Egypt militant group growing in capabilities in sign of support from region's jihadis

The Associated Press

Egypt's security forces look through the shuttered windshield of a vehicle damaged after bomb explosions targeted at a checkpoint in Giza, Egypt, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. Twin homemade bombs targeting a police checkpoint wounded several people on a bridge in Cairo's twin city of Giza Friday morning, the latest apparent attack by militants near the center of the Egyptian capital. (AP Photo/El Shorouk, Aly Hazzaa) EGYPT OUT

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By LEE KEATH, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — An Islamic militant group that has waged a campaign of bombings and assassinations for months in Egypt has quickly advanced in weaponry and sophistication of attacks, drawing on the experience of Egyptians who fought in Syria's civil war.

The increasing capabilities of the group, called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Arabic for the Champions of Jerusalem, raises the danger that a wave of violence that began as a retaliation for the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi is evolving into a new front for regional jihadi groups.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first arose in the Sinai Peninsula, where for years militant groups largely made of up local Bedouin had carried out attacks, lobbing rockets into neighboring Israel and at times opening fire on military and police. Attacks escalated after the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when militants turned their guns more directly against Egyptian soldiers and police.

But after the July 3 coup removing Morsi, militants dramatically stepped up their campaign, and it has since spread to cities of the Nile Delta and the capital, Cairo. In recent weeks, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri took up the cause in a recent message urging Egyptians to join the fight against the man who removed Morsi, army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. One of al-Qaida's strongest branches, based in Yemen, praised "our mujahedeen brothers in Sinai."

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis "has rapidly become one of the most active jihadist groups in the world," the U.S.-based intelligence assessment group Startfor warned in report last week.

It said the string of messages suggested the group is getting "outside help," possibly from the Yemen branch, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a former al-Qaida branch fighting in both Iraq and Syria. In a recording last month, the leader of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis Abu Osama al-Masri saluted the Islamic State, a sign of its influence with his group.

The group is also benefiting from Egyptian militants returning from fronts of jihad, or holy war, elsewhere around the region. After a failed attempt to assassinate Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in Cairo in September, the group identified the suicide bomber as Walid Badr, a former Egyptian army major who it said had fought in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later in Syria's civil war. In a separate statement, it said another militant, Saeed el-Shahat, an Egyptian who also fought in Syria, blew himself up when police raided his apartment in January.

Further alarm was raised over Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' capabilities when it downed a military helicopter in Sinai in late January, killing all five crewmembers. Based on a video by the group purporting to show the attack, the fighters used a shoulder-fired missile from the Russian-made Igla series, which is more advanced than weapons systems previously seen among militant groups, the London-based military analysis group Jane's Defense Weekly reported.

Last week, militants assassinated a senior interior ministry aide with a single shot through the neck as he sat in his car, security officials said, a sign of an experienced sniper. Days earlier, they set up a powerful truck bomb outside Cairo's main security directorate, timed during a change in shifts, killing five people in the center of the capital. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The growth in the group's campaign adds a further layer of turmoil as security forces wage a fierce crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, which have continued protests demanding his reinstatement. Police assaults on protests have killed hundreds of Morsi supporters and thousands more have been arrested, including Morsi and most of the Brotherhood's leadership, who now face a series of trials.