What we know about Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis

Zeinab El-Gundy , Saturday 4 Apr 2015

Ahram Online answers the most frequently asked questions about the notorious militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis

Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis
A snapshot of a video released on Twitter in which Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis says it had beheaded four Egyptians for spying for Israel, August 28, 2014

What is Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis ?

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) is a Salafist jihadist militant group that has authored a series of attacks against security forces, whether army or police, inside and outside the Sinai Peninsula. Designated as a terrorist organisation by Egypt, the UAE, UK and the United States in 2014, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis means "Supporters of the Holy House" — in reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

The group, which originated in Sinai, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS or ISILmilitant group and its leader, Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, in November, changing its name to Sinai Province (Waliyat Sinai).

When did Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis appear in Sinai ?

The name Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis appeared for the first time in the Egyptian media after the militant group claimed responsibility for an operation inside Israel on 18 August 2011. The group crossed the Egyptian-Israeli border killing eight Israeli soldiers. In return, the Israeli forces chased them back into Egypt, killing five Egyptian policemen on the border and sparking protests in Cairo.

This, however, was not the first operation for ABM after the January 25 Revolution amid the security vacuum it left in North Sinai. It is believed that the Salafist jihadist group was responsible for frequent rockets fired from the Sinai peninsula into Eilat in Israel. It was also responsible for the frequent sabotaging and bombing of the gas pipeline between Egypt, Jordan and Israel, starting February 2011 to this day.

Did Salafist jihadist militancy appear in Sinai only after the January 25 Revolution?

No. Salafist jihadist militancy had been active in Sinai for almost a decade before the latest developments. Most security experts date the emergence of Salafist jihadist militancy in Sinai to the infamous bombing in Taba in October 2004.

The Taba incident was followed by the July 2005 Sharm El-Sheikh blasts and then the 2006 Dahab blast.

One of the most known Salafist jihadist groups that operated during then was "Tawhid Wal Jihad," which eventually joined ABM according to security experts.

To date, the Sharm El-Sheikh blast in 2005 took the largest death toll in Egyptians and foreigners in Sinai, reaching at least 68. The then unknown militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility of the attack citing the invasion of Iraq as a reason.

How many ABM fighters are there?

There are no precise estimates of the number of ABM fighters in Sinai. According to Israeli security experts, ABM is believed to have around 12,000 fighters working in small units.

Nonetheless, security experts in Egypt believe recent strikes against ABM and its members in Egypt by security forces have cost the group dearly. Egyptian armed forces have arrested hundreds of ABM suspects and also killed hundreds.

Are ABM operations limited to Sinai?

ABM attacks and operations against Egyptian security forces have extended beyond Sinai. On 5 September 2013, ABM tried to assassinate former Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim at his home in Cairo's Nasr City using a suicide bomber. The attempt failed. ABM also claimed responsibility for both the bombing of Mansoura Security Directorate in December 2013 and an attack in Borg Al-Arab, on Egypt's North Coast, in summer 2014.

Are ABM operations limited to security forces?

The militant group does not only target security forces but also intentionally targets civilians, from those who cooperate with the Egyptian armed forces to Christians in North Sinai. The group has released in the past horrifying videos showing the beheadings of the local alleged collaborators with the Egyptian army as well as the Israeli army. Nevertheless, ABM stated in its videos and statements that it would not target civilians in general, advising them to stay away from military premises.

What helped ABM flourish in North Sinai?

Several factors played a role in creating ABM in Egypt, including the enormous wealth generated from trade from illegal tunnels between Gaza and Rafah, which not only funded the militant activity of Salafist jihadist groups but also created a new class system in Sinai relative to the power of tribes in North Sinai.

As a result, previously less powerful tribes and clans in North Sinai began to have more influence, defying the old and major tribes and their arrangement with Egyptian authorities and forming their own independent council.

A security vaccuum is another critical factor. Aside from the collapse of security all over Egypt after the January 25 Revolution, Zone "C" in the Sinai Peninsula, according to the Camp David Accords, had a limited Egyptian security presence, mainly from police forces, for decades. After several major terrorist attacks against Egyptian security forces since 2011, the presence of Egyptian armed forces increased for the first time since 1967.

According to the 1978 Camp David Accords which led to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, only civil police forces armed with light weapons, along with multinational observers, are permissible in Zone "C", except in Rafah region. In Zone "B" (mid-Sinai) Egypt can deploy a maximum of four battalions equipped with light weapons to assist civil police forces.

What is the relationship between Al-Qaeda and ABM?

On 10 August 2013, when ABM announced itself in a large public parade on occasion of its biggest public funeral in North Sinai, held for its members killed by Egyptian armed forces in a security raid earlier that month, a video released showed ABM vehicles bearing Al-Qaeda banners on a highway near Sheikh Zuwaid, making it clear that ABM was affiliated to the larger jihadist group.

Salafist jihadist groups in Sinai started as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups according to security reports in 2006.

Mohamed El-Zawahari, brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman El-Zawahari, was said to have contacts with such groups in Sinai after his release in March 2011. El-Zawahari, who is currently standing military trial, is believed to be among the contacts that mediated between the Muslim Brotherhood/Morsi regime and the militant group amid the abduction of Egyptian conscripts in May 2013 in North Sinai.

It is also believed that one of the sources of arms to the group in North Sinai includes Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Libya near the Egyptian Libyan border.

What is the relationship between ABM and the Islamic State?

On 10 November 2014, ABM announced that it had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group and its self-claimed caliph Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi. In the same month, the group changed its name from Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis to "Sinai Province."

What is the relationship between ABM and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Although ABM ideologically disagrees with the Muslim Brotherhood, and even considers ex-president Mohamed Morsi an apostate, the group shifted its activity from attacking Israeli forces to Egyptian security forces after the forced dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa and Nahda square sit-ins, mid-August 2013.

At least 600 Morsi supporters were killed during the dispersal due to excessive use of force by security forces, according to the final report of the Egyptian presidency's fact-finding committee. In recent videos released by ABM, the group said it targeted Egyptian security in order to avenge the imprisonment of Muslim women supporters of Morsi.

During Morsi's presidency, the Egyptian armed forces launched a military operation to hunt down militant groups in Sinai following the deadly attack that killed 16 border guards in August 2012. Talks were also allegedly held between the Morsi administration and the militant group in 2013 when Egyptian conscripts were abducted.

Ideologically, the Islamic State militant group has called Mohamed Morsi an apostate and a tyrant "who worked restore to democracy" instead of Islamic Sharia.

The Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government in November 2013.

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