The barrage of rockets fired at Eilat several days ago by the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” faction, which has claimed responsibility for the attack, should come as no surprise. The question is not why the Salafi-Jihadist organization acted against Israel, but rather why it has not done so before.
Hatred of Israel and Jews has been a well-known tenet of this organization since it was established — it attacked Israel when it was still identified as part of Al-Qaeda. In August 2011, members of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis killed eight Israelis in an attack that took place on Highway 12 leading to Eilat. A year later, an Israeli Air Force helicopter thwarted a massive attack that the organization attempted to carry out on Kibbutz Kerem Shalom near Gaza. During operation “Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014, it sent a suicide bomber who was intercepted by the Egyptians, and the following winter it fired rockets at Eilat. Hence, the present attempt to launch rockets to Eilat is not surprising. The intriguing question is the issue of timing.
One possible explanation for “why now?” might be related to operational circumstances that enabled Sinai Province to carry out its scheme despite the fact that Israel and Egypt are well aware of their ongoing plans and have been taking steps to prevent them. It may be that this time, in contrast to previous attempts, it managed to pull off the operation. It may also be that the rockets attack reflects a certain pressure within the organization to score points with supporters of global Jihad in view of the many losses they have suffered at the hands of the Egyptians assisted by Israel over the past year. These losses include dozens of their combatants and senior leaders. Above all, however, it seems that this organization feels compelled to prove its unique operational capabilities to its patrons in the Islamic State, to convince IS chief Baghdadi that Sinai Province is the most effective tool in the region for enabling the Islamic State to harm Israel and implement the State’s promise to strike Israel and the Jews — a promise that has yet to materialize.
In the years 2015 and 2016, Sinai Province made several threats to strike Israel. The last of these came in a speech by the organization’s leader Abu-Hajer Al Hashemi, who promised “to scorch the earth beneath the feet of the Jews who are afraid of their impending death by the Jihad warriors.”
According to Sinai Province’s own propaganda, Israel actively helps the Egyptian army in attacking the organization, which suffered many losses this past August and October. These attacks caused the deaths of dozens of its warriors, among them its former leader, Abu Dua Al Ansari.
It seems, then, that Sinai Province is trying to establish itself as a serious threat to Israel, to prove that it is essential for its patrons, to score points among Egyptians and global supporters of the Salafia Jihadia and to recruit volunteers from the Islamic State’s reservoir of foreign volunteers. The means for achieving such support is by killing Israelis and harming the Israeli economy.
Highly effective countermeasures by the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have prevented Sinai Province from carrying out more extensive attacks against Israel. Evidently, the Iron Dome, which successfully intercepted the recent rockets, has probably caused immense frustration among the shooters and their sponsors.
In addition, the group currently has to address more urgent priorities: It is struggling for survival and will need to use its resources to hit the Egyptian army in Sinai and attack the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
We can, therefore, cautiously assume that while there may continue to be occasional attempts at firing rockets or executing other kind of operations against Israel, such attempts will not become routine, at least not in the near future.
Yoram Schweitzer is an expert on international terrorism and head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies.