Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: Egypt’s own al-Qaeda?

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been associated with almost every terrorist attack that hit Egypt after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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The name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been associated with almost every terrorist attack that hit Egypt after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the attempt on the life of the interior minister, the bombing of National Security headquarters in Mansoura and Cairo, the shooting down of a military helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula, and, most recently, the assassination of a senior security official. The group’s keenness to claim responsibility for each operation it carries out and its pledge to carry out more as part of what it calls “the battle for avenging the Muslims of Egypt” raised more question marks about what its real objectives are, how and where it originated, and what links, if any, it could possibly have with al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other militant and/or Islamist groups.

Based on the statements it has so far issued, the attacks mainly target police and army facilities and personnel. In one of those statements, the group lists the reasons why it labels the police and army as “apostates” and why, accordingly, it is a religious duty to declare war against them. According to one of those statements, entitled “A message to police and army officers and their families,” the police and the army are “fighting whoever attempts to apply Islamic law, “joining forces with the liberals and seculars,” “empowering a secular government that does not rule according to God’s laws,” “protecting a constitution that permits what God has forbidden and forbids what God has permitted” and “supporting Christians and Jews against Muslims under the pretext of fighting terrorism.” In the same statement, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis called upon police and army officers to quit their jobs or else suffer the consequences and upon their families to help them “save their lives and honor their religion.” In another statement, entitled “Operation ‘Right of Vengeance,’” Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis makes clear it will not target civilians as long as they do not take to the streets in support of the police and the army. “We are asking you not to go out to support apostasy and injustice,” read the statement. “If you stay at home, we promise that you’ll be safe.” In addition to the statements it is in the habit of issuing following each attack, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis also released a video that features the firing of the missile which downed the military helicopter and claimed the lives of five Egyptian officers. In the last statement it issued to claim responsibility for the assassination of the deputy interior minister and head of the Interior Ministry’s Technical Department General Mohammad Saeid, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis warned that defense minister, now potential presidential candidate, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim are next. “Retaliation is imminent and God’s will shall prevail,” said the statement.

Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is always referred to in the media as “al-Qaeda-linked” and “al-Qaeda-inspired,” there is no evidence of the group being an off-shoot of al-Qaeda. One of the few links so far was established by former militant and founder of the Islamic Jihad in Egypt Nabil Naeim, who said that the group originated in Gaza then started operating in Egypt following the 2011 Revolution. According to Naeim, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is funded by the Muslim Brotherhood through a deal with the Brotherhood’s Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater that was mediated by Mohammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda chief. “Hamas is also part of the deal, according to an appeasement deal sponsored by ousted President Mohammad Mursi in return for cooperation with the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis,” Naeim said in a press interview. Naeim added that the leader of the original Gaza group received his “takfiri” education from Sheikh Abdel Meguid al-Shazli, who is also the mentor of both Shater and Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammad Badei. According to Naeim, the Muslim Brotherhood supplies Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis with weapons “through Libya and the Gaza tunnels.” Although al-Qaeda link is not the center of attention at the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood link is the one several parties seem to agree on. Expert on Islamist groups Sameh Eid called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis “the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood” and said that Shater had threatened Sisi with “escalation in Sinai and the targeting of the Egyptian army.” Eid added that the Muslim Brotherhood was planning on forming its own militia. “This militia was to be made up of Hamas militants, youths from the Brotherhood, and fighters trained in Afghanistan,” he said in a TV interview. Medhat Naguib, head of al-Ahrar Party, argued that Shater’s aim of forming this militia was “having a deterrent power against the state to guarantee remaining in power.” He added that militants granted a presidential pardon when Mursi came to power played an important role in the establishment of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: “That explains why they moved to Sinai right after they were released,” he said. Naguib established another al-Qaeda link when he said that member of Ansar Bayt al-Magdes were trained by al-Qaeda operatives in Sinai. “This was done based on coordination between Mursi and al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri,” he added. Naguib argues that another proof of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood is the group’s rejection of a merging request by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “This shows that they only want to terrorize the Egyptian people,” he explained. Mohammad Hamza, head of Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, finds the statements issued by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis proof enough of their Brotherhood connection. “All the group’s statements show that they are avenging the Brotherhood,” he said.

Similar to al-Qaeda link, both the Brotherhood and Hamas links do not seem to be supported by concrete evidence. In his article “Can Egypt Handle Ansar Bayt al Maqdis?”, published in The National Interest, David Barnett expresses his surprise at the Egyptian government’s insistence on accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of carrying out all terrorist attacks even though Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claims responsibility every time and its designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization immediately after one of those attacks. Barnett argues that in what it considers “an existential battle,” the Egyptian state finds justification for its continuous incrimination of the Muslim Brotherhood in a public opinion that blames the group for all the country’s ailments and he cites the example of a poll which revealed that only 6% of the Egyptian people believe that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are to blame for terrorist attacks. For Barnett, there has not been any proof of the link between the two groups. “The evidence presented thus far is tenuous, at best,” he wrote. “The command and control links that some Egyptian officials have suggested are unproven. And while ABM certainly has former members of the Muslim Brotherhood within its ranks, these are former members who specifically left because the Brotherhood was not, in their view, fully committed to offensive jihad.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhari also came out to refute allegations of any link between Hamas and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. “Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is not Palestinian at all,” he said in a press statement. Abu Zuhari slammed attempts at “fabricating a link between this Egyptian group and Gaza” and which he considered a means of “escaping from the problem and exporting the Egyptian crisis.” He also denied claims that the missile used for downing the Egyptian helicopter came from Gaza. “That was a Russian missile that any group in Sinai could get from the black market.” Abu Zuhari called upon the Egyptian media to stop the propagation of such false news. “This serves no one except the Israeli occupation,” he concluded.

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