February 25, 2015 | War on the Rocks

ISIL’s International Expansion: What Does Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis’s Oath of Allegiance Mean?

The international expansion of the jihadist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become a much-discussed topic. One of the most prominent additions to ISIL’s franchise has been the Sinai-based group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM). Following its November 10, 2014, pledge of allegiance(bayat) to ISIL, ABM promptly adopted a new name consistent with its realignment, Wilayat Sinai.

Why did ABM pledge bayat to ISIL? Does this move make ABM more capable and dangerous, or does it weaken the organization? ABM’s pledge to ISIL was the result of not only persistent efforts on ISIL’s part but also massive attrition that Egypt inflicted on ABM’s leadership over the course of 2014 that eliminated key al-Qaeda loyalists. Thus, ABM’s oath was not a natural evolution of ABM’s relationship with ISIL but rather resulted in part from wrenching changes at ABM’s top levels.

And rather than strengthening ABM, this pledge to ISIL appears to weaken the group, at least in the short-to-medium term. ISIL and al-Qaeda have been locked in an often deadly struggle for supremacy over the global jihadist movement, and despite ISIL’s growing visibility in Libya, ABM is located in a neighborhood dominated by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. As such, becoming part of ISIL’s network has not only caused divisions within ABM, but also reduces its ability to both cooperate with other Sinai-based jihadist organizations and to take advantage of the strong jihadist presence in neighboring Libya — which could help ABM obtain weapons, training opportunities, and a safe haven when they need one. The development most likely to change this weakening of ABM into a stronger hand is if ISIL manages to make its Libya franchise a far more powerful player in that country’s conflict.

ABM’s Emergence from Sinai Jihadism

The requisite conditions for the growth of jihadism in the Sinai were present at the start of the “Arab Spring.” As the political scientist Hassanein Tawfik Ibrahim has noted, militant Islamic groups “represented a major challenge to the Egyptian political regime from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s” — and by the beginning of 2011, these groups had already begun to make a comeback from setbacks they had experienced starting in the late 1990s.

In 1997, the militant group Gama‘a Al-Islamiyya overplayed its hand, slaughtering 62 people — mainly foreign tourists — at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. Though Gama‘a likely expected to devastate Egypt’s tourist industry, instead the citizenry turned against it, rallying behind the government’s escalating counterterrorism measures. Hosni Mubarak’s regime experienced extraordinary counterterrorism successes following the massacre at Luxor, but jihadism began to bounce back in Egypt following the 9/11 attacks. The first significant post-9/11 terrorist incident in the Sinai Peninsula occurred in October 2004, when a series of car bomb blastsstruck Sinai resorts, killing 34 people, including 13 Israeli tourists. Responsibility for this attack was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB). There were other significant attacks as well, including a July 2005 incident in which car bombs detonated in Sharm El-Sheikh, a major Sinai tourist area, killing at least 88 people and wounding over 110. AAB claimed credit for this as well.

The jihadist presence in Sinai became noticeably more powerful following Mubarak’s fall for a variety of reasons, including that a significant pool of talent was put back on the streets through both escape and release from Egyptian prisons. An even bigger surge of jihadist activity followed the July 2013 coup that deposed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi. ABM emerged as one of Sinai’s most powerful militant groups in the post-Mubarak environment. As the U.S. State Department’s terrorist designation of ABM explains, ABM managed to carry out a large number of attacks in a short period, including:

  • such attacks against Israel as an August 2012 rocket attack on Eilat and a September 2012 attack on an Israeli border patrol.
  • an October 2013 suicide bombing targeting the South Sinai Security Directorate in al-Tor.
  • the January 2014 downing of an Egyptian military helicopter.
  • the targeting of government officials, including the attempted assassination of Egypt’s interior minister in September 2013.

How Did ABM Decide to Pledge Bayat to ISIL?

ABM’s oath to ISIL has divided the Sinai-based organization for reasons of ideology, affinity and strategy. From the perspective of ideology and affinity, the State Department’s designation of ABM noted that the group shares aspects of al-Qaeda’s ideology; and ABM’s propaganda has long reflected an affinity for al-Qaeda. ABM’s pledge to ISIL turns the organization’s back on its relationship with al-Qaeda, and though some members agree with this reorientation, others do not.

The oath to ISIL came after a significant disruption to ABM’s senior leadership that occurred over the course of 2014, escalating in October. This disruption was particularly significant because ABM’s total size in the Sinai is estimated at no more than around 200 full-time members (though ABM has a larger number of members outside the Sinai).

From March through October 2014, many top-level ABM leaders were killed. Two key leaders died on the same day in March 2014. One of ABM’s founders was Tawfiq Mohammad Faraj, a veteran of the jihad in Iraq who helped the group organize in 2011. Faraj could also claim Thirwat Saleh Shihata — who served as a deputy to Ayman Al-Zawahiri — as a direct patron: In June 2014, Egypt’s Higher State Security Prosecution confronted Shihata with evidence that Shihata had provided Faraj with finances and weapons, and that Shihata both knew about future ABM operations and even issued a fatwa condoning some of them. This indicates that Faraj likely received support from the highest levels of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Faraj died on March 11, as did Muhammad al-Sayyid Mansur al-Tukhi, who was killed in a shootout with Egyptian authorities. After their deaths, Shadi al-Menei assumed leadership of ABM until he was shot deadin Sinai on May 23. After the successive losses of Faraj, al-Tukhi and al-Menei, other key ABM leaders lost to the Egyptian security services included Khaled al-Menei, former commando Hesham al-Ashamwy and Faysal Husayn Salim Sulayman.

These deaths were a major catalyst for ISIL to intensify its pre-existing efforts to lure ABM into its orbit. In August 2013, ISIL emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first set out to obtain oaths of bayat from Sinai-based jihadists. Al-Muhajirun wal-Ansar did pledge bayat to ISIL, and when its founder Adil Ibrahim was captured, he told authorities that Baghdadi offered him $10,000 in return for his organization’s pledge. Al-Masry Al-Youm notedthat Baghdadi might have made further efforts to gain the loyalty of Sinai-based groups, speculating that the larger jihadist organizations may have rejected similar offers. Thereafter, in September 2013, ISIL spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a statement that focused on the situation in the Sinai, thus indicating ISIL’s prioritization of the Sinai Peninsula.

The year 2014 began with some reciprocation on the part of ABM’s leaders. In January, Abu Usamah al-Masri — who would later be one of the two ABM envoys who traveled to Syria in October and struck a deal to become part of ISIL’s network — issued a statement just before ISIL’s expulsion from al-Qaeda that concluded with encouragement of ISIL. The first indication of operational coordination between ABM and ISIL began over the summer, when Egyptian security forces began to arrest ISIL members traveling to Egypt through underground tunnels connecting Rafah and the Gaza Strip, with the likely intention of supporting ABM. There was also some further operational cooperation between ABM and ISIL before ABM took its public oath. ABM carried out an attack against the Karm al-Qawadis checkpoint on October 24, and according to Egyptian authorities the arrested suspects said that ISIL ordered ABM to execute the attacks with funding, weapons, and explosives that the group had received from Palestinian jihadist groups.

ISIL remained persistent in trying to lure an oath of bayat from ABM. Captured jihadists revealed to Egyptian prosecutors that there had been contacts between ABM and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in which an agreement was reached that Baghdadi would fund ABM and supply it with weapons in return for ABM providing him fighters and pledging allegiance to ISIL. It’s not clear who in ABM struck this deal, but ABM did not decisively pledgebayat to ISIS until November 2014, so this early agreement was not concluded with ABM’s top-level leadership.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Shahid reported in September 2014 that ISIL had dispatched a jihadist known as Musa‘id Abu Qatmah to the Sinai Peninsula through Gaza, and that, once in Sinai, he set about trying to win oaths of loyalty from militant groups. He arrived following the deaths of Ashamwy and Sulayman, intending to exploit the rapid attrition of ABM’s leadership cadre by luring it into ISIL’s orbit. The group’s new leader Shehta Al-Ma’atqa was then killed by Egyptian authorities in early October 2014, with around 20 other ABM members also killed in a one-week (October 3-9) Egyptian offensive. Shortly thereafter, Egyptian security forces captured ABM’s military emir Walid Atallah, further eroding the bench of personnel who would have maintained loyalty to al-Qaeda. Around the same time Atallah was captured, two ABM envoys traveled to Syria, met with ISIL leaders, and discussed ISIL providing ABM with resources (funding and weapons) in exchange for ABM pledging its allegiance. It is highly probable that no deal could have been struck between ABM and ISIL without the former’s leadership experiencing such rapid attrition.

Implications of ABM’s Oath to ISIL

There are a number of strategic and tactical implications to ABM’s pledge to ISIL. Most, though not all, of these implications place ABM in a weaker position than it was prior to taking its new oath.

The first implication is that the oath has caused internal fractures within the group. The major post-bayat rift is between the group’s al-Qaeda loyalists and those who support the new allegiance to ISIL. Though it is somewhat of an oversimplification to think of these factions as neatly divided geographically, Western officials have said that the faction most opposed to the pledge to ISIL is based in the Nile Valley. This faction’s concerns not only relate to ideology and affinity but also to strategy, as it is concerned that ISIL’s “reputation for careless violence will alienate other Egyptians, especially the disaffected Islamist youth that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has sought to enlist.” Many Egyptian jihadists with ties to Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama‘a Al-Islamiyya are more prone to introspection on issues of reputation due to the debates that followed the Luxor massacre, a jihadist operation that the New York Times explains had “backfired, damaging the economy, alienating the Egyptian public, and increasing support for the government’s security forces.” However, the Sinai jihadists were largely not a part of that intellectual milieu, and less prone to introspection about the Luxor massacre.

It is difficult to ascertain how many ABM members are associated with the pro-ISIL and pro-al-Qaeda camps due to limitations on open-source information about ABM’s inner workings.

A second implication is that the pledge to ISIL shifts ABM’s regional network. Al-Qaeda has deeper roots than ISIL in both the Sinai Peninsula and North Africa more broadly. In the Sinai, al-Qaeda has a strong relationship with other jihadist groups, including not only AAB but also the Muhammad Jamal Network and Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula/Ansar Al-Jihad. As for elsewhere in North Africa, al-Qaeda has done an effective job of finding a foothold in the post-Arab Spring environment, including in neighboring Libya. A report published in August 2012 by the Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division, entitled Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile, provides an indication of how al-Qaeda has been able to benefit from the post-Muammar Qaddafi environment, including militant training camps that have a significant connection to Egypt.

ABM’s pledge to ISIL will likely have the immediate effect of disrupting the associations that have benefited ABM. The problems caused by this disruption could be mitigated over time if other jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula also choose to align with ISIL. Even if this happens, however, ISIL will likely experience some difficulties in the short term. Ramzi Mawafi, a longstanding al-Qaeda operative who had been Osama bin Laden’s doctor, serves in a high-level role in the Sinai, “coordinating among militant groups and helping to arrange money and weapons to support violent extremist activity.” ABM may experience some logistical problems in these areas.

A third implication is possible shifts in tactics and targets — and consequently, perceptions — of ABM. ISIL is well known for its brutal tactics, and for crushing local populations — especially religious minorities — under its heel rather than attempting to win hearts and minds. While it’s possible that ABM’s oath of bayat to ISIL will not have a significant impact on its operations, it is more likely that the oath heralds ABM’s move to tactics that are even more overtly cruel than those it has employed in the past. Indeed, ABM is now producing videos reminiscent of those that made ISIL infamous, including videos that feature their enemies being beheaded. A January 2015 ABM video followed ISIL’s formula of humiliation and execution, as the group captured a ports security officer and forced him to denounce the police before they killed him.

If ABM’s tactics come to more resemble those of ISIL, ABM could experience more open conflict with the Sinai Peninsula’s Bedouin population and Egyptian Christians. While ABM is militarily proficient, the Bedouins are also highly capable of employing violence to advance their objectives. In contrast, Egypt’s Christian population generally finds itself on the receiving rather than the dispensing end of violent acts.

If ABM follows ISIL’s lead by adopting increasingly ruthless tactics or victimizing religious minorities, this path risks tarnishing the group’s reputation and further alienating it from the population. Indeed, this reputational damage may occur even if ABM’s tactics and targeting remain unchanged, due solely to the jihadist group’s association with ISIL. ABM’s affiliation with ISIL is likely to provide at least some additional internal, and perhaps international, legitimacy to the Egyptian state’s fight against the group. These disadvantages may be offset by ISIL helping to improve the quality of ABM’s propaganda efforts.

While there are several negative implications for ABM of its association with ISIL, this realignment is entirely positive for ISIL itself. ISIL has a strategybuilt around maintaining the perception that it has momentum. As the group’s momentum has clearly fallen off in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has tried to show that it is gaining in another way: through international expansion. Both ABM’s public declaration of bayat and also ISIL’s growing presence in Libya have been important for maintaining this perception that ISIL maintains a vibrant and growing organization.

What ABM’s Oath Means for Egypt’s Counterterrorism Strategy

Far from viewing ABM’s declaration of bayat to ISIL with alarm, Egypt likely views it as a vindication of the state’s counterterrorism policies. ABM’s new allegiance has deepened its internal divisions, made the group appear more extreme (thus alienating it from the Egyptian population) and diminished ABM’s ability to cooperate with Sinai-based and regional militant organizations that are more closely aligned with al-Qaeda. Given ISIL’s international notoriety, ABM’s declaration may also make other states — both in the region and further afield — more likely to support Egypt’s fight against jihadist groups. Egypt is thus unlikely to see ABM’s pledge as a reason to either reassess its counterterrorism policies or look to outside states to provide it with new policy recommendations.

Overall, ABM’s declaration of allegiance to ISIL is likely detrimental to ABM, but it comes at a time when the Egyptian government has already engaged in counterterrorism excesses. Trying to correct Egypt’s course away from overly repressive methods is important, but this development seemingly provides little opening for such a rectification.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He recently published a monograph on Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant entitled Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s Oath of Allegiance to the Islamic State, from which this article is adapted. The full-length study was commissioned and published by Wikistrat.

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