ISIS influence wanes in Sinai as al-Qaeda regroups

By Ahmed al-Sharqawi in Cairo

Egyptians attend the November 26th funeral of Fethy Ismail, muezzin of al-Rawda mosque, who died in an 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' attack near the North Sinai provincial capital of al-Arish. [Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

Egyptians attend the November 26th funeral of Fethy Ismail, muezzin of al-Rawda mosque, who died in an 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' attack near the North Sinai provincial capital of al-Arish. [Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

According to a group calling itself Minbar Sinai (Sinai Pulpit), more than 40 "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) elements in Sinai have split from the group to join ranks with an al-Qaeda affiliate.

The January 1st announcement, published on the Telegram instant messaging service, marks the beginning of ISIS's collapse in Egypt, observers said.

Many told Al-Mashareq they attribute the group's decline in Sinai to the deadly November 24th attack on a mosque in the village of al-Rawda near Bir al-Abed.

The attack -- which has been blamed on ISIS, even though the group has failed to claim responsibility for it -- killed 305 people, including 27 children, and sparked widespread condemnation, even from other extremist groups.

"ISIS’s ideas and instructions have become incompatible with the ideology of extremists who want to take up arms," said Brig. Gen. Khaled Okasha, a retired military officer who serves on Egypt's new Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism.

"The young members of armed groups are not interested in the concept of the establishment of an Islamic state," he said. "These youth believe it is very difficult to hold territory in Iraq, Syria and Sinai."

In light of ISIS's successive defeats and losses, Okasha said, it has become clear to its elements that they cannot realise its dream of establishing a caliphate.

'A serious error'

By taking up arms against Muslims, such as those who co-operate with the Egyptian army, the group has "repulsed" the local population, he said, and has stymied its own recruitment efforts.

"The Al-Rawda mosque attack in particular was a turning point in the struggle between ISIS and al-Qaeda to recruit extremist elements," Okasha said.

With that attack, ISIS committed a serious ideological error, he added.

"Al-Qaeda is now aware that ISIS’s demise is near, so it re-disseminated the messages of the emir of al-Qaeda, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, and republished the writings of al-Qaeda terrorists imprisoned in Egyptian jails," he said.

These include the writings of al-Qaeda operative and head of the so-called Nasr City cell, Mohammed Jamal al-Kashif, who has been imprisoned multiple times on terrorism charges, and Tareq Abu al-Azm, an imprisoned member of the same cell, he said.

Most ISIS elements have already pledged allegiance to former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, he said, "and therefore their return to al-Qaeda’s fold is inevitable".

A return to al-Qaeda is appealing to these fighters as it would provide them with a "safe haven and a group within which they can operate, since their contact with ISIS leaders in Syria and Iraq has been cut off", he said.

Information warfare

Al-Qaeda's efforts to discredit ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai also have taken the form of an information war, Okasha said, noting that al-Qaeda has planted spies inside ISIS who have managed to leak news and secrets about the group.

"Al-Qaeda revealed the name of Mohammed al-Saeed, the emir of ISIS’s Diwan al-Hesba ("religious police") in Sinai who issued a fatwa deeming permissible the attack on al-Rawda mosque," he said.

"Al-Qaeda elements also revealed that ISIS elements tried to set up an ambush against tribesmen of the Tiyaha tribe, which is known for its loyalty to the army," he added.

Al-Qaeda also leaked a conversation between ISIS leaders carried out over a wireless radio, in which they admit to being behind the al-Rawda attack, he said.

In addition to the smear campaign being conducted between the two groups, armed clashes have erupted between al-Qaeda-affiliate Jund al-Islam and ISIS, said security and strategy expert Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Zaher.

Jund al-Islam released a video showing its fighters killing six ISIS elements, he said, and has attacked ISIS fighters in the North Sinai desert on several occasions.

"These splits are proof that the war between al-Qaeda and ISIS started a while ago, but it is emerging to the surface now because al-Qaeda has escalated the intensity, having become certain that ISIS’s end is near," he said.

Bitter rivalry

The battle between ISIS and al-Qaeda will undoubtedly accelerate ISIS's demise, said Iman Ragab of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Most armed extremist groups in Egypt are affiliated with al-Qaeda, she told Al-Mashareq.

"Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jund al-Islam has capabilities that present a threat in Sinai, and al-Qaeda-affiliated Ajnad Misr has elements hiding out in al-Wadi al-Gadid and the delta regions, as does al-Qaeda-affiliate Ansar al-Islam in the Western Desert," she said.

Most elements of the new al-Qaeda groups were originally members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, some of whom split from the group after it pledged allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, she said.

"These elements operated under ISIS’s command and therefore know many things about it in terms of how it runs its affairs and its weapon sources, and even its camps and hideouts," she said.

This inside knowledge "will make it easier for them to carry out operations against ISIS", she added.

But "ISIS will not easily give in to al-Qaeda’s attacks, and therefore the war between them will weaken both as they suffer losses in men, weapons and money", Ragab said.

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