On November 10, 2014, the Sinai-based group, Jama‘at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem Group – JABM), was one of several jihadi groups that declared allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after he was designated as “Caliph” by the group that calls itself the “Islamic State.”[1] In doing so, JABM responded to Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the Islamic State’s spokesman, who had called upon all Muslims, including jihadi groups worldwide, to unite behind the Islamic State when he proclaimed its establishment on June 29, 2014.[2] On November 13, 2014, al-Baghdadi accepted JABM’s bay`a (and those of others who did so on the same day). By virtue of accepting (qubul) the pledges, al-Baghdadi claimed “the expansion of the Islamic State to new countries.” This action annulled the names of the groups and declared them to be new provinces for the Islamic State.[3] Accordingly, JABM’s name was dropped, replaced by “wilayat sina,” the Islamic State’s province of Sinai (PS).[4]

This article examines the evolution of the Sinai-based group, its Gaza connections, and the way in which the direction of its operations shifted as it sought a formal affiliation with the Islamic State. It argues that ever since the group began to extend its support to the Islamic State, its operations and rhetoric noticeably shifted from being directed against Israeli targets to focusing on Egyptian targets. The plight of Gazans appears to have taken a backseat in the group’s statements, with greater emphasis on serving as the “Caliph’s soldiers” to create a universal and borderless Islamic state.

Negotiating the Bay`a?
The fact that five groups from five different countries pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi on the same day followed by his acceptance of all five three days later suggest a level of coordination between all. But on the Sinai side, the process was not without glitches. JABM appears to have attempted to rush its affiliation with the Islamic State when a member of the jihadi website Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam published a bay`a on November 3, 2014 bearing the official logo and exact statement formatting of JABM.[5]  Swiftly, JABM denied the authenticity of the statement on its Twitter account, tweeting that the statement “attributed to us … has anything to do with us.”[6] A week later, its official bay`a was made as an audio statement.

Given that JABM’s statements began to extend amity to the Islamic State since at least January 2014 (when it was still the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant),[7] it is unlikely that it was having second thoughts about its bay`a when it denied the authenticity of the November 3 statement. Judging by the content of the latter, it is likely that JABM wanted to be the first Arab group outside Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and more importantly to be seen as the catalyst that caused the other Arab groups to pledge allegiance, which it must have known were about to do so anyway.

This is most transparent in the structure of the November 3 statement: the paragraph calling “upon our brethren in Egypt, Gaza, Libya and the rest of the countries … to pledge allegiance to the leader of the faithful” preceded the paragraph in which JABM made its own bay`a.[8] The close reader of the statement may question the flaw in the structure of the statement, for a more coherent statement would have the order of the paragraphs reversed. In other words, the group should make its own bay`a before calling on others to follow suit. Further, the tone of the statement was not limited to a formal investiture in the form of the oath of loyalty,[9] but it went on endorsing al-Baghdadi by “confirming that your bay`a is a lawful one.”[10] From the Islamic State’s perspective, the bay`a is meant to show potential supporters that the legitimacy of its Caliph and of its state is assumed rather than be reminded that it is contested. The official bay`a was properly crafted, possibly with the editorial help of the Islamic State offices.

The Authority of the Province of Sinai
If one were to assume the legitimacy of the Islamic State, it follows that JABM, upon being declared as the province of Sinai (PS), is meant to exercise authority over the territory of Sinai under the supreme sovereignty of al-Baghdadi. It also follows, as al-Baghdadi put it in his acceptance statement, that members of the Islamic State should “hear and obey the governor (wali) appointed by us.“[11] Yet, to date, the “authority” that PS is meant to exercise over Sinai is at best ambiguous.

To start with, there is no “officially” appointed governor. A certain “Sheikh Abu Usama al-Misri” features in many of the group’s audio and video releases, but in the latter his face is not made visible. Although his demeanor projects leadership, one of JABM’s videos features Abu Usama delivering the sermon of Eid al-Fitr in 2014 in which the first of several messages is addressed “to the leader of JABM” advising him “to fear God” who “has selected him” to shoulder the burden of this responsibility.[12] It is likely then that Abu Usama is the spokesman for the group and not its leader.

Beyond the obscurity surrounding the leadership of PS, the group does not enjoy authority over the jihadi landscape of Sinai, let alone over the territory as a whole. Indeed, the territory is crowded with jihadi groups and its landscape is not entirely organic to Sinai. Many of these groups, including JABM, have originated in the Gaza Strip,[13] and their presence in Sinai is likely a result of Hamas tightening its grip on their activities.[14] Since at least 2006, several groups split from Hamas when it participated in the Palestinain Authority’s legislative election of 2006, a move that in effect meant that Hamas accepted the legitimacy of the Oslo Accords[15] – the series of agreements beginning in 1993 which led to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Foremost among jihadi groups based in Gaza is Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), which tried to make some overture to al-Qa`ida as early as 2006,[16] but did not succeed in receiving al-Qa`ida’s public support let alone its praise. The influence of Jaysh al-Islam on JABM has been reported,[17] but a stronger connection exists between JABM and al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, which originates in Gaza. This is made clear in a JABM statement in which it eulogizes one of its founding members, Tawfiq Muhammad Farij. The eulogy describes him as a close companion of the first two leaders of al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad and “was one of the founding members of JABM;”[18] this implies that the two groups are at least closely connected or even possibly that JABM is a new name for al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, now based in Sinai.

Since none of the jihadi groups in Gaza and Sinai managed to secure an “official” recognition by al-Qa`ida, JABM may pride itself on having succeeded where others failed, albeit with the Islamic State’s recognition and not that of al-Qa`ida.[19] But given that none of the jihadi groups based in Sinai is yet to “hear and obey” the PS’s governor, whose identity remains unknown,[20] it cannot be said that PS or the Islamic State enjoys a territorial jurisdiction in Sinai in the same way that the Islamic State controls parts of Syria and Iraq.

Operational Shift: From Israeli to Egyptian Targets
Although PS has little to show by way of territorial jurisdiction over the Sinai Peninsula and does not enjoy the obedience of all jihadis in the region, it is nevertheless the most operationally active group in Sinai and across Egypt. Prior to becoming PS, it claimed responsibility for launching rocket attacks against Israel,[21] and since the ousting of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi in July 2013, it has claimed responsibility for attacks inside Egypt. The group has documented what it considers to be indiscriminate attacks by the Egyptian military against several villages in Sinai,[22] and claims to have mounted several operations against the Egyptian military in response.[23] Among others, in September 2013 the group claimed responsibility for the attack against the Egyptian Interior Minister, and apologized to the public for not having killed him.[24]

Among other noteworthy attacks, the group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Muhammad Mabrouk, an Egyptian lieutenant colonel tasked with combating the activities of religious extremist groups.[25] It also claimed responsibility for targeting the Egyptian air force intelligence base in Isma‘iliyya and called on “our people in Egypt to stay away from all military and police bases for they are lawful targets of the mujahidin.”[26] Having documented the Egyptian military’s attacks against Muslim protestors and jihadi groups, JABM released a statement in December 2013 in which it made the pronouncement of takfir against the Egyptian military and law enforcement community.[27] The pronouncement effectively declares the army to be un-Islamic and makes it lawful from an Islamic perspective to shed their blood.

What is noteworthy about the group is the noticeable operational shift from attacking Israeli targets to Egyptian ones. Indeed, JABM’s operational debut from Sinai, as documented by the group itself, was an attack against an Israeli military target in Eilat.[28] Yet ever since it began to extend its amity to the ISIL then the Islamic State, the group’s attacks have continued,[29] but they have, for the most part, claimed responsibility for attacks against Egypt, seemingly sparing Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian military’s security crackdown in the wake of Mursi’s ousting must have been perceived by JABM to be deserving of its attention, but it does not necessarily explain PS’s neglect of targeting Israel. The neglect of the plight of Gazans by the PS has not gone unnoticed. One member of Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam posted a criticism of PS for kidnapping an Egyptian soldier stationed on the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which led the Egyptians to close it, leaving many sick Gazans stranded in the cold weather and in dire need of basic provisions for their survival.[30] The member makes it known that he is a supporter of the Islamic State, and calls upon “our Caliph al-Baghdadi” to release the soldier to spare the people of Gaza further misery, but his calls were derided by other members for appealing on behalf of a soldier. Perhaps to prove its global jihadi credentials, PS is showing that it is capable of transcending the nationalist “Palestinian cause” and devoting itself to establishing a universal “Islamic State” and aiding its Caliph in his “conquest of Rome.”

Concluding Remarks
The PS is a double-edged sword for the Islamic State. On the one hand, the PS’s active operational credentials can boost the activity of the Islamic State and its geographical stretch. On the other hand, the PS does not enjoy a territorial jurisdiction over the Sinai Peninsula, and therefore the Islamic State’s claim of “expansion” beyond the territories it occupies in Syria and Iraq is tenuous at best. It is also not clear the extent to which the Islamic State is able to lure Palestinians to join the PS. The failure of Palestinian groups and leaders, including Hamas, to secure a state for Palestinians might tempt some to consider that a Caliphate is more within reach than a state of Palestine. But, as it stands, ‘wilayat sina’ remains a name without a territory, and in this sense, it may well remain for its supporters as poetic as the name Palestine continues to be for Palestinians.

Nelly Lahoud is Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] JABM, “Kalima Sawtiyya li-Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis bi-Mubaya’at Khalifat al-Muslimin wa-Indimamiha li-al-Dawla al-Islamiyya,” CTC Library, November 10, 2014. The other groups that pledged allegiance on the same day are based in Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Saudi Arabia. My gratitude to my colleague Muhammad al-‘Ubaydi for collecting the primary sources for this article through his diligent monitoring of Arabic jihadi websites and social media.

[2] Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, “Hadha Wa‘du Allah,” June 29, 2014, CTC Library.

[3] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Walaw Kariha al-Kafirun,” November 13, 2014, CTC Library. Unless otherwise stated, translation from Arabic in this article is made by the author.

[4]  Ibid.

[5] JABM, “bi-Khusus Mubaya’at Amir al-Mu’minin Abi Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi al-Husayni,” November 3, 2014, CTC Library.

[6] JABM, Twitter, November 4, 2014, CTC Library.

[7] See for example the transcript of the video that JABM released in which it documented its first operation from Sinai, Malhamat al-Furaqan: Tawthiq Tafasil Ghazawat Umm al-Rashshash al-Kubra, July 2014, CTC Library. The last lines of that release uttered by one of the leaders of the group warns the Israelis to prepare to receive “the armies of the jihadis [attacking you] from Egypt, Iraq and the Levant.” Note that the operation was carried out in August 2011, and the group claimed responsibility for this operation in September 2011 in a statement posted on Shabakat al-Shumukh al-Islamiyya. Another clearer extension of amity is made by Abu Usama al-Misri in his ‘Id sermon when he concluded with a prayer “to make our brethren in the Islamic State victorious;” by acknowledging the name of the group, he was effectively endorsing its legitimacy. See JABM, “Khutbat al-‘Id min Sina’,” transcript of the video released in August 2014, CTC Library.

[8] JABM, Twitter, November 4, 2014, CTC Library.

[9] I am here borrowing the explanation of bay`a by Wafaa H. Wahba (trans.) of Al-Mawardi, The Ordinances of Government, Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, 1996, p. xiv.

[10] JABM, “bi-Khusus Mubaya’at Amir al-Mu’minin …”

[11] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Walaw Kariha al-Kafirun.”

[12] JABM, “Khutbat al-‘Id min Sina’,” transcript of the video released in August 2014, CTC Library.

[13] See Nelly Lahoud with Muhammad al-‘Ubaydi, Jihadi Discourse in the Wake of the Arab Spring (West Point, N.Y.: Combating Terrorism Center, 2013) pp. 77-86.

[14] See “The Jaljala Phenomenon in the Gaza Strip,” Israeli Security Agency; and “Involvement of Operatives Who Returned from Syria in the Terrorist Campaign against the Egyptian Regime,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, May 4, 2014. My thanks to Elad Popovich for drawing these articles to my attention.

[15] “Al Qaida-inspired jihadi movement growing in Gaza, says group leader,” The Associated Press, March 10, 2014.

[16] See the declassified letter by Atiyyatullah al-Libi that was captured in Abbottabad, SOCOM-2012-0000008. On the analysis of this letter, see Nelly Lahoud et al., Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined (West Point, N.Y.: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012) pp. 21-22.

[17] Sami Majdi, “Ma Huwa Tanzim Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis,” Masrawi, January 30, 2015.

[18] JABM, “Bayan Na’I al-Qa’id al-Mujahid (Abi ‘Abdallah) Tawfiq Muhammad Farij,” posted on Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya, March 14, 2014, CTC Library.

[19] The article by Mahmoud Nasr in al-Yawm al-Sabi’ provides a detailed history and internal organization of JABM based on investigations carried out by the Egyptian security apparatus, “Nanshur al-Tafasil al-Kamila li-Insha’ ‘Bayt al-Maqdis …,’” http://www.youm7.com, May 12, 2014. The article claims that JABM was liaising with Ayman al-Zawahiri, but this is somewhat doubtful. The article was published in May 2014, by then JABM had begun to show amity to ISIL in its statements even though al-Zawahiri attempted to annul ISIL before AQ officially disowned it in February 2014. JABM’s bay’a to the Islamic State in November 2014 further makes it clear that its connections with AQ were at best tenuous. However, another jihadi group originating from Gaza and based in Sinai, Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, may have had some correspondence with al-Zawahiri. For more on this, see Lahoud, Jihadi Discourse in the Wake of the Arab Spring, pp. 82-4.

[20] To date, none of the groups in Sinai have merged with JABM since it became PS; it is worth noting that within a month of the declaration of PS, the jihadi website Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya published a statement by a group called Katibat al-Ribat al-Jihadiyya bi-Ardi Sina’ al-Mubaraka (CTC Library). In it, the group denied the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi and stated that jihad in Sinai is not limited to those who pledged allegiance to him. To date, this is the only statement by the group and it is yet to mount and claim an operation.

[21] Among others, see Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin, “al-Hamla al-Sarukhiyya,” Shabakat Ansar al-Mujahidin, Bayan no. 30, November 21, 2012; “Qasf Madinat Umm al-Rashrash al-Muhtalla ‘Eilat’ bi-Sarukhayn Grad,” al-Shumukh, April 17, 2013, CTC Library.

[22] Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “al-Jaysh al-Misri ‘Amala wa-Ijram,” September 11, 2013, Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, CTC Library; “al-Bayanu al-Thani bi-Khususi al-Hamlat al-‘Askariyya al-Muwassa‘a ‘ala Ahali Sina’: Wa-Yastamirru al-Ijram,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, September 15, 2013, CTC Libary.

[23] See for example its claim of responsibility for the Egyptian security base in southern Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “I‘lanu Mas’uliyyatuna ‘an Istihdafi Mudiriyyati Amn Janubi Sina’,” Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya, October 9, 2013, CTC Library.

[24] Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Ghazwatu al-Tha’ri li-Muslimi Misr,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, September 8, 2013, CTC Library.

[25] “I‘lanu Mas’uliyyatina ‘an Ightiyali al-Mujrimi Muhammad Mabrouk,” Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya, November 19, 2013, CTC Library.

[26] “I‘lanu Mas’uliyyatina ‘an Istihdafi al-Mukhabarati al-Harbiyyat bi-al-Isma‘iliyya,” Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya, October 21, 2013, CTC Library. Parts of the above two paragraphs are based on Lahoud with al-‘Ubaydi, Jihadi Discourse in the Wake of the Arab Spring.

[27] JABM, “Risalat ila al-Mujannadin min al-Jaysh wa-al-Shurta wa-Ahalihim,” Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, 22 December 2013, CTC Library.

[28] JABM, “Tawthiq Tafasil Ghazwat Umm al-Rashshash,” July 2014, CTC Library.

[29] See PS, “Tawthiq Jara’im Tahaluf al-Yahud wa-Jaysh al-Radda didda Ahlina fi Sina’,” December 2014, CTC Library; “Hasad al-‘Amaliyyat al-‘Askariyya li-Shahr Sifr 1436 H. Wilayat Sina’,” December 2014, CTC Library. See also “Egypt attack: Profile of Sinai Province militant group,” BBC, January 30, 2015.

[30] Abu Usama, Shabakat Shumukh al-Islam, January 12, 2015, CTC Library.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up