Beyond the pledge: Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis joins IS

Zeinab El-Gundy , Tuesday 11 Nov 2014

What does a possible allegiance with the Islamic State mean for the Sinai-based Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis - and Egypt's war on terror?

Ansar Bait Al- Maqdis
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (Photo: Al-Ahram)

On Monday the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis released an audio message in which it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), the militant group which has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The nearly 10 minute recording was published on the group's alleged Twitter account, before it was suspended along with other jihadist websites and forums.

Interestingly, newswires said last week that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) – the jihadist group that claimed responsibility for several attacks in Egypt last year, including the bombing of Mansoura's security directorate as well as an assassination attempt on the interior minister – had already pledged allegiance to IS.

ABM responded with a short tweet denying the media reports, warning that all information from the group would only be released via its official social media sites.

That the news was denied by the group – only to be repeated again this week – raises questions.

"The first statement interestingly used the same terms and language as in ABM's earlier ones, yet hours later it denied it in a tweet that was full of contradictions," Ismail Alexandrani, an expert in Islamist movements and Sinai affairs, told Ahram Online.

"In that tweet, we find that the jihadist group denied pledging allegiance to the Islamic caliph. But here the use of the word 'caliph' means that they recognise Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the caliph, so how can they deny to pledge allegiance at the same time?" he asked.

Al-Baghdadi is the proclaimed leader, or caliph, of IS.

Alexandrani stressed that the idea of an Islamic caliphate is part of Salafist jihadism, the school of thought to which AMB belongs.

"We do not have solid information on why they denied the first statement, but maybe there is some sort of communication difficulty between the commanders of ABM across Egypt in reaching an agreement, or maybe ABM's media section hurried in its decision to publish it," he said.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Ban, a researcher of Islamist movements, thinks the delay in confirming the pledge is attributed to a debate within ABM – a split between a group that already pledged allegiance to IS and another that didn't want to announce it publicly.

"They eventually agreed to publicly announce their pledge after constant strikes by Egypt's army on their locations in Sinai," Ban said, while at the same time adding that the international campaign against IS was reaching its peak, meaning the announcement wouldn't be very helpful to ABM.

Ban thinks ABM's announcement marks the beginning of the group's exit from North Sinai and Egypt in general following the army's crackdown that has – according to army reports – killed hundreds of its members. As a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to the caliphate, ABM should eventually join the war against the international coalition led by the United States to fight IS in Iraq and Syria, Ban says.

But there's a chance the situation could go the other way, he suggests, with more IS fighters coming to Sinai to join ABM.

"According to jihadist ideology, IS considers the regime in Egypt as a closer enemy, while the United States and its allies are a far off enemy," Ban said.

Last week Abu Mosa'ab Al-Maqdisi, a prominent Jordanian jihadi scholar who is seen by many as one of the godfathers of IS, issued a statement with 10 pieces of advice to his "brothers in Egypt" on how to transfer the battle from Sinai to Cairo by using the techniques of IS.

Notably, Al-Maqdisi called on ABM to welcome "their immigrant foreign brother fighters" to Egypt while they can still access the country.

Egypt has joined the US-led international coalition along with nine other Arab states to combat IS. Egyptian officials have so far said the country's military will not take part in any combat abroad against IS, and will confront the group with other means, like cutting funding sources or pushing an alternative religious discourse.

It is unclear how ABM's declaration of allegiance will affect Egypt's participation in the efforts against IS.

The US announced late Monday that it was still assessing the implications of the declaration and whether the pledge meant affiliation or that ABM had joined efforts with IS.

"ABM is in Egypt and IS is in the Levant, and so we are not speaking about local reasons but also regional reasons as well," said Alexandrani.

"Locally, ABM is affected by the military campaign led by the armed forces and even though we do not have accurate information about ABM's losses, except from the army's statements, for sure they have faced big losses and need support, whether financially or logistically."

Sinai has been suffering from a militant insurgency for two decades, but the attacks against security personnel have increased since the violent dispersal of two pro-Mohamed Morsi protest camps in Cairo in August 2013 that left hundreds dead. Hundreds of Egypt's police and army personnel – as well as militants – have been killed.

Civilians – especially North Sinai civilians – have been caught up in the violence as well.

"On the regional level, IS needs to prove that it is not affected by the international coalition's war and that it is still capable of recruiting new members," Alexandrani added.

A key factor for IS in this stage is how it can use the sympathy of other Islamist groups, even those who do not agree with IS in its doctrine, he says.

Hearts and minds in North Sinai

On Sunday, ABM issued a statement on its alleged Twitter account condemning the Egyptian army's recent operations to form a buffer zone on the Rafah-Gaza border.

Using strong language as well as Quranic verses to justify its actions, the group said the government's decision to evacuate hundreds of houses in the planned buffer zone was only helping the "Jews". The statement added that the buffer zone further tightened the ongoing Israeli blockade of the besieged Palestinian enclave.

The group also called on local Sinai tribes to join the fight.

"The tribes in Sinai have already chosen their side in the fight and it is not with ABM," Alexandrani said. "After all, several tribal chiefs as well as many locals have been assassinated by the militant group for cooperating with the army in the past few months."

"Unlike public support for the army in Sinai, which is affected whether negatively or positively by the army's actions and decisions, ABM didn't get any support whatsoever from the locals or tribes," he said.

Last week a local vigilante group named "The Children of Sinai" posted a video on YouTube announcing it would purge North Sinai of ABM.

Several news websites and newspapers quoted security sources saying that the government would not allow any militant group – vigilante or not – to break the law and the constitution, which ban militant groups.

A three-month state of emergency and daily curfew was imposed in parts of North Sinai on 24 October, after a major deadly attack on a security checkpoint killed over 30 soldiers, the worst such attack on Egypt's army in years.

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