Egypt's most active extremist militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (which roughly translates to Supporters of the Holy House), has pledged its allegiance to the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State.
The group, which has killed dozens of troops and police officers in attacks launched from its base in the Sinai Peninsula, announced the move in an audio recording posted to its official Twitter account on Monday.
This follows competing accounts last week, in which a similar assertion of allegiance from the group that appeared on Twitter was quickly denied.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first emerged during the power vacuum that followed Egypt's 2011 revolution. The group stepped up an offensive on the country's security forces after the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013. It has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks since then, including large-scale strikes on checkpoints, a tourist bus bombing near the Israeli border that killed three South Koreans and an Egyptian,and a failed attempt to assassinate Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.
"We have no alternative but to declare our pledge of allegiance to the caliph [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]... to listen and obey him," the unknown speaker reading the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis statement says, according to an Associated Press translation. It is not clear how this affects the group's tactics or whether it is preparing to broaden its targets — the Islamic State called last month for attacks on the United States and its allies.
The statement goes on to urge "all Muslims" to support Baghdadi and Egyptians to launch a violent campaign against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the recently-elected former military chief who ousted Morsi and then launched a crackdown on the former president's Muslim Brotherhood supporters that left hundreds dead and many thousands imprisoned.
"What are you waiting for, after your honor has been aggressed upon and your sons' blood has been shed at the hands of this tyrant and his soldiers?" the speaker says, apparently referring to Sisi, adding that the mainly peaceful protest tactics favored by the Brotherhood had failed.
The Sinai Peninsula has been at the center of a full-blown insurgency since Morsi was overthrown, and has proven a fertile breeding ground for extremism as hardline groups take advantage of local resentment. A large assault on Egyptian army checkpoints in late October left 31 troops dead and prompted officials to declare a state of emergency in several parts of the region.
The Egyptian military last week began demolishing hundreds of homes as part of a plan to establish a buffer zone on the border with Gaza to halt an inflow of weapons and militants.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is one of the most significant militant groups to declare allegiance to the Islamic State instead of its longer established rival al Qaeda.
Major al Qaeda affiliates — such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and the group's offshoots in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia — have pointedly avoided doing so, despite Baghdadi's declaration of a self-styled Islamic caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria under his control. In contrast, smaller groups like Algeria's Jund al-Khilifa, which kidnapped and beheaded French hiker Herve Gourdel, have been quick to pledge their obedience.
The allegiance announcement came amid speculation that Baghdadi had been injured or killed by a US-led airstrike in Iraq. American aircraft hit Islamic State targets in Mosul and al-Qaim in Anbar province on Friday, apparently targeting the group's leadership.
Iraq's Defense and Interior Ministries subsequently reported that Baghdadi had been injured in Anbar. Somewhat contradictorily, a statement on Defense Minister Khalid Obeidi's Facebook page said he had been wounded in Mosul. US officials said they had no intelligence to confirm either reports. However, Iraqi state television said Monday that Abu Huthaifa al-Yamani, one of Baghdadi's key aides, was killed in an airstrike near Fallujah.
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