CAIRO: A video of a man setting fire to a police vehicle and shouting “Allahu Akbar” next to what appears to be the corpse of a security forces member is the latest media issued by the newly branded “Wilayat Sinai” (State of Sinai), the new moniker used by militant Sinai jihadi group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) following the release of an audio tape last week in which the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State group and its self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Published Friday night, the almost 30-minutes video shows a compilation of ABM operations targeting police and military officers in the Sinai, and the bombing of a gas pipeline leading to Jordan. As of Saturday afternoon, the video had been removed from YouTube.
The subtitle on the bombing scene implies the ABM fighters targeted the gas line due to Jordan’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS.
The ABM video and recent proclamations by central IS leadership has raised concerns in Egypt and regionally that IS, despite numerous reports it has lost ground in its fight against Kurds, Shiites, moderate Sunnis and non-Muslims in Iraq and Syria, has no intention of demarcating its borders in just Iraq and Syria, and instead has a pan-Middle East vision.
The group is said to have lost territory it previously held in the Kobani canton in Syria, and Iraqi and Kurdish forces reported they had pushed it out of the oil-refinery town of Baiji on Saturday, according to the U.K.’s The Independent newspaper.
Although the U.S. reported it may have killed him in an airstrike last week, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in a Thursday audio recording he would expand his so-called caliphate to include four more countries and Egypt.
The date of the recording has not been determined, and some have questioned if the man speaking even is the IS leader. However, many believe the audio was recorded within the past few days as the man claiming to be Baghdadi noted recent pledges of allegiance by some militant groups to IS. However, he did not specifically refer to the Friday airstrike in which he was supposedly killed.
As he urged for “volcanoes of jihad everywhere,” Baghdadi said in his message, “We announce our acceptance of pledges of allegiance from our brothers in these countries and they will cancel the names of the groups there and announce them as new states under the Islamic State.”
He singled out ABM for fulfilling its duty in “fighting Egypt’s tyrants” and “terrorizing the Jews,” and praised them for joining IS.
He also called on the region’s jihadis to promise their loyalty to the Islamic State and to “join the state nearest to them” to submit to these states’ “governors” appointed by the Islamic State.
Egyptian experts cynical of IS threats
Despite Baghdadi’s alleged comments, the IS leader’s threats to include Egypt under his so-called caliphate have been dismissed by military and Islamist group experts in Egypt.
“There is a great evolution in the Islamist movements since the beginning of the 1990s,” Mohamed Hashim, a researcher of Islamist groups, a lawyer and a former Islamist himself, told The Cairo Post Friday.
In the past, the Islamic groups were under unified leadership and strong organization and administration like Gamaa Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. “These big groups had declared organizations and strategies,” said Hashim, who left Gamaa Islamiyya in the 1990s. “But now, the big Islamist groups are being replaced with small ones whose leadership is the Internet. These small groups rely on themselves.”
Hashim said the idea of IS also originated from small groups of “youths impressed by thoughts of groups like Al-Qaeda, and who adopted their tactics by visiting bombing websites and watching related videos without any coordination with the main group.”
For Hashim, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—which translates to “Supporters of Jerusalem”—has raised many questions regarding its financial and military potential, and he suspects the group is being funded by foreigners.
However, he ruled out the possibility the jihadi group has any real links with IS, or will create them in the future. Hashim said he thinks ABM differs from IS in that ABM tends to only target military and security targets, although his opinion on ABM targeting does run contrary to multiple media reports.
The video from Wilayat Sinai, ABM’s supposed new moniker, was published on the Jihadist Media Platform website, which is believed to be a mouthpiece for the Islamic State. The site shares the group’s news, views, operations and Baghdadi speeches.
In the video, ABM did not explicitly claim responsibility for the death of at least 33 soldiers in coordinated attacks on Oct. 24 in North Sinai. However, it did show one of the group’s leaders who was killed in the attacks, Abu Hamza el-Ansari, and called him a “martyr.”
ABM has managed to circulate its messages and release videos through its highly monitored Twitter and YouTube accounts. But the group’s Twitter account under its new Wilayat Sinai branding was suspended early Friday.
Despite being dismissive of ABM’s IS ties, Hashim said with the use of these social media platforms, and regional jihadi recruitment on the rise, he was concerned jihadi-targeted youths could be “more vulnerable” and “more radical.”
Egypt’s efforts to confront jihadi ideology
In parallel with the rise of Islamic radicals, Al-Azhar Institute, an influential government-backed Egypt-based moderate Islamic authority, has launched a series of presentations in all governorates in a campaign called “For the Love of Egypt” under the auspices of Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb. The presentations seek to restore moderate religious discourse and reject any extremist thoughts, Youm7 reported Friday.
For his part, Maj. Gen. Abdel Rafea Darwish, a military expert, said he believed the State should be signing up more people for military service to combat jihadis. Youth who have not enlisted in the army should start joining it, he told The Cairo Post Friday.
The military and police have already begun a mounted security crackdown against extremists in the Sinai following the Oct. 24 attacks, and started a collective evacuation of the border with Gaza as part of a plan to demolish houses and reveal secret smuggling tunnels beneath them.
Baghdadi seeks to spread IS
In addition to Egypt, Baghdadi also announced extensions of IS into Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya and Algeria. He addressed supporters of the Islamic State in Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, and called them the “fuels and supply” for the battlefield.
He also called upon the people of Saudi Arabia to “sharpen their swords,” and said their country is the “serpent’s head and a stronghold of disease.” He added that Saudis should start fighting their leaders and said there would be no tolerance for “unbelievers” in the birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed.
“O soldiers of the Islamic State… keep harvesting armies, erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere and ignite the earth with fire against tyrants, their soldiers and supporters,” he said in his message.
He also mocked Arab pilots participating in airstrikes against IS, calling them “effeminate,” and their participation a “media farce.” Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates have committed aircraft in airstrikes against IS targets.
Baghdadi: US-led Coalition has failed
In his message, Baghdadi went on to say the “crusader’s campaign” of airstrikes launched by the American led-coalition against the Islamic State is fierce and strong, but a failure.
“We can see America scrambling between fear, weakness, helplessness and failure. America, Europe, Australia and Canada… are scared of the Islamic State,” he said.
He continued by saying the coalition is afraid to send troops to fight IS on the ground, and instead has reverted to airstrikes.
Strategic expert Darwish also questioned the effectiveness of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. “Where are the ground troops?” Darwish asked in his Friday comments to The Cairo Post. He said that in order for the coalition’s airstrikes to be effective, they should be supported by in-tandem ground operations.