ISIS's Unprecedented Campaign Promoting Sinai

In an unprecedented move, the Islamic State launched an extensive coordinated campaign in which 14 of its "provinces" (regional divisions) released propaganda videos promoting Egyptian affiliate Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province). The 14 synchronized videos elaborate on specific, local grievances and contentious political affairs in Egypt in an effort to bolster recruitment to Wilayat Sinai. Released over the course of three days from May 5-7, the videos reflect a high degree of message adaptiveness and coordination not before seen from the group. IS's messaging appears to be tailored toward a target audience of potential recruits from both Sinai and mainland Egypt. The common theme, same narrator, and similar set suggest that the videos were centrally produced and disseminated.

The significance of this unprecedented campaign is not in the level of coordination and mass video production (a similar campaign in January accused the Saudi royal family of corruption). It is instead the timing, the choice of Wilayat Sinai, and the decision to highlight political issues as a cause for its support. The messages reflect a sign of desperation and dire need for support to a struggling sister province of Sinai. In this series, IS calls for support for Sinai Province while portraying very contentious issues in Egypt, including the two Egyptian islands handed to Saudi Arabia by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and the proposed bridge connecting the two countries. The propaganda series played to popular anger over the transfer and framed it as due to the devious role of Saudi Arabia and Israel in support of the unjust military regime in Egypt. More importantly, however, they focus on the injustices suffered by the Egyptian people in recent years. With images of the mass protests in Tahrir Square and images of the victims of the violent dispersal of Rabaa al-Adaweya Square, IS claims that peaceful means have led only to imprisonment and mass killings by Sisi's government. The videos refer to democracy as the "apostates' religion," claiming that such peaceful methods go against Islam and are ineffective in defending the faith. They strongly condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as traitors to the faith for participating in a political process for which they deserved their fate of being killed or thrown in jail. Indeed the message focuses entirely on internal grievances in Egypt, yet the group also draws upon the greater strategic importance of Sinai as the western gate to liberating Jerusalem.

Each of the fourteen videos represents a particular theme of resilience during war, such as sacrifice, persistence, steadiness, perseverance, integrity, and empowerment, but the overarching message is that of patience and endurance in difficult times, citing the Qur'anic verse "With every difficulty there is relief" (94:5). IS' emphasis on these themes, especially taken alongside its plea for fighters to join its ranks, is a sign of growing desperation. The call to tribal chiefs in Sinai and the Egyptian population overall has worrisome implications. As the predecessor to Wilayat Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis issued formal claims of 31 attacks since 2013, and since pledging allegiance to ISIS in November 2014, the group claimed to have conducted over 400 attacks in northern Sinai as of March 2016. Nevertheless, the impetus behind the video is a shortage of fighters and a heightened siege by military forces. One of the main messages of the videos is the importance of suicide attacks and that this is the ultimate honor, in what can be read as an encouragement to WS to limit their engagement hit-and-run attacks due to its inability to sustain that given its shortage in numbers. They are obviously managing to sustain attacks despite such struggle, while operations were quiet during the videos' release, they quickly resumed regular activity, with 13 attacks in the five days afterward.

This IS propaganda campaign shows that any counterterrorism support for Egypt cannot be given in isolation from domestic affairs, local grievances, and continuous political issues--terror groups know very well how to play on these to attract recruits. Over the last three years, Egypt has received nearly $4 billion from the U.S. in military aid and has finalized arms deals with France for $5.9 billion, with plans to sign another agreement this year worth $1.1 billion. Meanwhile, Italy maintains $2.6 billion worth of assets in Egypt and sells it weapons, ammunition, and armored police vehicles. Despite all this support, the increased terror attacks over the past three years, the evolution of terror groups inside Egypt, and the advancement of tactics with obvious regional support from ISIS central show that security alone is not the solution. Overall policy toward countering violent extremism (CVE) has been narrowly focused on moderate religious messaging, but ISIS's messaging and strategy are highly politically oriented and only packaged in a religious rhetoric. Terror groups are demonstrating the ability to construct their propaganda and attract potential recruits based on domestic political developments, and any successful foreign policy should take into account this high degree of adaptiveness, instead of narrowly focusing on moderate religious counter messaging.