Rowan Scarborough – The Washington Times
With a media blitz, the Islamic State has set its sights on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as the next shot at expanding its empire and establishing a base from which to attack neighboring Israel.
The terrorist group’s propaganda units have gone into high gear for recruitment this month to build a force in Sinai large enough to one day conquer Jerusalem — the same way its fighters took over large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Last week, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the Islamic State’s presence in Sinai, where the group may have placed as many as 1,000 terrorists. The general’s concern is a signal that the U.S. faces another war front against the Islamic State in addition to Iraq, Syria and Libya.
More than a dozen Islamic State media arms in Iraq and Syria have produced videos narrated by a who’s who of hardened jihadis, who are surely on a U.S. kill list for daily airstrikes.
Islamic State propaganda promises recruits that they will one day “liberate” Jerusalem and end the state of Israel, according to analysis by the Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks jihadi communications. The Egyptian army, the force standing in the way, is threatened with beheadings if soldiers continue to fight.
Such a massive propaganda effort for one mission is unusual for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Analysts says it means leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi views the land as increasingly important to his group’s ultimate goal of bringing down governments in the region and expanding its so-called caliphate, or Islamic state.
“I think ISIS sees the Sinai as a steppingstone for launching greater attacks against Israel, which would boost its claim to primacy in championing the Arab/Muslim cause against Israel, an issue that strongly resonates with many Arab Islamists,” said Jim Phillips, a Middle East analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “The Sinai cells also pose a long-term threat to Egypt, a key state with the largest Arab population. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love them.”
Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said the Islamic State is applying lessons learned in Anbar, Iraq, parts of which it controls, as it tries to persuade Egyptians and people in Hamas-controlled Gaza to join. Hamas is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
“One of the videos noted that ISIS in Sinai has learned from the experience of ISIS in Al-Anbar as the two areas are similar in terms of its desert geography,” Mr. Stalinsky said.
“They have been calling Egyptian and Gazans to join them. They believe that ISIS in Sinai will be the gate towards the liberation of Palestine,” he said.
For now, the Islamic State lacks the firepower to repeat its success in Anbar, where it captured a number of towns including the disputed Fallujah, after invading Iraq.
“Their strategy now in the Sinai is basically hit-and-run kind of attacks,” Mr. Stalinsky said.
Egyptian forces on the peninsula are hit by those attacks almost daily.
The Islamic State made an enormous statement in Sinai in October when it placed a bomb on Metrojet Flight 9268, sending the Russian airliner crashing onto the desert landscape. The Islamic State claimed it sabotaged the plane, killing 224 people, with explosives hidden in a soda can. If so, the bomb was likely placed on the plane by an Islamic State insider at the Sinai Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
“ISIS leadership views the Sinai province as a key extension for the organization outside of its core area of control in Syria and Iraq,” says an analysis by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “Indeed, the Sinai province is considered one of the most powerful and effective among these extensions.”
Mr. Phillips said the Arab Spring uprising centered in Cairo fed the Islamic State the fighters it needed in Sinai as many Islamists were released from prisons.
“Extremist groups flourished in the Sinai, where they recruited disaffected Bedouin tribes, which had long resented what they perceived to be neglect and marginalization at the hands of the Egyptian government,” he said. “The Sinai also offered a conduit to Gaza, where extremists received support from Hamas and other radical Palestinian Islamist groups.”
A sampling of some of the more than one dozen Sinai-centered Islamic State videos provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute:
• Two jihadis in Iraq, Abu Qaswara Al-Masri, an Egyptian, and Abu Omar Al-Maqdisi, likely a Palestinian from Gaza, urge Egyptians to join the Islamic State in Sinai.
Al-Masri tells the Egyptian army: “We advise you to repent before we manage to find you. If we find you, there will be no other [fate] but beheading for you. There will be no mercy for you and you are aware of that. You have seen what the soldiers of the caliphate have done with your colleagues and you will see. I advise you to repent. I am a truthful adviser to you.”
• Islamic State fighters Abu Suhaib Al-Ansari and Abu Omar Al-Ansari, in Iraq’s Ninawa province, appear in a recruitment video. Abu Omar Al-Ansari urges Egyptians to attack Egyptian government officials and “spill their blood and communicate with them with guns and explosives and turn them into corpses with bombs.” He specifically called on Gazans to travel to Sinai.
• A video produced in Aleppo province, Syria, attacks the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as mainstream.
A fighter says, “You are the preachers for polytheism and falsehood, you are the ones who issued the fatwa for people to take part in the polytheist democracy, and you are the ones who issued the fatwa for people to vote for the pagan constitution, which puts sovereignty in the hands of the people instead of Allah.”
He added: “You have deceived your followers that [adhering to] democracy and entering the parliament will lead to [the implementation] of Islamic Shariah. Now, where is the Shariah, O enemies of Allah?”
The Brotherhood’s overriding goal is to spread Shariah, or Islamic law, around the world by undercutting secular governments.
Gen. Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, raised alarm last week about the Islamic State’s growing presence in Sinai and said Egyptian forces had begun a counteroffensive against its units.
“We have seen a connection between the Islamic State in the Sinai and Raqqa,” Gen. Dunford told reporters, according to a dispatch by Voice of America. “We have seen communication between the Islamic State in the Sinai and the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere, so we are watching that pretty closely.”
Raqqa is the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in central Syria, from which it directs media operations and terrorist attacks.
“The Egyptians are taking the fight to the Islamic State right now,” he said aboard a flight for a NATO meeting in Brussels.
The Egyptian military said this weekend that it conducted a series of raids in Sinai that killed 51 Islamic State fighters, according to the Arab news site Al Bawaba.
“Just being able to have a presence and cause some disruption in between Egypt and Israel gives ISIS some propaganda value, at the very least, said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “It also causes Egypt to look both East and West and may, therefore, provide some operational flexibility to ISIS planning.”