Jihadists threaten Eid attack in Egypt. Can group reach beyond Sinai base?

Ansar Bayt el-Maqdis, the deadliest of Egypt's jihadist groups, is said to be in touch with the Islamic State. It has been largely hemmed in by the army in the Sinai, where the army says it recently killed one of its commanders.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Egyptians cast fishing poles from the edge of the Nile river in Cairo, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Muslims around the world are preparing to mark Eid al-Adha, meaning Feast of Sacrifice, as the biggest holiday of the Islamic calendar.

In Egypt, where militants strike almost daily, a jihadist group that has been locked in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the army in the east of the country is threatening to make the start of the Eid al-Adha festival this weekend a “black day” for security forces.

Ansar Bayt el-Maqdis, which is said to be in communication with Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria, has been largely hemmed in by Egypt's army in the Sinai Peninsula. On Thursday the army said it had killed one of the group’s commanders in the eastern Sinai.

Ansar’s campaign against the security services has proven the deadliest among Egypt’s Islamist groups, with hundreds of policemen killed in recent years. Still, the group's latest threat is seen as an audacious claim by a group that operates in the borderlands.

“Unless they have firm plans in place, announcing a specific date was a risky move,” says Zack Gold, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based American Security Project and an expert on the group. “This is an organization that has not pulled off a major attack outside of the Sinai for months.”

Across Egypt, several jihadist groups have sought to exploit lawless frontiners to mount attacks against the security services. In the east is Ansar. On Egypt's western flank, the authorities face a flow of weapons and, sometimes, militants, from neighboring Libya.

Even the more amateurish groups have struck police targets with such frequency that many here have adjusted to the reality of near-daily low-level attacks.

The fragmented insurgency dates back to 2011, when Ansar mounted its first attacks in Sinai. It has gathered pace since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown last July in a popularly backed coup.

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.

To neutralize the threat outside of Sinai, Egypt’s army has placed the region on lockdown, controlling traffic in and out of the area. It conducts frequent raids on alleged weapons stores and militant hideouts in the patchwork of villages running eastwards from the city of El Arish to the border of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

On Thursday, security sources claimed the military had killed one of Ansar’s field commanders, Mohamed Abu Shatiya. A series of police raids also appears to have crippled an Ansar cell in the impoverished Nile Delta region, limiting the group’s capacity to attacks within North Sinai.

But inside Sinai, the group is still flexing its muscles. By day, militants control the roads in at least one village close to the Gaza border. On Sept. 16, a roadside bomb shredded a military vehicle, killing six soldiers.

Expanding contacts

Ansar is also expanding its contact with jihadist groups across the region. One militant told Reuters the group is sharing tips with Islamic State fighters online. They have also won Islamic State’s praise for the beheading of four Sinai residents they accused of espionage last month.

A handful of fighters have also spent time in training camps along the Egyptian border before travelling back to North Sinai, according to a Western diplomat monitoring the situation.

The threat from the strategically important North Sinai has worried the Obama administration. The United States is lifting its hold on the delivery of attack helicopters to Egypt, imposed after Mr. Morsi’s overthrow and the crackdown against protesters that followed.

The extent of this threat may be put to the test this weekend, when the group reveals whether it really can coordinate meaningful attacks outside of its Sinai haven.

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