February 20, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Sinai Flashpoint: Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis
This IntelBrief should be read in conjunction with Violence in the Sinai Peninsula
A Show of Violence
Last Sunday’s bombing of a tourist bus in Taba, Egypt, in what has become an increasingly unruly and lawless Sinai Peninsula, is the latest terrorist attack in a region increasingly threatened by a homegrown terrorist group.
The suicide attack, which killed three South Korean citizens and their Egyptian bus driver, is another in a long list of attacks claimed by the Sinai-based terrorist group Ansar Bayt al-Madqis (the Supporters of Jerusalem). Until the bus bombing, which set a new operational precedent for the group, Ansar historically focused its efforts on Israeli and Egyptian targets since it began operating in 2011, immediately after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The group is thought to have less than 1000 members and is comprised, for the most part, of local Bedouins supplemented more recently by recruits from other parts of Egypt and some countries in the region. Ansar began its operations by targeting Israel, an obvious choice given the geographic proximity to the group’s base of operations. Its initial attack on August 18, 2011, which breached the usually quiet and well-protected border between the Sinai and Israel, caused the death of eight Israelis and three Egyptian soldiers, and made headlines around the world. Subsequent acts against Israel included a rocket attack on the port city of Eilat in January of this year, the bombing of a pipeline that provides Israel with natural gas, and another attack against a border target that killed one Israeli soldier.
Despite the group’s aggression toward Israel, it rapidly pivoted, and refocused its efforts toward Egyptian targets after Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power last July. It was Morsi’s ouster and the subsequent military crackdown in the Sinai that spurred the group to issue a fatwa against the Egyptian government. Since that time there have been more than 300 attacks of various types against the Egyptian military, police, and cabinet members. Ansar claimed many of these attacks, and experts believe the sudden spike in violence is the group’s attempt to lash out at the government for its counterinsurgency operations in the Sinai.
Ansar’s rapid growth and surprising success have led the Egyptian government and media to link it to the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to cast a more negative light on both organizations. However, its true origins and composition remain unclear and any connection with the Brotherhood is tenuous at best. The group’s alarming proficiency has also been attributed to links with al-Qaeda. However, aside from its propaganda—and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s reference to “our people in the Sinai” in a January audio message—no official or formal links between the two groups have been confirmed.
Despite the Egyptian military’s operations against Ansar throughout the Sinai Peninsula, the group has shown an unexpected resiliency and aggression. Not only has it attacked military targets in greater Egypt and ministry offices in the heart of Cairo, but the group also assassinated high-ranking ministry personnel and—most alarming—shot down an Egyptian military helicopter last November, with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. But it was last Sunday’s tour bus attack, and a subsequent statement warning all tourists to leave Egypt “before it’s too late” (Ansar announced a February 20 deadline for all tourists to leave the country) that is a harbinger of yet another, possibly more effective, operational change.
Tourism in the Crosshairs
Most terrorist attacks have some second or third-order economic effects, whether it is through the destruction of infrastructure, the interruption of services and resources, or loss of foreign investments due to heightened fears—all of which have happened in Egypt. But by openly targeting Egypt’s tourism industry, Ansar is now directly threatening one of the country’s largest traditional sources of income. Unless the Egyptian government gets ahead of the problem soon, its future attacks will most likely shatter an industry that could have subsequent, long-term effects on an already reeling economy.
According to a report released by the World Economic Forum last year, the international travel industry ranked Egypt the least safe of 140 tourist destinations. The non-profit’s annual Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) shows Pakistan, Yemen and Chad—three of the world’s most dangerous countries—ahead of Egypt in the overall danger standings. That ranking, and a reported 24.5% decrease in international tourist arrivals in the country between July 2012 and July 2013 by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), is directly attributed to the turmoil and unrest that spread throughout Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster three years ago.
With that damage already done to one of Egypt’s most important sources of revenue prior to Ansar’s terrorist activities, it is not difficult to imagine how much farther the industry, which has reportedly been the hardest hit in Egypt over the past three years, will sink. Infrastructure can be rebuilt, but attracting tourists can be exceptionally challenging. While it seems likely the Egyptian government will step up its attempts to stem Ansar’s efforts now that arterial sources of income are directly threatened, Sunday’s attack and the Egyptian government’s well-intentioned efforts have shown Ansar has the initiative.
• The continuing turmoil in Egypt, coupled with the initiation of attacks against foreign tourists in the country this week will reverberate throughout the international community, giving tourists who were already having second thoughts about Egypt something much more dangerous to consider when making travel plans
• The Egyptian government will most likely increase its efforts to combat Ansar in an attempt to prevent the further—and possibly faster—hemorrhaging of much needed tourist revenue. These efforts can only help Ansar’s case and recruitment efforts, as the military will be forced to crack down on known support nodes and networks which will cause second-order effects throughout the population
• As the Egyptian economy continues to suffer at an increasingly faster rate, the government will be forced to continue to reach out to foreign investors and governments in an effort to compensate damage caused by Ansar.
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