At least 54 policemen were killed on 21 October in an armed ambush in Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis, some 180 kilometres (112 miles) west of the capital, Cairo. The attack jolted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi into reorganising the leadership structures in the state security apparatus, with 11 ranking officials either dismissed or reassigned from their positions.
On 3 November, a group identifying itself as Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility for the attack and cited this operation as the “start of its jihad” against the Sisi administration. Beyond the details released in its communiqué, which are yet to be verified, little is known about the armed movement behind what may be one of the deadliest acts of violence targeting the Egyptian military under the current government.
Despite its reported magnitude, precise details of the attack remain sketchy. The Sisi administration denounced the fatality numbers published by both local and foreign media outlets, claiming that only 16 soldiers had been killed in the militant incursion. Before Ansar al-Islam’s claim of responsibility, the Egyptian government had promptly attributed the attack to the Hasm movement – an antistate armed group that Sisi has defined as an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood political movement, whose government he overthrew in 2013 and which he subsequently banned.
From the details disclosed in Ansar al-Islam’s claim, however, some interesting conclusions can be drawn. The first pertains to the group eulogising Abu Hatem Emad al-Din Abd (alias Abdel Hamid) in its statement. Abdel Hamid, who was killed in an airstrike on 31 October, served as the deputy to jihadi commander Hesham al-Ashmawy, formerly aligned to Ansar Bait al-Maqdis before that Islamist group pledged fidelity to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Sinai Province (ISIL-SP) in 2015. After Ansar Bait al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, Ashmawy and Abdel Hamid allegedly broke away from the nascent ISIS affiliate to form the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Mourabitoun network, which is believed to have established its primary operational base in the Libyan town of Derna.
Suggestions that Ansar al-Islam could be a rebranded al-Qaeda-affiliated entity in Egypt’s otherwise ISIS-dominated jihadi landscape are not based solely on the eulogy of Abdel Hamid. Notably, Ansar al-Islam’s initial claim was disseminated by the Hooras al-Sharia Telegram channel, which serves as an unofficial mouthpiece for the al-Qaeda movement.
The Bahariya Oasis attack also carried the hallmarks of the transnational terrorist network. In addition to being highly coordinated, many of the conscripts in the targeted Egyptian military convoy were spared execution – an act of mercy that would otherwise be anomalous for ISIL-SP but is common practice among other al-Qaeda affiliates.
With prevailing evidence suggesting that the Bahariya Oasis attack may mark a re-emergence of al-Qaeda into Egypt’s Islamist extremist paradigm, the immediate concern is how the group could change the status quo. Although Ansar al-Islam’s exact capacity and capability remain unclear, it appears that the group is highly coordinated and will centre its operations on western Egypt, where it can funnel resources from neighbouring Libya to fuel its domestic operations.
However, the extent of these operations will be influenced by the response of the Egyptian military. After the 21 October attack, Egyptian security forces launched a security operation that led to the liberation of one their members who had been abducted from the Bahariya Oasis. In addition to freeing the hostage, security forces neutralised a number of militants and uncovered a series of plots that Ansar al-Islam was planning to orchestrate in Egypt. The operation, together with the death of one of its most senior leaders in Abdel Hamid, may curtail the activities of Ansar al-Islam before the group becomes as prolifically deadly as its ISIS counterpart.