Wilayat Sinai Likely Preparing for Car Bomb Campaign
Key Take-away: The threat of large-scale attacks in North Sinai by ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai is elevated as of March 12, 2015, but this threat is not assessed to directly target the upcoming Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Sheikh scheduled for March 13-15, 2015 due to heightened security in South Sinai. Wilayat Sinai may, however, conduct attacks elsewhere during the conference in order to portray instability and derail economic and political opportunities for the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
A number of large utility vehicles have been stolen in North Sinai recently, suggesting that ISIS affiliate group “Wilayat Sinai,” formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, may be planning large-scale vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks. An ambulance and a garbage disposal truck were reported stolen in North Sinai on February 9, and authorities instructed security forces at military checkpoints to search for the stolen vehicles before they can be used in attacks. More recently, on February 28 the driver of a water tanker truck was forced from the vehicle at gunpoint by armed militants operating a checkpoint near Rafah. The militants then fled with the vehicle. On March 4, armed militants stormed a water distribution center in al-Kawthar district of Sheikh Zuweid and seized a water tanker truck. On March 10, another water tanker truck was confiscated by armed militants in the village of al-Towil southeast of al-Arish who forced the driver from the vehicle and fled toward Sheikh Zuweid. The following day on March 11, two vehicles belonging to the electrical company in Sheikh Zuweid were confiscated after armed militants stopped the vehicles and forced the drivers out. The so-called “Wilayat Sinai,” or “Sinai Province,” operates in these locations and is likely responsible for organizing these thefts.
Utility vehicles such as these can be converted into suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). The first attack likely associated with this string of vehicle thefts occurred on March 10, when an SVBIED targeted a military camp in the Mesaieed district of western al-Arish. One person was killed and dozens wounded when the SVBIED detonated prematurely before striking the camp. Security guards reportedly tried to preempt the attack by shooting at the vehicle as it approached the compound, causing the vehicle to detonate before reaching the main gate. A security wall absorbed much of the blast, limiting the number of casualties, but the shockwave from the large explosion caused significant material damage. Wilayat Sinai published photos online the same day of the attack showing that the vehicle was a tanker truck, which they claimed was filled with 10 tons of explosives.
Wilayat Sinai, which formerly operated under the name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, has demonstrated this capability in the past. In the January 29, 2015 triple VBIED attack in al-Arish that left dozens dead, Wilayat Sinai claimed to have used a tanker truck filled with tons of explosives as one of the three VBIEDs detonated against the Battalion 101 Headquarters and other military installations. Media reports affirmed that a water tanker truck had been stolen earlier in January and was used in the attack. Two days later on January 31, Egyptian security forces reportedly foiled an attempt by a suicide bomber to detonate another water tanker truck at a military post in the North Sinai town of al-Jora. The benefit of using heavy public utility vehicles as explosive devices is twofold. First, they are able to be packed with large amounts of explosive materials optimizing the explosive force. Second, they have the potential of being able to gain access to locations near security positions with less scrutiny. This history of utilizing heavy utility vehicles in attacks suggests that the latest stolen vehicles are destined to be used in a similar manner.
Even prior to their declaration of allegiance to ISIS, the group then known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis demonstrated the capacity to conduct a number of different types of attacks, including suicide attacks, a surface-to-air attacks against an Egyptian helicopter, armed assaults against security outposts, and the use of different types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis utilized VBIEDs and SVBIEDs in a string of attacks in 2013, including an attempted assassination and attacks against security directorates and military intelligence buildings. Thus, although it is likely that Wilayat Sinai has received training and other resources from ISIS, its prior incarnation as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was already a highly effective jihadist organization before their formal pledge of allegiance on November 9, 2014. ISIS support may, however, make the group even more effective. The construction of effective VBIEDs is challenging, but is a particular specialty of ISIS. Similarly, a complex attack on October 24, 2014 against Karam al-Qawadees, an army outpost in North Sinai, bears some of the hallmarks of ISIS operations. Although this attack pre-dates the pledge of allegiance it is likely that the groups had already established contact at this time.
The heightened threat of Wilayat Sinai VBIEDs in North Sinai, combined with increased IED activity elsewhere in Egypt attributed to other groups such as the recently announced “Revolutionary Punishment,” raises concern over security at the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) scheduled for March 13-15 in Sharm al-Sheikh. Multiple groups, including Wilayat Sinai, may perceive an opportunity to wage “economic war” against the secular Egyptian government by deterring potential investors. Furthermore, the EEDC is more than just a major economic conference. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is politically vested in the success of the conference and has taken every opportunity to promote it, including in a recent Fox News interview. The success of the conference, which is shaping up to include dozens of high profile international corporations and Western finance ministers, will be viewed as a political success for Sisi making it as much of a political event as it is an economic one. The narrative that Egypt is stable and ripe for economic growth and foreign investment shifts if attacks continue to intensify becoming deadlier, more destructive, and more frequent. Egyptian security forces are aware that the conference presents a prime target for jihadists and therefore is maintaining very high security for the event, shutting down roads and enforcing strict security measures limiting the flow of traffic into South Sinai.
Wilayat Sinai may therefore opt to conduct attacks in North Sinai against more vulnerable targets, especially military installations, during the conference. A significant attack anywhere in Egypt during the conference is likely to have an impact on the perceived success of the conference. Given Wilayat Sinai’s known capabilities, and now their possession of a number of heavy vehicles, a significant attack using one or more large VBIEDs seems imminent.