Increasingly strategic and violent Ansar militants rattle Egypt

An Islamist militant group based in the remote Sinai desert is emerging as a major threat to Egypt's stability

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A shadowy Islamist militant group based in the remote Sinai desert is emerging as a major threat to Egypt's stability, and there are no signs that the army-backed government has devised an effective strategy to contain it.

With assassinations, suicide bombings and shootings, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has earned a spot on the global jihad map and its bloody campaign spreading across Egypt is cause for alarm in the West, which sees the biggest Arab nation as a strategic partner.

The group has stepped up attacks on policemen and soldiers since army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled Islamist president Mohammad Mursi in July. Hundreds have been killed.

Ansar doesn't have the firepower to defeat Egypt's army, the biggest in the Arab world. But it is proving to be media savvy with a new strategy of targeting foreigners, dealing a devastating blow to tourism, vital for the struggling economy.

"Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has rapidly become one of the most active jihadist groups in the world and there are strong
indications that it is an al Qaeda franchise group," said global intelligence firm Stratfor in a report.

Ansar said it dispatched a suicide bomber who killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian near the town of Taba on Sunday.

The attack is likely to keep foreign tourists, already spooked by political upheaval following the army takeover, away
from resorts and ancient sites that once brought in hard currency.

In a video released on YouTube in December, Ansar said its mission had evolved from missile attacks on Israel and blowing up gas pipelines to a bloody campaign against Egyptian security forces and intelligence officials after Mursi's fall.

On Monday, Ansar warned tourists to stay away from Egypt or face attack, part of an apparent tactical shift that could hit the government where it hurts most - the economy.

The stakes are high.

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