Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Sinai jihadists target the Delta

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis has upped its attacks against the security apparatus and vows more, reports Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Update 3 January 2014, 11:00AM CLT

Although it claimed responsibility for the deadliest terrorist attack in years Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) remains a footnote in a national debate dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood which was designated a terrorist group by the cabinet on 25 December. The designation was announced a day after a suicide bomb attack on the Daqahliya Security Directorate killed 16. Senior security officers were among the dead.

On Thursday interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim told a news conference that seven people, including the son of a Muslim Brotherhood leader, have been arrested in connection with the attack. Ibrahim identified the leader of Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis as Tawfiq Mohamed Freig, also known as Abu Abdullah. Assailants communicated with the Gaza-based Hamas for help and support ahead of the Daqahliya bombing, he said.

Little is known about AMB or the unfolding jihadist map in Sinai. The lack of knowledge is largely a result of a state-imposed media blackout.

It was the third time since September that ABM’s name has surfaced outside Sinai.

On 28 December a video was released by an 'Al-Battar media group', introducing Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis and its mission. The 3:55 minute video featured edited footage from earlier ABM releases of their operations in North Sinai and Cairo accompanied by a voiceover in a dialect neither Egyptian nor Sinai Bedouin which referred to ABM as “our brothers in Egypt”.

The narration said ABM surfaced under the rule of Hosni Mubarak in response to military campaigns targeting jihadis in Sinai. The video also claimed ABM had itself been targeted because of the missiles it fired against Israel and for repeatedly sabotaging the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline that extends across Sinai. 

The pipeline attacks stopped after Cairo cancelled its agreement to sell gas to Israel in April 2012 following a court verdict ordering it to do so. It was only after the January 2011 Revolution that the Al-Qaeda inspired ABM revealed its existence and claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement that posited its mission as being primarily against “the Zionist entity”. Israel considers the group responsible for a majority of cross border attacks originating in Sinai in recent years.

The recent Al-Battar video said that despite army “provocations” under both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Mohamed Morsi ABM had refused to be dragged to a confrontation but this changed following Morsi’s ouster and the subsequent “massacre of Muslims in Egypt”. The police, military and intelligence were subsequently targeted, said the video, to “avenge” Muslims. Although critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Nour Party for engaging in politics and the democratic process, which they deem un-Islamic, the video invited them to join forces with the jihadis “against tyranny”.

Experts say the video’s narrative is consistent with the jihadist group’s actions and earlier statements. It remains unclear, however, why Al-Battar and not ABM released the video.

“Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is a Salafist jihadi and not a takfiri [who deem others, including Muslims, apostates] group,” says Ismail Alexandrani, one of a handful of Egyptian experts on Sinai-based jihadi groups. “They are very well trained in logistics and seem to have access to intelligence information.” Although they keep their identities secret their leaders were not unknown to the military leadership during Morsi’s reign and they have a Shura council, he said.

Founded by Egyptians, the group has members with experience in Afghanistan and Syria, “but they don’t want to antagonise the public” and are eager to prove that they don’t target ordinary Egyptians. “They seek popular support.”

According to Alexandrani, who conducts month long field visits to North Sinai, ABM is also a “regional” group, which explains the dialect on the Al-Battar video. As such the group is “not immune to penetration by regional forces”. 

Sinai, off limits to the military since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement in 1979 — it limits Egyptian forces in Area C, which runs along Egypt’s eastern border and covers approximately one-third of the peninsula, to a lightly-armed police presence — has become a proxy battlefield for competing regional agendas over the years, says Alexandrani.

The agreement’s security clause was temporarily suspended in August 2011, allowing the military to launch Operation Eagle against Islamist militants. The army deployed 2,500 troops in Area C. Eagle 2 began in August 2012 after 16 Egyptian border guards were killed at their checkpoint. No one has claimed responsibility for the massacre.

A research paper on the war in Sinai by Alexandrani published by the Arab Reform Initiative in September 2013 argues that the military’s declaration of war against the armed groups came at a price: it gave jihadi groups a justification to divert their attention away from Israel and point their guns at an “infidel” army they view as coordinating with the “Zionists”. The group claimed credit for several deadly attacks on military conscripts in Sinai.

ABM’s operations outside Sinai have all been high profile. On 4 September it was behind the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in front of his home in East Cairo. Three weeks later, also in East Cairo’s Nasr City, Mohamed Mabrouk, a senior national security officer, was assassinated.

The Daqahliya Security Directorate attack is their biggest and most destructive operation to date. Five days later a bomb exploded outside the intelligence headquarters in Sharqiya, also in the Nile Delta, injuring four soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the bomb.

In a 17:36 minute video released on 1 December in which ABM proclaimed that the “war has yet to start” the jihadi group showed footage of victims of the violent police dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in in Rabaa Al-Adaweya which resulted in hundreds of deaths. The clip also included images of the corpses of children in Sinai and of the 21 female Muslim Brotherhood protesters behind bars in the Alexandria court that sentenced them to 11 years in prison (the sentence was later suspended).

The video cited audio clips by late Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mosaab Al-Zarqawi and the spokesman of Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani Al-Shami urging Egyptians to take up arms against the military.

ABM “sees the coup and ongoing crackdown as a chance to advance their cause” says David Barnett, a research associate at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies in DC who monitors jihadists in Sinai and Gaza. The ongoing crackdown gives the group “the opportunity to offer themselves as the defenders of those who are being targeted and possibly garner support for their violent ways”.

According to Alexandrani, ABM is the strongest group in Sinai and the one most likely to appeal to disenfranchised youth seeking vengeance on the authorities. “The current climate is ideal for recruiting,” he says.

Since Morsi’s ouster there have been at least 256 attacks reported in Sinai according to Barnett. But in recent months the number of reported attacks in North Sinai has declined to “only about 15 in December” while attacks outside North Sinai have increased and are likely to continue.

“Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis appears to have adapted on some level to the army’s operations in North Sinai and is now more focussed on less frequent but bolder and bloodier attacks in the Nile Delta and even Cairo," said Barnett. Furthermore, there is "likely recognition within the group that attacks in North Sinai will not garner as much attention as bombings in the Nile Delta or Cairo.”


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