On January 11, 2019, the Egyptian army successfully used a drone to kill 11 terrorists who were driving in a car and on two motorcycles to carry out a terror attack in the vicinity of the town of Bir al-Abad in northern Sinai. However, terrorist attacks continue on a daily basis despite the massive presence of the Egyptian army in the area.
The Egyptian army’s main problem in dealing with the ISIS offshoot in Sinai is the lack of exact intelligence information about the ISIS fighters’ hiding places and plans for terror attacks, as well as the fact that they receive assistance from the local Bedouin population.
According to reports from Palestinian and Bedouin sources in northern Sinai, Israeli intelligence has managed to infiltrate, intelligence-wise, into the ranks of ISIS in the area. According to reports from the ISIS news agency Amaq and the newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, the Israeli air force managed to strike exactly and successfully, through aerial bombardments, the organization’s new sites and command posts. These were targets that the Egyptian army found it difficult to reach.
In an interview with the American TV channel CBS on January 3, 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed that there is close cooperation between Israel and the Egyptian army in the war on terror against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. In 2018, The New York Times reported that Israel carried out around 100 aerial bombardments of terror targets in Sinai during 2017, with Egypt’s full coordination.
Egyptian publicist Majdi Sarhan published an article on January 5 in support of President Sisi’s statements in the Egyptian daily Al-Wafd in which he confirmed that there is coordination between Israel and Egypt against “terror gangs” in the Sinai. In his words, the Egyptian army’s military operations in Sinai would not have succeeded without coordination with Israel, in accordance with strategic and security agreements signed between both countries.
How does Israeli intelligence work?
The objective of Israeli intelligence is to obtain information on the activities of the ISIS offshoot in Sinai, which has been operating against Israel over the past few years by firing rockets at Eilat and the Eshkol Regional Council. This was in the days when the organization was still called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, before it swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The purpose of Israel’s intelligence gathering is to prevent terror attacks on Israel, assist the Egyptian army with its war on ISIS, and thwart the passage of arms deliveries for terror organizations in Gaza through the Sinai Peninsula.
The Hamas interior ministry in Gaza announced at the beginning of January 2019 that it had arrested 54 collaborators with Israel following an operation by a special IDF force in the area of Khan Yunis on November 12, 2018.
According to Hamas sources, some of these collaborators operated in the past in the ranks of the ISIS offshoot in northern Sinai in the service of ISA (Israel Security Agency, also known as the Shabak).
The Hamas television channel Al-Aqsa broadcast the confession of one of the collaborators, in which he said that he was sent by an ISA handler to join ISIS in Sinai to gather intelligence.
The newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported on January 9 that dozens of foreign fighters joined the ranks of the ISIS branch in Sinai from Syria, Iraq, and Libya in recent years, without anyone investigating their security background, hinting that some could be working for Israeli intelligence.
The fact that Palestinians are joining ISIS in Sinai is particularly interesting. Some of them, who were residents of the Gaza Strip and active in the Hamas military wing, were even killed in clashes with the Egyptian army. The Palestinian problem is not even on the top of the organization’s agenda, which has raised the suspicion that they have ulterior motives and are working on behalf of Israel.
The ISIS offshoot in Sinai has also absorbed hundreds of new volunteers into its ranks from among the Sinai population. According to Gaza sources, these also include collaborators with Israel.
At first, ISIS in Sinai had a close connection with the military wing of Hamas, and it helped it to smuggle arms into Gaza. In exchange, it received military training from Hamas instructors sent to northern Sinai, as well as medical care for its men in Gaza hospitals, and shelter from Egyptian intelligence.
Therefore, Israel had a great interest in planting spies among the ranks of ISIS in Sinai to investigate the deliveries of weapons that were making their way from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip and to destroy them from the air and prevent the strengthening of Hamas in Gaza.
According to foreign reports, in recent years, during the tenure of Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, the IDF destroyed around 15,000 standard rockets that were making their way from Sinai toward the Gaza Strip. The destruction of these rockets in Sinai was enabled by very exact intelligence information. As a result, the military wing of Hamas increased the local manufacture of rockets in workshops and factories that it established in Gaza.
ISIS turned against Hamas, blocked arms shipments
When ties were cut between the ISIS offshoot in Sinai and Hamas due to Hamas’ closeness to the Egyptian government, ISIS itself began to sabotage arms deliveries from Iran that passed through the Sinai Peninsula on their way to the Gaza Strip. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported on November 24, 2018, that according to Egyptian security sources, ISIS fighters took control in Sinai of a large delivery of arms that had arrived from Iran. This weapons delivery was intended for the military wing of Hamas, and it included advanced Kornet anti-tank missiles and other accurate GPS-directed weaponry
According to sources in Gaza, ISIS executed one of its activists who had assisted in the smuggling of weapons from Sinai to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
There has been a great change over the past two years in relations between ISIS and Hamas. ISIS hostility toward Hamas for collaborating with Egyptian intelligence against it is huge. Today, ISIS has an interest, as Israel does, in halting all arms deliveries that pass through Sinai on their way to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
According to foreign reports, the Israeli intelligence service has managed to provide the IDF with important information that has allowed it to strike hard at ISIS targets in northern Sinai through aerial strikes, eliminating its commanders through targeted assassinations.
According to Egyptian sources, Israeli intelligence regularly taps the communications networks of ISIS in Sinai and monitors its movements around the clock using drones.
The planting of agents among the ranks of ISIS in Sinai completes the intelligence picture. The prevention of the passage of advanced weapons to Hamas in Gaza through Sinai is also in the interests of Egypt, who wants to weaken the organization’s strength, as it is a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has designated as a terrorist organization.
It is in Israel’s interest to assist the Egyptian army with destroying the ISIS branch in northern Sinai to prevent the organization’s entrenchment along the Egypt-Israel border. The Egyptian army allows Israel freedom to operate militarily in the skies above Sinai, and Israel permits the Egyptian army to bring large forces into Sinai, beyond what was agreed upon in the peace treaty, to fight the Islamic terror that is endangering the security of both countries.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.