By Ashley Lindsey and Scott Stewart
Since the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and especially since the coup that removed Mohammed Morsi from the same post in 2013, Egypt has become a much more fertile ground for jihadist groups. The most prominent name in Egyptian jihad at the moment is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a fact underscored by the group's Jan. 24 massive vehicle bomb attack against the Cairo Security Directorate and a separate bombing against the Radobis movie theater in Giza.
But Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was not the only Egyptian jihadist group to launch attacks that day. Another group, the much less well-known Ajnad Misr, claimed responsibility for two bombings of its own, including one near a police vehicle parked by the Behooth metro station in Giza that killed one, and the other near a police station in the Talbiya district of Giza, which caused no injuries or deaths.
Although these two bombings were not particularly large or deadly, they marked the beginning of one of Ajnad Misr's most commonly employed tactics: the use of small improvised explosive devices against security forces. With the likely help of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Ajnad Misr is rapidly improving its capabilities, and while it has exclusively attacked Egyptian police to this point, the group could become a much larger threat if it decides to broaden its target set to include civilians, as it appears Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has already done.
Changes for Ansar Beit al-Maqdis
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' advanced terrorist tradecraft, especially its ability to launch complex attacks against hardened targets, is evidence of the group's ties to the global jihadist movement — in this case the al Qaeda core, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and jihadists in Libya such as Ansar al-Sharia. In February, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis again grabbed our attention when it conducted a suicide bombing against a bus in Taba, Egypt, that was transporting South Koreans from the Sinai Peninsula to Israel. The attack killed the Egyptian bus driver, two South Korean tour guides and one South Korean tourist.
Though the bus attack was less complex than many of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' previous attacks and directed against a very soft target, the fact that it was directed against foreign tourists and not Egyptian security forces marked a clear change in the group's targeting philosophy, which up to that point had been to avoid civilian casualties. At that time, we noted that the change in targeting could have dire consequences for Egyptian tourism, especially if other smaller jihadist groups such as Ajnad Misr, which operates in areas frequented by tourists, joined a sustained campaign against Egypt's tourism industry.
Attacks like the ones directed against the Cairo Security Directorate and the bus in Taba have captured the attention of the Egyptian government. Egyptian security forces launched a large operation against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — not only in Sinai, but also against its cells in Cairo and the Egyptian mainland. Since the bus attack in Taba, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has not claimed a major terrorist attack, although it has been involved in numerous firefights with security forces, usually in response to Egyptian government raids against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis personnel and safe-houses.
While it is far too early to declare Ansar Beit al-Maqdis finished, it has clearly been damaged by the heavy pressure applied by the security forces and is currently on the defensive. At the same time this has been transpiring, Ajnad Misr has been steadily improving its terrorist tradecraft, and the group's attacks have become more lethal and more targeted. It is clearly time to take a closer look at the group.
A New Threat Emerges
Ajnad Misr, which translates to "soldiers of Egypt," first appeared in late 2013 but did not formally announce its formation until the day before the Jan. 24 bombings. The group began its militant operations with small-arms attacks on checkpoints in the greater Cairo/Giza area, unlike Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which began its operations in Sinai. In fact, all of Ajnad Misr's attacks have been in this area, including two in November 2013 and one in early January that were carried out using light weapons against security forces on patrol. No injuries or deaths were reported.
These initial ambushes showed little tactical sophistication and did not warrant the same attention from Egyptian security forces that the more prominent Ansar Beit al-Maqdis demanded with attacks such as the Cairo Security Directorate bombing and the assassination four days later of Gen. Mohammed Said, an aide to the Egyptian interior minister.
At first, Ajnad Misr appeared to be composed of disenfranchised and radicalized Islamists driven to violence after Morsi was ousted from power but who had little tradecraft expertise compared to the more professional Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Still, the coordinated attack the groups launched Jan. 24 was a sign of Ajnad Misr's ambitions. Indeed, after the bombings, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis credited its "brothers" in Ajnad Misr for launching attacks of their own. The coordination alone indicates the groups are in contact with one another, although the nature and extent of their links are still unknown.
In the wake of the Jan. 24 bombings, the group has been on a steep learning curve and it has improved its bombmaking and operational capabilities. Since that attack, Ajnad Misr has carried out 10 more bombings in Cairo and its surrounding towns, many of which have involved multiple explosive devices. Until the beginning of April, Ajnad Misr's attacks failed to inflict large-scale damage on its targets and did not kill or seriously injure many security forces — which the group has explicitly named as its priority — but the group has persisted in honing its craft.
On April 2, the group began to achieve more of the results it desired with a triple bombing at a security post outside Cairo University that killed a police brigadier general and wounded five other police officers. Because of the group's relatively unimpressive record since its formation, our initial impression was that Ajnad Misr's success in taking out the police general was perhaps a fluke, a simple case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But each subsequent bombing has injured or killed members of the security forces, with the most recent taking place April 23, when police Brig. Gen. Ahmed Zaki was assassinated with a magnetic sticky bomb attached under his vehicle. This type of targeted assassination using a sticky bomb had been attempted by the group 13 days earlier, but the device detonated too early and merely injured the police major the group had targeted.
Ajnad Misr's Potential
In the span of three months, Ajnad Misr has become increasingly deadly and far more focused. Instead of targeting random police officers on patrol with "spray and pray" small-arms attacks, it is now assassinating high-ranking police officers, including generals, with precisely targeted bombs. This is a huge leap in tactical capability, and it is unlikely the group has achieved such rapid gains on its own; the learning curve for self-taught militants is usually much more gradual. This indicates that the group is receiving aid from someone with a great degree of terrorist tradecraft proficiency.
Given the past documented coordination with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, that group would be the most likely suspect for helping Ajnad Misr improve, but there is a long history of jihadist militancy in Egypt, and there are other jihadist militants in the region. Therefore, it would not be entirely surprising if Ajnad Misr had recruited an experienced Egyptian militant with extensive terrorist tradecraft capabilities, or if it had sent personnel to receive training from a group such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.
But while uncertainties remain about where this outside help came from, the results are clear. It has enabled Ajnad Misr to build up its tactical tradecraft, expertise and intelligence gathering capabilities. When coupled with the group's consistent tempo of attacks, the group is clearly a growing threat to Egypt's security establishment.
In the statement Ajnad Misr posted to its Facebook and Twitter pages taking credit for the Zaki assassination, the group taunted that it was able to strike him despite the security measures he had employed, such as using a low-profile utility truck-type vehicle instead of a typical government sedan. If the general was taking such precautions, it indicates that he was aware of the threat. It also suggests that he was practicing heightened situational awareness, which is unsurprising, considering all the attacks by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr against senior police officials and the interior minister.
However, despite the security measures employed by Zaki, Ajnad Misr was clearly able to conduct surveillance against him during a period of heightened threat and awareness. That the jihadists were able to place the device and successfully assassinate him shows that their surveillance not only went undetected but also that the group's surveillance personnel were able to identify vulnerabilities they would later exploit for their attack. In addition, the fact that the group used a smaller sticky bomb in the attack also displays a degree of sophistication. Less experienced bombmakers tend to want to "go big" to make sure they kill their target, but the device employed in the Zaki assassination was a smaller, more efficient device — one that would minimize damage to bystanders.
So far, Ajnad Misr has remained relentlessly focused on attacks against Egyptian police officials. The group even claims to have aborted some bombing attacks out of concern for civilian casualties. If Ajnad Misr remains true to this targeting philosophy, it will not pose a threat to tourists or expatriates living in Egypt. However, should the group decide to change its target set, as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis appears to have done in February, it would find tourists and expatriates much easier targets than police officials, and would therefore likely cause a great deal of death and destruction against soft targets in Cairo or Giza. Because of this, it will be very important to keep an eye on Ajnad Misr's operations and its propaganda for any signs of a targeting shift. Obviously, with other less discriminating groups active in Egypt, tourists and expatriates living there already need to maintain a heightened state of situational awareness and practice prudent personal security measures.