prevent structural collapse in the event of a breach, members were compartmentalized—and their knowledge of other members’ identities was confined to the cell of which they were a part.

Knowledge

ABM also had in its ranks a relatively large amount of intellectual capital, with many of its members having valuable educational, vocational, and military or paramilitary experience. This especially benefited ABM’s functional cells, like those tasked with reconnaissance and IED construction. For example, after engineering graduate Hossam Ali Farghali was vetted and recruited, he took an ABM “workshop” on projectile composition and manufacturing, and was tasked by Muhammad Nasif with utilizing aerodynamic formulae to increase the range of its rockets, so as to more easily hit Israel. Additionally, some of its leaders, like al-Furqan head Muhammad Ahmed Nasr Muhammad, mastermind of the 2013 Suez Canal attack, held advanced degrees (ironically, his was a Ph.D. in Suez Canal development). Not all of the leadership had these credentials, however. Tawfik Freij Ziyada, for example, was a honey salesman by trade.

Prior military and police experience bolstered their operational aptitude. Special forces officer Hisham Ali Ashmawy, a former ABM training official and the current head of the al-Qaeda-affiliated group al-Morabitoon, brought to the organization specialized knowledge of irregular warfare and military counterterrorism tactics. Hisham used his expertise in explosives to mastermind some of ABM’s most high-profile attacks, including the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in 2013. (Incidentally, the suicide bomber who actually carried out the attack was another military officer, Major Waleed Badr.) Major Emad al-Din Ahmed Abdel Hameed, Hisham’s deputy head of training and fellow operational planner at ABM, was also involved in the assassination attempt. Similarly, policemen-turned-informants Lieutenant Muhammad Muhammad Eweis Muhammadand Colonel Sameh Ahmed al-Azizi handed over sensitive information that ostensibly helped with other attacks; for example, authorities discovered on the lieutenant’s personal computer a list of police officers and home addresses. Former naval officer Ahmed Amr, likewise, played a key role in Wilayat Sinai’s November 2014 attack on Egyptian naval vessels off the coast of Damietta.

Armament

The organization has a range of weapons capabilities. It has an assortment of light arms, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), rocket-propelled grenades, and 60-mm mortars. More recently, the group showcased its possession of, and ability to effectively use, Katyusha rockets and Kornet anti-tank missiles, both Russian-manufactured weapons. The origin of its armaments is not altogether clear, although Gaza and Libya are likely sources—as are weapons taken from Bedouin stockpiles and Egyptian security forces. Their weapons may also be entering Egypt from its southern border with Sudan. Interestingly, Kitaa’ib al-Furqan reportedly smuggled across the Egyptian-Sudanese border 10 Katyusha rockets some time ago; they hid the rockets at a location in Giza, and then likely moved them to a storage site in Sharqia. (Authorities raided the site in December 2014 and confiscated the remaining materiel.)

Despite this variety, Wilayat Sinai most commonly uses basic IEDs. The organization first used crude explosives when it launched its debut attack on gas distribution infrastructure in 2011. But since then, its construction of these devices—and its refinement of their composition materials—have probably grown in complexity. The organization has demonstrated its ability to effectively use IEDs to attack soft targets, including mobile military and police patrols. It has also employed larger explosives, often in the form of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs, or car bombs), to attack hardened structures, such as security directorates, police stations, and, most recently, a diplomatic mission. Cellular and timed detonation devices (which can be delayed up to a month), and, likely, pressure-sensitive detonators, are among their capabilities.

Funding

Funding for ABM weapons and operations is, of yet, largely unknown, although smuggling and other criminal activity are a likely source. One of its early sources of funding was Muhammad Ahmed al-Adawi Shalbaya, the owner of a Daqhalia export-import business who reportedly sent the group LE1.7 million through bank transfers from Saudi Arabia. Whether there presently exists a money pipeline between Wilayat Sinai and the Islamic State, or between it and other entities, is unclear, however.

Recent leadership: Abu Osama al-Masry, a senior-level ABM leader, showed an early interest in the Islamic State, going back to July 2014, when he praised the Islamic State’s actions and ideology in an Eid al-Fitr sermon, foreshadowing the eventual alliance of the two groups. Al-Masry trained with factions in Gaza Strip, accessing it through border tunnels, and fought for some time in Syria. Based on voice comparison, he appears to be the blurred figure in a video released in November 2015.

Shadi Meneai’s involvement with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been disputed. Egyptian security forces claimed to have killed Meneai, whom they described as the “leader” of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, in a May 2014 raid. ABM, however, vehemently denied both Meneai’s death and his having been the leader of the group, and he later appeared in a video reading his own eulogy. Meneai does appear to be among the group’s senior leadership, however; he is a former smuggler whose father is a Sawarka tribesman and who was part of the ABM’s early attacks on gas infrastructure. Turabeen Sheikh Musa al-Dalh offered a million-pound reward for Meneai on May 2, 2015, following an attack on Turabeen tribesman Ibrahim Ergani’s Sinai home.

Kamal Alam, described as a senior leader in the group’s organization, was reportedly killed during a January 2014 counterterrorism operation. (While reports indicated that Alam was featured in photos from “Mujahid Diary”, photo comparison showed this to be incorrect.) He reportedly fought in both Syria and Libya.

Ahmed Salam Mabruk is a longtime militant with a history in violent extremism across the region, and he has strong ties to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Mabruk was extradited to Egypt as part of the infamous Returnees from Albania case in 1999, where he faced charges related to his activity with al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, one of Egypt’s most active extremist groups in the 1990s. Since his 2012 release from prison, Egyptian officials have suggested that Mabruk played a leadership role in ABM.

Background: Since its formation, judged to be at some point in 2011, the group appears to have breathed life into Egyptian jihadi cells by bringing them under one umbrella. This has been evidenced by the leadership of the group, many of whom are experienced militants who had previously been a part of other groups, particularly Tawhid wal-Jihad and the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in the Environs of Jerusalem. When Israel killed Tawhid wal-Jihad/MSC leaders in 2012, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis vowed retribution.

Early on, the group ingratiated itself to the local population, calling on them to stand with ABM in its fight against the state. ABM’s early attacks on Sinai gas infrastructure were used as a means of rallying this support. In fliers passed out to locals, they reportedly stated: “If you are not with us, do not be against us.” And, in another statement, they described themselves as “your brothers…men from [Egypt]…perhaps your neighbors or relatives.”

On April 9, 2014, the U.S. Department of State declared Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis a terrorist organization. Egypt followed suit shortly thereafter.

On November 10, 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis formally swore allegiance (bay’a) to the Islamic State, changing its name to Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai). This allegiance provides the Islamic State with a nominal presence in Sinai, while, in theory, also providing Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis with greater resources. How and to what extent this has materialized is unclear, however.

Egyptian security forces have carried out a number of operations against Wilayat Sinai. The most recent and largest of these was the September 2015 Operation Martyr’s Right, during which the military claimed to have killed over 500 operatives and arrested at least 600. While Israel’s role in combating the organization is unclear, WS has claimed that Israeli drones flying over Sinai have killed its operatives. Notwithstanding these claims, Egyptian authorities vehemently deny penetration of their airspace. In any case, despite these setbacks, the organization’s activity has only grown in ability, complexity, and magnitude.

Following an attack on the Italian Consulate on July 11, 2015, it appears that a mainland branch of the Islamic State emerged. An attack claim was published in the same standard format as Islamic State claims throughout the region; but, instead of attributing the attack to Islamic State Wilayat Sinai, the claim attributed the attack to Islamic State “Misr” (Egypt). Four other claims have since been made in the same manner. While it is possible that one of ABM’s previous regional cells could have resumed operations in Cairo under that name, there is currently no evidence to substantiate this.

Ideology: Early statements from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis mainly targeted the Jewish population in nearby Israel, where the majority of the group’s efforts were focused (with the exception of pipeline attacks in Egypt). Soon after the removal of President Muhammad Morsi, however, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis shifted its attention to the Egyptian government for waging war against Islam. Since aligning themselves with the Islamic State and becoming Wilayat Sinai, the group has adopted some, but not all of the Islamic State’s ideology. The act of beheading enemies, especially those they deem as traitors, has become more frequent since the group pledged bay’a to the Islamic State, showing a clear evolution of their practices.

Both Wilayat Sinai and its predecessor have claimed attacks on international targets. These include, for example, an attack on a bus full of Korean tourists near Taba, the bombing of Italy’s consulate in Cairo, and the killing of American oil worker William Henderson. The propaganda that surrounded the beheading of Croatian Tomislav Salopek and that that followed the downed Russian aircraft appear to show the growing transnationalization of the organization’s operations. At the very least, these attacks show a superficial strategic alignment with the Islamic State, but they may also represent a focus on attacking the Egyptian economy.

Notable Attacks: The group claimed responsibility for several attacks on natural gas pipelines, as far back as February 5, 2011, and as late as January 17, 2014.

In a coordinated attack on August 18, 2011, the group targeted a bus in Eilat, Israel, killing at least eight Israelis and three members of the Egyptian security forces.

On September 5, 2013, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Interior Minister.

On December 24, 2013, the group attacked the Mansoura Security Directorate. This remains one of the deadliest attacks in Egypt in the past decade; sixteen people were killed and 134 were injured in the bombing. This bombing also represented a moment of intense escalation in the Egyptian government’s “war on terror;” despite not having been connected with the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood were declared a terrorist group the following day.

Following the Mansoura attack, ABM released footage of them apparently shooting down a helicopter. Militants used a man-portable air-defense system to take down the aircraft, killing the five men on board.

In its first attack on tourists, a suicide bomber attacked a bus of South Korean tourists traveling near the Israeli border on February 16, 2014. The attack killed three of the tourists and the Egyptian bus driver.

The group launched a campaign against Israel during a period of intense conflict between Israel and Gaza in July 2014. The group released videos of Grad and 107-mm rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Eilat, two attacks on the village Bnei Netzarim, and one on another cross-border location.

In August 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis turned its attention back to Egypt. The group released a video first documenting the murder of Egyptian police on August 18. Ten days later, on August 28, the group released a video in which they document the beheading of four Egyptian men they accuse of collaboration with Israeli intelligence. The August beheadings were the first violence of this type for the group, marking a chilling change in tactic that has endured through the posting of this profile in November 2015.

On October 24, 2014, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis carried out what was its deadliest attack up until that point. The group detonated a car bomb at a heavily guarded security checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid and then ambushed the guards who came to investigate the attack. Later the same day, they opened fire on a security checkpoint in Arish. The attacks killed at least 33 Egyptian security personnel and wounded at least as many. This was the at that point the deadliest attack on the Egyptian military in decades.

In December 2014, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the death of American oil worker William Henderson. The group produced pictures taken of his identification cards following his death. This act of targeting a Westerner, combined with the recent adoption of beheading as a tactic, has caused some worry that this was evidence on an ideological shift that would mirror the more extreme Islamic State ideology.

On January 29, 2015, Wilayat Sinai carried out an attack reminiscent of its earlier October 2014 strike against the military. The group utilized suicide bombers, car bombs, mortars, and intense gunfire against a military base and nearby security buildings, a hotel, a police club, a newspaper office, and various security checkpoints through North Sinai. The result was over 30 dead Egyptian military members and many more wounded. The scale and immense coordination of the attacks, along with the general escalation of their ability to strike at military targets, pointed toward the group’s overall cohesion.

A suicide bomber attempted to drive a stolen water tanker into police barracks in Arish (a city in North Sinai and site of ongoing conflict between militants and the Egyptian military) on March 10, 2015. The tanker exploded before entering the barracks after police opened fire. At least 42 officers were wounded and a civilian was killed. 

On April 2, 2015, militants opened fire in simultaneous attacks on two checkpoints in Sheikh Zuweid and near Arish. Five Egyptian soldiers and two civilians were killed while 19 security personnel and 10 civilians were injured. 

WS claimed responsibility for three separate attacks targeting security personnel on April 12, 2015. An armored vehicle was attacked on the highway killing six security personnel and injuring two. Later, a car bomb exploded near the police station in Arish killing six people and injuring 40 others. Militants later opened fire at a checkpoint in Rafah, injuring three security personnel. 

WS appeared to have briefly gained control over parts of Sheikh Zuweid on July 1, 2015, after coordinating attacks on 21 security facilities and checkpoints. According to a statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, 17 members of the armed forces were killed, while militants reported these numbers to be over 100.

WS released a statement claiming responsibility for a rocket attack on an Egyptian naval vessel in the Mediterranean on July 16, 2015. The Egyptian army claimed that the patrol boat had exchanged fire with militants off the coast of Rafah causing the boat to catch fire. 

WS took captive Tamislov Salopek, a Croatian citizen and employee of CGG Ardiseis, on July 24, 2015. The group released a video on August 5, 2015, threatening to kill Salopek if Egypt did not release all female Muslim prisoners within 48 hours. A video circulated on August 12, 2015 with a photo of Salopek decapitated.  

On September 16 and 19, 2015, militants opened fire and killed Major General Khaled Kamal Osman and Brigadier General Ahmed Abdel Satar. 

WS operatives shot and killed prominent Sawarka tribesman Khaled El-Menaei on October 1, 2015. 

On October 31, 2015, a Russian commercial aircraft carrying 224 mostly Russian citizens crashed in the Sinai. WS claimed the attack on its social media accounts, but did not elaborate on the manner by which it brought the plane down. Immediately following its claim, the group carried out a car bombing against the Arish police club and beheaded Gomaa Shahada, a local accused of collaborating with security forces, showing the group’s ability to use its media attention to its advantage.

Category: Terror Groups

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