As battlefield losses pile up for the Islamic State terror group, al-Qaeda eyes both the Sinai and Cairo for new attacks — and new recruits.
BEIRUT — Al-Qaeda is launching a new bid to dethrone the Islamic State (ISIS) as the world's pre-eminent jihadist terrorist group, and Egypt is the primary target. As al-Qaeda asserts its influence across North Africa in open competition with the self-proclaimed "Caliphate" of ISIS, the battle for supremacy between Osama bin Laden's Egyptian-born successor Ayman al-Zawahiri and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is now moving to the Arab world's most populous country.
ISIS carried out the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai peninsula last October, and mystery still surrounds the fate of Egyptair Flight 804, which crashed in the Mediterranean Sea on its way to Cairo last month. Authorities suspect it may have been brought down by a terrorist bomb, but no group has yet claimed responsibility. The day before the plane's disappearance, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), exhorted jihadists in the region to fight for the "right" terror group and abandon the Islamic State. He called specifically on Egyptians for the first time in his long and bloody career in the region, where he has survived several assassination attempts and organized attacks from Algeria to the Ivory Coast.
The group responsible for 9/11 is seeking new tactics to expand its reach and energize its followers. Zawahiri released a message on May 8 inviting the group's followers in Syria to form an "emirate" based on Sharia law, a departure from al-Qaeda's long-standing reluctance to hold and govern territory. Belmokhtar used similar language to appeal to his supporters in the AQIM-affiliated al-Mourabitoun, instructing them to target secular Arab governments supported by the West and Russia, but also to conduct hajira, or "emigration," to jihadist-controlled territory in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda leadership throughout the Arab world is convinced Baghdadi's caliphate is engulfed in an existential crisis, seeing an opportunity to entice the group's members into switching sides.
The clearest example of the group's new strategy is its focus on Egypt. Abu Omar al-Muhajir al-Masri, a former official in the Egyptian security services, recently established a new al-Qaeda cell in the capital of Cairo with the aim of toppling the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The affiliate, also named al-Mourabitoun, specializes in attacks against the Egyptian state, particularly on judges and soldiers. They also represent rising competition to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the ISIS branch in the Sinai peninsula, which operates in one of the few theaters where the group is expanding amid battlefield setbacks in its heartland in Iraq and Syria.
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President al-Sisi meets U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford — Photo: Joint Chiefs of Staff
Al-Masri himself was once a member of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis but quit when it pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. His emergence in Cairo could spark a repeat of the internecine conflict in Syria, where the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra front battles with ISIS for territory and supremacy in the jihadist world. Zawahiri employed much stronger language to condemn ISIS militants in his last recording, condemning them as khawarij, or extremists that must be eliminated.
In the minds of al-Qaeda's leaders, the Sinai represents the entryway to their ultimate goal of conquering Jerusalem. As Zawahiri and Belmokhtar accelerate their propaganda war to recruit new members, the peninsula could also become the newest battlefield in a wider battle with the Islamic State to settle once and for all which is the region's most powerful terrorist organization.