ISIS Is Still Not Expanding into Egypt
By Aaron Reese with Jantzen Garnett
Despite rapidly spreading reports that Egyptian Salafi-Jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, that does not appear to be the case. Reuters released the initial report, citing an alleged statement by the group. Although not included in the Reuters report, low-quality images of the alleged statement have been circulating on Twitter. Al-Arabiya and Haaretz, as well as a handful of prominent online commentators, have picked up the reports and have been circulating them uncritically based on the initial article. While some, including freelance journalist Aron Lund and Aymenn al-Tamimi, have expressed skepticism, the report is spreading quickly based on the credibility of the Reuters report. Skepticism is merited in this case, as we assess that the report is false. This is not the first time that false statements have been attributed to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and this probably false report may be related to the group's recent prominence in conjunction with the suicide attack targeting Egyptian security forces in the Sinai.
As we have previously argued, although it is likely that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is deriving inspiration from ISIS, we are not likely to see a direct pledge of allegiance at this time. ABM has historically been very tightly targeted against Egyptian security forces and Israel, and members of the group that have a strong affinity for ISIS are likely to emigrate rather than remain in Egypt – as called for by most ISIS propaganda.
ISW has not been able to verify the alleged statement, although it appears to visually match previous statements and does contain a pledge of allegiance to “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Interestingly, it does not refer to him as Caliph Ibrahim as ISIS propaganda has announced his official name to be. Its veracity is doubtful given that it has not been posted by an official account of the group, surprising for a statement so apparently major in importance. No other media outlets have been able to verify the statement either, and have instead used Reuters as the source – while Reuters does not identify the source of the statement they cite as official. Other organizations repeating the claim have used a photo apparently of ABM members making the pledge that in fact dates back to at least April 2014 and has been used as a stock photo when discussing the group – in this case misleadingly adding authenticity.
As ISIS dominates the headlines, there is a general inclination to over-attribute statements to the group. This is evidenced by Egyptian media picking up reports of a “Daash” (ISIS) leader named Abu Musab al-Maqdisi responding to the pledge of allegiance with “Tips to the Mujahidin in Egypt.” However, this statement was published on a well-known ISIS-leaning but unofficial jihadist forum and in fact pre-dates the alleged statement of allegiance by some 12 hours at least. The attribution of such statements to ISIS itself and the description of the statement as a “response” is therefore spurious.
In the meantime, jihadists and ISIS supporters are circulating the alleged statement of allegiance on Twitter with a warning not to believe it until it is released by ABM’s official accounts. Users are also posting similar warnings to al-Platform Media forums, cautioning against a fake statement. The official Twitter account of ABM at the time of this writing has not released anything that supports the suggestion that it has pledged allegiance to ISIS. Interestingly, at around the same time as this story broke, the group’s Twitter account ended a month-long period of silence to post a link to an archive of past statements. It is unusual that the account would post a link to past statements, while omitting what would be clearly the most important and timely statement. The account has also remained quiet on the subject of the serious suicide attack in northern Sinai that killed over 30 Egyptian security personnel.
While there are other possible explanations for the silence of the group’s Twitter page, the quick spread of this statement may have the interesting and possibly unintended effect of forcing ABM to declare its allegiance one way or another – either to deny the statement or to own it. Unless a more credible source emerges, however, it is best to treat this claim as probably false. Egypt is facing real and very serious threats emerging from its territory, but Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis joining forces with ISIS is not yet one of them.
Update: After this article was written, the official Twitter account of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis released a post specifically disclaiming that it had made any statement on the issue. This confirms the argument made here but fails to answer the question of why a false statement was released. It seems likely at this time that the statement would be released in order to portray ABM as a group external to Egypt, possibly to try and affect its domestic support. Two things remain true, however: first, ABM displays affinity to ISIS but likely is not going to pledge allegiance in order to "have it both ways" in terms of domestic support. Second, ABM does not require external assistance. It remains a very dangerous threat on its own.