A group of militants blew up a gas pipeline in the northern Sinai on Feb. 2, about a week after Islamic State (ISIS) encouraged its fighters to launch attacks against Israel as part of a “new phase” of its operations.
In the Sinai attack, masked militants planted and detonated explosives under a pipeline near the town of Bir al-Abd, around 80 kilometers west of the provincial capital of el-Arish. The militants fled the scene after the attack. No casualties have been reported, but huge flames were seen rising high near the pipeline, and gas distribution was stopped to extinguish the fire. The Sinai affiliate of ISIS took responsibility for the attack.
On Monday, the Egyptian army killed 10 terrorists after they attacked an army security post in northern Sinai. A four-wheel drive vehicle used by the terrorists was also destroyed. The standoff also killed two officers and left five others injured.
According to Egyptian officials, the gas pipeline hit was a domestic one that connects to a power station in el-Arish, powering factories and houses in north Sinai. According to a statement by the North Sinai governorate, “The pipeline affected by the attack is a line for reserves coming from Port Said. It was built to raise the efficiency of the main line. Efforts are underway to inspect the explosion site and take the necessary measures to fix the damage as quickly as possible.”
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz released a statement after the attack stating that Israeli natural gas was still flowing to Egypt following the “reported explosion,” and that there had not been any damage to the East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) pipeline connecting Israel and Egypt.
Since Jan. 15, natural gas from Israeli offshore fields started flowing to Egypt under a landmark $15 billion, 15-year deal. Previously, natural gas flowed in the opposite direction, to Israel from Egypt, until terror attacks on the line eventually put a halt to the supply in 2012.
North Sinai has witnessed several attacks on the gas pipeline connecting Egypt with Jordan and Israel since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) group—the precursor of ISIS, that declared loyalty to ISIS in November 2014, claimed responsibility for the attacks that led to the collapse of a 2005 deal to export Egypt’s natural gas to Israel in 2012.
In a statement posted on its Telegram chat groups following the Feb. 2 attack, ISIS said “caliphate soldiers targeted … the natural-gas line linking the Jews and the apostate Egyptian government.” It claimed that the section of the pipeline hit was in the Sinai village of al-Teloul and that several explosive devices had been used, causing “material damage.”
On Jan. 27, Abu Hamza al-Quraishi, ISIS’s spokesman, released an audiotape with an explicit call on ISIS operatives in Sinai and Syria to attack Israeli targets. Speaking on behalf of the group’s leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the spokesman called on ISIS fighters to launch a “new phase,” with the goal of fighting the Jews and restoring all that they had “usurped” from Muslims.
“The eyes of the soldiers of the caliphate, wherever they are, are still on Jerusalem and in the coming days, God willing, you will see what harms you and what will make you forget the horrors you have seen,” said al-Quraishi. He called on Muslims in Palestine and worldwide to spearhead the struggle to thwart U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan.
Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015 explicitly threatened Israel, saying, “we are getting closer to you day by day. Do not think that we have forgotten about you.”
Despite carrying out deadly attacks throughout the world over the past years, ISIS has rarely targeted Israel.
The terror attacks of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis and ISIS (Wilayat Sinai)
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or “Supporters of Jerusalem,” was formed in 2011. It focused its attacks on Israeli targets, including oil pipelines running from Egypt to Israel, and Egyptian security forces. On Nov. 10, 2014, ABM sent a delegation to ISIS territory in Syria to lobby for tactical and economic support. The group formally pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, renamed the group “Wilayat Sinai,” the “Sinai Province” of the Islamic State, and officially integrated into the new “caliphate.”
Following the death of al-Baghdadi, the Sinai Province has sworn allegiance to his successor, al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.
Rocket attacks against Israel from Sinai (2012-14):
⦁ In 2012, there were seven rocket attacks against Israel, most fired towards Eilat.
⦁ In 2013, five rockets were launched towards Eilat in three incidents.
⦁ In 2014, there were two separate rocket attacks on Eilat.
⦁ In October 2017, Wilayat Sinai took credit for two rockets fired from Sinai into southern Israel.
In its first audio statement since confirming the death of al-Baghdadi, ISIS vowed to shift its focus from the remnants of its “caliphate” to Israel. The spokesman said ISIS leader al-Hashimi al-Quraishi encouraged the group’s fighters to launch “a new phase” and vowed major operations against Israel.
ISIS has in Sinai one of its strongest and most capable branches, but since 2014 the war against Egyptian security forces has been the top priority of the group. The declaration of the head of ISIS can be translated into a change in the group’s operational priorities.
Egypt witnessed a significant rise in militancy, particularly in Sinai, following the military-backed ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, after mass protests against his rule. Egypt’s army and police forces have been waging a war over the past seven years against an Islamist militant insurgency, mainly in North Sinai. Hundreds of security personnel, civilians and militants have been killed in the violence.
In February 2018, the Egyptian army and police launched a nationwide operation against militants, mainly concentrated in North Sinai (“Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018” (COS 18). COS 18 was the latest in a long string of counterinsurgency operations launched by the Egyptian government to fight terrorist groups in Northern Sinai. Six counterinsurgency operations were launched between 2011 and 2018: “Eagle 1” (under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF), “Eagle 2” (under Morsi), and four “Martyr’s Right” operations (under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi).
COS 18 is a major component of Egypt’s counter-terror strategy, and it will have a significant long-term impact on the terror threat in the country.
Egypt’s army and police forces have been waging a war over the past seven years against an Islamist militant insurgency, mainly in North Sinai. Hundreds of security personnel, civilians and militants have been killed in the violence.
Israel and Egypt have a common strategic interest in fighting terrorism and in recent years, Israel has allowed Egypt to send extra forces into the Sinai Peninsula to fight Islamist terrorists. Under the terms of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, Egypt must ask Israel for authorization before sending troops into the Sinai, which is supposed to remain demilitarized.
In two interviews, el-Sisi told The New York Times and “60 Minutes” that cooperation is closer between Egypt and Israel than it has ever been since the peace agreement was signed. According to non-Israeli media reports, Israel also actively assists Egyptian forces with intelligence and airstrikes in Sinai against ISIS targets.
Despite the significant achievements of the Egyptian security forces, Wilayat Sinai while weaker is still very much a force to be reckoned with. Israel should be prepared to deal with rocket attacks and attempts at cross-border attacks on Israel Defense Forces positions, or a combination of the two. In addition, the increase in Israeli tourists visiting Sinai may result in attempts to attack tourist sites along the Red Sea coast. The threats of ISIS should be taken seriously, and both Egypt and Israel should take all the necessary measures to prevent future attacks within and from Sinai.
Shaul Shay is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.
This article reflects the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of the Research Institute for European and American Studies.