What is the significance of Al-Qaeda's presence in Sinai?

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 2 Aug 2015

The Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Murabitun has announced its presence in Sinai, but what does this mean for the restive peninsula?

Islamist militants in Arish, the capital of Egypt’s governorate North Sinai. (Photo: Reuters)

The announcement of the presence in Sinai of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Murabitun has not come as a surprise to observers and has underscored a number of facts. The group’s conflict with the Islamic State (IS) group is mirrored in other parts of the region; a prime example being the animosity between Al-Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda affiliate, in Syria and IS in Iraq.

While it is true that many Al-Qaeda leaders fled Sinai during the 25 January Revolution, including Osama Bin Laden’s former physician, Ramzi Muwafi, and Mohamed Gamal Al-Kashef, an Al-Qaeda veteran and leader of the Nasr City cell, a terrorist grouping, this does not signify that Al-Qaeda passed the baton on to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), which affiliated with IS last year.

“There was never much compatibility between Al-Qaeda and the other organisations from the outset, even if they shared the same aim, namely to harm the army and the state,” said a source closely involved with the terrorist file in Sinai.

But the announcement, made by discharged Egyptian army officer Hisham Ashmawi, also called Abu Omar Al-Muhager, raised a number of important questions. Foremost among them is whether there has been a merger between Ashmawi’s Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation Al-Murabitun and the IS “Sinai Province”.

This appears unlikely, as Ashmawi’s organisation parted ways with the other organisations under the ABM umbrella at the time the latter declared its allegiance to IS and more specifically when activist Said Qatma was smuggled into Egypt in March through a tunnel from Gaza in order to take ABM’s oath of fealty to IS.

Moreover, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri’s conflict with IS also casts its shadow over the organisations in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt. At the time of the investigations into the Nasr City cell, it came to light that Al-Kashef had exchanged messages with Al-Zawahri.

Security sources strongly believe that Ashmawi has succeeded Al-Kashef in the organisation and remains in contact with Al-Zawahri.

Ashmawi recently released a video entitled “On that day, the faithful shall rejoice.” The six-minute message calls for attacks against the armed forces and police in Egypt. Ashmawi also lashed out against the Egyptian media for its alleged bias to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and its antagonism to militant groups.

'Same technology' 

Analysts have noted that Ashmawi uses the same technology and methods in the video as Al-Qaeda. As one of the purposes of the recording is to underscore the Al-Qaeda connection: it features a photo of Al-Zawahri and the Al-Qaeda leader’s voice exhorting the youth to holy war. The video then cuts to an image of Al-Aqsa Mosque with the caption, “We are coming, Al-Aqsa.”

The point here is to underscore the other jihadist objective after targeting the authorities in Egypt. According to a previous video attributed to Al-Zawahri, the “road to the liberation of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem passes through Cairo.”

One of the first repercussions of Ashmawi’s break with ABM was the cutting off of the funds that his group had contributed to the umbrella organisation. This was reported on various jihadist websites and relayed by other media. According to the reports, every group or faction under the ABM umbrella had to pay membership dues. No precise figures have been cited, but judging from leaks and comments on jihadist websites, the sums were sizeable.

Another repercussion from the split has been more disputes and discord. Initially, both sides in the ABM tried to prevent the rupture, but once it had occurred the gap between the two broadened and relations grew increasingly acrimonious.

Slur campaign

The question now is whether open warfare could erupt between them. This is the impression one gains from pro-IS websites, which have unleashed a slur campaign against Ashmawi and his colleagues, accusing them of “betrayal.” Indeed, some IS members have promulgated a
fatwa condemning Al-Murabitun as “traitors” and “apostates” and calling for their deaths.

Researchers disagree on this point, but there is some evidence to the view that the two sides are on a collision course. Al-Hussein Bin Karim, a Libyan scholar from Derna, says there is a bitter dispute in Libya between groups that are related to Al-Qaeda and IS affiliates in Egypt.

“In Libya, Al-Qaeda is represented by the Shura Council of Mujahideen, which is based in Derna,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But since June, the situation in Derna has begun to change, as Daesh (Islamic State) recruited two leaders from the Shura Council of Mujahideen, leading to a rupture.”

“The Al-Qaeda affiliate drove the Daesh members out of the city to the area of Al-Fatah about 10 kilometres east of Derna. That is an indication that Al-Qaeda is stronger than Daesh in this area and that it has a larger membership and is better armed.”

According to Bin Karim, some members of the Libyan IS branch have stationed themselves in the Karoufat Al-Sabaa heights that overlook Tobruk. From there they have begun to randomly target civilians from the city, while the Libyan airforce retaliates by bombarding their locations.

By contrast, “Al-Qaeda has begun to garner from some parts of the public because people want to get rid of Daesh. In fact, the Shura Council of Mujahideen has called on the tribes and political parties to side with it in a drive to develop Derna and protect it from Daesh. The call has received some positive responses from the people there,” he said.

Another question is connected with the makeup of Al-Murabitun. The organisation consists mainly of former military officers or soldiers discharged for reasons connected with their ideological orientation. A notorious example is Tarek Taha Abul-Azm, a former infantry officer who had taken part in the bombing of the US embassy in Libya and was apprehended by security forces in October 2012.

Abul-Azm was among the Libyan prisoners released in 2011. Earlier, he had been charged and found guilty of belonging to the Jund Allah group, one of the jihadist groups that eventually merged beneath the ABM umbrella. Another example is Rami Al-Mallah, an officer who resigned from the services and travelled to Syria to wage “jihad of the oppressed.”

Then there is Ashmawi himself. Enlisting with the armed forces in 1996, he went on to serve in the Saeqa Commando Forces until 2007, after which he served in an administrative capacity until 2011. It is these and other former army officers who have formed the structural core of Al-Murabitun.

Former director of the Armed Forces Strategic Studies Centre, Alaa Ezzeddin, told the Weekly in an earlier interview that such individuals “cannot constitute a significant proportion in the ranks of the armed forces.” He added that in general many of the members of the organisation received their training in Syria, where they learned how to carry out bombing operations and manufacture bombs.

As for the first tier of leaders, most of whom were apprehended by the Egyptian authorities during the Nasr City cell raid, these had spent long periods in Afghanistan.

Evidently, Ashmawi’s group has decided to diversify its terrorist operations in order to distinguish itself from other organisations in the field. His organisation carried out the assassination attempt against former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, and a number of other attacks against the security agencies. Security officials have also accused him of assassinating Egypt's Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat.

It maintains that its project is different from that of IS. In its drive to create an “Islamic caliphate,” the latter espouses a global or universalist project, whereas Al-Qaeda and its offshoots are not similarly motivated. Al-Qaeda also believes that the murder of non-Muslims generates strife and discord.

In Egypt, Al-Qaeda has set its crosshairs on the state and the army and thus shares objectives with other groups. But while this indicates that it has reverted to the notion of “fighting the enemy at hand,” by which it means the regimes in the region as opposed to the “remote enemy”, namely the US and Israel, it does not imply that it has joined forces with the other organisations.

The rift remains and in the opinion of security experts this is a good thing. On the whole, the phenomenon follows an arc, they say. The organisations may unite and swell, but eventually they also fragment and divide. 

* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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