ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai Attacks International Base

Recent attacks in Egypt on the one-year anniversary of the fall of Mosul indicate that ISIS’s affiliate in the Sinai may seek to target the Western military forces and the Egyptian state over the course of the next six weeks. ISW assessed that ISIS’s most dangerous course of action during the month of Ramadan would be to attack international forces in Iraq in order to deter U.S.-led coalition involvement in Iraq and Syria. Wilayat Sinai’s attack on the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) airbase at al-Jura on June 9 suggests that ISIS may pursue this operation in the Near Abroad as well, specifically in Egypt over the next 4-6 weeks. In addition the unattributed suicide attack in Luxor on June 10 raises the possibility that Wilayat Sinai may attempt to undermine Egypt’s tourism industry and military in order to pressure and distract the state. This threat is heightened during Ramadan, but also fits within ISIS’s larger strategy to foment disorder and expand operations into the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s Egyptian affiliate Wilayat Sinai launched and claimed credit for a mortar and rocket attack on the al-Jura airport in North Sinai on June 9. The facility is used by the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an international force that has overseen the terms of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed in 1979. Both ISIS’s central media outlet and sources affiliated with Wilayat Sinai claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the arrest of a woman in Sheikh Zuwaid. However, the latter also described the airport as used by “Crusader forces to maintain the security of Jews.” This acknowledgement of an international target is a major shift for Wilayat Sinai, as the organization has primarily targeted Egyptian security forces over the past year.

The attack on June 9 may signal the approach of a broader strategy by Wilayat Sinai to deter U.S.-led coalition involvement in Iraq and Syria, or to divert international attention away from a main offensive in Iraq or Syria. Wilayat Sinai may launch these efforts during the month of Ramadan (June 17-July 17, 2015), a period during which ISIS historically has launched spectacular attacks and named new campaigns. Within this framework Wilayat Sinai may have launched the attack June 9 in order to gather intelligence and to test international responses in preparation for a larger, more sophisticated explosive attack on the MFO base in al-Jura in addition to or instead of an attack in Iraq. Wilayat Sinai recently renewed its campaign to steal vehicles in North Sinai in late May 2015, indicating that the group may use multiple VBIEDs in an upcoming attack, possibly on the MFO base. The group previously used stolen vehicles to launch single and multi-VBIED attacks against Egyptian security forces, most recently on April 12, 2015. Wilayat Sinai’s choice to connect the attack to the arrest of a local Egyptian woman thus could be interpreted as an attempt to rally popular support in North Sinai in advance of a larger offensive. Alternately, Wilayat Sinai may have launched the attack in support of locally focused goals.

Wilayat Sinai attacked the MFO base the evening before three unidentified militants, including one with a suicide belt, launched an attack at the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Upper Egypt, wounding four Egyptian nationals. Police officers halted the attack, which was possibly timed to coincide with the arrival of a tour bus from the resort town of Hurghada. The incident marked the first major attack on a tourist site in Upper Egypt since the al Qaeda associated Islamic Group conducted a shooting at the Hatshepsut Temple, Luxor in 1997, killing 62 individuals. Despite this precedent, the combination of the target, style and location of the 2015 Luxor attack deviates from the practices of all known militant groups currently operating in Egypt. A new group may have launched the most recent Luxor attack independently, but it is more likely that an existing militant group within Egypt redirected its efforts. It is possible that the perpetrators are linked to ISIS in Egypt.

ISIS regularly targets civilians, and Wilayat Sinai is capable of launching explosive attacks. Wilayat Sinai primarily operates in the Sinai Peninsula, however, which would make the Luxor attack an aberration for the militant group. Executing an attack in mainland Egypt would have required the formation of a “detachment” force, similar to Wilayat Sinai’s Martyr Abu Ubaida al-Masry Brigade, which claimed to have conducted armed attacks against security forces in greater Cairo in November 2014. Wilayat Sinai also could have reestablished its relationship with Nile Delta-based elements of the former ABM network. Alternately, Wilayat Sinai may have provided an attack plan and explosive capability to existing jihadist elements in Upper Egypt, which historically has contained a sizeable Salafi population. More specifically, Wilayat Sinai may have guided the formation of militant cells intended to form a new wilayat in Egypt, perhaps with the Luxor attack as an inaugural spectacular attack.  It is possible, though less likely, that ISIS’s affiliates in Libya entered across Egypt’s porous western border in order to launch the attack.

ISIS’s involvement in the Luxor attack would indicate that the group has shifted from a strategy focused on the Sinai to a strategy focused on the Egyptian state as a whole. Wilayat Sinai could attempt to overstretch the Egyptian security forces by escalating violence in Upper Egypt while maintaining operations in the Sinai. This approach is analogous to the manner in which ISIS targeted the Iraqi state between 2011 and 2014. Alternately, multiple affiliates of ISIS in the Near Abroad could launch synchronized, geographically disparate attacks in order to overwhelm the Egyptian state. Egypt is facing ongoing violence in the Sinai and Libya, domestic protests and unrest, and requests for support from the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen. Synchronized attacks by ISIS’s affiliates in the Sinai, Libya and Yemen during Ramadan 2015 may fracture the perception of a stable Egyptian state, or to provoke Egyptian military involvement in Libya or Yemen. Any of these responses would increase disorder in the region, aiding the growth of ISIS’s affiliates in the Near Abroad.

While the attack in Luxor raises the possibility that either Wilayat Sinai or ISIS may pursue a coherent strategy to target the Egyptian state, the attack at al-Jura suggests an equally dangerous possibility. ISIS may launch spectacular attacks on international targets in Iraq or the Near Abroad in order to demonstrate its vitality, to deter the U.S.-led coalition, or to divert international attention from a main military effort within Iraq or Syria. Wilayat Sinai’s attack on the MFO base suggests that Wilayat Sinai may seek to support ISIS in this effort. The U.S. and its allies are facing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine while also balancing civil unrest and anti-Iranian efforts in the Middle East. Additional attacks on the MFO base during Ramadan would complicate the coalition’s prioritization of threats further, and would also support ISIS’s desired message of strength and continued expansion a year after the declaration of the caliphate.

Harleen Gambhir is a Counterterrorism Analyst at ISW, and Jantzen Garnett is a Research Assistant at ISW.