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Egyptian Militant Group Pledges Loyalty to Islamic State

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CAIRO:  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, the leaders of 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.

The affiliation could pull the militant group away from its current almost exclusive focus on attacking Egyptian military and security forces toward the Islamic State’s indiscriminate mass killings of civilians. The pledge alone could undermine the government’s efforts to win the trust of Western tourists, a vital source of hard currency.

The decision expands the Islamic State into the most populous and historically most influential Arab state, a milestone achievement weeks into a U.S.-led bombing campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The endorsement is a major victory for the Islamic State in its rivalry with al-Qaida – a group with storied Egyptian roots – and could now help recruit fighters and affiliates far beyond Egypt. The link is also the latest manifestation of a swirling descent into violence around the region amid the dashed hopes for democracy of the Arab Spring uprisings three years ago.

But in practical terms, the Islamic State could also share resources – from its wealth of stolen money and oil, seized-weapons stores or jihadi-world prestige – to add new fuel to the Egyptian group’s insurgency at a critical turning point.

In recent weeks, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has come under a withering crackdown by the Egyptian military, which has begun the evacuation and destruction of hundreds of homes in an attempt to eradicate the group from its havens in the northern Sinai. But at the same time the group has confounded the confident predictions of Egyptian officials that it would soon be defeated, raising fears that the fight may just be beginning.

“The organized army is in confrontation with a group of disorganized ghosts,” said Ahmed Sakr, a government official working on economic development in Sinai, who said the military’s “brute force” there was alienating the population while scattering fighters across the country. “I am very worried that there is now going to be more instability in the west, and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis will make inroads into Cairo and the big cities.”

Having killed hundreds of soldiers and police officers in a spree of violent retaliation for the military ouster of the Islamist president last year, the group has more recently carried out a handful of increasingly sophisticated and deadly attacks on military camps at both the eastern and western extremes of the country, according to Western officials and Egyptian analysts familiar with intelligence reports.

An attack in the western desert on July 19 killed at least 21 soldiers, and another on Oct. 24 in Sinai killed at least 31, the officials say. Both demonstrated that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has now recruited more skilled and experienced fighters.

Most alarmingly for the Egyptian military, Egyptian leaders believe the group has developed military informants with inside information about army deployments, according to several Western officials and Egyptians familiar with intelligence reports.

In the Oct. 24 attack, for example, the militants appeared to know about the confidential movements of senior officers and reinforcement routes, the officials say; the fighters also displayed skill at targeting mortar fire as well as the confidence to continue their operation even under gunfire during a prolonged firefight.

“This is not just planting a bomb and running,” said Diaa Rashwan, an researcher on Islamist groups at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies here. “To be able to keep attacking, that means you have real experience.”

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis fighters were also behind the killing of an American during a desert carjacking in August and may have been linked to other attacks targeting desert-ready, four-wheel drive SUVs, according to Western officials – a development that has prompted the Egyptian government to order international energy companies to ground their fleets of SUVs. Apache, British Petroleum and British Gas have all complied with the ban; spokesmen for all three companies and the Egyptian government all declined to comment.

Some Western officials question the evidence linking the group to other carjackings besides the killing in August of the American, an Apache employee named William Henderson, 58. But there is a consensus that the group has confounded attempts by Egyptian security officials to contain it by tightly controlling the limited transit points across Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula.

Western officials say Ansar Beit al-Maqdis includes cells of fighters scattered on both sides of the Nile. And they have capitalized on porous borders to obtain refuge and supplies from sympathetic militants to both the east and west of the country – in lawless Eastern Libya on one side, and in the Palestinian territory of Gaza in bordering Sinai on the other.

In the eastern Libyan city of Derna, a hub of Islamist extremism, at least a handful of fighters have already pledged their loyalty to the Islamic State as well. And in Sinai, the suspicion that critical aid has flowed through the network of smuggling tunnels into Gaza is one reason that the Egyptian government took the drastic step of evacuating and destroying the homes of more than 1,100 families, all in a zone near the border.

In the audio statement on Monday pledging to “obey” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis also reiterated a call to rise up against Egypt’s military-backed government – a trademark of its previous statements.

“To our people in Egypt, what are you waiting for after the violation of your dignity?” the statement asked. “After shedding the blood of your sons on the hands of this reckless tyrant and his soldiers? When will you take out your swords to face your enemies?”
It also added a familiar slap at the Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist group that dominated Egypt’s free elections and backed the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, only to end up crushed by the military takeover. “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.”

Details about Ansar Beit al-Maqdis are scarce, in part because the Egyptian military limits access to the areas of Sinai that are the front line of its battle against the group. Its name means Supporters of Jerusalem, and Western officials estimate it includes only hundreds or perhaps a few thousand fighters.

Western officials familiar with intelligence reports on the group’s internal communications say that a faction of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis based in the Nile Valley opposed the affiliation with the Islamic State. They worried that its reputation for careless violence will alienate other Egyptians, especially the disaffected Islamist youth that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has sought to enlist.

Some Nile Valley leaders of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis also appear to remember the lessons of an earlier Islamist insurgency, centered in Upper Egypt in the 1990s. Mass killings of tourists and others backfired, damaging the economy, alienating the Egyptian public and increasing support for the government’s security forces. The group that led that insurgency, Gamaa Islamiya, ultimately renounced violence and appears to have stuck to that view.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis’ previous statements have also looked to al-Qaida for leadership, and some of the Nile Valley faction remain loyal to al-Qaida as it has become a rival to the Islamic State for pre-eminence in the jihadi world.

The Sinai-based leadership of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has leaned toward an affiliation with the Islamic State for months, said several other Western officials familiar with intelligence reports. In October, two envoys of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis traveled to Syria to meet face-to-face with Islamic State leaders, pressing for money and weapons and discussing a pledge of loyalty – a sign that the debate had been settled, at least temporarily. Some Western officials said they expected the announcement to take place in conjunction with a spectacular attack.

The dispute in Ansar Beit al-Maqdis over its affiliation with the Islamic State could yet split the group into two wings, with the main Sinai branch joining the international alliance and the Nile Valley leaders remaining apart, Western officials say. As recently as last week, the group formally denied published reports that the affiliation had already taken place, an indication of the internal divisions.

Egyptian officials say the announcement of a link with the Islamic State has vindicated the government’s argument: Its struggle to put down the domestic insurgency is essentially the same fight as the Western war in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State.

“This is what we have said many times before,” said Badr Abdelatty, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. He reiterated the government assertion that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the Islamic State share the same goals as the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated Egypt’s free elections for the three years before the takeover. The Brotherhood frequently condemns both militant groups for their violence and extremism.

“Despite some differences in names,” Abdelatty said, “at the end of the story, they all have common objectives – achieving an Islamic state by using violence.”

For the Islamic State, though, the link with Egypt is a symbolic victory and “a shot in the arm,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington.

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