From Marriage of Convenience to Bitter Divorce: The Unraveling Ties Between Hamas and ISIL’s Sinai Affiliate
Earlier this month, Muhammad al-Dajani executed Musa Abu Zamat in a video released by Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Surrounded by other militants, al-Dajani shot a fellow Islamic State member in the back of the head amid accusations that Abu Zamat had smuggled weapons to Hamas’ military wing from which al-Dajani defected before joining the Islamic State. In the same video, the Islamic State included a call for violent attacks targeting Hamas, a Gaza-based Palestinian militant organization viewed as “apostates” by the Islamic State.
This is not the first time the Islamic State has threatened to overthrow Hamas. But the vicious nature of the threat, involving an execution, makes the latest video different. Why did the Islamic State declare all-out war this time? The question is especially interesting given that pragmatic cooperation with Hamas’ military wing helped Wilayat Sinai become an effective fighting force and mount an unprecedented challenge to the Egyptian regime.
Following the execution, media outlets focused on the Islamic State’s stated motivation: that Hamas failed to prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Some analyses cited Hamas’ improved ties with Cairo and growing crackdown on Salafi-jihadists in Gaza as the main drivers behind Wilayat Sinai’s new call to arms.
But the announcement also reflects tensions within Wilayat Sinai and the group’s emerging status. With the downfall of the Islamic State’s core territorial stronghold, militants formerly based in Syria and Iraq are heading elsewhere. The Sinai Peninsula is especially attractive given that Wilayat Sinai is one of the most dominant Islamic State affiliates and Egypt remains particularly salient in the hearts of Salafi-jihadis. By seeking an all-out war with Hamas now, Wilayat Sinai’s leadership is signaling its ideological commitment to members and potential recruits. In highly competitive environments, embracing a more extreme ideology can help militant groups address key organizational problems, like attracting devoted members that will remain in-line with the leadership’s objectives. A public declaration of war against Hamas also helps Wilayat Sinai overcome commitment problems and signals a willingness to root out corruption. Turning on Hamas suggests that Wilayat Sinai is increasingly confident and projecting strength, within a broader Sinai-based insurgency that shows no signs of waning. But the latest move also appeals to a much wider audience and may point to a far more ambitious objective: to situate Wilayat Sinai as a leader of the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
From Pragmatic Necessity to Tactical Alliance
How did ties between the militant groups evolve into a full-fledged confrontation?
For years, Palestinian and Sinai-based militant groups, including Wilayat Sinai’s predecessor Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, relied on transactional collaboration. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) emerged as a local jihadist group, exploiting Bedouin grievances and a weak Egyptian state presence. In 2014, ABM’s leadership pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and became known as Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), receiving funds and guidance from the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.
Becoming an Islamic State affiliate enabled Wilayat Sinai to acquire enhanced capabilities and carry out high-profile attacks, while shifting tactics and escalating coordinated strikes against the Egyptian regime. But unlike other powerful militant organizations, Wilayat Sinai does not enjoy large diaspora or formal state support and therefore depends primarily on local mobilization and neighboring collaboration. Some of this support has come from cooperation with groups like Hamas: Operatives on both sides of the Gaza-Sinai border cultivated bases of operations in geographically proximate and isolated safe havens. People on both sides of the border also nurtured intimate ties. Palestinians and fighters of mixed Palestinian-Bedouin background serve in the ranks of Sinai-based militant groups. For Hamas, Wilayat Sinai is central to the cross-border smuggling network. This relationship became even more important following the Egyptian military’s campaign to destroy significant components of the region’s underground tunnel infrastructure. Israeli intelligence reports suggest that Hamas’ armed wing transferred tens of thousands of dollars per month to Wilayat Sinai to secure arms shipments to Gaza. Wilayat Sinai, in turn, relies on weapon flows in the reverse direction.
Militant groups engaged in transactional arrangements, like Hamas and Wilayat Sinai, tend to be motivated by pragmatic necessity even while remaining ideological rivals. In addition to increasing group longevity and lethality, inter-group collaboration can facilitate knowledge transfer and expertise, especially when it comes to deploying sophisticated weapons systems or constructing powerful explosive devices. Several of Wilayat Sinai’s most high-profile attacks have involved advanced weapons, including a Russian-made portable air-defense system and a Russian Kornet anti-tank precision-guided missile system, that likely came from Gaza. Though external support has not been crucial for Wilayat Sinai’s rise, ties with Hamas played an important role in helping the Islamic State affiliate emerge as a growing threat to the Egyptian regime.
As regional conditions evolved, the two organizations seemed to have transitioned from primarily transactional ties into a tactical alliance, moving beyond cross-border smuggling and enhancing their logistical coordination. After the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, violence in the Sinai skyrocketed and the ruling Egyptian military regime was initially hostile to Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. A new era of cooperation emerged as Wilayat Sinai and Hamas faced mutual enemies — the Egyptian regime and Israel. Hamas’ military wing is said to have provided critical logistics and military training for Wilayat Sinai militants. Wounded Wilayat Sinai operatives also received critical medical assistance in Gazan hospitals. Strengthened relations seemed cordial at the military leadership level as well, as some Wilayat Sinai leaders allegedly exploited sanctuary in Gaza to evade Egyptian security forces. At the end of 2015, one of Wilayat Sinai’s leaders, Shadi al-Menei, reportedly met with leaders of Hamas’ armed wing to discuss solidifying coordination to a new level. Despite combatting its own Islamic State-affiliated insurrection in Gaza, Hamas overlooked ideological differences with Wilayat Sinai to preserve its economic lifeline and strategic position. Hamas encouraged Sinai-based militants to fire rockets into Israel on several occasions and may have been seeking to cultivate a long-term safe haven in the Peninsula. Both militant groups believed Israel would be limited in pursuing their leaders on Egyptian territory.
Evolving Interests, Rising Tensions
Though they have publicly condemned each other since the Islamic State’s rise, Hamas’ military wing and Wilayat Sinai seemed to have maintained a delicate and complex understanding. These types of collaborative arrangements, however, tend to be short-lived. As Assaf Moghadem argues, tactical alliances can “end abruptly as the interests of the parties diverge.” Over the past year, Hamas has calculated that cultivating closer relations with Cairo is the best way forward. Following high-level discussions between Egyptian and Hamas officials, Egypt eased border restrictions with Gaza and is allowing more essential supplies to enter the Strip. Hamas, in turn, adopted harsher measures to crack down on Islamic State-affiliated fighters in Gaza and around the Sinai border. An extraordinary incident in August 2017 highlighted the tougher border security: A Palestinian suicide bomber with ties to the Islamic State killed a Hamas border guard after security personnel tried to prevent the assailant from infiltrating into Egypt from Gaza. Hamas’ frustrations with the Islamic State go beyond internal threats to its regime security. According to Palestinian sources, dozens of Hamas operatives, including fighters from elite units and senior members, have defected to Wilayat Sinai ranks. Maintaining ties has become increasingly costly for both militant organizations.
A public divorce from Hamas elements also serves Wilayat Sinai’s organizational interests, and not just because of Hamas’ diplomatic maneuvers with the Egyptian government. As the Islamic State loses its core territory in Syria and Iraq, the organization is reverting to its insurgent and more clandestine roots, while diverting assets and fighters to other regional theaters. Adopting a more radical approach can help Wilayat Sinai overcome key organizational hurdles and recruit loyal fighters who are less likely to deviate from the leadership’s objectives. In February 2016, a Wilayat Sinai fighter wrote a letter to the Islamic State’s central leader, Abu Bakr-Al Baghdadi, arguing that ties with Hamas should be prohibited since the Palestinian organization is viewed as an apostate group by Islamic State leadership in Syria and Iraq. An unprecedented mass-casualty attack in November targeting a mosque for Sufis and numerous killing sprees against Egyptian Christians also serve this ideological objective, since Islamist extremists view both of these religious minorities as heretics. By openly confronting Hamas, Wilayat Sinai’s leadership appears to be prioritizing ideological purity over tactical benefits. In light of overwhelming setbacks in the Levant, the Islamic State is picking on Hamas to project power throughout this critical transition period.
Differentiating between the various types of militant group relations is critical for policymakers seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, though they should be wary of the unintended consequences of creating too much tension. During times of weakness, militant groups tend to engage in tactical or transactional forms of cooperation — often from unlikely sources — to achieve key process-oriented goals, like building organizational capacity or surviving government counterinsurgency efforts. Breakdowns in tactical alliances indicate that at least one side realizes the need to move on. It’s not clear whether Wilayat Sinai’s leadership is serious about eliminating tacit relations with Hamas militants or will continue looking the other way while cross-border smuggling operations continue. But severing ties with Hamas (or at least appearing to) is one way for the Islamic State to communicate its ideological devotion to the Salafi-jihadi movement and attract committed fighters leaving other regional theaters.
A full-fledged confrontation with Hamas threatens to further destabilize an already volatile region. For instance, instead of trying to take on the Palestinian group directly, Wilayat Sinai might encourage its supporters in the Gaza Strip to attack Hamas targets. Similarly, Gaza-based jihadists periodically fire rockets at Israel in an effort to provoke an Israeli military response that undermines Hamas rule. While Hamas tries to restrain smaller jihadist groups from such provocations, Wilayat Sinai could ramp up attacks against Israel and overshadow the Palestinian militant group. This could have the dual effect of attracting committed jihadists from abroad who want to fight Israel and hindering Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, a major cornerstone of interstate regional stability.
With the end of the Islamic State’s territorial control in Syria and Iraq, the region’s leaders are understandably worried about an influx of foreign fighters to countries with a robust jihadist presence. While there is no clear indication that the Islamic State intends to relocate its core organizational presence from the Levant, the group is diverting assets and fighters to other regional affiliates, including Afghanistan and Libya. The Egyptian regime is concerned that foreign fighters and resources entering from Libya’s porous border, among other routes, will enhance Islamic State operations in the country. Salafi-jihadist operatives might see the Sinai Peninsula as an attractive destination given Egypt’s prominence in Salafi-jihadi ideology and proximity to Israel.
Wilayat Sinai has emerged as one of the most effective and deadly Islamic State affiliates. Its nascent war with Hamas signals Wilayat Sinai’s organizational strength and ideological commitment to the wider Salafi-jihadi movement. Putting a bullet into Abu Zamat’s head was just the beginning of a bold new phase in Wilayat Sinai’s organizational trajectory, as a potential jihadist hub for the Islamic State and its adherents.
Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @Shkolnik_M