Did Egypt’s Sinai militants err in joining Islamic State?

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s claim that it killed an American serves Islamic State goals. But it may undermine the Sinai militants at home in Egypt.

People and security officials look as smoke rises from a tourist bus in the Red Sea resort town of Taba in the south Sinai, in February. The Sinai-based militant Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has warned tourists to leave Egypt and threatened to attack any who stay in the country.

The announcement this week by Egypt’s deadliest militant group that it was behind the recent death of an American oil worker, coupled with claims it had assassinated several Egyptian security officials, seemed to confirm fears it was preparing to expand its operations after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which so far has operated primarily in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, claimed Monday it was responsible for the August killing of William Henderson, a 28-year employee of Houston-based Apache Corp. His death previously had been attributed to a car-jacking.

Mr. Henderson would be the first Western victim of a deadly ABM-spearheaded insurgency that has blighted Egypt for more than a year and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian policemen and soldiers.

But despite declaring in an audio recording last month that it promised to “listen [to] and obey” Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ABM shows few signs it is about to emulate its IS masters by moving to hold territory or attack Western targets, regardless of its claim regarding Henderson.  

In fact, analysts suggest ABM’s affiliation with its counterparts in Syria and Iraq is actually muddling the ultimate goal of harnessing the simmering anger of Egypt’s disaffected young Islamists.

“We’ve seen an element of strategic dissonance in [ABM’s] operations, especially in light of this affiliation” says Mokhtar Awad, who researches Islamist movements for the Center for American Progress in Washington. He points to the fact that ABM is fighting a guerrilla war against the Egyptian state – a very different modus operandi to the one IS is fighting from the relative safety of its own territory in Syria and Iraq.

It’s IS, not its Egyptian counterpart, that seems to benefit most from this merger. It allows it to project an image of strength across the region at a time when US-led coalition airstrikes have halted or slowed its progress in Syria and Iraq.

“Egypt just can't be a jihadist sandbox like Syria and Iraq,” says Mr. Awad. Much of its population of around 90 million people is apathetic or even hostile to the jihadists’ cause, and most Egyptians still remember the fear that accompanied militant violence throughout the 1990s.

To overcome such hostility, ABM requires a level of strategy and commitment that no other group has managed to date, Awad says.

Mostly restricted to Sinai

For now, this looks unlikely. Although ABM has claimed responsibility for sporadic attacks on the Egyptian mainland, most of its activity is still focused in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, where the group has been hemmed in by the Egyptian military.

It does appear to have an operational cell on the country’s western flank, but it has only mounted a handful of attacks to date.

ABM first emerged in 2011, training its firepower on neighboring Israel. But after the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the group has also launched a deadly campaign against Egypt's security services. Now, it says its fight is also with the Egyptian state.

“It mainly wants to be the group that takes ownership of the wider movement inside Egypt that’s leaning toward violence and jihad,” Awad says.

After Morsi’s overthrow last year, the new government has mounted a searing crackdown against critics. Young Islamists have suffered most of all – thousands have been thrown into jail, and hundreds tortured in an off-the-books detention site near the eastern city of Ismailia.

In response, some have grown violent, contributing to a fragmented nationwide insurgency that claims the lives of several security personnel on an almost daily basis.

Appeal to Muslim Brotherhood

In its public announcement of affiliation to the IS, ABM extended a call to arms for those young Muslim Brotherhood supporters who are tired of using ragtag peaceful protests as a sole response to Morsi's overthrow.

"Humiliating non-violence will not be of use to you, nor heretical democracy, and you have seen what happened to its adherents," said ABM's statement.

Egypt’s security services are doing their best to disrupt recruitment, and claim they have already shut down a number of ABM cells on the Egyptian mainland.

Young men in Cairo and other large cities also have the option of joining a shadowy plethora of militant cells that are claiming attacks of their own.

On a recent day in downtown Cairo, hundreds of locals crowded around the site of an alleged bomb, filming the spectacle on their camera phones. “Is it Ansar Bayt el Maqdis?” asked one teenager.

His friends scoffed. “Those Sinai men don't operate in these parts,” laughed one.

There are signs the group has begun to act opportunistically, focusing on its ability to project a show of force outside North Sinai, even if it brings few tangible gains.

When a Salafist group called its youth cadres to take part in nationwide protests last week, ABM exploited the situation for its own ends, assassinating policemen in the heart of Cairo and in a next-door governorate.

“We promise our people in Egypt more operations, and we say to them that there is no glory for you but with jihad,” the group later wrote on its Twitter account.

PR as part of Islamic State's MO

Experts say, meanwhile, that the exact narrative behind William Henderson’s murder is also questionable – some suggest it is more likely to have been carried out by smugglers, who sold the oil worker’s identification documents to ABM.

According to Aaron Reese, deputy research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, ABM’s sudden flurry of announcements could well be encouraged by the Islamic State.

“This is a group that’s now likely to favor a good deal of public activity on ABM’s part,” he says. “Even if we don’t know what impact the merger has had on the ground, this builds the impression that their merger was a success.”

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