Geopolitics

ISIS In The Sinai: Terror Group Takes On Egyptian Regime

A group calling itself "Defenders of Jerusalem" is throwing its lot in with ISIS, making the battle between Cairo and Islamists ever more since the army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian security checkpoint near sites attacked last month in Sinai town of Arish
Egyptian security checkpoint near sites attacked last month in Sinai town of Arish
Delphine Minoui

CAIRO — Muneim (not his real name) remembers every detail of the encounter: the frightening masks; the uniforms as dark as night; the Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.

The North Sinai trader was on the road from Arish to Sheikh Zowead two months ago when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a group of armed men. "They had their black flag with God's name on it," he recalled. "They ordered me to stop the car for a search. They finally let me go.."

Speaking softly in in a Cairo café, Muneim admits it was a close call. "A few days later an employee of the local governor's office was shot in the head on the same road," he said. "The army won't even go there."

The governor's official was the latest in growing list of victims of the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a terror group grappling for control of Egypt's border with Israel. Three months ago the group announced its affiliation with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Two weeks ago Ansar Bait al-Maqdis fighters launched an assault on police and army installations in Arish, the chief city of northern Sinai, killing 30, mostly soldiers, and injuring dozens. Approximately 30 soldiers were also killed in October, when the group launched a carefully planned attack on a military camp near Arish. That raid, the deadliest in years, prompted Egyptian authorities to declare they would form a buffer zone on the Gaza frontier, to "eliminate the terrorists" and block secret tunnels.

Since then, the Egyptian army has intensified air raids on the fighters, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of residents the process. This is a particularly volatile zone where there is mobile phone reception and Internet only a few hours a day. A draconian curfew has just been extended for three months.

Yet these forceful moves have had just a limited impact on the militants. Experts point to last week's attack as evidence that Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is in fact becoming more sophisticated. Their operations are coordinated, "serialized," and perfectly planned. They coincide, furthermore, with the return from Syria of Egyptians who had gone to fight the Asad regime, and with the expanding influence of ISIS, whose tentacles are extending beyond Syria and Iraq.

"Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has gained experience," Sinai specialist Ismail al-Iskandarani said recently. "We have come a long way from the small, improvised attacks of four years ago."

(On Monday, Egyptian fighter planes launched raids on ISIS targets across the border in Libya after the terror group announced the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.)

Blocking the secret tunnels should potentially limit Ansar Bait al-Maqdis's ability to obtain weaponry. In the meantime, though, the group has exploited the state of anarchy in Libya to engage in cross-border arms trafficking on that end. Its fighters also seize guns and artillery pieces (mortars, grenade launchers, AK-47 rifles) during its attacks on the regular army.

Caught in crossfire

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which translates roughly as "Defenders of Jerusalem," emerged in March 2011 in the disorderly period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Its initial focus was Israel. Among its members were some bedouins who had suffered in the vicious search operations that followed the Taba resort bombings in Sinai in 2004.

But after the Egyptian army sacked the Islamist President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013, the group shifted its focus onto Egyptian troops. Their communiqués, issued on jihadist websites, declare their actions to be reprisals for the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some of their methods are reminiscent of ISIS. They have begun to terrorize the local population and want to conquer territory. The heads of two bedouins — killed for supposedly collaborating with the army — were found in northern Sinai in early January.

Three months earlier, the group posted a gruesome YouTube video depicting the beheading of three other men. In the footage, the victims were forced to admit they were Israeli spies. The film showed a fourth man, allegedly an army informant, being sprayed with gunfire.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is invisible in Arish and Rafah, but notably present in the Sheikh Zowead area, which the army has largely abandoned.

"On many of the roads they are the law now," says Ahmad Abu Draa, a journalist in northern Sinai. "They have their checkpoints. Their grey station wagons are easily identifiable. In some villages you even see them giving out propaganda leaflets with their logo. The leaflets say "The sons of Egypt destroyed your houses. What are you waiting for to react?""

Abu Draa is one of the very few reporters working in Sinai, which is now closed to the foreign press. He says creating a buffer zone on the frontier has made things far worse as it forced many residents to leave their homes within 48 hours. "They felt they were all being punished," he says.

The pictures on his smartphone recall the worst images of war: homes crushed like wafers, streets piled high with furniture and belongings, women weeping. "The people of Sinai are caught in the crossfire," says Abu Draa. "If they collaborate with the army the militants will kill them. If they keep quiet, their homes will be destroyed."

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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