The Resurgence of Militant Islamists in Egypt

The recent attacks against Egypt’s police and military have raised concerns over the return of the militant insurgency that plagued Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), a Sinai-based militant group, has repeatedly and publicly claimed responsibility for the cascade of bombings. The rate and the sophisticated level of the attacks suggest that Egypt is entering uncharted waters in its fight against terrorism.

In the decade preceding the January 25, 2011 uprising, Egypt experienced the reemergence of small yet vigorous militant groups that carried out significant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. The key force among these was the al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad group, which was behind the fatal attacks in Taba (2004), Sharm el-Sheikh (2005), and Dahab (2006) that left dozens of local Egyptians and foreign tourists killed or injured. Al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad shares al-Qa`ida’s takfiri ideology, which considers the Egyptian regime and security forces as infidels (kufar) that should be violently targeted. However, prior to its downfall in February 2011, Mubarak’s regime had successfully weakened the group and eliminated its capabilities. Over the past three years other violent groups have emerged, including Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem), Ajnad Misr (Egypt’s Soldiers), and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), which is the most active and dangerous.

Since the downfall of Mubarak, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has become a magnet for surviving militants seeking revenge against the state. Although there is no solid evidence showing a direct, organizational connection between ABM and the central command of al-Qa`ida in Pakistan-Afghanistan, the movement adopts al-Qa`ida’s ideology and operative tactics. Similar to al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, ABM views Egyptian military and security installations as legitimate targets. Moreover, al-Qa`ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, praised ABM for its operations against Israel in July 2012, though he didn’t name the group explicitly. Certainly, ABM seeks to gain recognition from al-Qa`ida central command in order to operate under its banner and gain support from and legitimacy among other jihadis.

Despite the dearth of solid information about ABM, it is widely believed to have emerged following the January 2011 uprising and launched its activities by targeting Israel. In August 2011, for example, the movement carried out a multi-stage attack in the southern Israeli border city of Eilat, which resulted in the killing of eight Israelis and five Egyptian soldiers. The group has also exploded the natural gas pipeline that runs from Egypt’s Sinai to Israel and Jordan. However, it shifted its operations toward Egyptian officials and security facilities after a heavy military campaign was launched against it in Sinai in August 2012 under Mohamed Morsi’s presidency. The movement has intensified its operations since Morsi’s removal and has become more dangerous; this has pushed the Egyptian military to enhance its campaign in Sinai.

The social and ideological composition of ABM seems to be Salafi jihadis, disillusioned Bedouins, and former jihadis who did not abandon violence. Although the core structure and leadership of ABM are believed to be composed of Egyptians, Ismail Alexandrani, an Egyptian journalist covering the Sinai region, underscores that ABM includes foreign fighters, mainly of Palestinian, Saudi, and Syrian backgrounds. In addition, the group includes veteran jihadis with fighting experience in Afghanistan and Bosnia during the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, in Iraq and Syria. It is also believed that ABM has close to 1,000 fighters with high strategic and technological capacity, which could explain the group’s advanced operations. While there is no sufficient information regarding ABM’s source of funding, the movement is believed to rely on weapons smuggling and human trafficking activities that have flourished in Sinai over the past few years. Some sources claim that at least two senior leaders of ABM operate large weapons smuggling businesses that are used to finance and militarize the organization. These factors reveal ABM as a substantial force capable of pursuing a prolonged confrontation against the state.

ABM’s war on the state has involved detonating explosives and assassinating security personnel. Whereas the central base of ABM is in Sinai, recent operations suggest that the movement has expanded its network and activities into Cairo and the Nile Delta. In September 2013, for instance, the group claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to assassinate the interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim and for chronic attacks against military and security installations in Ismaliyya. On Christmas Eve ABM claimed responsibility for a deadly car bombing targeting the Security Directorate in Dakahlia that left 14 people dead and around 100 injured. However, the most threatening incident occurred when ABM successfully took down a military helicopter in Sinai using an advanced air missile, killing five officers. This attack not only alarmed Egyptian authorities but also raised fears that commercial planes could be targeted.  

The current conflict in Syria has also had an impact on ABM. According to Egyptian officials, Egyptian jihadis who have recently returned from Syria have joined ABM. These jihadis have been significantly influenced by the division in Syria between the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Currently, the latter seems to be the dominant faction; Alexandrani notes that such influence could be disastrous, as jihadis following ISIS’s patterns would likely target churches and civilians, including women and children.

The ongoing political crisis has exacerbated the security situation in Egypt and has played into the hands of militant Islamists. Indeed, the crisis has created a fertile environment for jihadis to recruit new members and garner support from young Islamists, who are increasingly feeling estranged and disenchanted. Therefore, without opening political space for the inclusion of young Egyptians and easing mounting political tensions, groups like ABM will likely proliferate and threaten Egypt’s stability.