Yochanan Visser is an independent journalist/analyst who worked for many years as Middle East correspondent for Western Journalism.com in Arizona and was a frequent publicist for the main Dutch paper De Volkskrant. He authoreda book in the Dutch language about the cognitive war against Israel and now lives in Gush Etzion. He writes a twice weekly analysis of current issues for Arutz Sheva. (Read Monday's analysis: Iran is closing in on Israel, here.)
Last week, Egypt’s local ISIS branch Wilayat Sinai released a video depicting a daring attack using a Kornet anti-tank missile on a helicopter of the Egyptian air force. The helicopter had just brought Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and his colleague, Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar, to a military airport near the city of Al-Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
The missile attack killed one of the pilots of the helicopter as well as a security guard and Sobhy’s bureau chief.
It wasn’t the first time the Jihadist group in the Sinai desert had used advanced missiles to target regime forces. In the summer of 2015, Wilayat Sinai released a video showing the aftermath of a missile attack on an Egyptian frigate that cruised in the Mediterranean Sea opposite Al-Arish.
A few months later, the by then most lethal and dangerous ISIS branch in the Middle East downed a Russian airplane. It was blown up mid-air in northern Sinai with an explosive device hidden in a soda can in the cargo hold, killing all 224 people aboard the jet and causing a complete halt in Russian civilian flights to Egypt.
The attack on the helicopter, however, revealed something that should serve as a wake-up call not only to the Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but to the Israeli Defense Forces preparing for a future clash with the ISIS branch across the southern border as well..
The visit by the two Egyptian ministers to the air force base in Al-Arish had not been announced in advance and nobody knew the exact arrival time of the helicopter.
The attack shows that Wilayat Sinai has excellent intelligence gathering capacities and is able of carrying out sophisticated terror attacks and assassination attempts at the time of its choosing, without the knowledge of government intelligence agencies and the Egyptian military.
In July this year, Wilayat Sinai’s capacities were on full display when the Jihadist terror group carried out a meticulously planned attack on the Egyptian Al-Najizat commando base near the Israeli border village of Nitzana.
The attack, carried out with several SUV’s carrying dozens of heavily armed ISIS terrorists who entered the base after having used a car bomb to kill the security guards at the entrance, killed more than 30 Egyptian soldiers including their commander.
At the end of November 2017, Wilayat Sinai allegedly carried out what became known as Egypt’s 9/11 when its members killed at least 305 Sufi Muslims in the midst of reciting the mandatory Friday prayers at a mosque in Bir al-Abed west of Al-Arish.
In that case, too, Wilayat Sinai showed off its military capacities by first blocking roads which led to the mosque and then detonating a bomb which blocked the entrance of the mosque, after which the Sufi worshippers were systematically shot one by one.
“The shooting was random and hysterical at the beginning, and then became more deliberate: Whoever they weren’t sure was dead or was still breathing was shot dead,” one of the few survivors told Associated Press at the time
In all cases, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks shouted “Allah Hu Akbar” during their atrocities and in the case of the attack on the mosque waved the black ISIS flag.
Since its foundation, when it initially carried the name Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, Wilayat Sinai has already carried out more than 800 terror attacks in Egypt killing thousands of people, most of them Egyptian security personnel.
The ISIS branch has reportedly no more than 1200 fighters at its disposal, a large majority of them foreigners who fled Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, it thrives, this despite a massive crackdown by the Egyptian army which started back in 2013.
“The armed forces and the police will avenge our martyrs and restore security and stability with the utmost force,” President el-Sisi said last month, but he continues to use the same strategy that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Afghan war - jailing, shooting, bombing and killing terrorists with conventional warfare.
The Egyptian army still uses tanks, artillery, and warplanes in the campaign against the ISIS affiliate, whereas a counterinsurgency strategy would produce better results according to experts at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, a think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University.
Another factor contributing to the failure to contain the threat posed by Wilayat Sinai – and the Jihadist group is steadily expanding its activities to the densely populated Nile Delta- is the fact that the local Bedouin tribes in Sinai refuse to cooperate with the Egyptian army in the battle against the Jihadists.
The Bedouin, who are the only ones who could serve as trackers in the vast wilderness in Sinai, feel resentment and anger toward the regime in Cairo and hate the Egyptian army which treats each of them as a potential terrorist and as second-class citizens who are not really Egyptian.
The fact that the Egyptian army also uses extrajudicial executions and forced displacement in the current Sinai campaign has exacerbated the resentment and anger among the population of northern Sinai.
Thus far, the army has carried out 1,234 of these executions during the campaign against Wilayat Sinai, this out of a total of 1,384 in all of Egypt dating from the beginning of the war against Islamist groups. This war began after the el-Sisi regime launched a coup which ended the short Muslim Brotherhood rule over the country of 96 million.
The Arab’s world most populous country is experiencing multiple problems such as a population ‘catastrophe’.
Egypt’s population grows by 1.6 million people each year. President el-Sisi has compared the problem to the critical threat that terrorism poses to the country where a majority of Egyptians cannot make ends meet after a severe economic crisis that almost brought the country to the brink of disaster.
The high number of people living below the poverty line (28 percent) and the austerity measures el-Sisi’s government took to contain the economic crisis which rocked Egyptian society is not the reason for the rise of Islamic State in Egypt. However, it creates the fertile ground on which Islamist ideology thrives.
After all, the founding fathers of Islamic State were Muslim Brotherhood leaders and ideologues which lived long before ISIS became active.
El-Sisi now tries to contain the growing threat posed by Islamist terror groups such as Wilayat Sinai by initiating huge construction projects in the Sinai Peninsula which are to commence in another two to three years, according to Arab media.
"We have entrusted the ministry of housing and the engineering authority with a national project of comprehensive urban planning," Sisi said last Saturday during a ceremony in Ismailia near the Suez Canal while adding he would respond to terrorist attacks “with violence”.
At the same time, he decided to execute 15 members of Wilayat Sinai who were convicted of carrying out terrorist attacks in Sinai.
The 15 terrorists were hanged simultaneously in two prisons in northern Egypt and their executions clearly were meant to serve as a deterrent and to instill fear among Islamist terror groups in Egypt.
It seems too late, however, Egypt is a powder-keg waiting to explode, as became apparent last Friday when a huge mob of Muslims stormed a Coptic church in Giza near Cairo.
The Muslims demanded the demolition of the church, attacked Christian worshippers and ransacked the interior of the church. Police didn't intervene.
The repeated attacks on the Copts, who make up roughly 10 percent of the Egyptian population, reveal fascist trends in Egyptian society not seen since the fifties of last century.