On Dec. 23, a video produced by Wilayat Sinai (State of Sinai) was uploaded to YouTube. The video, which was made to get the public's support in their fight against the Egyptian military, was then disseminated on Twitter by Islamic State supporters.
Who exactly is Wilayat Sinai? Wilayat Sinai, or the State of Sinai, is the local group that has sworn bayah (allegiance) to the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Before this moniker, they were known as Ansar Bayt al Maqdis or Ansar Jerusalem. Ansar Jerusalem has been responsible for several attacks in Egypt, the Sinai, and in Israel since 2011 (see map above). On Nov. 10, theyformally pledged bayah to the Islamic State, thus becoming Wilayat Sinai.
However, the entirety of the group was not behind the decision to pledge bayah to the Islamic State. Quickly after the news broke of Ansar Jerusalem going to the Islamic State, the New York Times reported that there was a split between the leadership of the group in the Sinai and those based in mainland Egypt. According to the New York Times' source, the leadership based in mainland Egypt wanted to stay with al Qaeda, unlike the younger leaders in the Sinai. It is likely the mainland-based contingent is still loyal to al Qaeda.
Then on Dec. 13, a group split from Wilayat Sinai and began to call itself the Rabat (Fortification) Brigade in the Sinai. In the message released by this group, they vehemently opposed any swearing of bayah to al Baghdadi and officially broke away from Wilayat Sinai. The message was then touted on Twitter by several al Qaeda-affiliated profiles and on several al Qaeda-affiliated forums. However, to my knowledge, I do not know if it officially declared its allegiance to al Qaeda and Zawahiri.
Another group operating in this region is Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), which used to be part of Ansar Jerusalem. However, the two groups parted ways long before Ansar Jerusalem went to the Islamic State. The group was, however, just recently designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department. It is also worth noting that Ajnad Misr uses the same kind of rhetoric as al Qaeda in its propaganda and is likely affiliated to al Qaeda.
Operations in the Sinai since declaring allegiance to the Islamic State
The operations of Wilayat Sinai remain the same as when it called itself Ansar Jerusalem. It is still bombing Egyptian targets, still conducting drive-by shootings, still executing captured soldiers, etc. The only thing that has seemed to have changed is the amount of attention they are attracting.
Since the name change, its official Twitter account has changed to reflect the organizational change. The account has around 18,000 followers and while it has not tweeted in a few weeks, it has gave a summary of its operations in the past. This summary was then touted by Islamic State fans and supporters on Twitter and on Facebook.
Its propaganda videos are now produced by the Islamic State, which makes them sleeker and more professional, as well as more available to a wider audience. Just four days after making the switch, a video was released on Twitter showing its recent operations in the Sinai. To get a good idea of the video, please read this article by my colleague Thomas Joscelyn over at The Long War Journal.
Islamic State supporters online have also began to market the Sinai as a destination for jihadists wanting to join the Islamic State. Two known Islamic State Twitter outlets have disseminated a six-page report written by a jihadist named Abu Musab al Gharib. In the report, al Gharib heavily marketed the Sinai as a place for jihadists to go in order to "consolidate the Islamic State's caliphate". For more on this, please read this article by Thomas Joscelyn.
It has also been reported by several Islamic State accounts on Twitter and by some analysts that the Islamic State has actually sent a battalion of its "soldiers" to the Sinai to help out its branch there. This claim has not been independently verified and I am not sure the validity of it. However, it stands to reason that the Islamic State would do this if they wish to consolidate its gains in the Sinai. Based on where most operations happen there, it would appear the towns of Al Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah would be the first cities to fall under Islamic State control.
However, the group does show signs of consolidating its grip on areas it controls.
In the video released on Dec. 23, the last scenes showed fighters of Wilayat Sinai manning a checkpoint in Al Arish in northern Sinai. The fighters were stopping traffic on both sides of the road and checking for ID's. It would appear that the fighters are starting to consolidate its grip on whatever ground they hold in Al Arish. While it is likely a small portion of the city, the fighters still felt strong enough to operate a checkpoint. This signals that the Islamic State's strength might be growing in the north of Sinai. Just how strong they will or can grow has yet to be seen, however. The Egyptian military still mounts large-scale operations targeting the jihadists in northern Sinai and even impose a curfew in the north, as well.
The Islamic State's growth in the Sinai can be hampered by the Egyptian military with a comprehensive strategy to deal with the jihadists.