ISIS enters Egypt

ISIS Enters Egypt

By Khalil Al Anani

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has officially entered
Egypt. On November 10, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a militant movement that
operates out of the northern Sinai Peninsula, pledged allegiance to
ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group, which emerged
after the 2011 uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak, has already established itself as a formidable player in its
own right. In recent months, it has staged devastating attacks on
Egypt’s police forces and claimedresponsibility for a series of
suicide attacks on military facilities in Cairo and the Sinai

The announcement was not a complete surprise, however, coming just
weeks after Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi declared a state of
emergency in the Sinai Peninsula and launched a bloody offensive
against the group, which required an evacuation of Rafah that
displaced approximately 10,000 people. Moreover, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis
and ISIS are natural partners: They share not only a radical ideology
but also barbaric tactics. Last August, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis
decapitated four local men in northern Sinai after accusing them of
being informants for Israel. But the decision to join ISIS marks the
end of a bitter dispute within the militant movement’s  rank-and-file
over whether to join the global group. The split concerned two
interlinked issues. The first was whether Ansar Beit al-Maqdis should
join a global network or continue to operate independently. Some of
the group’s leaders argued–and failed to convince their peers–that
focusing solely on Egypt would secure local support. The second was
the choice between joining al Qaeda and ISIS. Whereas the group’s
veterans generally preferred the former, younger members pressed to
join the latter.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ new ambitions provide yet another sign that
Sisi’s campaign of blind and brutal repression has backfired: Over the
past few years, the militant group has grown only more appealing to
disillusioned young Egyptians. And, in turn, it has expanded its
objectives. In the months after Mubarak’s ouster, the group focused
mainly on staging attacks against targets in Israel and Sinai. In
August 2011, it launched an assault on the southern Israeli city of
Eilat, killing eight Israelis and five Egyptian soldiers. And
throughout 2011 and 2012, the group frequently bombed the natural gas
pipelines that run through Sinai to Israel and Jordan. It was not
until after Sisi seized power, in July 2013, that the group moved into
Egypt’s heartland and started targeting government officials and
security facilities. Now, according to a recent report, Ansar Beit
al-Maqdis’ attacks on greater Cairo have become as frequent as–and
more deadly than–its assaults in Sinai.

Analysts now fear that the group may have sympathizers in the Egyptian
military’s ranks. Since Sisi’s coup, a significant number of military
officers has defected and joined radical groups. According to the
Egyptian media, a devastating attackagainst the military checkpoint in
Sinai last October, which killed 31 soldiers and injured many others,
was planned and executed by two former army officers, Emad Abdel Halim
and Hesham Ashmawy. There has also been speculation that a defected
navy officer was involved in a recent Ansar Beit al-Maqdis assault on
an Egyptian ship in the Mediterranean that left five navy officers
injured and eight missing. And according to a recent New York Times
report, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is believed to be recruiting informants
who know intimate details about the army’s deployments. Such leaks
could prove devastating, ushering a new era of insurgency that could
haunt Egypt for years to come.

The new jihadist alliance is a disaster for Washington as well as
Cairo. For one thing, it is proof positive that ISIS has been able to
use its victories in Iraq and Syria to attract new followers and
continued support outside the Levant–despite the fact that it is
facing the fury of a U.S.-led air campaign. Egypt, moreover, home to
such veteran jihadists as al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who
despite his best efforts, has never been able to establish a foothold
there), has become a full-fledged area of ISIS operations. For the
group’s leaders, Egypt plays a central role in its vision of an
Islamic caliphate, not only because of the country’s political and
cultural stature in the Arab world, but also because of its borders
with Israel. Further attacks on the Jewish state could help ISIS
legitimize its operations and enhance its popularity among Egyptians.

Sisi, meanwhile, is losing touch with the country’s moderate Muslims.
The story of Ahmed al-Darawi, a 38-year-old rights activist who died
last month fighting under the ISIS flag in Iraq, provides but a single
well-reported example of a mainstream Egyptian turning violent.
Al-Darawi, like many of his peers, grew disenchanted by the lack of
reforms to state institutions in post-uprising Egypt, especially when
it came to the Ministry of Interior, where he served as an officer
before resigning to protest corruption. According to some estimates,
ISIS currently has roughly 5,000 Egyptian fighters. Many are veteran
jihadists who fought previously in Afghanistan and Bosnia during the
1980s and 1990s. And according to Egyptian officials, a number of them
have already returned to lead operations against Sisi’s regime.

The new allegiance thus further underscores how unstable Egypt
remains. Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created
a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it, with the potential to
recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike. Ansar Beit
al-Maqdis is also capitalizing on Sisi’s repressive policies in Sinai,
which have alienated most of its population and allowed the group to
drum up tribal support there.

The consequences of the alliance will be felt regionally as well. Even
if ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria, a foothold in Egypt could
provide access to safe havens in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well
as in the Arab Peninsula. With dozens of supporters and sympathizers
in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia, ISIS is poised
to transform this massive area, drawing support from alienated
citizens fed up with autocratic regimes. In addition, the new alliance
could inspire other networks in these countries to join ISIS. Jihadist
militias, such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Boko Haram in Nigeria,
are already appropriating ISIS’ ideology and tactics to expand their
own spheres of control.

All this further complicates U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to
renew congressional support for the allied military campaign against
ISIS, raising further doubts about its effectiveness in the face of
diminishing public support. U.S. military support for Egypt, which
appears to have been largely ineffective in fighting terrorism, also
stands at risk. New Apache helicopters and fighter jets, part of
Washington’s $1.3 billion annual aid package to Cairo, have failed to
restore security in Sinai. In fact, Sisi’s use of U.S. military
equipment probably undermined his legitimacy, giving his
counterterrorism campaign the appearance of U.S.-backed punishment.

Moving forward, the Obama administration will be tempted to give Sisi
a blank check to fight Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and ISIS. But if
Washington is to have any hope of succeeding in the larger fight
against ISIS and its affiliates, the United States must ensure that
any military support does not solidify autocratic rule or target
innocents. It goes without saying that Sisi, like his fellow Arab
autocrats, will derive his own benefit from the new alliance, allowing
him to justify his despotic policies against political activists and
dissenters. Yet recent events suggest that such an approach could
backfire, leaving the United States and its allies to pick up the

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