By David Barnett, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Barnett is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him @dbarn225. The views expressed are his own.
Late last month, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), a Sinai-based Salafi jihadist group, released a video detailing its September assassination attempt on Egypt's interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, in Nasr City. While the suicide bombing attack failed to kill the interior minister, it marked the first time ABM had conducted an attack in Egypt’s “mainland.”
The video’s release comes amidst a somewhat surprising downturn in the frequency of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, where violence has been raging and the Egyptian military has responded by deploying a significant amount of force. While army operations in the Sinai may well be succeeding on some level, ABM and its cohorts may be entering a new phase in which they carry out less frequent but till bolder and bloodier attacks.
Violence carried out by ABM is nothing new, of course. Although the group has only claimed responsibility for a few of the reported 197 attacks (the actual number is likely much higher) in the Sinai since the toppling of Islamist President Mohamed Morsy on July 3, it has hinted at involvement in many others. These ongoing attacks have targeted everything from property to Egyptian security personnel, former politicians, and tribal leaders.
Many of these attacks might be characterized as attacks of convenience, such as shootings. However, these attacks of convenience may now be on the decline. The Egyptian military is actively cracking down across the peninsula. Security personnel have killed and arrested dozens of suspected Islamist militants, raided hundreds of homes, and taken control of countless weapon caches.
The army claims that operations have been carefully planned and directed at specific targets. However, a recent report by a pair of journalists who entered North Sinai observed that the Egyptian army “not only attacks suspected insurgents, but it’s also taking out its wrath on everyone related to an alleged insurgents.” Jihadists and their supporters have made similar claims, alleging that operations have targeted mosques and killed innocent people, including women, children, and the elderly.
Justified or not, the Egyptian military’s strategy appears to be working. While there were 104 reported attacks in July, August, September, and October saw 40, 31, and 22 attacks, respectively.
With less room to maneuver, however, ABM may be altering its tactics. In fact, the group, whose fighters have been lauded by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen as “our mujahedeen brothers,” now appears to be taking its time to plan and execute more high profile attacks. This approach arguably leaves its members less exposed to ongoing security sweeps. But it also allows the group to strike strategically at a time of its convenience.
The attack on Egypt’s interior minister is a case in point. ABM struck deep in the heart of Egypt. In its claim of responsibility for the September 5 attack, the Salafi jihadist group threatened to carry out similar attacks, warning Muslims "to stay away from the installations and headquarters of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, so as to preserve their souls and property."
On October 7, ABM struck again, when a suicide bomber unleashed a blast at the South Sinai Security Directorate in el Tor. Three security personnel were killed and more than 45 injured in the attack. The group later boasted that the operation required its suicide bomber to “pass three security checkpoints with his explosives-laden vehicle.”
Twelve days later, a military intelligence building in the city of Ismailia was targeted in an ABM car bombing. In its claim of responsibility for the attack, which left at least six wounded, the group reiterated its call for Egyptian Muslims “to stay away from all military and police headquarters, for they are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen.”
In the coming days and weeks, the Egyptian army will undoubtedly continue to claim success in its operations in the Sinai. Yet while it is true that the number of attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai is currently on the decline, security personnel are still getting killed each week and the threat of mass-casualty attacks remains high. All the while, the military’s brutality is reportedly producing more militants who seek to join the ranks of groups like ABM.
Moreover, ABM, the dominant jihadist group in the Sinai, appears to be adapting rather than folding. Determined and now capable of unleashing terror outside North Sinai, it may only be a matter of time before ABM brings the Sinai insurgency to Egypt’s “mainland” on a more regular basis.