Clashes between Jund al-Islam and Province of Sinai: The return of Al-Qaeda?

Militant group Jund al-Islam announced on Saturday that it engaged, for the first time, in clashes with militants from Province of Sinai – the Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt – in mid-October, in response to what it called “the Baghdadi-led Khawarij targeting Muslims and laying siege to Gaza.”

While Jund al-Islam’s announcement notably comes more than a month after the ambush was said to have taken place on October 11, prompting speculation as to the reason for its disclosure now, this is the second announcement made by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group after Ansar al-Islam, which is allegedly affiliated with Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for last month’s Wahat Road attack that left 16 police officers dead. Together, the two cases raise questions about the resumption of Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations’ operations: Do they signal the return of the group’s presence in Egypt as such?

“The [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi-led Khawarij were irrefutably proven to have repeatedly assaulted Muslims in Sinai and laid siege to Gaza. A group of them were found infiltrating the camps of your Jund al-Islam brothers more than once, carrying small arms and light weapons, with the intention of attacking them. Therefore, the security unit has decided to strike against those Khawarij in an effort to deter them,” according to Jund al-Islam’s audio statement.

According to the statement, Jund al-Islam carried out the October 11 operation to capture and interrogate Province of Sinai members. However, all four Province of Sinai members targeted in the ambush were killed, in addition to two Jund al-Islam members.

Jund al-Islam had disappeared for years after it carried out a handful of operations against Egypt’s Armed Forces, the most notable of which was the 2013 attack on an Air Force intelligence headquarters that resulted in the death of six Armed Forces officers.

Ahmed Mawlana, an independent researcher on Islamic movements, believes this development to have been inevitable. “It may even be considered late. The Egyptian context has led to the emergence of several Jihadi groups over the past few years, including Ansar Beit al-Maqdes [which rebranded itself Province of Sinai after declaring allegiance to the Islamic State], Ajnad Misr, the Furqan Brigades, Ansar al-Sharia, Al-Mourabitoun and dozens of smaller groups that are not affiliated with any organizations,” he said. “It was, therefore, expected that Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups would seek to use the widespread indignation at the regime among the youth, especially after the 2013 coup.”

Nonetheless, Mawlana argued that the two recent cases are not in line with Al-Qaeda’s general strategy.

“It seems that the Islamic Jihad experience in the 1990s has prompted Al-Qaeda leadership to dedicate its effort on two fronts: countries farther from its main operations, such as Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel region, in addition to its primary front in the Levant. This strategy stands opposed to engaging in a conflict in Egypt, which would allow Sisi to present himself as if he is combating global terrorism,” said Mawlana.

For Mawlana, there are also differences in organizational capacities that explain Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups’ long absence from Egypt.  

“The fact that operating in Egypt for a long period of time is difficult for groups affiliated with the organization is another reason,” he said. “They always get caught eventually, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups famously prefer to work in situations where they can operate in a sustainable manner. This is contrary to the Islamic State model, which tends to devise timed, quick strikes, regardless of the massive losses it incurs as a result.”

But what, then, has changed with the recent attacks?

According to Mawlana, the October 11 development does not definitely confirm that the conflict between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Egypt has developed into an open confrontation. “Jund al-Islam is a pre-existing group that Al-Qaeda has not claimed as an affiliate or declared any backing for, and that never had a strong presence in Sinai. This indicates that it is not capable of confronting the Islamic State. Moreover, the claimed operation has failed to achieve its objective. The group that carried out the Wahat Road attack might have left Libya after their situation there deteriorated and arrived in Egypt to explore the possibility of operating here. I think what happened to them means that it is unlikely for them to copy the operation — if they had remained unharmed, they would have capitalized on the events of October 20 and recruited young members.”

Ansar al-Islam ambushed a security patrol near the Wahat Road 135 km outside Giza on October 20, killing 16 commissioned officers and conscripts according to figures cited by the Interior Ministry. The militants also abducted police captain Mohamed al-Hayes, who was freed a week later by the Armed Forces in a counter operation that also left Emad Eddin Abdel Hamid, a discharged Armed Forces’ officer and the leader of the group, dead.

Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also asserted that the October 11 Jund al-Islam operation points to a context beyond direct confrontation in Egypt. “This context is marked by a phase of vulnerability that the Islamic State is going through on both local and regional levels, in addition to the obstacles it is facing in North Africa,” Beheiry said. “This development indicates that an Egyptian group like Province of Sinai will split from the Islamic State sooner or later and either go back to operating under an Al-Qaeda banner or take a new form, like the one the Nusra Front took in Syria.”

Behiery argued that the Islamic State’s vulnerability will allow for the emergence of new groups across the region.

“What is happening is a golden opportunity for the revival of groups that have declared loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda,” he said. “These groups will resume working and seize the opportunity to recruit former Islamic State elements who oppose the way the organization operates in Syria or who are frustrated with its defeat in Syria and Iraq.”

In the potential aftermath of the Islamic State’s partial disintegration, Beheiry argued that the ramifications of new recruitment will affect two groups in Egypt primarily: Armed militants and the Egyptian state.

“Takfiri organizations and leaders will most likely break from their organizational affiliation with the Islamic State and follow Al-Qaeda on an ideological but not organizational level. There are two reasons for that: first of all, to not declare their affiliation with Al-Qaeda allows them to recruit Islamic State elements more easily, especially those who have been members since the group first took up arms,” he said. Secondly, there are no longer political gains to be had through formal affiliation with either of the organizations, according to Beheiry. “There is no international organization currently operating that grants political capital to local affiliates, as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State did in the past.”

And the Egyptian state will be forced to take up several new measures in addressing the recalibration of militancy, according to Beheiry. This includes carrying out pre-emptive strikes on organizations as they enroll new recruits; heightening ideological differences between groups, as it is easier to confront rivals than a unified bloc; and preventing militants from returning to Egypt, especially given that “Egyptians who are involved in the Syrian conflict, though few, occupy leading positions in Jihadist organizations, such as the Nusra Front.”

Translated by Salma Khalifa


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