Sinai security forces
Egypt's military has killed 29 militants in restive northern Sinai Reuters file photo

Like many of his friends and family, Mansour was watching the football at a local coffee shop in Dahya, Arish, on 29 January when an ear-splitting series of explosions rang out over the town. He leapt to his feet and ran home to check on his mother.

The bombing by radical Islamic State-aligned militants in northern Egypt was the final straw for the 36-year-old mobile phone shop owner, who has since migrated to the city of Ismaïlia to flee the war between jihadis and the Egyptian government currently raging in Sinai.

"We were right in the middle of the crossfire for several hours. Our house is just 50m away from the local security directorate, which the bombings had targeted," Mansour told IBTimes UK from his new home in Ismaïlia, adding that bullets fired by the army actually hit the inside of his house.

The war between Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) and the Egyptian army in Sinai has intensified in recent months, with the traditionally lawless Sinai region seeing a number of skirmishes between jihadis and soldiers and bombing attacks on both Egyptian army bases and the Gaza border.

Many [Sinai civilians] are joining the militias to make money after losing their jobs in the foiled smuggling trade.
- Samy, 32

After former dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power during the 2011 revolution, tribal communities in Sinai – who had long complained of government repression – drove security forces out of Sinai. This created a power vacuum that groups such as ABM were quickly able to fill.

Although the jihadi group has traditionally been ideologically opposed to the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, ABM has upped its attacks on the Egyptian military and police since a military coup ousted former president Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.

The group uses as a rallying call the Egyptian security forces' suppression of Islamist groups and the forced dispersal of the pro-Morsi al-Nahda Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square sit-ins in mid-August 2013 that led the deaths of hundreds of people.

In November 2014, ABM pledged allegiance to IS and its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the same month, the group changed its name from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to Sinai Province. Since then, there has been an evident, dramatic advance in the group's media competences and abilities, in addition to an entire rebranding that highlights its strong ties to IS.

However, while the Egyptian government is keen to present ABM and the jihadist uprising in Sinai as a Muslim Brotherhood–backed terrorist plot, residents in the towns and cities of Sinai can understand why the jihadis attract support.

ISIS in the Sinai

The Sinai has long been a hotbed of political instability, particularly in the north east near Egypt's border with Gaza and Israel.

Local Bedouin tribes claim that they have been neglected as the government has developed Sinai as a tourist hot spot in cities like Sharm el-Sheikh.

That anger has increasingly found its voice in radical Islam, especially in the wake of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the government of General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

ISIS-affiliated ABM has been able to build wealth from trade via illegal tunnels between Gaza and Rafah, which not only funded the militant activity of Salafist jihadist groups, but also created a new class system in Sinai relative to the power of tribes in north Sinai.

As a result, previously less powerful tribes and clans in north Sinai began to have more influence, defying the old and major tribes and their arrangement with Egyptian authorities and forming their own independent council.

That shifting of the balance of power – away from tribes willing to cooperate with Cairo and towards those who are opposed to it – suggests that Egypt's war against radical Islam has only just begun.

Mansour and his friends say that those who have suffered from the security crackdown have proved easy pickings for ABM's recruitment drive.

That is especially true for those like Mansour who have lost their homes and businesses because of the Egyptian state's punitive actions.

"Many [Sinai civilians] are joining the militias to make money after losing their jobs in the foiled smuggling trade," said Samy, one of Mansour's friends.

"Extremism is not a wild plant; extended years of messed up government systems and messed up religious institutions have led us to where we are now," the 32-year-old added.

Both Mansour and Samy described how drones and Apaches were striking homes in Dahya. They explained that security officers were burning down homes and forcing women to evacuate their houses. Men had to flee their place – fearing arrest – before the weekly raids by the Egyptian military took place.

They said that civilian deaths have become recurrent in these attacks, even though they are unreported by state media.

It is little surprise that those from within the Egyptian security services do not see it that way. One security official who spoke to IBTimes UK on condition of anonymity said that those joining the ranks of ABM have always believed and dreamt of a jihadist caliphate, precisely those who were "holding a grudge against the state".

Egyptian state media is keen to point out that ABM does not only target security forces, but also civilians, from those who work with the Egyptian military to Christians in north Sinai. For its part, ABM has stated in its videos and statements that it would not target civilians in general, advising them to stay away from military premises.

We have tried to prevent attacks by blocking the mobile network but terrorists have armed themselves with technology that allows them to detonate bombs from a distance.
- Egyptian military official

Even so, ABM attacks and operations against Egyptian security forces have extended beyond Sinai. On 5 September 2013, ABM tried to assassinate a former minister of the interior at his home in Cairo's Nasr City in a failed suicide bombing. It has also claimed responsibility for bombing the Mansoura Security Directorate in 2013 and an attack in Borg Al-Arab, on Egypt's north coast, in 2014.

The nature of ABM's tactics has made combating the group extremely difficult for the Egyptian army, the official said.

"We cannot monitor all roads to inhibit bomb plantations. We have tried to prevent attacks by blocking the mobile network but terrorists have relied greatly on wireless networks and have armed themselves with technology that allows them to detonate bombs from a distance," he said.

In Ismaïlia, Samy and Mansour argue that ABM has been successful in winning hearts and minds – even if they baulk at the level of violence that the group employs.

"They call us to stand with solidarity through their fight against the state... I mean I do believe that there is great injustice in this country, however, their approach to stand against it is not practical, and anything that involves violence I am against," he said.

Samy, meanwhile, speaks like a broken man: "I really think Sinai is over, the civilians are being hurt in the process. We are collateral damage, all we can do is leave and reminisce about the past."