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Michael Jansen: Still going strong
December 01, 2017
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The massacre a week ago by a Daesh-affiliate of 305 civilians in a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai demonstrates, once again, that the cult has not been defeated. Instead, its fighters and activists — driven from the pseudo-caliphate Daesh proclaimed in Syrian and Iraqi territory during 2014 — have spread out with the intention of carrying on with the battle against the world.

The attackers numbered between 25-30, wore beards and long hair, dressed in camouflage and flew the black banner of Daesh. They arrived in four-wheel drive vehicles, shot worshippers and detonated explosives at the Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, a village near al-Arish.

A few days before the attack, the mayor received a warning that villagers should cease co-operation with the army and turn away from mystical Sufism.

The village had received similar warnings earlier, had recently handed over three men suspected of collaboration with Daesh, and had refused to spurn Sufism. Its adherents are regarded as “mushrikin,” or polytheists by Daesh as Sufis venerate saints and visit their tombs.

Salafis — particularly those grounded in the Saudi Wahhabi ideology — insist that believing Muslims must reject such practices since Sufis place intercessors between themselves and God, an accusation they deny. Daesh has repeatedly targeted Sufis not only in Egypt but also in Pakistan.

The governorate of North Sinai has been lawless for decades. The majority of its population of more than 434,000 is not Nilotic Egyptian but bedouin Arab, some of whom have been in the area since the 8th century. They have long suffered from discrimination, abuse, and official neglect. Tarabin tribesmen who dwell along the border with Gaza are of Palestinian origin and have relatives in Gaza. Tarabin and other tribesmen living along the Red Sea coast of South Sinai have been alienated by the expropriation by the Egyptian government of their lands for tourism developments which profit firms based in Egypt proper but not bedouin. Instead of growing rich, they drive taxis and perform menial tasks in hotels and restaurants.

The economy of North Sinai has, traditionally, relied on smuggling. This became very lucrative after 2005 when Israel pulled its troops out of Gaza, leaving the strip’s southern frontier with Egypt open to underground smuggling. Palestinians constructed 1,532 tunnels beneath Gaza’s border with North Sinai.

Until then all supplies for Gaza were imported through Israeli crossings which limited how much and what kinds of goods could enter the strip. Palestinians were able to enter and leave Gaza only through the Israeli terminal in the north or the Egyptian border at Rafah in the south of the strip.

Gazans applied for permission to enter and leave from the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah in consultation with Israeli security. Therefore, Gaza’s commerce and Gazans’ freedom of movement depended on Israel and Egypt before the tunnels were dug. The tunnels partially liberated Gazans and provided North Sinai residents with a lucrative occupation. North Sinai bedouin are said to have earned $500 million (Dhs1.83 billion) a year. 

 The tunnels were used to smuggle everything from mazout, petrol, construction materials, agricultural tools, raw materials for factories, livestock, food, medicines, clothes, vehicles and spare parts, and, even, Indian spiced tea. Hamas, which ruled Gaza, collected fees for tunnel construction and taxes on imported goods, allowing the de facto government to provide services to the strip’s citizens. Israel and to a lesser extent Egypt used to destroy a few tunnels from time to time, claiming arms and money for Palestinian militants striking at Israel were smuggled through the tunnels. 

When Egypt cracked down on the tunnels in 2013, Cairo deprived North Sinai businessmen and smugglers of their main source of income. Families of smugglers suffered as hundreds of men lost employment. Poverty caused by the loss of jobs in smuggling was compounded by price rises of fuel, cooking gas and public transport, food items were in short supply. 

Since then insecurity has been heightened by constant army operations against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which, before mid-2013, had focused mainly on mounting attacks on the Egyptian pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel and Jordan. Shops, homes and other facilities near the North Sinai border with Gaza were bulldozed to make a buffer zone. Thousands of people were displaced. Additionally, across the province homes and vehicles belonging to wealthy families suspected of profiting from smuggling were torched or leveled. 

During ongoing army operations, schools are closed; roads are blocked; there are arbitrary arrests and random shootings by snipers. Residents of the province now live in fear of both Daesh which beheads people considered to be “collaborators” and the army which conducts broad sweeps through towns and villages arresting scores of men. 

Daesh became a factor in North Sinai in 2014 after Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a group created by the merger of local Salafi factions, proclaimed fealty to the leader of the cult, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A number of the leaders of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis had served with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere. During the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood stalwart Muhammad Morsi, 2012-13, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis reduced its attacks and it is reported foreign fighters were permitted to enter Egypt through the international airport.

After his ouster the group stepped up shootings and bombings in Sinai and conducted operations in the Egypt heartland.  Bedouin, radical Egyptians and foreign fighters joined the ranks of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis which formed the official branch in Sinai of Daesh which was dubbed the Sinai province of the Syria-Iraq false caliphate.

Now that the self-proclaimed entity has been destroyed by the Iraqi and Syrian military and the US-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, North Sinai has become the largest territorial base of Daesh. Foreign and local fighters have escaped the battlefields of Syria and Iraq and turned up in North Sinai with the aim of holding onto this valuable piece of strategic real estate. Furthermore, they are to a certain extent, being reinforced by Daesh recruits based in chaotic Libya.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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