Abandoned houses destroyed by shellfire, a mosque turned to rubble and burned huts lay among sand dunes, citrus farms and olive groves in the villages of Mehdeyya and Muqataa, a few kilometers from the borders of Gaza and Israel in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
They are the hometowns of some of the militants associated with Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the jihadi group which has emerged as Egypt’s biggest terrorist threat in a decade after its members claimed responsibility for bombing a tourist bus in the Sinai town of Taba, killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver, as well as shooting down a military helicopter, assassinating a senior policeman in broad daylight and exploding a bomb outside Cairo’s police headquarters.
The impoverished villages and mountains of North Sinai have become the new base for an Islamist insurgency that echoes the one Egypt’s security forces fought and crushed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jama’a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad were the two most prominent groups, whose string of attacks included the assassination of former president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, an attempted assassination of the minister of interior in 1993 and of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, as well as repeated attacks on tourists and Christians. These culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre when gunmen opened fire and killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians.
The attack was the last of a wave of terrorism that between 1992 and 1998 killed close to a 1,000 people. A ceasefire was announced in early 1998, with rumors of internal rifts within Islamic Jihad following the Luxor attack, and a heavy crackdown on Jama’a al-Islamiya’s members.
A decade and a half on, elusive groups based in Sinai are waging war against Egypt’s military-led government in response to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July and a subsequent crackdown on the movement. Attacks have been directed at vital economic targets such as the tourist industry and the Suez Canal, security buildings, and military and police personnel, including high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Interior — in early September the minister himself, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an assassination attempt.
While there may be similarities between militant groups operating two decades ago and now in terms of aims – the overthrow of a government seen as infidel and the establishment of an Islamic state – the groups on the scene today have emerged as better trained, better equipped and more international in their networks, security analysts say.
Analysts point in particular to a string of recent bomb attacks, the precise assassination of police officials and the use of a surface-to-air missile to bring down an army helicopter.
“The police’s capabilities may be stronger now than they were in the 1990s, but the terrorists have much more advanced techniques and capabilities,” says Ihab Youssef, a former counterterrorism official with the Ministry of Interior in the 1980s and 1990s, who runs a risk-and-security consultancy as well as a non-governmental organization that pushes for police reform.
“The terrorists in the 1990s just had Kalashnikovs and locally made bombs. Now we’re facing rocket-propelled grenades and missiles,” he says.
The CCTV video footage of the Cairo police headquarters bombing on January 24, Youssef says, “shows a lack of policies and procedures.”
“There was no equipment for police officers to communicate to the operation room, aside from the fact that there is no CCTV system around the headquarters itself,” he adds, pointing to the fact that the footage came from the museum.
On January 28, Islamist militant gunmen on a motorcycle killed General Mohamed Saeed, head of the Interior Ministry’s technical office, by shooting him outside his home in broad daylight.
“Before, they’d use a gun and fire 30 bullets and maybe one would hit the target,” Youssef says. “This time it was one of three bullets that struck.”
Meanwhile, the weapon used to bring down the military aircraft on January 25 killing five soldiers is known as an SA-16, a surface-to-air missile more commonly used in the battle zones of Iraq and Syria, the New York Times reported, citing Egyptian and American analysts. This raises fears of the group’s potential connections with an international jihadi network, they say.
Despite their openness regarding the attacks they have orchestrated, very little is known about Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in terms of their origin, funding, relationship to other groups and their recruitment strategy.
Jama’a al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad spent years building up their network in mosques, university campuses and in towns.
“We played football every week after morning prayers for the first few weeks and then they invited me to attend lessons in the mosque,” says Khaled al-Berry, a former member of Jama’a al-Islamiya, who as a teenager became a student leader for the group in the province of Assiut in Upper Egypt, then the group’s stronghold.
How one becomes a member of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes is unknown.
Some say the group is formed of Egyptian jihadis who were fighting in countries such as Libya and Syria.
According to North Sinai journalists who have close contacts with the group, Sinai researcher Ismail Alexandrani and Khaled Okasha, a former counterterrorism leader in Sinai till 2012, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes is a Salafi jihadi organization founded in the occupied Gaza Strip before Egypt’s uprising three years ago, which became active amid a security vacuum in Sinai after January 25, 2011.
The group has claimed responsibility for a number of cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel and the blowing up of the natural gas pipeline that runs from Arish, North Sinai’s largest town, to Israel and Jordan. The pipeline is perceived as a sequestration of Bedouin land while the local population share few, if any, of the benefits.
After the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s government in July and the crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes shifted its focus from Israel to Egypt.
The danger of Morsi’s ouster, Alexandrani says, “for Sinai’s people was that the repressive, police state would return.”
After a series of bombings targeting tourist resorts in South Sinai between 2004 and 2006, which were blamed on Palestinian Islamists, Egypt’s police conducted a harsh crackdown against Sinai’s Bedouins and residents, including mass arrests and torture.
Since July 3, there have been at least 300 reported attacks in Sinai, most of which were carried out against Egyptian security forces and assets, according to David Barnett, a research associate at the Washington DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Most of the attacks were claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes.
The group has killed at least 120 police and army officers, while the military says it has killed at least 200 “terrorists” in North Sinai. Ansar Beit al-Maqdes has admitted to 12 of its fighters being killed. These figures are difficult to independently verify due to the difficulties of reporting in North Sinai.
Security officials say Ansar Beit al-Maqdes has from 700-1,000 members, according to Reuters. It is considered the second largest Islamist militant group in Sinai behind Salafiya Jihadiya, which has an estimated following of around 5,000 members, Reuters says.
This compares to a few hundred thousand supporters of Jama’a al-Islamiya in the 1990s, according to al-Berry.
Despite an absence of concrete evidence regarding their identity, the Egyptian authorities and media treat the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes as interchangeable.
The government responded to a bombing targeting the police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on December 25, in which 16 police officers were killed, and for which Ansar Beit al-Maqdes claimed responsibility, by designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.
References to militant groups in most newspapers usually lead with “elements of the Brotherhood.”
Okasha, who oversaw counterterrorism operations in Sinai till 2012, says that evidence of a relationship between Ansar Beit al-Maqdes and the Brotherhood lies in Hamas in Gaza, which is affiliated to the Brotherhood.
“Hamas has a big influence in Sinai,” he says. “Terrorist operations wouldn’t happen in the area unless Hamas was helping them. They would escape through the tunnels to Gaza after their operations.”
Barnett dismisses claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is the driving force behind recent terrorist attacks.
“The evidence presented thus far is tenuous, at best. The command and control links that some Egyptian officials have suggested are unproven,” he says.
Barnett also cites the groups’ ideological differences as a sign that they are separate. By way of example, he points to a January 23 audio message in which Ansar Beit al-Maqdes’ Abu Osama al-Masri slammed democracy, with which the Muslim Brotherhood has engaged, as a form of atheism.
Barnett suggests, however, that former members of the Brotherhood may have joined Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, but that they are likely to have done so because the Brotherhood was not committed to violent jihad.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdes may be the most prominent name associated with terrorist attacks, but it is not the only one that is active. Some suggest that it is now an umbrella group for smaller organizations that have claimed responsibility for attacks.
“Smaller groups are present, but we don’t have any details about who they are or where they come from,” says Mossad Abu Fajr, a Bedouin activist who represented Sinai in the 2013 Constituent Assembly.
It is difficult to make a direct comparison between the Islamist insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s and today, because the militancy of Ansar Beit al-Maqdes and other groups is still in its infancy in comparison. Still, something can be said of the civilian toll and the state’s response so far.
While close to 1,000 people were killed as a result of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, at least 150 people have been killed from militant attacks over the last three years. These include police and army personnel, the recent killing of tourists and their guide in Taba, as well as the killing of civilians suspected of aiding security forces in North Sinai.
“There were more attacks against civilians during the 1990s. Currently, attacks are primarily aimed at security personnel. Obviously, civilians are still being wounded, but we have not yet seen anything like the Luxor massacre,” Barnett says.
Prior to the Taba attack, Barnett says, “if they were to conduct attacks that were causing dozens of civilians to be killed, their claims of being defenders of Egypt’s Muslims, while already dubious, would be greatly undercut.”
Taba may signify a change to this approach.
“While the Taba attack is a worrying development, one cannot say that there has been a comprehensive shift in Ansar Beit al-Maqdes’ selection of targets with one attack,” he says. “However, a line has clearly been crossed and more attacks against tourists cannot be ruled out.”
Militants have killed at least 20 individuals suspected of supporting the army in its North Sinai campaign since July, according to Abu Fajr, two North Sinai journalists that report closely on the subject and reports in privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
These killings come in the context of heavy-handed tactics by the army and police to quash dissent and terrorism in North Sinai and elsewhere.
Egypt’s security forces have used scorched-earth tactics to root out what it refers to as “terrorist elements” in North Sinai, including the shelling and burning of homes, the burning of huts used for grazing animals, the theft of laptops and other possessions, and mass arrests. Innocent civilians have been caught up in the operation, including children and people with no connection to jihadis.
After documenting the effects of a security operation in September in the town of Kerdasa, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold town near Cairo, Alexandrani says the state’s response is much harsher now than what it was in the 1990s.
“They burned houses and furniture, and not just of the suspects, but also of their relatives,” he says. “They went into the town to destroy. This is new. This didn’t happen in the 1990s. Maybe they’d arrest more people then, but the destruction of towns and homes was not known before.”
Egyptian security forces backed by armored vehicles and helicopters stormed Kerdasa on September 19 in a campaign to put down armed Islamist supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood. In August, armed Morsi supporters killed 15 policemen and mutilated their bodies, including that of a police general, in Kerdasa. The tit-for-tat violence came in response to the storming of a largely peaceful sit-in of Morsi supporters by Egypt’s security forces on August 14 that killed hundreds.
Analysts say that terrorism in Egypt is not likely to end anytime soon, particularly as presidential elections are due in the coming months.
And despite the evident failure of security forces in countering Egypt’s recent spate of terrorism, some argue that for many, it will only increase their support for a strong-man president.
“No matter how weak or incompetent the regime might be,” says Ashraf al-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University of Cairo, “the more there is terrorism, the more people will support the regime, as long as it still survives, because they have no other option.”