What You Need to Know About ISIS in Egypt

At a Glance

What You Need to Know About ISIS in Egypt

Peter Welby

02 Jul 2015

Egypt's Sinai region has witnessed a gradual escalation in levels of violence since 2011, mainly at the hands of the ISIS affiliated Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Peter Welby explores the factors behind the group's rise.

The attack by ISIS' Egyptian affiliate, Ansar Beit al–Maqdis (ABM, also known as Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province) on Egyptian military checkpoints near the border with Gaza on Wednesday left scores of soldiers dead, in the most deadly attack on Egyptian security forces since the 2011 revolution. The military response to this claims to have killed over 100 militants. ABM has become bolder and more accomplished since 2011, when it was formed, but is yet to break out of the Sinai peninsula in any substantial way. So what exactly should we know about the group?

It sees itself as more than a terrorist group: ABM sees itself as a full part of the ISIS putative caliphate. It is not simply trying to change the Egyptian state, but to replace it. As such, it needs to seize and hold territory. While the Egyptian security forces have been facing a tough fight for the Peninsula since 2011, effectively closing northern Sinai to tourists, they have not lost control of it. So long as that remains the case, ABM's appeal will remain limited beyond that which it gains from being affiliated to ISIS.

It predates the 2013 coup against President Morsi: ABM has been fighting Egyptian security forces in the Sinai since the revolution in 2011. During the revolution, mass escapes and releases from prison freed many jihadis who had been locked up during the wave of jihadi attacks in Egypt in the 1990s; many of these made their way to the Sinai and started their campaign again. In the extreme takfiri mindset of ABM, and ISIS more broadly, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are not Muslims, in part because they believed in democracy as a legitimate path to imposing Islamist government. According to the Salafi-jihadi ideology, this is shirk, or idolatry: setting something up as equal to God.

ABM sees itself as a full part of the ISIS putative caliphate.

It thinks the government of Egypt is not Muslim: ABM has declared its aim to be to "liberate our Ummah and Muslim people from the slavery of the oppressive, apostate regimes, and establish justice, dignity and freedom for them," and has called on Egyptians to "take out your swords" against the government. It frequently refers to the "Coptic" government and army, referring to the support that the Coptic pope gave to President Sisi when he deposed President Morsi in 2013.

It was powerful before it joined ISIS: Many of ABM's biggest attacks predate its affiliation with ISIS. For a long time, the group was thought to favour al-Qaeda: many of its videos and statements made favourable references to the al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and much of its propaganda was featured prominently by al-Qaeda supporters. But after the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS in mid-2014, splits began to emerge in the group. It is thought that advisors and trainers from ISIS may have been working with the group prior to its declaration of allegiance in November 2014.

It is not the only militant group in Egypt: Many different militant and jihadi groups sprang up in Egypt after the revolution, particularly in the Sinai. The Libyan civil war led to a surplus of arms in the region, driving the price down, and the mass breakouts from prison led to a large number of experienced individuals becoming available to join them. One group that has been responsible for many attacks in Cairo is Ajnad Misr, which emerged in 2014 declaring its loyalty to al-Qaeda and claiming to be seeking 'retribution' for the 2013 Rabaa Square massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. This group is believed to be a splinter of ABM, and it is probably not the only one: it is thought that the declaration of allegiance to ISIS split the group, with many wishing to remain independent or aligned to al-Qaeda.

Many of ABM's biggest attacks predate its affiliation with ISIS.

It threatens both Israel and Egypt: Many of ABM's attacks have been directed at Israeli targets, including infrastructure, military personnel, and civilians. It's name gives a clue to its ambitions: 'Beit al-Maqdis' is one of the Arabic names for Jerusalem. One of the strengths of the jihadi insurgency in the Sinai has been its access to Gaza via tunnels, although the Egyptian and Israeli militaries have been attempting to close this down, and Hamas is as threatened by ISIS operations in the territory as Israel and Egypt.

It is well-established in the Sinai: The Sinai became a logical place for many jihadi groups to set themselves up. The Bedouin tribes that form the majority of the Peninsula's population have long complained of neglect and indifference from the Egyptian government, and ABM has established itself well in the tribes. Egyptian security forces are also limited by the country's peace treaty with Israel in the amount of military force they can have in the region. Its terrain lends itself to guerrilla operations, and the importance of the Sinai to tourism in Egypt makes it a desirable target for groups that wish to damage the state.


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