Killing of ISIS leader in Sinai weakens group but does not mean its defeat

Sunday 21/08/2016
Military experts are pointing to difficulties

CAIRO - The killing of the Islamic State (ISIS) leader in Si­nai by the Egyptian Army may weaken the militant group and raise army mo­rale, but the jihadist group is likely far from defeated, experts said.

“ISIS Sinai has been receiving one blow after another from the army that will certainly weaken it,” said Hossam Suweilam, a retired army general and the former head of the Egyptian Army’s Centre for Strategic Studies. “The latest op­eration not only led to the liquida­tion of the ISIS leader, but also the destruction of most weapon de­pots of the group in Sinai.”

ISIS Sinai leader Abu Duaa al- Ansari was killed in an August 4th air raid along with at least 44 mili­tants in the Egyptian peninsula, the army said. It said the air force had also bombed large caches of ISIS weapons in several parts of northern Sinai.

British intelligence reportedly intercepted a phone conversation a few months ago between Ansari and an ISIS leader in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital. British intel­ligence officers concluded that Ansari was directly linked to the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai last October.

He is among several ISIS Sinai leaders killed by the Egyptian Army in recent months.

“The fact is that militant groups like this one do not have an or­ganisational structure but their survival mainly depends on the presence of a strong leader who mobilises his followers and gives them instructions,” said Kamal Ha­bib, a former jihadist leader who is considered an expert on militant groups. “This is why the death of a leader like [Ansari] can augur the collapse of ISIS Sinai altogether.”

ISIS Sinai was originally a shad­owy home-grown group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis that swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2014. ISIS Sinai has staged numerous attacks on troops and police. Ansari’s death came only days after his group posted a video in which it purport­edly showed the killing of a police officer and a conscript.

Ansari was said to be behind the merger of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and ISIS Syria and Iraq. His killing, Ha­bib said, could cause his group to lose its balance.

“Whether the group will hold in the future depends on the man it selects to replace [him],” Habib said, “but history has it that mili­tant groups that lose their leaders always derail and collapse.”

Military experts, however, pointed to difficulties in defeating ISIS Sinai.

One of the challenges, they said, was that the group enjoyed con­siderable public support in Sinai, which is why its members live among ordinary people and get a continual supply of recruits from Sinai tribes.

“This is one reason why it is sometimes difficult for the army to target the militants, always fearing that civilians can be caught in the middle,” Suweilam said. “This de­lays the defeat of the group.”

Other experts referred to the effect of the turmoil in Egypt’s neighbour Libya, the presence of hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip and the porous border between Egypt and Sudan.

These conditions, they said, make it more likely for the group to keep receiving arms and recruits. It is thought ISIS fighters escape to Gaza through the tunnels after every attack they stage against Egyptian troops.

Fouad Allam, a retired general who led Egypt’s anti-terrorism ef­forts for years, does not expect it to be easy to defeat ISIS.

“Defeating such a group inside Egypt does not necessarily mean that it will come to an end,” Allam said. “It will continue to come back to life so long as a lifeline is extend­ed it from outside.”