Ansar Jerusalem, a shadowy but prolific terrorist group based in Egypt’s lawless Sinai Peninsula, has announced it carried out the bombing of a tourist bus near the crossing to Israel on Sunday – and warned tourists across Egypt to leave the country “before it’s too late.”
Ansar, also known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has emerged as the most formidable and deadliest among a half-dozen extremists groups that announced themselves in the Sinai after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The tempo, ferocity and range of its attacks increased sharply after July 3 last year, when Egypt’s military ousted the country’s then President — the Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist elected as Mubarak’s successor. In its statement warning tourists to leave Egypt by Thursday (Feb. 20), Ansar said the bus bombing was “part of our economic war attacks on this traitorous hireling regime, which plundered the nation’s wealth.”
Analysts say Ansar Jerusalem, which translates as “Supporters of Jerusalem,” is thought to field a few hundred fighters, drawn mainly from radicalized members of Sinai’s northern Bedouin tribes, who have historically resented Cairo for its neglect of the region. But posts identifying the group’s “martyrs” include Egyptians from the Nile Delta north of Cairo, and its leaders are thought to include militants who escaped Mubarak’s prisons during the chaos of his overthrow. Its videos hark to al-Qaeda, showing the group’s black flag, and dubbing specific attacks “compliments” to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who has headed the group since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Zawahiri has nodded to Ansar Jerusalem in his own videos, referring to “our people in Sinai.”
The Egyptian government equates Ansar with the Muslim Brotherhood, which it outlawed as a terrorist organization following a traumatic Dec. 24 bombing for which Ansar took responsibility. But the groups appear to be quite separate — Long War Journal notes one Ansar member, Ahmed Waji, saying in a video that he joined because the Brotherhood proved too moderate in power. But both groups seek the removal of the military-backed government which, in driving the Brotherhood underground, has erased the distinctions made by the groups themselves.
What’s clear enough are Ansar’s capabilities. Its earliest operations targeted Israel – including the audacious Aug. 18, 2011 attack that breached the national border and left eight Israelis dead, as well as seven attackers and three Egyptian soldiers. Inside Egypt, Ansar Jerusalem took credit for 14 attacks disabling the pipeline feeding natural gas to Israel. The group also fired rockets at the Israeli resort city of Eilat, on the Red Sea, and a September 2012 attack that killed an Israeli soldier guarding construction of a better border fence. Israel has struck back at least once, killing five Ansar fighters last August in a rare drone strike inside Egypt.
But after Morsi’s removal, the group trained its sights on Egypt. Since the day of the coup, when Ansar issued a fatwa declaring Egyptian soldiers as infidels, Long War Journal counts 305 attacks, “many” carried out by the group. It appears largely unaffected by the arrival of an Egyptian military strike force in late July, posting videos of an Oct. 7 car bombing of a south Sinai police station, the Nov. 20 attack that killed 11 Egyptian security forces in a bus convoy and, in late January downed a military helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile. The implications of that strike on civil aviation were branded “a big deal” by former CIA director David Petraeus. Sinai has long been awash in arms, with Bedouin smugglers ferrying munitions from the Sudanese border to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave controlled by Hamas. The missile seen in the video of the downed helicopter was presumed to come from the looted armories of Libya, but the New York Times reported this month that it was a more advanced SA-16 seen in Syria and Iraq.
Most immediately worrying for Egyptians is Ansar’s demonstrated ability to reach past government checkpoints to strike in mainland Egypt. The group sent a car bomb that narrowly missed killing Egypt’s interior minister in Cairo on Sept. 5 and has struck in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia and in Mansoura, north of Cairo, killing 16. It attacked an officer who was investigating the group, and on Jan. 24 alarmed the capital by bombing Cairo’s main police building.
By targeting tourism, a leading source of much-needed hard currency, the militants are bruising an industry that’s already in serious trouble. Against a record 14.7 million international visitors in 2010, before the unrest began, Egypt saw a slump to 11.5 million in 2012, and only 9.5 million last year. Between Sunday’s bus bombing and the explicit threat to foreign tourists, it’s hard to see the numbers going anywhere but down.