danger of an escalating conflict with IS, which has no means of immediate retaliation; little chance of an outcry from US or global public opinion, which broadly backs the cause; nor of diplomatic complications, since views on IS are unanimous in the Iraqi government, the Kurdish leadership and in neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
These bombing campaigns are not neutral, however. Seen from the region, they have meaning. In the grim litany of Middle Eastern slaughter, they happen to come after a month of determined indifference from the US administration over the fate of Gazan civilians under bombardment. They send a very clear message to the region: the right mix of “war on terror” and “protection of minorities” can capture and mobilise US power. Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, knows this, as his sensationalist appeal for help in the Washington Post made clear (2). Other politicians in the region understand it too: what they remain deaf to are calls for positive change.
It took the appearance of IS in Lebanon to shake that fragile country out of its state of paralysis. But a step forward can also mean a leap back: the political class and its foreign backers think solely of military solutions, though the army is united mainly in the hunt for Sunni Islamists, while studiously ignoring the sensitive question of Hizbullah, which is left free to fight alongside the reviled regimes in Syria and Iraq. In fact, all destabilising structural factors are, as elsewhere in the region, deemed secondary compared to dealing with IS militarily. In Sunni communities, feelings of victimisation can only grow.
The future looks bright for IS if the main actors continue to exploit its presence to
LMDLeMonde diplomatique SEPTEMBER 2014 3
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in Mosul nonymous/ap/pres asociation images avoid responsibility for their own failings. Shia Islamists, secular elites and western governments are redefining their relations on the basis of a sort of holy war that is becoming an end in itself. In this context, Gaza, Yemen, Sinai, Libya and even Tunisia are fertile grounds for IS expansion. This is a part of the world which has a high degree of regional integration, both across and within borders: as a result of rural migration, outlying regions are well connected to informal neighbourhoods that often sit close to the heart of the big cities.
Close ties also exist with western societies, which have been reshaped by the flow of immigrants and new information technologies. These are producing a new generation of potential jihadists who can easily travel to Syria or Iraq, from where they can talk up their experiences through a hail of tweets that they fire just as easily as bullets.
Though it stands for little in itself, IS is being fed by a system. It can provide a default form of redemption, an ad hoc ally, a means of social advancement, or a readymade identity for Sunnis experiencing a profound crisis. It serves as a foil or useful distraction for its most cynical critics, and a bogeyman concentrating the fears – rational and otherwise – of actors faced with their own failures. This multiplicity of meanings, against a background of chaotic change, is what has brought it success.
Peter Harling ranslated by George Miller (1) See Peter Harling, “Taking Iraq apart”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2014. (2) Massoud Barzani, “Kurds need more U.S. help to defeat Islamic State”, The Washington Post, 10 August 2014.
Israel (signed by Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin after the Camp David accords of 1978) as a sell-out. Israel remains the enemy. And a religious discourse that does not differentiate between Judaism and Zionism underlines the permanent threat it represents.
From 2001 to 2010 Al-Qaida failed to establish a base in Egypt, though it was the birthplace of its current leader, Ayman alZawahiri. The birth of Al-Qaida in the Land of Kenana (Egypt) was announced in 2006, but its leader, Mohammed al-Hakayma, was killed in Pakistan two years later. In June 2010 the first gas pipeline bombing in Sinai was carried out anonymously. After the fall of the Mubarak regime, there were 13 more attacks on the same pipeline, which carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel, in different parts of the peninsula. In April 2012 the government finally announced that it would stop pumping, in line with a court ruling that the agreement undermined Egyptian sovereignty and was against national interests.
ABM revealed its existence for the first time in a video entitled If You are Back, We are Back (2), declaring its support for AlQaida and asserting that it was recognised by the movement. ABM and other Salafist jihadi groups, such as the Mujahideen Shura Council-Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (MSCABM), then moved on to a second phase: targeting Israeli forces in Israel itself. They mounted a handful of successful attacks led by jihadists from Egypt (Bedouin and nonBedouin) and other Arab countries.
A solemn tribal funeral for the Bedouin jihadists killed by an Israeli drone on 9 August 2013 demonstrated the support that ABM enjoyed at that time. But when the bombings began to target Egypt’s regular army, its popularity and that of the other armed groups began to decline. The people of Sinai had welcomed attacks on Israeli targets across the border as a challenge to the authorities in Cairo, believing that connivance between Mubarak and the Israelis was the principal obstacle to the development of their region. Dozens of border tribesmen were being held prisoner in Israel, and though only recently arrested, were considered “prisoners of war”. The border tribes began to worry that resistance against Israel would turn into armed rebellion against the Egyptian state.
That line was crossed, giving Israel a pretext to take action. In August 2012 Israeli commandos had penetrated Egyptian territory and killed Bedouin ABM leader Ibrahim Eweida in the village of Khereza, 15km west of the border. In May 2013 Mahdy Abu Deraa, another Bedouin ABM leader, was killed in Goz Abu Raad in northern Sinai, close to Rafah, by local elements cooperating with the Israelis. On 8 August 2013 Israel embarrassed the Egyptian army with an official statement that it had carried out a drone strike on jihadists at Al-Ajraa, to forestall a surface-to-surface missile attack on targets inside Israel.
he unprecedented postcoup repression is a constant provocation to ABM fighters, mostly Bedouin and poorly educated
This escalation pushed the Egyptian army into attacking two villages sheltering members of ABM. An Egyptian attack helicopter entered the skies over zone C (3) for the first time since 1967, striking at AlThoma and Al-Moqataa on 10 August. This was the start of a genuine war between the Egyptian army and ABM.
The Muslim Brotherhood has no organised presence east of Al-Arish and failed to establish links with armed groups in Sinai during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency (June 2012-July 2013). ABM was hostile to the MB; however, it showed solidarity over the violent repression the MB suffered after the military coup that ousted Morsi on 3 July 2013. ABM communiqués, full of religious arguments, not only accused the armed forces of lacking loyalty to the nation, but referred to the entire army, from raw recruits to officers, as miscreants. ABM then extended its sphere of operations beyond Sinai, to targets in other parts of Egypt.
The violence (4) and war crimes committed during the ongoing military operation against suspected Islamist militant hideouts in Sinai (which began on 7 September 2013) have prompted ABM to recruit more fighters. The worst-case scenario is not that ABM will export violence to the rest of Egypt, but that links between ABM and Salafist jihadis in Syria – vague until now – will be strengthened.
The unprecedented post-coup repression is a constant provocation to ABM fighters, mostly Bedouin and poorly educated. They see the attacks on the MB and other Islamist demonstrators during Ramadan last year (including during prayers at mosques), and the suspicion with which religious people are treated, as a declaration of war on Islam.
The attempted assassination of the interior minister in eastern Cairo in September 2013 was a turning point. Until then ABM had targeted the armed forces and police. Now it began to engage in “terrorism” in the strict sense, no longer showing concern for civilians. In October 2013 an ABM suicide bomber drove a lorry filled with explosives into the security directorate of South Sinai. In November the military intelligence offices in Ismailia Province were bombed. A month later, the transitional government declared the MB a “terrorist organisation” a few hours after a powerful bomb destroyed the security directorate in Mansoura, capital of Daqahlya Province; the attack had been planned and implemented entirely by ABM.
Egyptian army officers and soldiers enjoy complete impunity from their crimes against civilians in Sinai: killing women and children; shooting at homes without warning or destroying them without a court order, including huts belonging to the poor and elderly; uprooting olive orchards; arresting hundreds of people at random; ordering dozens of shops to close; forced displacements and disappearances; and of course harassing journalists and researchers.
After four months of this open war, ABM demonstrated its strength early this year with three spectacular acts of violence: a Grad rocket attack on the Israeli town of Eilat on 21 January; an attack on the security directorate in central Cairo on 24 January,
just one day after the interior minister had warned off anyone thinking of celebrating the anniversary of the 25 January revolution in front of a police station; and – most discussed by the media – the downing of an Egyptian military aircraft, killing its crew, on 25 January. Furious soldiers took revenge by razing the village of Al-Lifitat to the ground and launching a number of night attacks against the town of Al-Barth.
The Egyptian army has managed to maintain an information blackout on the situation in North Sinai for several months. Local journalists and activists have been harassed, arrested, tortured or forced to go into hiding, and their foreign colleagues have been threatened and expelled. There are frequent communication network outages, and a curfew that starts one hour before sunset. Yet all these measures, including random collective punishment of the local population, have not prevented ABM from launching rocket attacks on Israel during the latest war in Gaza – from the same area where the Israeli drone killed the four jihadists last year.
When the Egyptian army managed to stop a second attack, on 13 July, ABM escalated its activity by targeting an army camp east of Al-Arish. One missile hit its target; but another fell on nearby homes, killing seven civilians including a 10-year-old girl, and wounding nine.
ABM has now turned away from Al-Qaida to form an alliance with the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS). Ferocious oppression by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities has produced a new generation of fighters, motivated more by a thirst for revenge than by ideology.
TEXT IN ENGLISH
(1) See Alain Gresh, “Gaza: Palestine first and last”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2014. (2) A translation of a Qur’anic verse, here used to mean “If you start exporting natural gas to Israel again, we will start bombing the pipeline again.” (3) The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty divided Sinai into three zones, and limited the number of Egyptian troops allowed in each zone. Troops are not permitted to enter zone C, adjoining the Israeli border, though the police may do so. (4) See “Sinai – Destined to suffer?”, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Nairobi, 9 December 2013; www.irinnews.org