Has ISIS Seized the Sinai?

Photo by Sebastian Horndasch | CC BY 2.0

The Sinai mosque massacre proves what many have suspected for months in Egypt: that Isis – even without a direct claim yet –  is taking over the peninsula, targeting more and more of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s officers and police.  Thus proving that tactical defeat in Iraq and Syria means for Isis merely a change of location.

The “fall” of Sinai – perhaps even stretching down to Sharm e-Sheikh – the supposedly “safe” tourist resort – would only further undermine al-Sisi’s brash claims after his coup that he would end “terrorism” in Egypt.

This supposed battle has led to the jailing of Egyptian 60,000 political prisoners – allegedly “terrorists” but many of them young men sickened by al-Sisi’s virtual dictatorship – and an undetermined number of murders and disappearances. But the world, as usual, turned yesterday to the sending of condolences to the innocent victims of al-Sissi’s enemies. Inevitably, the victims of the regime were forgotten while the “evil and cowardly” mass murder of at least 235 worshippers at the al-Rawda mosque near al-Arish was condemned by Nato, Theresa May and a host of other Western leaders.


At al-Sisi’s emergency cabinet meeting afterwards – and there are more and more of these “emergency” government gatherings in Cairo these days – there will have been questions asked about how the killers, with both bombs and gunfire, managed to slaughter so many civilians, quite a number of them friendly to the security forces. Does this have the potential to be an “inside job”? The question has to be asked since the last incidents of killings in Sinai, officially leaving more than 30 dead (although the figure might be far higher), included an ambush of more than 10 senior generals in the police and army who were – themselves – supposed to be ambushing Isis.

That is perhaps the most serious element in the current Sinai insurgency, which has taken the lives of thousands of others, including members of the Christian minority and soldiers and police. For well over a year, the Egyptian army have been using air strikes against the insurgents – a pattern that grimly follows the start of the Syrian civil war. More than two years ago, al-Sisi sent his security men to discuss with the Syrians government how to deal with their opponents. Who knows when the Syrian authorities will be invited to send their own officers to advise the Egyptians?

For the West, of course, the increase in widespread Isis-linked action in Sinai tarnishes all those claims – from Iran as well as from the Americans and British – that the cult has been vanquished. Egypt is evidently the next target. Since the church attacks in Cairo and Alexandria and other cities west of the Nile, it is clear that Isis has already “crossed the river”. You are not safe in Sinai – but neither are you safe in Cairo.

Needless to say, Egypt will now have an even easier time in receiving military support from the West – al-Sisi’s military shopping expedition to France earlier this month will undoubtedly be repeated. And increased weaponry will make the Egyptian military stronger; thus the al-Sisi government will feel even bolder in arresting or torturing its political opponents. Isis must also surely know that al-Sisi is increasingly unpopular in Egypt: his promises of economic recovery after a period of austerity have so far proved false. And elections, as they say, are looming.

The one thing that the Egyptian authorities have on their side is that the media have been virtually sealed off from covering the Sinai war. Thus the casualties – which may be far higher than claimed – have gone largely unreported or dismissed as “falsifications” by the military. The Sinai massacre was the bloodiest of the present Islamist war against the government in Cairo. It will not be the last.


Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.