May 17, 2016 | Foreign Affairs
ISIS Targets Egypt
Earlier this month, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched a massive media campaign in support of the insurgency in Sinai. Officials from 14 of its so-called provinces in Iraq, Libya, and Syria released videos promoting an Egyptian affiliate group, Sinai Province. The videos feature typical ISIS themes, such as condemnations of apostate Arab and Western governments, glorification of successful attacks, and praise for martyred brethren. What sets these videos apart, however, is the sheer number released at once, as well as their focus on Sinai, which previously played a relatively minor role in ISIS propaganda.
This media blitz could mark a turning point in ISIS strategy. The group has lost territory in Iraq and Syria, and the videos could signal a reorientation toward North Africa. ISIS may also be trying to boost morale and recruit new members. Finally, the releases could portend ISIS’ growing interest in Israel, and might suggest that the country could be the caliphate’s next target.
The scale of the Sinai campaign is nearly unprecedented, rivaled only by an earlier media blitz against the monarchy of Saudi Arabia—a natural target given its significance as the birthplace of Islam and site of its two holiest places. That series, released in December 2015, excoriated the ruling family for working with “Crusader” states like the United States, and called on Saudis to join ISIS’ branch in the kingdom. Similarly, the latest videos accuse the Egyptian government of tyranny, condemning Cairo’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The videos also extend their criticism to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated former President Mohamed Morsi for his alliances with secular governments, such as Turkey, and chastise the Brotherhood for ruling Egypt under “man-made” rather than Islamic law.
The series warns Egyptians against adopting the “new religion” of democracy, and urge them to “wake up and realize [their] salvation is with sharia.” They play up Sinai’s location as the “land of the prophet Moses,” denounce Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a new Pharaoh, and curse him for “protecting the Jews.”
In addition to criticizing the Egyptian government, the latest videos dub Sinai the “gateway to Palestine,” from which ISIS will “liberate” Jerusalem and its iconic al-Aqsa Mosque. The videos show Egyptian leaders and military officials meeting Israeli counterparts, and call Israel’s Jews “victims in waiting,” whom ISIS will deal with after the Egyptian “apostates.” As one fighter warns, Israelis will soon meet the same fate as their supposed Egyptian collaborators: “the knives used to slice open the necks of your spies will slaughter your soldiers tomorrow.”
From ISIS’ perspective, targeting an Egyptian audience makes sense. First, the organization may sense that Egyptians are ripe for recruitment, as the government’s economic failings and crackdown on dissent have eroded Sisi’s popularity. Moreover, the Brotherhood—once a formidable political force—has become a tainted brand. Its political party was only able to hold power for one year, and thousands of its members have since been jailed by the current regime. ISIS can take advantage of that vacuum by promoting Sinai Province, framing it as the most effective vehicle for Egyptians to undermine Sisi’s regime.
The videos’ emphasis on Sinai may also be setting the stage for a large-scale attack. Indeed, just a day after releasing the last of the videos, ISIS claimed responsibility for a shooting attack on the outskirts of Cairo. The assault killed eight plainclothes police officers, and was the deadliest terrorist incident in the capital since 2013. A dramatic attack against Israel may also be in the works: the Israeli military is reportedly preparing for a major strike from Sinai that could even include tanks or artillery.
On the other hand, the emphasis on Sinai may be an attempt to deflect attention from ISIS’ recent failures. Even as ISIS has suffered a string of territorial losses in Iraq and Syria this year, Sinai Province has been relatively effective. Over the last three years, the organization has cost Egypt dearly in lives and resources, killing hundreds of soldiers, police, and civilians in shootings, rocket and mortar attacks, and improvised explosives. It has also weathered the state’s heavy-handed counterterror operations. In October 2015, Sinai Province scored its most dramatic achievement yet when it downed a Russian passenger jet. Sinai Province represents a comparative bright spot for ISIS as it endures demoralizing defeats, and the latest media campaign could be an attempt to boost morale during a period of uncertainty.
Finally, ISIS’ new focus on Sinai might also be a part of a broader reorientation to North Africa. In January, the group released a video campaign (albeit one that was smaller than the Sinai series) that railed against the “Westernized” leaders of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. According to U.S. officials, the group’s presence in Libya is “metastasizing,” and poses the greatest threat to regional security of any of its branches. Officials have even suggested that as the U.S.-led coalition makes gains against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the organization may turn to Libya as a fallback base. Tunisia, meanwhile, is the leading source of ISIS foreign fighters, and has itself been the site of devastating attacks by the group.
Whatever the motive behind it, ISIS’ 14-part propaganda series underscores the organization’s view of Sinai as a critical battlefield in its so-called caliphate. Time will tell whether ISIS translates that belief into another spectacular attack, ramped-up assaults on Egyptian or Israeli forces, or even a strike against peacekeepers in the peninsula. But the group’s latest media blitz is a clear message to Egypt and Israel, as well as their shared ally in Washington, to stay tuned.
Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Max Peck is a research analyst and Public Interest Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.Follow them on Twitter @OrenKessler and @Maxwell_Peck