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World

New terror threat emerges in Egypt

So far this year, a car bomb gutted the Cairo police headquarters, a military helicopter was shot down, a high-level security official was assassinated, and a tourist bus was bombed near Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

The

attacks

have all been claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a shadowy militant group based in the Sinai Peninsula that has emerged as one of the biggest terrorist threats to the country in decades.

"When you look at the training, the weapons and the technology they have, it's much more sophisticated now than ever before," said Ihab Youssef, a former police officer who served more than 20 years in the Ministry of Interior and founded Risk Free Egypt, a risk management firm in Cairo. "From my point of view, we still have a lot to see. It's not going to end soon."

On Monday, a Cairo court officially declared

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis a terrorist organization.

Earlier this month, both the United States and the United Kingdom placed the group on terror lists.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem, first emerged amid a security vacuum following the 2011 Egyptian revolution. During this time, prison amnesties also led to the release of many militants who had been imprisoned under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"A lot of jihadists from the 1980s and 1990s went back to the Sinai and started training and collecting weapons, especially weapons from the Libyan war," said Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They had the space to organize and build up strength."

Out of the shadows

The group initially focused their attacks on Israel, but following the military overthrow of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July, they turned their weapons against the state.

man on street

The group has turned its attention to Egyptian targets



With the exception of the February attack on a tourist bus in the border town of Taba that killed three South Korean tourists, the majority of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' targets have been army and security forces. The group has said it wants revenge for the military-backed government's violent suppression of Islamists and for the army's military campaign in Sinai against the insurgency.

In a statement released by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis last December, the militants warned police and security officials to leave their positions if they were to avoid attack and accused the military of being non-Muslim because it was fighting against those seeking to impose Sharia law.

"We are the most resolute and determined to carry out the command of Allah and his messenger to do jihad against you and fight you until all the religion is for Allah," the group said in the statement.

But while Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has been open in claiming its attacks, much remains unknown about the group itself. There is very little information on its origins, funding and recruitment strategy.

Al Qaeda link?

Despite having yet to reveal a pledge of allegiance, statements and videos from the group are released through jihadi forums from al-Fajr Media Center, a key distributor of al Qaeda propaganda online. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis video clips also frequently feature figures like Egyptian born al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

While many have pointed to the group's links to al Qaeda, the government has alleged links between Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the Muslim Brotherhood despite little evidence to support this claim.

Following a car bomb at the police headquarters in Mansoura on December 24 that left 16 dead, the Brotherhood denied any involvement and condemned the bombing. Shortly thereafter, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis released a statement claiming the attacks. The government instead blamed the Brotherhood and declared them a terrorist organization.

By lumping together Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the Muslim Brotherhood, experts say the government not only hardens opinions abroad of an authoritarian regime, but it also risks further radicalization.

Brothers-in-arms?

"By insisting the Brotherhood is linked to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the regime may inadvertently be pushing some Brotherhood cadres, in particular those already promoting small-scale violence, into the waiting arms of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis," said David Barnett, a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

bus explosion

Experts say the government's heavy-handed approach has helped extremist groups

What exactly the terrorist designation will mean for Egypt's efforts against the group is unclear. Army officials have said their approach to fighting the group will not change, but suggested punishments for militants could become harsher.

"How exactly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis will respond, if at all, to the designation remains to be seen," said Barnett.

Beyond the attempt to link the Brotherhood to the attacks, others say the government's heavy-handed response to extremists could be doing more harm than good.

In North Sinai, where grievances with the government are long-standing, security forces have used scorched-earth tactics, burned and shelled homes, destroyed huts used for livestock, confiscated laptops and other possessions, and made mass arrests in the fight against terrorism.

Innocent civilians with no connection to militants as well as children have been caught up in the operation and while recent weeks have seen significant arrests and a notable decrease in attacks, others say the brutal tactics could be hardening those in the restive Sinai region and driving more to terrorism.

"They are essentially just bombing anything that is in sight, they aren't very discriminating in who they target, and you see entire neighborhoods and houses being leveled," said Zelin. "They definitely suppressed them, but at what cost?"

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