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 Islamic State 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 Islamic State 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 behaviour as smoking, men shaving their beards or women exposing their faces, reports Reuters.
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, Islamic State is still mounting deadly attacks in Egypt.
The developments reflect how Islamic State 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.