Is ISIS Expanding into Egypt?
By Jantzen W. Garnett with Aaron Reese
Recent statements by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and an alleged new group called the “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Egypt” has given rise to speculation that ISIS may be seeking to expand beyond Iraq and Syria into new territories such as Egypt. This fear is compounded by the recent arrest of an individual at the Cairo airport, allegedly seeking to travel to Syria for training with ISIS. He is also accused of recruiting Egyptians to train in Syria for the purpose of returning to Egypt to carry out attacks against security forces. It is possible that Egyptian authorities are falsely associating individuals or groups with ISIS in an attempt to legitimize harsh security measures. At this time it does not appear that ISIS is operating in Egypt or actively seeking to gain an operational footprint there, although recent events suggest viable routes for expansion by the Islamic State should it choose to pursue them. A new group calling itself Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Egypt released its first statement on jihadist forums September 23, 2014. In the statement the group pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and stated that their aim is to target the Egyptian army, foreign embassies, and foreign nationals, especially Americans. It praised the Salafi-jihadist Sinai-based group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), while at the same time denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood as not truly Islamic. This statement places them squarely on the more radical end of the Islamist spectrum in Egypt, alongside ABM, a more radical group that has conducted suicide attacks against Egyptian security forces. This is the second group to take the name Soldiers of the Caliphate, following a group in Algeria, and comes only two days after ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani called for continued attacks against security forces in Egypt by unspecified insurgent groups in the Sinai.
Earlier last month on September 12, a communiqué was published on several jihadist forums and Twitter announcing the split of the al-Huda Battalion and other jihadi brigades from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria.” The group renewed its pledge of allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State which several in the group had previously sworn individually. The communiqué announced that Gouri Abdel Malik, a commander from AQIM’s central region, better known by his nom de guerre Khalid Abu Suleimane, would lead the new group.
The similarity of the two groups’ names as “Soldiers of the Caliphate” followed by each group’s regional locality (e.g. “in the Land of Algeria” or “in the Land of Egypt”) is of interest. This could be the beginning of a franchise-type name adopted by groups loyal to al-Baghdadi but separated in different theaters of jihad. We have previously witnessed this phenomenon with al-Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and most recently al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Names alone, however, are not necessarily indicators of membership within or exclusion from a group. For instance, there are officially recognized al-Qaeda affiliates that have not taken the name al-Qaeda but are no less instrumental to al-Qaeda’s projection of force and influence than those that have taken the name. Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in Syria is one such example which has not taken the name al-Qaeda but is very much a central part of the al-Qaeda organization. Conversely, the name “Soldiers of the Caliphate” and even the pledging of allegiance does not guarantee official inclusion into the ISIS. There has been no public statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his spokesman recognizing the groups or accepting their pledges.
Despite pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi and sharing similar names and common goals the two groups are not comparable. Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria is a combination of veteran militant groups which are known to have carried out deadly attacks and killings, like the recent beheading of French citizen Herve Gourdel. As for Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Egypt, there is absolutely no knowledge of the group or its membership, save for their sole statement posted online. In their statement they claim to be a group of “young men of Islam...fighting under the black flag until…all religion is for Allah." While it is possible that the group was formed by members of other Sinai-based Salafi Jihadist groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), or the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, it is also possible that the group is formed in name only. Particularly as the Egyptian military continues to carry out a crackdown on Sinai militants, it remains to be seen if the group has the experience necessary to conduct attacks beyond small-arms fire. Many groups have made threats online, but few have made the transition from keyboard to Kalashnikov.
Establishing new groups is not the only way for ISIS to project influence beyond areas within its direct control. A less direct but more plausible way is to inspire pre-existing groups that share an ideological affinity to adopt the Islamic State as a brand much like Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria. Several other established groups such as the previously mentioned Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are beginning to appear more closely aligned with ISIS. ISIS’s influence on ABM is evident in its use of beheadings as a fear tactic. Moreover, an audio clip from ISIS’ spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s September 21 speech was included in ABM’s most recent video. This is the same speech in which Adnani called on the Sinai militants to increase their attacks and which prompted Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria to kidnap and later behead a French citizen. It will be from well-established pre-existing groups like these that ISIS will be able to best project its influence across the region.
Whether the threats made in the statement by the Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Egypt are acted upon or not, it is worth noting that ISIS is continuing to gain support from like-minded individuals and groups from across the Middle East and beyond. The highly publicized gains ISIS has amassed coupled with their massive media campaign will push more jihadist groups and individuals to express affinity for ISIS or to adopt ISIS tactics in pursuing their own goals. We may see a type of brand franchising involving the creation of affiliates or associates under the Caliphate similar to those aligned with al-Qaeda, whether as an effort to join in the Caliphate or in an effort to utilize the ISIS “brand” to garner publicity. The Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria or in Egypt may be among the first such groups. Regardless of the affiliation of such groups, deadly terror attacks such as the October 24 attack that killed over two dozen Egyptian soldiers in North Sinai demonstrate the continuing challenge Egyptian security forces will face in combating militant organizations.