By Amr Khalifa
Hours ago the security puzzle in Egypt became, potentially, more deadly and highly complex: Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS). Intelligence agencies, analysts, and security experts with an unwavering focus on the Egyptian milieu have wondered if this move would unfold.
Today that turning point occurred and it is no exaggeration to state that an insurgency, thus far largely localised to the environs of Sinai, may have received the kiss of life. For the average Egyptian that kiss of life may, darkly portend death. For jihadists, of an Egyptian stripe, it marks a strengthening of both public posture and invigoration of recruitment, possibly reaching the crucial Nile Delta. The biggest winner in this equation, at first look, appears to be IS, under attack in both Iraq and Syria. For Egyptian security forces and – more so than in the past – civilians, it may be deadly game on.
The jihadist landscape, for two decades, has been dominated by Al-Qaeda and its satellites in various parts of the world. Today that changes. In a morbid fashion ABM has, operationally, been the little engine that could since its first operations on the Sinai Peninsula three years ago. “ABM has achieved spectacular success attacks in the past and won its place as Egypt’s most active jihadist group,” explained Mokhtar Awad, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.
Effectively, IS can trumpet an ability to grow while under attack by international coalition that includes stalwarts such as the US. In fact, argues Mr Awad, “IS is looking to ‘fight back’ in whatever way it can.” This bayaa (pledge) is tantamount to a punch to the gut of anti-terrorism efforts by both the, largely, western coalition and Egyptian attempts to stymie the growth of both IS and ABM respectively. Coming on the heels of a bloody attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai which marked an unprecedented jihadist success, regardless of responsibility for attack being confirmed, the Egyptian regime is being stretched to its limits.
This newly formed alliance, many an analyst could argue, will be helped by an increasing tempo of iron fisted operations in Sinai by the Egyptian army which has left civilian casualties in its wake. Days after the 24 October operation the army decided on declaring a security buffer zone that has seen hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands of local Rafah residents displaced. For all practical purposes, with an underpinning of rising anger, these residents are fertile grounds for recruitment.
ABM, consistently shrewd, understands the dynamic at play as it alludes to a ‘crusade’ against Muslims. For ABM the solution is nothing short of teaming up with IS who leads, what it believes to be, the newly minted ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq. With a, typically heavy dosage of carefully chosen, Quranic scripture announces its bayaa of IS but no less crucially reaches out to Egyptians to do the same. “We thank Allah that he has bestowed upon us a State for Muslims…that unites their voice and returns their dignity.” The sinister verbiage is carefully chosen to echo one of the central tenets of the Egyptian revolution: dignity.
There is very little that is accidental about the discourse of an organisation, such as ABM, one that shows operational efficiency, which recognises that overlapping the goals and desires of a failing revolution with global jihad will only garner the group a marked increase in followers. With a 21st century social media operation like ABM’s linking to IS’s superior media network, as many in the western media have attested, the Egyptian government will have to tackle a formidable foe.
The domestic Egyptian operating theatre is potentially more complex than many believe or understand. Groups such The Lions of The Islamic State, which recently claimed responsibility for the Sinai attack but are yet to be confirmed, and more crucially Ajnad Misr, having executed multiple local operations in the Nile Delta since the third anniversary of the revolution on 25 January 2014, are a thorn in the side of Egyptian stability.
“Egyptian security officials and analysts close to their intelligence services say, without blinking, that Ajnad Misr is ABM’s branch in the Nile Delta”, importantly points out Mr Awad. Whether this group also pledges allegiance to IS remains to be seen, he says. But Ajnad Misr may, yet, play an important role should ABM or IS decide to expand a target list to include civilians in a systematic fashion thereby raising the risk of an insurgency that has, thus far, not been ‘’wider, full blown…outside Sinai”, explains Mr Awad.
It remains to be seen what this, hours old, allegiance will mean for the average Egyptian. But should it expand, operationally, to mean that ABM will receive its orders from IS or “being controlled by a central IS”, Mr Awad says the dangers for both security forces and civilians will mushroom.
It would be naïve, to the extreme, to ignore the fact that the 2013 coup has radicalised many an Islamist youth. If ABM, or any other group, is able to appeal to that undercurrent of anger it will be a deadly ‘game on’.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr