Can Egypt Handle Ansar Bayt al Maqdis?

The crackdown on the Brotherhood may be distracting from the Sinai-based jihadists.

Shortly after 6:30am in Egypt on Friday, a massive car bomb detonated outside the Cairo Security Directorate. The attack killed at least four people and wounded more than 70, Egypt’s Health Ministry said. In the hours that followed at least three additional explosions were reported in the Cairo area with reports of two more fatalities and scores wounded.

In the immediate aftermath of the first attack, some Egypt observers, myself included, said the car bombing was likely the work of the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM). In a statement released to jihadist forums Friday night, ABM claimed responsibility for all of the attacks. While some may question the veracity of the claim, a couple data points support the idea that ABM was in fact responsible for attacks that appeared to leave Egyptian authorities chasing ghosts.

For one, ABM has repeatedly stated its intent to target police and military headquarters, which it has done on a number of occasions. This point was reiterated by the group in its claim of responsibility as it claimed that “we face difficulties while attacking without inflicting harm in the ranks of the Muslims.”

There was also the question of timing. Just a few hours before the car bomb rocked Cairo, ABM released an audio message warning security personnel to repent and save themselves. "If you can escape with your weapon then do that. Otherwise, you know that soldiers are dealt with as one bloc. We will target you as we target your leaders," an ABM official identified as Abu Osama al Masri said.

The group’s forewarning echoed the group’s prelude to a suicide car bombing on December 24 outside the Daqahliya security directorate in Mansoura. About a day before that attack, which killed over a dozen and wounded more than 130, ABM issued a statement in which it warned that those in the security forces who do not leave their posts would have no one to blame but themselves if they were attacked.

The Egyptian government blamed its bitter political rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood, for the Mansoura attack, despite ABM’s claim of responsibility. Notably, one poll found that roughly a third of Egyptians believed the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for the Mansoura bombing, while only 6 percent said ABM was the culprit.

With significant support for their actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government may not even care if ABM takes credit. With crowds calling for the Muslim Brotherhood’s “execution" after Friday’s attack, to some respect it makes sense politically for the government to blame supporters of fallen Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, who continue to partake in efforts to delegitimize the new regime. This is why Cairo, which believes it is in an existential battle, declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization shortly after the Mansoura bombing.

The military rulers in Cairo have since alleged that there are ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and ABM. However, the evidence presented thus far is tenuous, at best. The command and control links that some Egyptian officials have suggested are unproven. And while ABM certainly has former members of the Muslim Brotherhood within its ranks, these are former members who specifically left because the Brotherhood was not, in their view, fully committed to offensive jihad.

Cairo’s current approach, in other words, may not be properly addressing the serious jihadist threat to Egypt that was once clearly limited to the Sinai Peninsula, but has now reached across the Suez Canal. Recent admissions by Egyptian officials indicate that Sinai jihadists have been avoiding security sweeps and reaching the Nile Delta and Cairo, among other locations. This, along with Friday’s attacks, raises serious questions as to whether enough resources are being deployed to deal with Egypt’s growing jihadist problem, particularly as these forces display an ability to adapt to ongoing Egyptian military operations.

David Barnett is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Salafi jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. He tweets at @dbarn225.