ISIS Sinai turning to narcotics to bankroll operations

The move into the narcotics trade, analysts said, showed ISIS’s desperation as Cairo continued military operations against it.
Sunday 17/02/2019
More than one route. A pile of confiscated bars of hashish on display before being burnt in Gaza City.  (AFP)
More than one route. A pile of confiscated bars of hashish on display before being burnt in Gaza City. (AFP)

CAIRO - The Egyptian military has intensified its crackdown on illegal drug manufacturing sites and warehouses in Sinai, battling what security analysts said was a tactical shift by the Islamic State (ISIS) branch, which is increasingly resorting to the narcotics trade to finance its operations.

The military is trying to eliminate ISIS by cutting off its external support and revenue streams.

“This is why it is turning to a number of new tactics to secure funding for its operations,” said retired army General Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “ISIS is resorting to drugs to bankroll these operations and ensure a continual flow of money.”

Egypt’s “Operation Sinai 2018,” which entered its second year this month, has mounted a siege in the Sinai Peninsula, including the deployment of Egyptian Navy units off the coast.

Militants in Sinai receive support from various sources, including some in Libya. Egypt has countered by expending most resources to its western border.

ISIS also depends on a network of tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip to receive arms, recruits and supplies from allied Salafi jihadist organisations. A significant stream of ISIS support was also said to come via the sea, which is why militants were fighting not to lose that support corridor.

Militants are increasingly turning to the narcotics trade, analysts said. The Egyptian military announced the destruction of drug warehouses in recent weeks. On January 29, police discovered half a tonne of marijuana in an underground lair in central Sinai.

“Drugs are an easy way for the organisation to get money and maintain its operational capabilities,” said security expert Nasr Salim. “ISIS has to find different financing methods now that it holes itself up in the mountains of Sinai and is incapable of communicating with the outside world, because of ongoing operations against it.”

A statement from the General Command of the Egyptian Armed Forces in January said authorities had seized 2,666 kilograms of cannabis, 6,826 kilograms of marijuana, 43 kilograms of heroin and opium and 2.5 million “narcotic tablets.”

Local media reported that Egypt’s military was eliminating drug manufacturing facilities and warehouses in Sinai.

In October 2018, a local newspaper reported prosecutions linked to ISIS’s growing involvement in the narcotics trade. The stories said ISIS shifted deeper into the drug trade in early 2018, when it was running out of money, to maintain operations and add recruits.

ISIS’s move into the narcotics trade, analysts said, showed the desperation of the group as Cairo continued military operations against it.

“This is also demonstrated by the number of attacks the organisation is able to stage,” Salem said.

In 2018, ISIS carried out eight attacks, compared with 200 in 2017, figures from the State Information Service, the official media arm of the Egyptian government, stated.

Cairo’s move to specifically target drug facilities in Sinai was fuelled by intelligence collected by Egyptian officers and intelligence personnel in Sinai, including information from militants who have been arrested and interrogated by Egyptian authorities.

“ISIS is in a systematic attempt to turn the drug trade into an important source of income,” said retired army General Hesham al-Halabi. “The radical group wants to use financial returns from this trade in financing its activities.”