Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, one of Egypt’s most prominent terrorist groups, has pledged its allegiance to ISIS following an escalation of its bombing campaign in Sinai that has sparked military reprisal from the Egyptian government. The New York Times:
They have slaughtered hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police officers, recruited experienced fighters and staged increasingly sophisticated raids from the Western desert to the Sinai Peninsula. They have beheaded informants and killed an American in a carjacking, say Western officials familiar with intelligence reports.
On Monday, Egypt’s most dangerous militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, also pledged obedience to the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, becoming its first significant international affiliate in the bet that the link will provide new money, weapons and recruits to battle the government in Cairo.
While the declaration is taken as binding, ironically it demonstrates the fluid institutional nature of Islamist terror groups that Adam Garfinkle discussed in his most recent essay. This is actually the second time that the terror group has pledged its loyalty to the Islamic State in as many weeks, after it denied having made such a pledge last week.The greater concern is what this means for Egypt’s Islamist movements as a whole: Will they align themselves with domestic terror groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or with international ones like ISIS or al-Qaeda? Recent bombings in Cairo by Ajnad Misr, a terrorist group also connected to the Ansar, were specifically designed to recruit students protesting in support of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. There’s some evidence that this approach is working, as Islamist youth are turning from the peaceful approaches of the Muslim Brotherhood to the violent radicalism of the Islamic State. The statement from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis included a similar shot at the Brotherhood’s lack of violent response:
“Shameful peace will do you no good, nor will blasphemous democracy,” the statement said, “and you have seen how it has claimed its upholders and their masters.”
The appeal of that argument is growing. For the first time Egypt’s Salafist parties are united in their public refusal to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group and are even starting to warm to it, particularly as the Egyptian government’s crackdown fails to distinguish between the various Islamist groups and terrorist groups like ISIS. As Al-Monitor writes:
[Vice President of the Salafist National Party Yusri] Hamad condemned US interference in the region and considered it to be an attempt to create a new reality and overlook the massacres [that such interference] is committing. “Why are they fighting IS but not [President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi? Why are they fighting IS but not the Houthis?” he asked angrily. Hamad believes that the international coalition was not created to fight IS, but for specific interests. He severely criticized Egypt for joining the coalition, saying that it was trying its best to become part of the international system and overlook [the Egyptian government’s own] suppressing policies. […]
[Chief coordinator of the Salafist Front, Saeed Khaled, criticized the Muslim Brotherhood as it is the largest Islamist group with potential to make a change, and yet it remains peaceful despite all the injustices they are being subjected to. “The terrorist regime portrays us as killers. But the regime itself is IS. It is killing us, torturing us and shedding our blood,” he said.
While we can expect these institutional shifts of loyalty to remain painfully and confusingly fluid, the Islamic State as a model for resistance seems to have significant appeal. Support for Islamism generally is in sharp decline, but among those who still cling to the tenets of political Islam in Egypt, those arguing for violence are clearly gaining influence and support, with the potential for a serious escalation of the conflict across Egypt.