Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message this weekend threatening Israel with a devastating attack. The message was Baghdadi’s most direct warning yet against the Jewish state, but one that will not have come as a surprise in Jerusalem. Israel deems the group’s branch in Egypt’s neighboring Sinai Peninsula its most effective anywhere, and has taken unprecedented measures in recent months to prepare for an ISIS attack.
ISIS’s Sinai branch (so-called “Sinai Province,” formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) has conducted hundreds of terror operations against Egyptian state targets since the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, and particularly since the army’s 2013 ouster of his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi. Compared to those efforts, the group’s major attacks against Israel have thus far been few, with its only significant success a cross-border raid in August 2011 that killed eight people, six of them civilians.
Israel expects more to come, and Israel Defense Forces Southern Command held a surprise drill early this month along the borders with the Gaza Strip and Sinai to train for a large-scale terrorist incursion from either territory. In a testament to the area’s importance, the exercise was led personally by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.
Meanwhile the Caracal Battalion – Israel’s first mixed-gender combat unit, charged with guarding its border with Egypt – has been training for such a scenario for months. Army planners are particularly concerned about attacks on Israel’s Nitzana crossing to Egypt and Kerem Shalom to Gaza, as well as on towns and farming villages in the border area. The battalion has already shown its mettle in countering attacks from Sinai. In September 2012, a female soldier thwarted an assault by three Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis gunmen armed with AK-47 rifles, RPG launchers and explosive belts.
Israel’s renewed efforts against ISIS also rely on stronger intelligence. The Shin Bet internal security service has had an entire department devoted to monitoring the peninsula since the 2011 revolution, but in recent months IDF Military Intelligence has also doubled down on intel-gathering there – much of it in conjunction with its Egyptian counterparts.
The Sinai branch’s warming ties to Hamas are another reason Israel is paying it ever-closer attention. Over the last year the Palestinian group has transferred it tens of thousands of dollars a month to facilitate the smuggling of arms, explosives and goods – much of it from Iran and Libya – to Gaza. As further reimbursement – and in a bid to challenge their shared enemy the Egyptian regime – Hamas has also provided training and advanced weapons like Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles. Sinai Province’s military chief even made a prolonged visit to Hamas leaders in Gaza earlier this month.
For its part, ISIS has faced criticism that its guns are most often turned against its fellow Arabs and Muslims rather than Israel or the West. Baghdadi’s latest message – his first in seven months – appears to be an attempt to correct that image, and to deflect attention from the group’s territorial losses in its Syrian and Iraqi heartland. And while his message did not indicate which of its branches might attack the Jewish state – it has a presence in Syria near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and ISIS core has deployed operatives as far afield as Paris – Sinai Province’s proven effectiveness makes it the most plausible candidate.
“We are getting closer to you day by day,” Baghdadi warned Israelis in his message, adding, “Do not think that we have forgotten about you.” And yet although Israel faces threats ranging from a nuclear Iran to Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon and lone-wolf Palestinian stabbing attacks, Baghdadi should rest assured that it has not forgotten about ISIS either.
Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.