Analysis: ISIS threat grows in Sinai

ISIS fired a rocket into southern Israel from northern Sinai this week, striking a greenhouse but causing no major injuries. The terrorist group, which controls a small region of the peninsula near the Gaza strip, immediately claimed responsibility for the low-grade attack. Under the title Wilayet Sinai, ISIS in Egypt consists of around 1000 fighters, most of whom are native Sinai Bedouin, though it is believed the group also includes volunteers from Iraq and Syria.

This attack happened just hours after Israel closed the Taba crossing on the Egyptian border, a rare and unusual move that has only happened a handful of times since its opening in 1982. Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz said the decision was made on the basis of concrete intelligence that an ISIS attack on tourists was imminent. Israelis currently in Sinai will be allowed back through the crossing, and around 10,000 Israelis currently in Sinai on holiday during the Passover break have been told to return to Israel immediately. The decision follows two ISIS attacks on Coptic Churches in Tanta and Alexandria last weekend which killed 47 people and injured over 100. The Wilayet Sinai group previously demonstrated its capacity for violence by bringing down a Russian passenger jet in 2015, killing all 224 on board after a bomb was smuggled into the hold. These attacks reflect the group’s ability to carry out attacks beyond the small northern area of Sinai it controls.

Though the group’s main opponents in the region are the Egypt, where a series of terrorist attacks have been met with a bloody counter-insurgency campaign, ISIS has occasionally fired rockets into Israel over the past five years. In January 2014 two rockets were launched at the city of Eilat on the Red Sea, and a further four rockets were sent towards the tourist destination in February this year, three of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system. The deadliest attack occurred in February 2014, where a suicide bomber blew up a bus on the Egyptian side of the Taba border crossing, killing four people and wounding 17.

ISIS’ strategic aims in Sinai are firmly focussed on Egypt rather than Israel. The Islamist group’s new tactic of attacking Christians is intended to ignite sectarian violence in the country. Starved of success in Syria and Iraq, Egypt is one of the few places where the group can still generate headline-grabbing attacks. In response, President Sisi has implemented a state of emergency and vowed to crackdown on the group’s Sinai presence. Entire areas of the Sinai have been razed in attempts to defeat the militants, including thousands of houses in Rafah, near the Gaza border. In February the chief of military intelligence said around 500 militants had been killed, though ISIS is still mounting attacks outside of its northern base and has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and policemen. Overall, the presence of over 20,000 Egyptian soldiers in the area has put Wilayet Sinai on the back foot.

Regarding Israel, ISIS attacks are currently symbolic rather than strategic. Any form of attack against the Jewish state is an immediate morale booster and propaganda victory, even though ISIS has not yet caused a single Israeli fatality. ISIS frequently threatens strikes against Israel, although few materialise. Nonetheless, given the scale of last week’s Church attacks, the ISIS threat is still one Israel has to take seriously. The group has demonstrated it has the resources to launch devastating terrorist attacks, thus Israel may begin to take its sabre-rattling rhetoric more seriously. The decision to close the Taba crossing indicates such a shift.