A jihadist group behind a wave of spectacular attacks is a grave threat to Egypt’s stability as political turmoil triggered by the Islamist president’s ouster rocks the country, analysts say.
In less than a fortnight, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem) has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks, including a car bombing at police headquarters in Cairo, shooting down a military helicopter with a missile and assassinating a police general in broad daylight in the capital.
“Vengeance is coming,” the Sinai-based group warned Egyptian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to stand for the presidency after he ousted former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president.
The group’s attacks have “made Egyptian authorities look like they were chasing ghosts,” said David Barnett, research associate at US-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It is the main militant group that has the potential to escalate the destabilization in the country,” he said.
Analysts say Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is inspired by al-Qaeda, but Egyptian security officials claim the “terrorist group is derived” from The Muslim Brotherhood, which won all elections after the 2011 ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is thought to have been founded primarily by Egyptians in 2011 after the anti-Mubarak revolt, with most of its fighters drawn from Sinai tribes.
In recent months the group has also seen support coming from the Nile Delta and some areas of Cairo, experts say.
Although its overall command structure and source of funding are major unknowns, two of its known leaders are Shadi el-Menei, who has eluded arrest so far and is from Sinai’s Sawarka tribe, and Abu Osama el-Masry, of whom little is known.
The group is also believed to be led or backed by militants who broke out of prison in 2011 during the anti-Mubarak revolt.
“Its links with al-Qaeda are tenuous at best,” Barnett said.
The group’s videos often feature clips of al-Qaeda’s Egypt-born leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The group’s “early goal was to attack Israel and prevent cooperation between Egypt and Israel by sabotaging gas pipelines,” said France-based Matthieu Guidere, an expert on Islamist militants.
On Friday its fighters fired a rocket at Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat, the group said.
“On July 3 [last year, the day Morsi was removed] the group issued a fatwa declaring the Egyptian army as infidels. From there, it turned from an anti-Israeli jihadist group to one focusing against the Egyptian security forces,” Guidere said.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis also claimed a car bomb attack on Sept. 5 last year in Cairo targeting Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who escaped unhurt.
Its deadliest assault was a suicide car bomb on Dec. 24 last year that ripped through a police building north of Cairo, killing 15 people.
On Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the start of the anti-Mubarak revolt, the group claimed it downed a military helicopter in Sinai with a missile, killing five soldiers.
“The level of sophistication is beyond what observers thought they were capable of,” Barnett said. “The attacks suggest there are well experienced fighters in the group. Some of them have significant experience in fighting.”