Inside Egypt's new threat: Ansar Beit al Maqdis

Published April 23rd, 2014 - 06:00 GMT

On Monday the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ruled that Ansar Beit Al Maqdis be classified as a terrorist organization. A number of Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, had already designated the group as terrorist. They were quickly followed by Washington.

In the same week the leader of the organization was killed in an ambush in Al-Toma village in the north Sinai district of Sheikh Zuwaid and military and security forces successfully forestalled a number of terrorist operations.

They also conducted several raids that led to the deaths of three members of Ansar Beit Al Maqdis organization and the detention of several others.

Many questions about the structure of Ansar Beit Al Maqdis organization and its links with other salafi jihadist groups and organizations in Sinai remain unanswered. There is no question that there is an active network of such organizations.

The network operates on two levels. On the structural level it is led by commanders who have experience operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

They moved from the Asian to the African arena — Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and then Egypt — lured first by the collapse of the tight security that had prevailed in the pre-Arab Spring regimes and then by the rise of the religious right, or the Islamist movements, in the political sphere.

The second level is ideological and shaped, in particular, by Abdallah Azzam, the godfather of Al-Qaeda, and Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi a leading Salafist Jihadist ideologue.

A week ago, Egyptian authorities arrested Al-Qaeda officer Tharwat Shehata in the Tenth of Ramadan City. The place where he was hiding out is thought to belong to a Muslim Brotherhood member.

Whether or not this is the case Shehata’s presence in Egypt cannot be separated from events in Sinai. He can best be described as a central intelligence unit for Al Qaeda, whether in its first “Afghan jihad” version or its second “post-Arab Spring jihad” version. Many Egyptian security experts, including General Khaled Okasha, describe the capture of Shehata as a major event.

Intelligence on extremist activities in Sinai is accumulating though Okasha says much more remains to be done. There has also been a qualitative shift in the operational capacities of the security forces with the creation of a specialized rapid-intervention anti-terrorism unit.

A senior intelligence expert told Al-Ahram Weekly that Shehata had been under surveillance for some time before his arrest and that the observation had revealed important information.

On the evolution of Al-Qaeda networks he said: “I believe that they are more extensive than many believe and that there is an ability to extend even further given that some international parties are keen to ignite fires in the region. I do not exclude the US from this.”

The source also spoke about the progress of security operations in Sinai in recent months. Measures already taken on the eastern front were “ideal”, he said. He warned, however, that the western borders with Libya require much more intensive security activity and facilities. Libya, he said, has become a prime exporter of jihadist extremism.

“If Egypt could install radars on the borders there and increase aerial surveillance with pilotless aircraft that situation would change. Israel restricts the use of such radars in Sinai. We should therefore use them along our western borders in order to curb cross-border infiltration as much as possible.”

The source said acquiring pilotless aircraft had become an urgent priority for Egypt. “We need the sort that is being manufactured by Israel. The Russians, Americans, Germans, Turkey and India all depend on drones that Israel makes. But Israel is certainly not going to give us one directly.”

But could Russia act as a third party and include one in a deal with Egypt?

“That would be difficult. Even conventional weapons being discussed with Egypt at present are contingent on the arrival of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to the president’s office.”

In a related development, Libya’s ambassador to Cairo, Mohamed Fayez Jibril, met on Monday with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb.

Although much of the meeting was devoted to the problems of the more than a million Egyptians living in Libya and, particularly, hate crimes targeting Egyptian Copts, the two officials also discussed border security. Jibril laid the blame for the current situation on the Qaddafi regime which he said has used the border area as a recruitment zone for foreign mercenaries.

But Jibril, says Libyan expert Al-Hussein Bin Karim, is ignoring the facts and saying only what the government wants to hear.

“True, the Qaddafi regime had its bad points. But there are two parties responsible for what is happening in Egypt now.  One comprises the salafist jihadist emirs of various stripes who control a sizeable segment of Libya.

The other comprises the weapons emirs and their tribal networks of smugglers which extend from Upper Egypt to Marsa Matrouh.”

Israeli Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz has observed that the four areas surrounding Israel are unstable. With respect to the “southern front” — Sinai — he urged good security coordination with Egypt, which is something he said the Egyptian army can do in keeping with the arrangements of the security protocol of the Camp David accord.

The Israeli military leader noted: “We are happy with the calm that has prevailed on Sinai front recently. But we do not depend on it and, therefore, we will continue our deployment operations.”

“At this phase there is no need for military operations because of the close and good relations with the Egyptian side. The more coordination and cooperation between us develop the more the likelihood of a military operation diminishes. However, we are an army that knows how to work.”

 Israeli affairs expert Said Okasha linked Gantz’s remarks to statements issued by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis claiming that it controls Sinai.

“If such claims were true the Israeli chief of general staff would never have issued such remarks. Nor would the Egyptian army have achieved such successes in the field. For example, the army has secured the Suez Canal and traffic through it has revived. Tourism [in Sinai] is also moving and customary economic activities continue uninterrupted.”

Despite an expanding terrorist environment generated by the aftermath of the 25 January revolution and developments following 3 July 2013 that necessitated a massive intensification of military operations in Sinai it appears that Egypt’s resistance to terrorist operations is relatively good.

This is heartening, given that the situation in Sinai is not just a local but also a regional, and perhaps international, concern. Nevertheless there remains the question related to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. If this is a terrorist group, how do we rank all the other groups and organizations that are operating in Sinai and that take “Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis” as a mere banner for carrying out terrorist operations.

There definitely remain ambiguities surrounding the terrorist map of Sinai and beyond. More importantly, however, the existing agreements, protocols and cooperative arrangements are far from sufficient if we are speaking about a terrorist map that spans the greater Middle East. At the same time, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, editor-in-chief of the report on the state of religion produced by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, “Cultural and religious discourse requires much more extensive and deeper treatment than the very superficial attention that is being accorded at present".

By Ahmed Eleiba

© Copyright Al-Ahram Publishing House

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