Geopolitics

Al-Qaeda’s New Strategy To Eclipse ISIS Begins In Egypt

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.

A protest supporting families of four Egyptian men kidnapped in January
A protest supporting families of four Egyptian men kidnapped in January
Giordano Stabile

-Analysis-


BEIRUT â€" 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.

Capital strategy

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.

President al-Sisi meets U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford â€" 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.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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