New reports highlight ISIS threat to Egypt
While Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper reported that Cairo’s military establishment is changing its strategy to combat militants in light of new information that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group was present in Sinai, Reuters reported on Saturday that ISIS has been coaching other Islamists in the country.
A senior commander from the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has killed hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces over the last year, said ISIS has provided instructions on how to operate more effectively.
“They teach us how to carry out operations. We communicate through the internet,” the commander, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.
“They don’t give us weapons or fighters. But they teach us how to create secret cells, consisting of five people. Only one person has contact with other cells.”
Reuters report comes after Ahram Online said that Egypt was re-assessing its anti-militant tactics as Sinai-based Islamists are changing strategies.
“The rumored presence of ISIS cells in Egypt has proved to have a basis in fact,” al-Ahram reported Friday, citing informed sources.
It added “a military operation is currently in progress to target these cells in the Jebel Al-Hilal area. According to military sources, the initial purge will be followed by a combing operation that is expected to take some time.”
Militant groups and the Egyptian state are old foes. Some of al-Qaeda’s most notorious commanders, including its current leader Ayman al-Zawahri, are Egyptian.
One Egyptian president after another has crushed militant groups but they have always resurfaced.
The success of ISIS in seizing large parts of Syria and Iraq has raised concerns in Egypt, where authorities are battling Ansar as well as militants who have capitalized on the chaos in post-Muammar Qaddafi Libya to set up over the border.
ISIS became the first militant group to defeat an Arab army in a major operation after steamrolling through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by the Iraqi military.
Army offensives have squeezed Ansar, forcing its members to flee to other parts of Egypt, the commander said. But it still poses a security threat.
ISIS is more sophisticated and not like al-Qaeda essentially because it acts like an army, seizing and holding territory, a new kind of challenge for Western-backed Arab states.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as army chief toppled Islamist President Mohammed Mursi last year after mass protests against his rule and then cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood, has restored some political stability.
However, militant groups still pose a major challenge.
Security officials say thousands of Egyptian militants have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria and authorities are concerned they could return home to fight the government.
Ahram Online said security agencies estimated the number of militants in Sinai at around 8,000.
However, a security official told Reuters that “Ansar and ISIS definitely have ties but there are no ISIS members in Egypt.”
“There is definitely coordination between Ansar, the militants in Libya and Islamic State leaders.”
The security official said Egyptian authorities have handed airport officials lists of Egyptians who went abroad to wage jihad.
“There are some people who we know are coming back to carry out attacks so we arrest them. The same goes for others who come back to visit their families,” he said.
“There is a third type who comes back to recruit. We just watch him until the time is right to move in.”