In early August Egypt’s military declared that it had killed Abu Doaa al-Ansary, the leader of Sinai’s militants, in airstrikes in South Arish. The military announced on Facebook that alongside Ansary, a number of his top aides and another 45 members of the Province of Sinai were killed on August 4, and that several weapons caches were destroyed.
State-affiliated news sources largely described the attack as the beginning of the end for terrorism, but some Sinai locals met the announcement with skepticism.
Skeptics cited the fact that the media has reported news of the death of the leader of Province of Sinai multiple times. Past leaders identified by the media as having been killed by the military include Shady al-Menei, Abu Osama al-Masry and Walid Waked.
Local Facebook pages reflected strong cynicism coupled with questions about who Ansary is, given the unfamiliarity of his name. Jokes were made on social media about the immortal leader of the group who keeps getting killed every few months.
Because residents are unaware of the inner workings and identities of the militant groups, they have nothing to depend on apart from military announcements, Sinai MP Hossam Refai tells Mada Masr.
“We neither believe nor disbelieve them,” he says of Ansary’s death. “It’s news that could be true or false.”
Speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, a resident of the North Sinai city of Sheikh Zuwayed says he is unfamiliar with Ansary. He says acquaintances have ridiculed the military’s repeated statements that it has killed the militants’ leader, giving a different name each time.
Such skepticism in the case of the Ansary killing is not without reason, says Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He suspects that the authorities have been unable to uncover Ansary’s identity, as the military announced only him nom de guerre, contrary to its common practice of including given names and sometimes pictures of fallen militants in its announcements.
A researcher at the Washington DC-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), which issues a quarterly report tracking militant activity in Egypt, tells Mada Masr that the news of Ansary’s killing is shrouded by a lack of clarity. The researcher says it’s unclear whether Ansary is the nom de guerre of a known leader in the group, whether he’s a new low-key figure, or whether he’s entirely fictitious, adding that the military hasn’t offered any visual evidence of the killings of Ansary or the others reported killed.
Awad points to another suspicious factor: the group has not eulogized Ansary, which they usually do with leaders. Awad cites the fact that the state once announced that the group’s leader was Tawfik Farij, and when he was killed in March 2014 the group issued eulogies — suggesting that he was accurately identified.
Province of Sinai has not made any statement at all on the alleged death of its leader this month.
General Talaat Moussa, chair of National Security at the Nasser Military Academy, told privately owned Al-Watan newspaper that the military has succeeded in eliminating the entire top-level leadership of the group, leaving it destabilized and in need of a structural reworking. He declared that terrorism in Sinai is on its last legs.
Two days after the announcement of the Ansary killing, local news outletsreported that a roadside bomb killed four civilians in Arish. Then on August 10, security sources told media that eight militants, two soldiers and two civilians were killed in an exchange of fire between the military and militants attacking checkpoints in Sheikh Zuwayed. Local media outlets also reported other scattered incidents of violence throughout the week.
Parliamentarian Refai tells Mada Masr that there were almost daily attacks by militants that week, especially in Arish. “It might be a reaction to the news, if it was true, or an attempt to prove that they are still present,” he says. “It’s a war we can’t understand, so we have observations but we don’t know what’s behind them.”
The Sheikh Zuwayed resident says the security situation continues to plummet in his hometown. Throughout last week he heard strong explosions followed by several minutes of heavy fire, he says, adding that he has heard information about civilians being killed in crossfire inside their houses, a risk he says has increased recently because military forces have started firing daily with a low aim.
In its latest report, which was issued earlier this month, TIMEP documented a continued increase in militant activity in Egypt despite the military announcing its victory over terrorism, with 228 attacks in the second quarter of 2016 compared to 211 in the first quarter, and 119 in the last quarter of 2015.
Since Province of Sinai is known to be opaque about its internal structure. The TIMEP researcher says it’s unclear how the death of a leader, even if true, would impact its ability to operate.
The method for selecting leadership in other Islamic State branches is instructional, he adds. Leadership succession is orchestrated by the Islamic State’s central command in Syria and Iraq in a systematic manner: upon a leader’s death, the general commander will submit his proposed appointments — usually known beforehand and based on candidates’ efficiency and loyalty — to the Majles al-Shura for rejection or approval. After the decision is made, the group makes a public announcement.
Awad says Province of Sinai is very secretive about the identity of its leaders, making them much less visible than the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which the Province of Sinai paid allegiance to in 2015. This secrecy is partly due to its relative smallness and weakness compared to provinces that control entire cities and operate more openly.
He adds that the state’s ability to identify members of Province of Sinai has diminished since 2013. This is because the group’s Nile Valley cells have become far less active, diminishing their communications with the Sinai-based ones, which were an important window for security forces, who perform better in their home turf.
While the truth and impact of Ansary’s death remain unclear, it seems clear that violence will continue.
“Regardless of whether it’s in a position of strength or of crisis, one thing is quite clear: Province of Sinai continues to operate, carrying out attacks at rates higher than in past years, and security forces and civilians continue to die at their hands,” the TIMEP researcher says.
Awad agrees. “The death of a leader isn’t usually a death blow for an organization structure like that of ISIS, and there’s likely a pre-selected successor,” he explains. “But I can’t predict what impact this will have on them, precisely because we don’t know anything about Ansary. If he was known to be a veteran military commander for instance, it would be safe to say it would negatively impact their capabilities.”