After the mosque attack, the map of jihadist forces in Sinai is changing

The situation in Sinai will become more complicated and bloody as tribes decided to take up arms to punish an armed organisation, writes Maged Atef

Egyptians attend on November 26, 2017 in the village of Saud, in the centre of al-Husseiniya in the country's northern province of al-Sharqiya, the funeral of Fethy Ismail, the Muadhin of al-Rawda mosque, who died in an attack by militants near the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish.
Earlier in the week armed attackers killed over 300 worshippers in a bomb and gun assault on the packed mosque in Egypt's restive North Sinai province, in the deadliest attack the country has witnessed. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED
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Last Friday, Egyptians were surprised by news from Sinai about an attack on a mosque. At first, no one realised the extent of the disaster, but the picture soon became clear. More than 300 people were killed in an attack on a mosque in the village of Rawda, the worst terrorist atrocity in the history of Egypt. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the incident, fingers are pointing to the emergence of an ISIL-affiliate in Sinai.

The mosque is located in the village of Rawda, known for its affiliation with the Sufi sect of Islam, and as the birthplace of Sheikh Eid Al Jariri, the founder of the Sufi line of Jarirism. Sufism is an Islamic approach based on asceticism and love of the divine and love of beauty. Sufis have many practices considered by Islamic hardliners as a kind of polytheism.

Clashes between Salafism and Sufism go back a long way, but reached a peak during the brief reign of former president Mohammed Morsi when many mausoleums and shrines visited by the Sufis were destroyed.

With the emergence of ISIL in Sinai, the clash took a more violent course. In 2015, leaflets were distributed in Rafah calling on the people to leave the Sufi groups and stop what was described as violations of Islamic legislation. Afterwards 12 people were kidnapped from a shrine associated with the Alawi Sufi group, south of Rafah. The kidnappers demanded the dozen’s repentance before their release. Eventually, Sufi sheikh Suleiman Abuhraz was kidnapped and slaughtered as a punishment for what the hardliners described as atheistic practices.


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But the main reason to believe that the ISIL-affiliated group Sinai Province is behind last Friday’s attack is the direct and explicit threat, which was voiced by the emir of the Centre of Hesba in Sinai in an interview published last year in a publication affiliated with ISIL. In the interview, he explicitly threatened the "Jarir line" in the village of Rawda if they did not end what they do and return to true Islam. According to the people of the village, they have received more than one threat in the last two weeks for the same reasons cited in the interview. Above all, the Sinai Province group believes the Sufis are loyal to the army.

So far, the ISIL affiliate in the Sinai has not commented on the attack, whether to claim responsibility or deny it. Previously, the organisation has denied operations attributed to it and since it has so far not been denied, this confirms the suspicion that they are either the culprits or at least one of the toughest wings within it. The Sinai Province group are unlikely to declare if an internal hardline sub-group is responsible, fearing further schisms within.

Apart from the province of Sinai, a statement was issued by Jund Al Islam, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. The statement was issued immediately after the incident and included a condemnation of the attack on the mosque, announcing it was not their act. They also stressed they hold the blood of civilians sacred.

The statement of Jund Al Islam casts light on another conflict taking place in Sinai between armed organisations. Recently, as ISIL in Syria and Iraq weakened, their affiliate in Sinai also weakened because of successive Egyptian army strikes. This weakness lured Jund Al Islam to attempt to take their place and pull the rug from under their feet.

Jund Al Islam has been active in Sinai since 2012. It declared responsibility for blowing up the gas line between Egypt and Israel more than once and carried out an attack on the headquarters of military intelligence in Rafah in 2013, killing six soldiers and wounding 17 others. At a certain point, the success of ISIL forced other organisations to join forces with it. But after the current weakness of the organisation, the map of the jihadist forces is changing within Sinai and the forces are becoming increasingly fragmented and complicated.


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Jund Al Islam's audio statement indicated the beginning of fighting between armed organisations inside Sinai, as the ideological dispute between them deepened. Unlike other groups, the Sinai Province group targets anyone who cooperates with the army, soldiers or civilians. In addition, ISIL does not adopt an emotional or nationalistic rhetoric to attract the public while Jund Al Islam focus on this, whether by declaring love and fear for the people  or talk about national issues such as supporting the Palestinian cause and providing for the people of Gaza.

Tribes of Sinai find themselves on the line of fire as rifts emerge between Al Qaeda and the Sinai Province group and even appear within the Sinai group itself. The confederation of Sinai tribes issued a statement calling on "all men and youth of Sinai tribes to join their brethren in the area of ​​Al-Barth to coordinate a major operation with the army to completely end the Province of Sinai". The tribes declared that they will carry arms in coordination with the army to burn terrorists in this world before the afterlife.

The Egyptian army did not comment on the announcement of the tribes. This means that the situation in Sinai will become more complicated and bloody as tribes decide to take up arms to punish an armed organisation. Concurrently another armed organisation declares war on the first. In short, we are talking about civil strife about to break between ISIL and Al Qaeda, and in the background we have the statement by the Egyptian president that the state will respond "with brutal force". All indicators show the scene has become extremely complicated.