Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, the main threat to stability in the Egyptian Sinai

A new wave of blood has lacerated the North of Sinai on January 29th. A series of simultaneous terrorist attacks in the Egyptian cities of el-Arish, Sheik Zuwayid and Rafah, perpetrated by the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, have provoked the death of dozens of people (30-45), the wounding of another sixty, and the number is bound to increase. The action, perpetrated using mortars and car bombs, was directed against Egyptian public security officers. According to the words of an Egyptian official: “[a]t least one car bomb was set off outside a military base, while mortars were simultaneously fired at the base, toppling some buildings and leaving soldiers buried under the debris […]. Other attacks included mortar rounds fired at a hotel, a police club and more than a dozen checkpoints”.

According to an analysis of “The New York Times” on the action, the attack of January 29th can be considered really different from all previous attacks of the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis because “[has] required a previously unseen level of coordination”.

How Ansar Bait al-Maqdis has managed to achieve such a degree of lethality?

In this article, my aim is to address this question. In order to do this, I have divided the article in two main parts. In the first part, I try to situate Ansar Bait al-Maqdis within the long history of Egyptian Islamic radicalism. In the second part, I consider the supporting role of the Islamic State in the violent escalation of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Finally, I analyze the failed policies of el-Sisi in the Egypt Sinai.

The Islamic radicalism in Egypt: a never-ending story

The radicalization of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis must be analyzed in a historical continuity with Egyptian radicalism. Indeed, the history of Egyptian contemporary jihadism has its roots in 1978, when was formed the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorist group (EIJ). Its founder and emir – from 1974 to 1984 – was Abbud al-Zumar, responsible for the assassination of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (6 October 1981) and later jailed for liability of his action. He remained in prison until 2011 and was then released with the broad amnesties granted by the Arab revolutions. Following the arrest of al-Zumar, Ayman al-Zawahiri was appointed emir of the group, even if we do not know the exact date of the beginning of his leadership; it probably ranks from the mid-80s to 1991. The second and last emir of the EIJ was the one who brought the group to the affiliation with al-Qaeda (between 1998 and 2001). Given his proximity to Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri became an important ideological leader and logistical support for al-Qaeda.

From an ideological point of view, the objective of EIJ was “the overthrow of the Egyptian secular government and the installation of an Islamist political entity”. Later, “the group’s merger with al-Qaeda in 1998, the EIJ is characterized by a shift in the ideological foundations towards a more jihadist mentality, seeking to eradicate Western influence in the Muslim world”. 1998 is a key year for the EIJ: after the affiliation with al-Qaeda, the leadership of the group decided to change its name to al-Qaeda Jihad. The main objectives of the terrorist attacks were the prominent Egyptian and American public officers. Actions were perpetrated almost always with armed assaults, assassinations and car bombs.

From 1992 to 1997 the group was engaged in an asymmetric war with the Egyptian army, fighting with guns and grenades. Among the main attacks reported, we can find: the attempt to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi (1993); the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad (17 dead and 60 wounded; 1995); the attempt to destroy the Egyptian embassy in Albania (1998); a double attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairoby (Kenya) and Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania), in which 223 people were died and over 4,000 injured (1998). After the dissolution of EIJ, Egyptian radicalism continued to exist in secrecy until the Arab spring. Following the Egyptian Revolution (2013), Egyptian radical Salafist formed the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM-Supporters of the Holy House), with the Sinai Peninsula as a basis for their operations.

The analyst of “The Times of Israel”, Asher Zeiger, in early October 2012, is among the first that affirmed the existence of the group and its responsibilities in the violence perpetrated in the Sinai exactly one year before. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is a “single terror network, made up of Islamic extremists who identify with the ideology of al-Qaeda”. The social base of the group is made up of “local Bedouins and […] citizens of Egypt […] and other Arab countries”. A journalist, who reported a speech of an Egyptian intelligence officer, explained that “terror attacks emanating from the Sinai desert over the past year has revealed a common denominator, all pointing to one Jihadist network based in the Sinai”. Among these attacks, there are: the one on the border between Egypt and Israel, in which was killed Netanel Yahalomi (21 September 2011); the attack against a military installation in Egyptian Rafah, in which were killed 16 Egyptian soldiers (5 August 2011); the infiltration across the border in August 2011 (close to Ein Netafim), in which were killed 8 Israeli soldiers.

Concerning the exact characteristics of the foundation of the group, we do not know very much. The very few elements at our disposal date back to an interview conducted by Al Masry Al-Youm Nabil Naeem, one of the founders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He stated that “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is a group split into two factions, one in Gaza and one in Egypt, more precisely in Sinai” and that the group “was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood”. The foundation of the group would be catalyzed by a political agreement between Khairat al-Shater, the deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood and al-Zawahiri, with the participation of Hamas and the blessing of former President Mursi.

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Egyptian Sinai’s terrorist localization

The affiliation to the Islamic State

After the proclamation of the Islamic State by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis started some interior strategic debates. This led the group to dissolve its ties with al-Qaeda and to become affiliated with the Islamic State (3 November 2014). Ansar Bait al-Maqdis renounced membership to the al-Qaeda universe, in order to join the project of the universal caliphate proposed by the Islamic State.

According to David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times, the link between Ansar Bait al-Maqdis and the Islamic State is opportunistic for the first group because it might provide new money, weapons and militias to fight the government in Cairo. The apprehension that followed this news is more than justifiable. Kirkpatrick continues with the fact that “[t]he link is also the latest manifestation of a swirling descent into violence around the region amid the dashed hopes for democracy of the Arab Spring uprisings three years ago[…] But in practical terms, the Islamic State could also share resources – from its wealth of stolen money andoil, seized-weapon stores or jihadi-world prestige – to add new fuel to the Egyptian group’s insurgency at a critical turning point”. Finally, the affiliation could also lead to the splitting of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis into two factions: those who adhere to the Islamic State and those who follow the leaders of the Nile valley.

The failure of el-Sisi policies in the Egypt Sinai

The Egyptian government has been trying for months to stem the fury of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. However, the initiatives of the leader el-Sisi to manage North Sinai proved almost completely unsuccessful. The army has been used in mass against terrorists and, following the brutal execution of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh by the Islamic State, el-Sisi has proposed to punish the terrorists through the use of exemplary punishment. Since June 2014, el-Sisi assumed a modern and innovative religious position. In a speech at the Al-Azhar mosque, he said that Islam cannot be considered as “the” source of anxiety, danger, death and destruction “to the rest of humanity. Religious leaders of Islam must “get out of themselves” and promote “religious revolution” to eradicate bigotry and replace it with a “more enlightened vision of the world”. If they do not, they will take “before God” the responsibility of bringing the Islamic community on paths of ruin.

Therefore, el-Sisi looks like a leader intent on fighting terrorists in the North Sinai. A leader who, however, has committed some ingenuity as the “construction of a buffer zone along the 15 kilometers to the border with the Gaza Strip that, since last September, saw the Egyptian military engaged in the demolition of more than 800 homes in Rafah town on the border with Gaza”. As reported by journalist Laura Cappon, the el-Sisi model has failed due to “factors related to domestic policy”, such as: a) criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood; b) harsh crackdown on all forms of opposition. Nowadays, el-Sisi is changing operational strategy in North Sinai, relying on the support of the local population in terms of de-radicalization. Among these we must certainly mention the “allocation of 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($ 1.3 billion) for the development of the Sinai and the building of a university”.

In conclusion, the violent escalation of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is due to three factors:

a) the historical presence of the massive Egyptian Islamic radicalism;

b) the adherence to the Islamic State and the fact that the Islamic State strategists consider the Sinai as “a place for the recruitment of new fighters”;

c) the outcome of the bankruptcy of certain policies of el-Sisi.

A good example of this is the recent death sentence of 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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