An al-Qaida-inspired group has emerged as Egypt’s biggest terrorist threat in a decade, after a week in which its members claimed responsibility for shooting down a military helicopter, assassinating a senior policeman, and exploding a huge bomb outside Cairo’s police headquarters.
Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis (ABM), or Champions of Jerusalem, first emerged in 2011, amid a security vacuum caused by the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Based in the isolated northern Sinai desert, next to the Israeli border, ABM’s operations expanded drastically after the Islamist ex-president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in July 2013.
But what began as a Sinai-based insurgency now seems to have spread to the Egyptian heartland, with ABM now capable of increasingly sophisticated attacks both in and outside the peninsula.
“They are the premier terrorist threat to Egypt, both in Sinai and on the mainland,” said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, and author of a paper on militancy in the region. “They have advanced their capabilities from fighting primarily a battle of survival in Sinai to targets west of the Suez [canal] that include car bombs and assassinations.”
So far ABM’s primary targets have been limited to police and soldiers, in what they say is revenge for the security forces’ suppression of Islamist dissidents following Morsi’s ouster, and for the army’s ongoing counter-insurgency in Sinai. In September, they attempted to kill Egypt’s police minister. They successfully assassinated a senior secret policeman in November, and a month later killed a dozen policemen at a security headquarters in northern Egypt.
This steady series of attacks grew more frantic this week with a bomb blast in the heart of Cairo, the assassination of an aide to the police minister, and the downing of an army helicopter in Sinai with the help of a sophisticated portable missile launcher – known as Manpads.
The latter, which were not previously known to exist in Sinai, caused military analysts significant alarm. While ABM has shown no prior interest in targeting tourists, whose custom is essential to the livelihood of many Sinai tribes, Manpads can bring down commercial airliners.
“That was always our worst nightmare: that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one,” former CIA director David Petraeus said this week, calling the development a “big deal”.
Sinai experts cautioned that another similar missile attack was not necessarily within ABM’s immediate ambitions or capabilities. But the uncertainty underlines just how little is known about the shadowy group.
The Egyptian government and media do their best to link ABM to the leadership of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to tar the latter. But in reality no one knows exactly who runs it, or how centralized its operations are, nor its relationships with local tribes, other smaller militant groups in Sinai, or al-Qaeda itself.
It is nevertheless considered the most active and proficient of the several groups at large in Sinai. At least 295 attacks have been reported there since July, and ABM has claimed more far more of those than any other group, according to David Barnett, a researcher who monitors ABM activities.
ABM’s membership is estimated at 700-1,000. Its numbers are thought to be expanding, with a combination of decades-old tribal disenfranchisement in Sinai and the ongoing suppression of political Islamism across Egypt making membership a markedly more appealing prospect. Charles Lister, a jihadist expert and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said: “In some respects, ABM was around at the right time – Morsi had not been overthrown, there’s no way it would be the group it is today.”
In its video propaganda and literature, ABM displays an affinity for al-Qaeda, and the proficiency of its attacks suggest some level of external training. But until Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, mentioned “our people in the Sinai” in an audio message on January 24, there had been no confirmation that al-Qaeda recognized Sinai jihadists.
“It really caught my attention,” said Barnett. “It supports the view that there are foreign fighters in the Sinai, and it’s a message from al-Qaeda that your cause is being recognized by us and foreigners are likely coming to aid you.”
For now, it is thought that the vast majority of ABM’s members are Egyptians – though how many are from Sinai itself, and how much support locals give the group, is unclear.
“It’s very hard to quantify,” said a Sinai-based researcher, speaking anonymously for safety reasons. “The tribes right now are divided because of the loss of business” – the army’s counter-insurgency has destroyed many of the smugglers’ tunnels to Gaza, a lucrative source of local income – “but many people support the group just because of the military operations have destroyed a lot of houses, people and trees.”
The government speaks of ABM and the Brotherhood in the same breath, but analysts say the links are tenuous. According to Barnett, ABM may even seek to draw disenfranchised Brotherhood members away from the latter group, on the basis that the Brotherhood’s main tactic of dissent – the protest march – seems only to end in Muslim Brothers getting arrested and killed.
“What ABM is saying is that your peaceful approach is fine if you want to keep getting killed,” said Barnett. “We’re here to defend you, [whereas] the Brotherhood isn’t here for you any more.”