Has the Sinai Produced Egypt’s Own al-Qaeda?

A riot police officer gestures outside building of Directorate of Security after explosion in Egypt's Nile Delta town of DakahlyiaThe devolving security situation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula represents much more than a renewed terrorism threat. It exposes the interconnectedness of several disparate story lines.

At once, it calls into question the nature of the anti-Sissi opposition across Egypt and its ties to militant groups, brings into focus the security relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv and touches on the debate over the character and significance of al-Qaeda franchises across the Middle East.

Many of these debates now center on Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a relatively unknown group operating in the lawless Sinai. Are they an offshoot of Gaza-based, anti-Israel militias? Do they have ties to the international jihad and al-Qaeda? How have these groups changed their goals in the face of anti-Islamist crackdowns across Egypt?

Big Things, Small Beginnings

The world was first introduced to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (also known as Ansar Jerusalem, or ABM) after its brazen attack on an Egyptian military helicopter on January 25th, 2014. ABM used a surface-to-air missile, downing the helicopter and killing its crew of five.

However, the group’s history goes much farther back.

Since the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi on July 3, 2013, and especially after the crackdown on Morsi’s Islamist supporters in August, the frequency of attacks in the Sinai have increased to an almost daily occurrence. Since Morsi’s fall, 260 attacks were reported in the Sinai peninsula, most of which targeted Egyptian security personnel and installations.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack in El Tor. Translation: "Announcement of responsibility for the targeting of the South Sinai Security Directorate."

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack in El Tor. Translation: “Announcement of responsibility for the targeting of the South Sinai Security Directorate.”

Who Are They, Where Do They Come From, What Do They Want?

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been difficult to pin down by analysts as they seem to endorse many different facets of the international jihad and armed opposition.

Groups using the names al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula and Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula have long been active, releasing statements claiming responsibility for attacks and pledging loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda.

On June 18, 2012, an Egyptian and a Saudi national infiltrated Israel through the Sinai and killed an Israeli worker. The next day, a group calling itself Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, or MSC) claimed responsibility for the attack and posted video of the two attackers.[3]

ABM’s first statements were published on al-Qaeda’s official web forum Shamukh al-Islam and some of their attacks on Israel have been dedicated to Osama bin Laden, a fact many analysts point to as evidence of their al-Qaeda links. In a video statement the group called one attack a “Raid of Support for al-Aqsa and the Prisoners” and referenced the “lions” of Gaza and the “mujahideen” in Syria.

However, given that many of these groups were founded and attracted followers based on the desire to strike back at Israel, it is beginning to appear that the group’s goals have shifted to removal of the Sissi-led military government in Cairo rather than the “Zionist threat.”

ABM alleges that the police and the army are guilty of “fighting whoever attempts to apply Islamic law,” “joining forces with the liberals and seculars,” “empowering a secular government that does not rule according to God’s laws,” “protecting a constitution that permits what God has forbidden and forbids what God has permitted,” and “supporting Christians and Jews against Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”

Israeli intelligence believes there is a significant overlap in members belonging to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the Popular Resistance Committees, a group that gained notoriety after an August 2011 attack on Eilat. As early as 2006, sources have been reporting contacts between these groups in the Sinai and international jihadi leadership.[4]

However, despite claims of responsibility coming from ABM, the el-Sissi government is insisting that responsibility for these attacks lies with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to former Islamic Jihad leader Nabil Na’eem, the group originated in Gaza and began operating in Egypt after 2011, with funding from the Muslim Brotherhood. These claims are difficult to substantiate.

The numerous unclaimed attacks taking place across Egypt further complicate the issue of responsibility and blur the line separating Muslim Brothers from Sinai jihadists.

Many of the militants operating in the Sinai may not belong to any group – many may simply be armed bedouin with ties to Gaza smuggling operations. According to the Congressional Research Service, there is no precise number of militants in the Sinai. Estimates range from 500 to 5,000.

Cairo and Tel Aviv Find a Common Enemy

Though relations between Israel and Egypt have been strained, joint counter-terror operations in the Sinai are helping to bring them back together again.

Gas pipelines were attacked three times in a thirty-day period: on December 31, 2013 (and here); on January 17, 2014; and on January 28, 2014. These pipelines supply Israel and Jordan and since February 2011, have been attacked roughly a dozen times. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has taken credit for many of the attacks saying, “[I]f you [the Egyptian government] continue exporting gas to the Zionist enemy and continue in your betrayal, then we will resume bombing the pipelines once again, but bigger this time.”[5]

The Egyptian military has launched a counter-offensive of sorts and has deployed into Egyptian-Israeli de-militarized areas with the permission of the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO). They have also curtailed the number of Gazans crossing the border into Egypt and suppressed smuggling operations.

The Facebook page of Colonel Ahmad Muhammad Ali, the official spokesman of the Armed Forces, has been abuzz with claims of successful “counter-terror operations” in the Sinai. On February 7, 2014, the Colonel announced that 16 militants were killed in an airstrike in the town of Sheikh Zuweid.

Israel has generally been supportive of increased military activity in the Sinai and has even engaged in joint operations with the Egyptians. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a written statement in August, “The State of Israel is aware and appreciates increased activity by the Egyptian military recently against terrorism across the Sinai Peninsula.”

The southern Israeli city of Eilat has been a particular target of Grad rocket attacks, many of which have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense systems.

Concluding Thoughts

There may be two ways of seeing the development of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. First, it could be the outgrowth of Muslim Brotherhood supporters dissatisfied with the Brotherhood’s insistence on peaceful street demonstration. Second, it could be a native Sinai-based organization that once targeted Israeli military positions on the border and dedicating itself to al-Zawahiri and has now turned to a greater target of opportunity and an even “closer” enemy in the Sissi-led government in Cairo.

[1] The statement said that the attack was in response to Egyptian security forces’ interrogation of Muslim women and was part of a series of operations entitled “Release the Female Prisoners from the Hands of the Tyrants.” In October, Egyptian security forces had detained 22 female members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The attack was conducted by “Mu’tassim Billah Battalion” – a reference to a 9th century Muslim caliph who fought the Byzantine Empire to avenge a Muslim woman.

[2] They called General Saeed an “apostate” and a “criminal” and warned that they would continue to avenge the crackdown on Islamists by the el-Sissi government. In the week prior to the assassination attempt, six people were killed in a bombing targeting policemen in Cairo.

[3] According to Aaron Zelin, “the choice of non-Palestinians to conduct this major attack could be part of a conscious effort to establish the Sinai as a new base of jihad operations, providing an opportunity for all Muslims – not just Palestinians – to fight Israel.”

[4] In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee in January 2014, Seth G. Jones placed ABM in what he calls a third tier category, which refers to “a series of allied Salafi-jihadist groups, whose leaders have not sworn bay’at [allegiance] to core al Qa’ida in Pakistan…which allows these Salafi-jihadist groups to remain independent and pursue their own goals, but to work with al Qa’ida for specific operations or training purposes when their interests converge.” This is opposed to al-Qaeda core, which occupies the first tier, and groups such as al-Shabaab or Jabhat al-Nusra, second tier groups who have pledged formal allegiance to al-Zawahiri and follow his guidance.

[5] In April 2012, Egypt’s state-owned gas company scrapped its agreement to sell natural gas to Israel at a subsidized price. The deal has been controversial since its inception in 2005, so much so that former president Hosni Mubarak still faces criminal charges emanating from the deal. According to the BBC, “Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) complained it had not been paid by the Israeli-Egyptian firm that buys gas from Egypt and sells it to Israel.”

Lower than expected Egyptian gas output and a devolving security situation have combined to dismantle the Israeli-Egyptian natural gas agreement.

So far, Israel has been able to whether the storm due to discoveries of domestic natural gas that will more than help to fill the void left by the disruption of Egyptian supplies. However, the significance of the gas trade was not in the actual gas itself, but in the diplomatic ties it helped to reinforce between Israel and Egypt. The two countries were connected by an underwater pipeline that connected al-Arish in the Sinai to Ashkelon in Israel. That section, as well as the pipeline feeding al-Arish, have been particularly vulnerable to attack in the Sinai.


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