Eid Al-Adha was a time of heightened security in Cairo, after Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) – Egypt’s most prolific recent militant group – had threatened to make the start of the festival a “black day” for the security forces.
Eid passed peacefully, but militants have killed scores of security personnel since the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. ABM is just one of several active militant groups in Egypt; with a variety of aims, characteristics, and operative tactics.
However – for political expediency – the authorities and the media frequently lump these various groups together and conflate terrorism with the Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, the aims of Egyptian militant groups, and the threats they pose, are seldom clear.
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM): Sinai-Based Militants With Links to ISIS
ABM emerged in Sinai in the turmoil that followed the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. According to a report in Time magazine, ABM’s earliest operations targeted Israel – including an attack in August 2011 that killed eight Israeli soldiers and three Egyptian soldiers. They claimed credit for 14 attacks disabling a natural gas pipeline to Israel.
Following Morsi’s ousting in July 2013, ABM turned their focus to Egypt. ABM has adopted Al-Qaeda’s takfiri rhetoric and operative tactics, viewing the Egyptian security forces as infidels that should be violently targeted, although ABM has no formal organizational ties with Al-Qaeda.
Most of ABM’s attacks have taken place in the Sinai Peninsula, where the group has killed scores of police officers and soldiers in rocket, bomb, and gun attacks. They brought down a military helicopter in January 2014 using advanced surface-to-air missiles. In February 2014 ABM bombed a tourist bus near the Taba crossing in Sinai – killing at least three people – and warned tourists to leave the country.
They have also claimed responsibility for bombings outside of Sinai, including a failed assassination attempt in Cairo on Egypt’s Interior Minister in September 2013 and a bombing on the police headquarters in January 2014.
According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, “Ansar’s core group of fighters is estimated to be in the low hundreds, drawing most of its manpower from the local Bedouin community. Local residents say other fighters hail from the Egyptian mainland and, in some cases, Gaza and Sudan.”
Khalil Al-Anani, writing for the Middle East Institute, suggested that ABM may have close to 1,000 fighters. “The social and ideological composition of ABM seems to be Salafi jihadis, disillusioned Bedouins, and former jihadis who did not abandon violence,” wrote Al-Anani.
A report by Reuters in September claimed that ABM has forged online communication links with the extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham). A senior ABM commander told Reuters that ISIS “is teaching us how to attack security forces, the element of surprise”.
Recently released footage showed ABM militants beheading four Egyptians it had accused of providing the Israeli authorities with intelligence, echoing footage released in recent weeks of decapitations of foreign hostages held in Syria by ISIS. The security forces have also estimated that thousands of Egyptians may have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.
With accomplished fighters, advanced weaponry, and links to foreign groups, ABM continues to worry the authorities and has been Egypt’s most active militant group in recent times. However, there are other militant groups that arguably pose a greater threat outside of the peninsula – including the first significant jihadist group that has been based in Cairo for the past decade.
Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt)
Mid-morning of the 21st of September, a bomb exploded at the back gate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo, killing three police officers. The blast was the most significant in Cairo for several months.
Militant group Ajnad Misr claimed responsibility. The group first announced itself on Twitter in January 2014, claiming credit for at least three previous attacks in Cairo in November 2013 and January 2014. They have subsequently claimed responsibility for more than 15 attacks in the greater Cairo area.
Mokhtar Awad, a research associate at the Center for American Progress, writing for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, argues that the group “has a simple stated immediate objective: retribution for those killed and assaulted by security forces.” Awad writes that Ajnad Misr is seeking to exploit the current of Islamist anger against the ousting of Morsi, using calculated violence against the security forces through improvised explosive devices and generally trying to avoid killing civilians.
Awad argues that the group’s rhetoric “offers strong evidence of a Salafist influence.” Unlike other militant groups, Ajnad Misr defines itself specifically as Egyptian and has focused its attacks on Cairo.
The group relies on social media to spread its message and hopes to attract young, disaffected Egyptians to its ranks. Beyond retribution, the group claims in its founding statement to be fighting for the establishment of a religious state in Egypt, as opposed to the rhetoric of other groups who seek to establish cross-border caliphates.
Awad says there are groups operating in Egypt who, like Ajnad Misr, target the police in attacks, which are justified as retaliation for perceived abuses – including Execution Movement, Walaa (Set Fire), or Molotov.
“However, unlike Ajnad Misr, these other groups have thus far remained non-jihadi in their rhetoric, referencing their desire to enact revenge without evoking specifically religious objectives,” argues Awad. “Ajnad Misr’s track record relative to these other groups threatens to make their method and ideology an attractive alternative to the non-violent jihadi path and, of course, the largely non-violent Islamist protest movement.”
Other Groups and Threats
Beyond ABM and Ajnad Misr there are many other active militant groups in Egypt. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has outlined profiles of notable terrorist groups in Egypt, demonstrating the existence of multi-faceted threats.
Ansar Al-Jihad considers itself the military wing of Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. According to local terror experts, the group possesses advanced weaponry including mortars and surface-to-air missiles. The group claimed responsibility for a series of gas pipeline attacks, and has been linked to the August 2013 execution of 25 soldiers traveling between Al-Arish and Rafah in Sinai.
Tawhid Wal-Jihad, based in Sinai and Gaza, is thought to number around 300. The group shares a similar ideology to Al-Qaeda, regarding state actors as infidels that prevent the implementation of Sharia law. They are thought to be responsible for the deaths of over 100 tourists in Sinai between 2004 and 2006. Recent evidence suggests that following a state crackdown, they have merged with the leadership of ABM, according to the Tahrir Institute.
Kitaa’ib Al-Furqun is based throughout Egypt, allegedly with operational centers in Cairo and Ismailia. The group regards the government as illegitimate as it does not apply Sharia law. The group released videos in late 2013 of rocket-propelled grenade attacks earlier that year on merchant ships in the Suez Canal and on a satellite station in Maadi.
Jund Al-Islam carried out an attack on a Rafah intelligence building that killed at least six people in September 2013. Their only official proclamation denounced the Egyptian military as traitors to Islam.
The Tahrir Institute’s profiles include groups which operate on a relatively small scale from Sinai, including Jaysh Al-Islam and Takfir Wal-Hijra. The frequency of attacks on security forces in Sinai means that it is often difficult to determine who is behind many of the attacks. “Most of the near-daily roadside bombs and targeted shooting of security service vehicles go unclaimed; it is usually only the spectacular mass-casualty events for which terrorists seek recognition,” writes analyst Zack Gold, in the Carnegie Endowment’s Sada Journal.
Militant attacks have also spread to the west of the country, amid reports that instability is facilitating the flow of fighters and weapons between Egypt and Libya. In July 2014, 22 armed forces personnel were killed in an attack on a military checkpoint near Farafra Oasis and the Libyan border.
The ‘War on Terror’ and the Crackdown on Dissent
The authorities have responded with force to the militant threat, in a struggle often billed by the media as Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’. They have launched a series of land and air attacks to kill or detain suspected jihadists. Roadblocks and checkpoints have been deployed in greater number.
The ABM commander talking to Reuters suggested that the security crackdown was making it harder for militants to operate in Sinai but that the movement of fighters to bases off the peninsula could make it more difficult for the authorities to track them.
The Egyptian military’s response has been criticized by some as indiscriminate, with many documented instances where civilians have been killed. Mada Masr reported earlier this month that a recent military operation, which killed 16 alleged militants in Sinai, also killed a 12 year-old child.
The ABM commander claimed that the security crackdown fuels militant recruitment. “Every time one of us is killed, two or three others join. Usually relatives of those who killed.”
Yet, despite their Eid Al-Adha threats, ABM has not been able to carry out a major terrorist attack outside of Sinai in several months. “As the armed forces and police focus on Sinai’s terror threat, more so than at any other time since the 2011 uprising, the peninsula has quieted down significantly, at least for the moment,” writes Zack Gold.
However, Gold points out that there has been an increase in smaller attacks on the security forces in Egypt’s urban centers, claimed by groups as retaliation for perceived police abuses.
The dominant state and media narrative in Egypt’s ‘war on terror’ is that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the militancy. Yet, the US State Department recently noted that the Egyptian government “did not provide any substantiating evidence that the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] was directly involved in the terrorist attacks that followed President Mohamed Morsy’s removal.”
Militant groups in Egypt tend to be jihadist or Salafist, unlike the more moderate Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government has repeatedly equated ABM with the Muslim Brotherhood, yet there is no evidence that links the two groups. David Barnett, writing in the Long War Journal, noted that a member of ABM had left the Brotherhood because it had proved to be too moderate in power.
The crackdown on overwhelmingly peaceful dissent and brutal human rights abuses since the ousting of Morsi – notably the bloody dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in in August 2013, the subsequent arrests of thousands of demonstrators on the grounds of combating terrorism, and a resurgent security apparatus which uses torture and disappearance with impunity – may act a recruitment tool for some militant organizations.
Egypt faces a sustained, varied and complex militant threat but the authorities appear to give minimal effort to understanding and tackling the underlying social, political and economic causes of disaffection. Using the ‘war on terror’ as a cover to quash peaceful political dissent and abuse human rights, in addition to deploying indiscriminate military and police action, may perpetuate violence in the longer-term.
Some analysts – including Mokhtar Awad – believe that, although groups like Ajnad Misr do not pose an existential threat to the Egyptian state, the prospect of retaliation may encourage many more Egyptian Islamists towards violence.
Awad writes that: “Ajnad’s experience in carrying out such largely-publicized attacks, even if the authorities ultimately eliminate it, may help galvanize a homegrown jihadi current that, due to its connection to the Egyptian heartland and tapping into the shared grievances of the broader Islamist current, could prove far deadlier in the future than groups like ABM ever dreamed to be.”
By Patrick KeddieDownload