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memri
December 4, 2017 No.
1362

Sinai – A New Arena For The Ongoing ISIS-Al-Qaeda Rivalry

By: R. Green*

The following report is a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

Introduction

In recent weeks, the ongoing struggle between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihad movement found a new theatre – the Sinai peninsula – as Al-Qaeda made efforts to reenter the Egyptian arena and challenge the hegemony of ISIS in Sinai, or at least to put on a media show of challenging ISIS's Sinai Province. The struggle was manifested on the ground, in actual fighting between the two organizations, and in online propaganda, in an exchange of invective and threats. The struggle in Sinai mirrors the struggle between ISIS and Al-Qaeda in other areas, such as Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Jund Al-Islam (JI), Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Sinai, claimed responsibility for an October 11, 2017 attack on ISIS fighters that killed a number of them, and boasted that it has the power to "uproot" ISIS. If the attack was indeed perpetrated by JI, it constitutes a precedent, since to date ISIS has not faced a challenge from within the jihadi movement. However, it should be noted that JI's threats seem like bluster, given that it has yet to conduct any significant military activity – in contrast to ISIS in Sinai, which has proven military capabilities. Moreover, the militia of the Bedouin Tarabin tribe, which operates in cooperation with the Egyptian security forces, claimed responsibility for an attack on ISIS fighters on the same date and in the same location,[1] while JI has not presented any filmed evidence that it carried out the attack.

Al-Qaeda circles even disseminated an audio recording of a speaker identified as a cleric in Sinai protesting against injustices that he claimed were perpetrated by ISIS against local residents. ISIS operatives and their supporters online rejected the accusations and threatened to respond fiercely to any attacks on the organization.

It is notable that Al-Qaeda operatives appeal to the Sinai residents to turn against ISIS, depicting ISIS operatives as criminals; Al-Qaeda media releases aimed at the residents address them respectfully and underline that the organization considers them to be proper Muslims, whereas ISIS may consider them to be apostates, for various reasons.  

The horrific November 24, 2017 attack on a Sufi mosque in the village of Al-Rawda in north Sinai, in which more than 300 were killed, including many women and children, emphasized the volatility of the situation in the Sinai Peninsula. Although ISIS has not claimed the attack, and likely will not, the attack gave ISIS's Salafi opponents further opportunity to condemn the organization and to turn the Sinai residents away from it. Thus, JI was quick to condemn the attack in the harshest terms, in order to underline how it differs from ISIS.

This report reviews several important aspects of the Al-Qaeda-ISIS rivalry in Sinai.

 

Jund Al-Islam Attacks, Threatens ISIS

On November 11, 2017, JI announced that it had ambushed several ISIS fighters and killed some of them, and had also destroyed a military vehicle and seized military gear. The message described ISIS as "Khawarij"[2] and called on its members to retract their oath of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.[3]

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated JI is one of the Salafi-jihadi groups that have been active in Sinai since the beginning of the decade. It carried out several attacks against the Egyptian regime in 2013, after the ouster of president Morsi. Initially it operated as part of the Salafi-jihadi umbrella organization Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen, and later joined Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis; when the latter pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi and joined ISIS, JI split off from it, remaining loyal to Al-Qaeda. Egyptian experts contend that its reemergence as an active organization is part of Al-Qaeda's efforts to reenter the Egyptian arena. They say that it is no coincidence that JI is again active at the same time that the new group Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility for the October 20, 2017 ambush on Egyptian security forces near Al-Wahat Al-Bahariya southwest of Cairo.[4]

The three-minute audio message in which JI took responsibility for the attack on ISIS states: "At a time when the tyrants [the Egyptian security forces] are expelling the residents of Rafah from their homes, Egyptian military checkpoints are scattered throughout Sinai, and the Jews bombard our people in Sinai with impunity, Al-Baghdadi's gang [ISIS] is spying on the believers among the general Muslim public and the mujahideen. The ceaseless attacks by Al-Baghdadi's Khawarij – [known as] the 'Sinai Province' – against the Muslims, and their siege on Gaza, have been proven beyond any doubt. [During this time], we have spotted an [ISIS] unit armed with light and medium weapons infiltrating the area guarded by your brothers from Jund Al-Islam, with the aim of killing them treacherously.

 

JI fighters (in video posted by the organization in 2015)

 

 "Accordingly, the Jund Al-Islam security apparatus decided on a security operation to repel the Khawarij [ISIS fighters], after their evil expansion and oppression reached the level of proclaiming takfir against the members [of Jund Al-Islam] and calling them 'sahawat'..."[5]

The message goes on to describe the action carried out on the night of October 11, when a JI unit set an ambush in order to capture ISIS fighters "so as to interrogate them about their crimes [against Jund Al-Islam]." A firefight broke out, during which JI killed several ISIS fighters, destroyed their vehicle, and seize military equipment.

The message includes a demand for ISIS fighters "Abu Osama," "Abu Saleh," "Abu Sakher," and "Fahed" to surrender to JI – naming them in order to show the extent of JI's familiarity with the ISIS forces – and adds: "We call upon the devious operatives of the [ISIS] organization to repent before Allah and not to fight under a banner that has sowed division among the Muslims and has, with no religious justification, declared their blood and the blood [of their women] licit. In conclusion, we are capable of uprooting this organization from Sinai if it does not restrain itself, stop its deception and deviance, and subject itself to Allah's divine law instead of Al-Baghdadi's law. 'And Allah hath full power and control over His affairs; but most among mankind know it not' [Quran 12:21]."

 


JI's claim of responsibility for the attack on ISIS

 

In another message posted the following day, JI lambasted ISIS for attacking a convoy of cement trucks in central Sinai and murdering eight of the drivers, shocking and enraging the local population.[6] It should be noted that although there is no doubt that ISIS carried out the attack, it never claimed responsibility for it. Five days later, it claimed responsibility for killing an army officer who accompanied the convoy but did not acknowledge that this killing was part of an attack on the entire convoy.[7]

JI's condemnation stated: "With sorrow and anguish, we followed the crime perpetrated against defenseless Muslim drivers on a road in central Sinai, [who were attacked] with savage brutality and whose blood was permitted by all sides [i.e. by both ISIS and the Egyptian authorities]... We extend our condolences to the victims of the massacre of the Muslim truck drivers in central Sinai. The agents of the Egyptian army and the extremists, Al-Baghdadi's Khawarij, [both] took part in the killing of the defenseless Muslims in Sinai. As Allah is our witness, we are innocent of any blood shed in Sinai that must not be shed. We call upon the people of Sinai and upon the Egyptian people at large to stand as one against evil and tyranny in all its forms [i.e. against both ISIS and the Egyptian regime]."[8]

 

JI message condemning the attack on the truck convoy

 


Tribal militia's claim of responsibility for the October 11 attack on ISIS

 

ISIS Fighters Threaten Jund Al-Islam

The ISIS fighters reacted to the Jund Al-Islam announcements with derision and threats. Abu Sumayah Al-Masri, a leading jihadi social media activist affiliated with ISIS in Sinai, criticized JI for leaving the Egyptian army alone and instead attacking ISIS. He noted: "Jund Al-Islam, the orphans of Al-Zawahiri, did not fire a single bullet at the infidel army; rather, they began their operations by ambushing the soldiers of the [ISIS] province [of Sinai]. As is the custom of the filthy organization in every arena, they bare their backs for the infidels of every shape and stripe to ride, just so they can fight the monotheists. May Allah curse them in this world and the next... Since the establishment of [ISIS's Sinai] province and the expulsion from it of Al-Zawahiri's orphans, they long to open their own front in Sinai, at any cost...

"We say to them: We lie in wait for you. We swear to you by Allah that your flag will only fly in Egypt over our dead bodies. We have learned from the mistakes of our predecessors. What took place in Syria and Libya [where Al-Qaeda branches are operating, and constitute bitter rivals of ISIS] will not recur here. Just wait: Only days separate us from the time we get you."[9]

A Gaza ISIS supporter who goes by Al-Rased Al-Falastini on Telegram wrote: "Don't believe everything that is published. Most of [what is stated in] these announcements are figments of the imagination. If they were true, they would disseminate footage of their attack on ISIS soldiers, or at least photographs of the bodies of the brothers they claim to have killed... No one in Sinai, whoever he might be, would dare to raise his weapon against ISIS soldiers. If he did, I believe his mother would then pray for him on Laylat Al Qadr [i.e. she would mourn him], enough beating around the bush...

"A short message to the so-called Jund Al-Islam in Sinai, to you and those who support you: No one will help you. Any of you are who are actively involved in any attack on ISIS mujahideen should hasten to surrender himself to [the fighters of ISIS Sinai] Province – for if you do not, the result is clear to you. And is it not shameful that you were called upon to fight the mujahideen, and not the dogs of Al-Sisi? – that is, that you were called to fight the mujahideen, not the infidel tyrants? This is twisted logic, and the excuses [for this] are unacceptable. All this only strengthens our certainty that you were paid to fight ISIS. The stench of 'Sahawat' [ISIS pejorative for rival militias] emanates from Gaza and Sinai."[10]

Minbar Sinaa' – Online Media Outlet Targeting ISIS In Sinai

For the past few months, a group calling itself the Sinai Pulpit (Minbar Sinaa), has been active on social media, presenting itself as an independent body speaking on behalf of the residents of Sinai. A statement on the group's Telegram channel noted: "The Sinai Pulpit comprises sons of Sinai, from the Sinai tribes of Al-Rumailat, Al-Sawarkah, Tarabin, Al-Rishat and others... We state loud and clear that the Pulpit is independent... We emphasize that the Sinai Pulpit is the voice of the residents of Sinai."[11]  

On its social media accounts (currently just Telegram), the group posts updates about events in Sinai, complaints about the circumstances of the residents, and reports of wrongs inflicted on them by the Egyptian military or by ISIS­.


The Sinai Pulpit

An example of the anti-ISIS information posted by the Sinai Pulpit is an announcement on Telegram of the alleged defection of a senior ISIS member: "Tribal sources confirm to the Sinai Pulpit that a senior commander in the Sinai Province organization defected from the organization the day before yesterday. The former senior commander – whose name we are unable to provide for security reasons so as to safeguard his life – said that dozens of operatives want to defect from the organization but cannot, and that anyone who wishes to defect, or who disobeys the 'governor' [wali, Sinai Province leader] – is eliminated..." The announcement names an operative who it says was murdered for smuggling goods to the Gaza Strip, and that dozens of others are in prison for attempts to defect. It adds that ISIS intends to raid the Bedouin Tarabin tribe because ISIS is short on supplies and the dissatisfaction in its ranks is increasing.[12]

Whether or not the information in the announcement is true, the use of this Telegram channel for information warfare against ISIS is noteworthy.

 

Sinai Cleric Attacks ISIS

In another major example of Al-Qaeda's battle with ISIS for the hearts of the local residents, on November 5, elements identified with Al-Qaeda published a recorded speech by an individual identified as a cleric and a Sinai resident harshly condemning ISIS in Sinai. In his statements, the man, identified as "Abu Muhammad Al-Salafi Al-Sinawi," in a voice distorted to conceal his true identity, referred to ISIS fighters as "Khawarij," criticized them for their allegiance to "the imaginary caliphate" of Al-Baghdadi, and provided a list of crimes and injustices that they had carried out against the local Sinai residents. The following are excerpts from the recording.

 


Illustration accompanying the post of the recording by Abu Muhammad Al-Salafi Al-Sinawi

"One test for the Islamic ummah in this era is the malady of extremism, that is holding the Islamic ummah back from triumphing and causing its enemies to rule it. One of the fruits of extremism is the pretension of establishing an imaginary Caliphate, on the basis of which imaginary provinces are established. [This Caliphate] has led to more division than unity, and has declared Muslims as apostates. The people of Sinai are paying the price of this extremism, in the form of explosions, bombardment, explosive devices, and car bombs that have killed dozens of passersby. So we will present to you, oh you of wise intellect and of a heart capable of clear vision, clear proof and conclusive evidence of the truth of what is falsely referred to as Wilayat Sinai [Sinai Province], [whose fighters] are the 'Khawarij' of our time... They are a group that takes verses that refer to infidels and applies them to Muslims... They denounce all who disagree with them as apostates, based on false slander and distorted claims. They kill the Muslims and permit the spilling of the blood of those who are protected, based on false fatwas from the land of conflict and disputes, from the cellars of Iraq.[13]

"Oh you who are being misled by the Sinai Province organization, who desire to apply the rules of the Islamic religion; oh you who are being misled by the caliphate of Al-Baghdadi; oh you whose hands are stained with the blood of the innocent Muslims of Sinai: Think, with your mind and your heart, of Judgment Day, the day of sorrow and regret, when Allah will ask why you killed his servant So-and-so. You will say that Cleric So-and-so told me that he was a member of the Sahawat. Will the words of that same Cleric So-and-so protect you from Allah?...

"In order to fulfill my obligation to Allah and to condemn the injustice that the people of Sinai are experiencing from this organization, I will enumerate several of the crimes that this organization [ISIS] has committed in Sinai:

  1. Refusing to stand in front of a shar'i court with the Tarabin Tribe, while  permitting the blood of the tribe's captured soldiers and of [its] Muslim [members]...
  2. The spilling of protected blood. The soldiers of the organization should ask their commanders why they killed Salem Abu Khattab Al-Rumaili [from the Rumailat tribe] after [the ISIS] security apparatus had held him prisoner for some days, along with other soldiers who had defected from the organization. Why, after killing Abd Al-Baset Al-Astal just because he opposed the direction adopted by the organization, did they accuse him of collaborating [with the authorities] with no investigation or trial?...
  3. The soldiers of the organization should ask their commanders what the religious sentence is for those who rob Muslims of their public assets, such as civil services, health centers, schools, garbage trucks, ambulances, and water trucks in Rafah, Sheikh Zuwaid and El-Arish...
  4. The soldiers of the organization should ask about the interests of those who are preventing the residents from plowing their fields, [and from] harvesting their olives and adding them to their yield, [which is] their sole source of income.
  5. In whose interest are they turning away the electricity workers and prevent them from repairing the power lines?
  6. In whose interest does the Al-Baghdadi organization in Sinai besiege Gaza and prevent the smuggling [in] of food and medicines and destroy the smuggling tunnels?
  7. The soldiers of the organization should ask their commanders about where the organization's Morality Police sends the cartons of cigarettes that they confiscate, who supervises their sale, and to whom [they are sold].
  8. All this is in addition to the fact that [ISIS operatives] kill protected Muslims with explosive devices and car bombs, without paying blood money and without as much as an apology – demonstrating their clear apathy with respect to the lives of Muslims. According to which fatwa do allow themselves to pervert Islam, when they kidnap its believers from the mosques...?

"In conclusion, I call on the soldiers of this organization to repent and return to the wise and loyal clerics of the Islamic ummah..."

 Condemnation Of The Terror Attack On Al-Rawdah

On November 24, 2017, Egypt experienced the worst terror attack in its history when gunmen stormed the mosque in the village of Al-Rawdah near the city of Bir Al-'Abed in northern Sinai. More than 300 people were murdered in the attack that shocked the residents of Sinai. Opponents of ISIS in Sinai hastened to condemn those responsible, while ISIS itself has remained silent.

In a post on its Telegram channel, the Sinai Pulpit accused ISIS of carrying out the attack: "the Sinai Pulpit openly accuses the Sinai Province organization [that belongs to ISIS] of perpetrating the massacre at the Al-Rawdah mosque. Those directly responsible are Abu Osama Al-Masri and Abu Saleh Zari'i.[14] the Sinai Pulpit possesses evidence and testimonies about this. We say to all: 'The people of Mecca know its paths better than anyone else'[15] [that is, the residents of Sinai know full well what's going on there], and what you see with your own eyes is better than what you hear with your ears. This accusation is made in the name of the tribes of Sinai and the families of the slain. We demand that these extremists [members of ISIS] be tried according to shari'a law..."

The Sinai Pulpit also published recordings that it said were taken from the ISIS communications network in Sinai; in the recordings, speakers can be heard praising the attack. However, the authenticity of the recordings is in doubt.[16]

 


Abu Osamah Al-Masri

Jund Al-Islam (JI) fiercely condemned the attack, without directly accusing ISIS. Yet since ISIS Sinai Province itself did not expressly condemn the attack, by doing this JI dissociated itself from ISIS and clearly showed the residents of Sinai that it has absolutely nothing to do with harming the population and that it does not view it as a target at all. The following are excerpts from JI's condemnation:

"We, the Jund Al-Islam organization, hereby declare our innocence and our harsh condemnation of the explosive attack that took place in the mosque in the village of Al-Rawdah in the province of Bir Al-'Abed in northern Sinai, that caused dozens of deaths and injuries. We extend our condolences to our brothers and sisters, the residents and relatives of those killed... and we pray to Allah to grant them patience and to heal their wounds speedily.

"We take this opportunity to emphasize:

  1. We of the Jund Al-Islam organization believe in the severity of the prohibition [against harming] Muslims, their possessions or their honor [their wives]. We are operating through our jihad to protect and defend them...
  2. Harming the Muslims' sanctities is a grave prohibition and a clear sin, especially [harm to] the lives of protected [people], about whom Allah decreed that permitting them to be killed unjustly is extremely grave... as the revered Prophet also said... 'Allah is likely to forgive every sin, except for a man who dies as a heretic or who kills and believes in malice.' This is all the more true regarding one who kills worshippers in mosques as they are bowing and kneeling, and destroys the houses of Allah... Is there wickedness greater than this?"

 

JI statement condemning the Al-Rawdah mosque attack

 

The Response of ISIS Supporters to the Sinai Pulpit

ISIS supporters online are certain that those behind the Sinai Pulpit posts and the release of the audio recording, translated above, by the cleric identified as "Abu Muhammad Al-Salafi Al-Sinawi" are Al-Qaeda supporters in Gaza – and believe that it is specifically the young Gazan preacher Na'el Musran. Musran is a member of the Salafi Ibn Baz Union, which supports Al-Qaeda and has close relations with the organization in Syria and other places. He is also on good terms with Hamas and praised its military wing. In response to the Sinai Pulpit posts, ISIS supporters lashed out at and threatened Musran.

A Telegram channel identified with the ISIS Sinai Province responded to the recording in a series of posts:[17] "We will prove the truth to you. We testify before Allah that they [the people behind the Sinai Pulpit] [are operating on behalf of] Egyptian intelligence and are the tails of the Jews."

The Telegram channel responded to each claim by "Al-Sinawi." For example, in response to his claim that the Sinai Province harms the residents of Gaza by preventing the smuggling of vital products into the Strip, the channel posted: "The Mujahideen closed the tunnels to those things that strengthen Hamas and its government. However, with respect to equipment for hospitals, and food and beverages – they were permitted to pass through the tunnels. You can ask the Palestinian tunnel workers, who are closer to the truth than the words of that scoundrel are." In response to his claim that members of Sinai Province take agricultural produce for themselves, it posted: "As Allah lives, as Allah lives, as Allah lives, the Mujahideen oppress no one. There are crops that the residents have difficulty harvesting, and they say to the Mujahideen gather the crops for us and we will give you one-third in exchange, for you are in the area. This very thing happened with my cousin. How [can it be said] that the Mujahideen steal the crop, you scoundrel? Would one of the mujahideen who emigrated [from his place] with his possessions and his life steal what does not belong to him, you dog?"

 

Na'el Musran

 

Another post read: "Our message to the degenerate [Sinai] Pulpit, which turned away from its support of the people of Sinai to harm the monotheists, is: [The betrayal of ISIS by Al-Qaeda, which occurred] in the Syrian arena, exposes your infamy, you dogs. Praise Allah, shari'a is implemented in the areas controlled by the mujahideen [i.e. by ISIS in Sinai], and not a dog among you would dare to enter them with Allah's permission [and as proof] – take the film 'The Light of Sharia.'[18] With respect to your defense of the drug and hashish dealers who are a small and isolated group among the residents of Sinai, they are known to everyone in Sinai as 'stoners' and agents of the Zionist Mossad."

The channel presented as evidence the fact that the first tweet on the Sinai Pulpit Twitter account was a retweet from the account of Na'el Musran. This post says: "Thus is the tight connection between them exposed, and thus we know that the rabble of the Ibn Baz Union and the gang from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which renounced its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, are the ones behind this account... Know this, you who are called Musran, that this is only the beginning. If the slanderous Pulpit does not cease its dissemination of falsehoods, then by Allah we will prepare for you things that will hurt you and expose your infamy..."

Another post threatens Musran: "A message to Na'el Musran in Gaza: from Abu Osama Al-Sinawi who sat with you in the past, I say to you [both]: As long as you persist in your lies and infamy – that is, with the subterfuges of the slanderous Pulpit of strife against the brothers [in ISIS] – after we have warned you – expect things which will harm you and your union... Your Pulpit, which is operated out of the cellars of your Ibn Baz Union... is the one to blame for the strife. The blood of your faithful that is going to be spilled is on your head, Na'el Musran."

 

*R. Green is the director of MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor

 

[1] The tribal militaia militia claimed that it had carried out an attack in the Nuqaizat area, near the Al-Gura military airbase, in which eight ISIS fighters were killed. Facebook.com/Sinai.tribes.official, October 12, 2017.

[2] The Khawarij were a group that rebelled against Muhammad's successors in the seventh century, and proclaimed Muslims to be apostates for even very small infractions. The mainstream Sunnah regards them as deviants and extremists, and the name is therefore used as a derogatory label for extremist groups. 

[3] Telegram.me/chnegg, November 11, 2017.

[4] The attack resulted in the death of dozens of Egyptian security officers. See MEMRI JTTM report New Group Claims Deadly Ambush On Egyptian Security Forces Southwest Of Cairo, November 5, 2017.

[5] A derogatory term for tribal forces that have been fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the last decade. When ISIS calls a rival group "sahawat" it is defining it as a treasonous enemy that must be fought. 

[6] Al-Hayat (London), November 11, 2017.

[7] Telegram.me/wikalat nasher news, November 14, 2017.

[8] Telegram.me/chnegg, November 12, 2017.

[9] Twitter.com/YAH_682, November 14, 2017 (the account has been closed).

[10] Telegram.me/AlRased5, November 15, 2017.

[11] Telegram.me/seenamnbar, November 27, 2017.

[12] Telegram.me/seenamn, November 10, 2017 (the channel has been removed).

[13] The speaker here blames ISIS for importing from Iraq an extremist ideology which is alien to that of Sinai's local population.

[14] According to the Sinai Pulpit, Abu Osama Al-Masri is the leader of ISIS's Sinai Province and Abu Saleh Al-Zari'i is his deputy. ISIS media has identifed a man called Abu Hajar Al-Hashemi as the leader of ISIS in the SInai.

[15] Muslim proverb taken from 'Sahih, Bukhari, vol. 4 p 164.

[16] Telegram.me/seenamnbar, November 27, 2017.

[17] Telegram.me/ Ard Al-Munajah Sina', November 5, 2017 (the channel has been removed).

[18] ISIS in Sinai has repeatedly posted documentation of its confiscation of shipments of cigarettes to Gaza. The ISIS film "The Light of Sharia" showcases what is presented as the enforcement of the laws of Islam. For more information, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1312, ISIS Sinai And Its Relations With The Local Population – Part II: Establishing ISIS Rule In Sinai – Enforcing Islamic Law, May 4, 2017.