One Monday in early April, Shaher Saeed was driving south of the city of Arish in Egypt’s North Sinai when he came upon a group of ISIS militants who had stopped a truck carrying cigarettes.
“I saw them forcing the driver from the vehicle and stripping the upper part of his clothing before tying him to the door of one of their cars,” said Saeed, who lives in the area. “They hit him on the back more than 10 times, then burned all the cartons of cigarettes … They let him go after warning him not to trade cigarettes again.”
Interviews with residents of North Sinai and reviews of ISIS videos suggest the group’s local affiliate, known as Sinai Province, is seeking to impose its hardline interpretation of Islam on the local populace for the first time. According to Sinai Province videos reviewed by Reuters, the group has created a morality police force, known as a Hisba, to enforce strict rules against such behavior as smoking, men shaving their beards or women exposing their faces.
Coupled with a sharp increase in attacks on Christians inside and outside its predominant area of operations in North Sinai, the developments mark a significant change of tactics for Egypt’s ISIS affiliate. Previously, the group had mostly attacked police, soldiers and their informants.
The group’s widening geographical reach and shift in focus present a challenge for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in 2013 vowing to eradicate Islamist extremism and restore security. Despite government crackdowns that have seen hundreds of militants and protesters killed and thousands jailed, ISIS is still mounting deadly attacks in Egypt.
The developments reflect how ISIS is expanding operations in the Arab world’s most populous country as the extremist group faces setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya, say analysts. While the group has failed to capture territory in Egypt, it is trying to stoke sectarian tensions and social unrest. An examination of what’s happening in North Sinai, a region rarely accessible by reporters, shows the strategy is scoring some success.
A 25-minute video posted in late March on an internet channel often used by ISIS showed jihadists announcing the creation of a Hisba in North Sinai, modeled on religious police units operating in parts of Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIS. The video denounced Christians and Sufi Muslims, and showed enforcers, wearing jackets identifying them as Sinai Province Hisba, burning confiscated cigarettes and drugs and destroying tombs and shrines, which they consider un-Islamic.
In the video, an unmasked young militant warns that the Hisba will punish dissenters according to its interpretation of Islam. Enforcers are shown hitting one man with plastic tubing and beheading two elderly adherents of Sufi Islam, accusing them of sorcery and apostasy. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video, which has since been removed from the internet.
The latest shift in militants’ tactics began in December, when an ISIS suicide bomber killed 28 people at the main Coptic Christian cathedral in the heart of the capital Cairo. In February, Sinai Province declared in another video its intent to wipe out Egypt’s Christians, who account for about 10 percent of the 92 million population.
Christians have long faced sporadic attacks in Egypt, usually sparked by disputes over land, church-building or inter-religious love affairs. But the murder of seven Christians in North Sinai in the three weeks from Jan. 30 was different, more systematic and more insidious, officials and rights groups said at the time. About 175 families fled the area. Some of them told Reuters that hit lists of local Christians had been circulated online and pushed under doors.
Last month, ISIS militants killed at least 45 people in two church bombings on Palm Sunday, prompting Sisi to declare a state of emergency.
Mokhtar Awad, research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the new campaign against Christians was an effort to tear at the fabric of society and state when other means had failed. “A confluence of factors has seen this escalation happen now,” he said. “They hope that this is the first step to basically unravel the country.”
As well as launching attacks in major cities like Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta, where the church bombings took place, militants are ranging further afield inside North Sinai. Where fighting once centered around the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, near the Gaza border, militants have carried out more attacks in and around Arish, the provincial capital about 52 km (32 miles) further west.
Since 2014, when homegrown Sinai militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS, Egypt has resorted to ever more destructive means to root out the jihadists. It has smashed a network of tunnels used to smuggle weapons in from Gaza; razed hundreds of homes to create a no-man’s land; and mounted numerous air strikes.
In the stretch of highway that separates Sheikh Zuweid from Rafah lie about 14 villages. Eleven of them, say locals, are now abandoned. A Reuters reporter drove through three of the villages in October and saw empty streets, destroyed homes and orchards felled by the military to deprive militants of cover.
On some stretches of road between Sheikh Zuweid and Arish, a coastal city that once drew visitors to its beaches, army and police checkpoints are so close together that one can be seen from another.
To prevent car bombings and shootings, security forces place concrete barriers in zigzag formations or set up defense lines reinforced with sandbags. Some checkpoints force cars to take short detours off the main road. Such measures, however, have not stopped ISIS fighters from setting up their own impromptu roadblocks, where they check IDs, tell women to cover up and carry out public punishments, locals say.
One female teacher said she was on her way from Arish to the school where she works in Rafah in late February when three masked ISIS fighters stopped her bus. Two got on and advised the women to veil their faces and travel with chaperones, she told Reuters.
A few days later it happened again, she said. This time, the advice to wear the niqab, or face veil, came with a threat of punishment by lashings or acid attacks for those who refused. The teacher said she did not comply.
“The situation is difficult. People are scared,” the teacher said. She declined to give her full name for fear of retaliation by ISIS fighters, who have beheaded locals they accuse of going against their austere interpretation of Islam or of collaborating with Israel or Egyptian security forces. She was one of two female teachers who told Reuters that ISIS fighters had boarded their buses.
Despite the tight security, residents of southern Rafah said ISIS fighters had confiscated satellite dishes, and residents of Arish said a shop which sold videos and DVDs had been attacked. Reuters was unable to track down the owner of the shop, now closed.
While the army has had some success in purging jihadists from the border areas, militants have resurfaced elsewhere, according to police and residents based in Arish. They say the militants have moved into the city and are now all around them, hiding among the civilian population.
“The places they were living no longer exist or now have a large security presence. Now they have started to come out of the streets in the city to attack us and then disappear among the people,” said Badr Ali, a policeman at an Arish checkpoint. “The problem is that the people, if they spot the gunmen, are too scared to even point to them.”
Mona Barhoum, a local rights activist from Rafah, said that while ISIS’s affiliated militants don’t control the region, “they are present, they pop up like a jack-in-the-box, they kill or kidnap someone and go back into hiding.”