ANSAR BAYT AL-MAQDIS INTENSIFIES ASSASSINATION CAMPAIGN IN THE SINAI
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gazan Islamist organization that first appeared in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Since then, ABM has become one of the most active and aggressive of the many militant groups now found in the Sinai. Its latest high-profile operation was the November 17 assassination in Nasr City of Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Mabrouk Abu Khattab of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA), one of the leading investigators involved in the prosecution of ex-president Muhammad Mursi and other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past, ABM has mounted several attacks on the pipelines that carry Egyptian natural gas to Israeli and Jordanian markets, claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli troops in September, 2012 and attempted to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on September 5 (Daily News Egypt, July 26, 2012).
In its claim of responsibility for the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, ABM maintained that it had targeted the senior investigator over the commitment to trial in Alexandria of 15 women and seven girls for participation in a violent pro-Mursi demonstration in Alexandria in October: “[Mabrouk] was one of the major tyrants of the state security apparatus and the assassination was a response to the arrest of free women by this malicious apparatus.” The statement ended by promising further attacks if the women were not freed.  Given Mabrouk’s peripheral connection with the Alexandria case, prosecutors suspected the ABM statement was intended to mislead their investigations and asked the Interior Ministry to investigate the declaration (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21).
Suspicion of complicity in the assassination has fallen on the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemned the attack on November 19 and assailed efforts by the media to associate them with the assassination (Daily News Egypt, November 20). The timing of Mabrouk’s murder is noteworthy, as it came shortly before his testimony in the Mursi trial and a week after submitting a CD supporting the charges of spying leveled against the ex-president. Judicial sources have indicated that the CD includes a recording of a phone call between Mursi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as another phone conversation in which Mursi admits to providing Hamas with information on the security situation in the Sinai (al-Masry al-Youm, November 21). Colonel Mabrouk played a central role in taking down the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, arresting leading members such as Khayrat al-Shater, Essam al-Erian and Muhammad al-Beltagy. The spying charges actually predate Mursi’s removal as president; the case accusing Mursi and 13 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood of spying and illegal contacts with foreign entities was forwarded to prosecutors by the Ismailia Appeals Court on June 23 (al-Ahram Weekly, November 22). Mabrouk was also expected to be the chief witness in a separate case regarding Mursi’s Hamas-assisted escape from Wadi al-Natrun prison five days after the January 25 Revolution.
According to the ABM statement, the killing was carried out by the Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah Battalion. This ABM faction is named for al-Mu’tasim Bi-‘llah, the eighth Abbasid caliph (795 – 842), known for his fighting skills and his campaigns against the Christian Byzantine Empire. As justification for the murder, the ABM statement cited an episode from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, in which the Prophet attacked and expelled the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe after an incident in the market in which a Jewish goldsmith is said to have pinned the clothes of a Muslim woman so as to cause her to be stripped naked when she walked away. The Jewish merchant was immediately killed by a passing Muslim, who was in turn killed by a Jewish mob, leading to the Prophet’s eventual attack.  ABM asks, on the basis of this precedent, what alternative do Muslims have when faced with the detention and assault of hundreds of Muslim women?
Mabrouk’s funeral was attended by Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim and several other ministers and high officials. A three-day mourning period was announced by interim president Adli Mansour on November 20 (Egypt State Information Service, November 21). The Interior Ministry claims 152 “martyrs” have been lost to militant activities since Mursi’s June 30 overthrow.
Colonel Mabrouk was only the latest in a series of Interior Ministry personnel (many of whom conceal their identities and rarely work in the field) to be targeted by assassins. Revelations of the existence of “assassination lists” with the home addresses of intelligence officers involved in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood are reported to have prompted a deadline of January for Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim to discover the leak in his Ministry (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 22; al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], November 22).
On November 21, police in the Delta town of Qaha raided an apartment in search of two suspected terrorists wanted in connection to the murder of Colonel Mabrouk, the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Ibrahim and an attack on a Coptic church. The two were arrested only after a gunfight that killed police Captain Ahmad Samir al-Kabir (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 21; November 22).
On the following day, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced the arrest of the prime suspect in the Mabrouk assassination, Shady al-Manei, described as a leading member of Bayt al-Maqdis. Al-Manei was alleged to be a subordinate of Muslim Brotherhood deputy guide Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater (presently detained) and was previously imprisoned in connection with the 2005 Taba bombings before being released by ex-president Muhammad Mursi (Egypt State Information Service, November 23). Nabil Na’im, a fierce opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad from 1988 to 1992, has accused al-Shater, a prominent businessman, of funding ABM’s strikes on Egyptian security forces (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 9; for Khayrat al-Shater, see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2013).
The Egyptian Army has not failed to respond to the ABM’s attacks on security personnel. On November 26, four black Army Humvees pursued and killed Shaykh Abu Munir (a.k.a. Muhammad Hussein Muhareb) and his son at al-Mehediya in the northeast Sinai. Abu Munir was an associate of ABM and a prime suspect in the brutal roadside murder of 25 police recruits dragged from their bus in August (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], November 26; Telegraph, November 26).
On November 20, ABM released the identity of the suicide bomber who attacked the South Sinai security directorate on October 7, killing five soldiers and wounding 50 others. The “martyr,” Muhammad Hamdan al-Sawarka (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), was a member of the Sawarka tribe, one of the Sinai’s largest. The ABM statement also criticized prominent Egyptian Salafist leaders for failing to resist the overthrow of Muhammad Mursi (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 20).
In his assessment of the Sinai campaign of the Egyptian security forces, Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founding member of the extremist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who has since renounced political violence, commented:
1. Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, “Declaring our responsibility for assassinating the criminal Muhammad Mabrouk,” November 19, 2013, http://www.ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=47326.
2. The incident is related in Ibn Hisham’s (died c. 830) Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyah, an edited version of Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad (now lost).
LIBYAN SPECIAL FORCES EXPEL ANSAR AL-SHARI’A FROM BENGHAZI
There are conflicting accounts of how the clashes began, but some sort of minor contact between gunmen of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Shari’a and soldiers of the Libyan Saiqa Special Forces Brigade early on November 25 set off heavy fighting that left nine dead and 49 wounded but saw the long-desired expulsion of Ansar al-Shari’a from the city by the end of the day. Ansar al-Shari’a is believed to have been responsible for the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. After being previously driven from its Benghazi bases by public demonstrations in September 2012, Ansar al-Shari’a returned quietly five months later, promoting themselves as providers of humanitarian aid, public services and security in a city still struggling to establish an effective administration.
There was a danger during the fighting that Islamist reinforcements might arrive from other Ansar al-Shari’a bases in nearby Derna (where an ongoing assassination campaign has targeted everyone from judges to traffic police) or Ajdabiya, but security officials issued a warning that any convoy attempting to enter or leave Benghazi would be treated as an illegal militia and targeted by military aircraft. The Ansar al-Shari’a militants in Derna are led by Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007. A column of ten Ansar al-Shari’a “technicals” (gun-mounted 4x4s) attempting to leave Derna for Benghazi were turned back by Libyan Army units from al-Marj and Beida. Two other Islamist militias in Derna, the Abu Salim Brigade and the Army of the Islamic State of Libya, remained at their bases (Libya Herald, November 26).
Ansar al-Shari’a’s detachment in Ajdabiya was forced out of the town on the same day by armed civilians (Libyan News Agency, November 25). Armed civilians also joined the effort to expel Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, but were asked to return home by Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada (Libya Herald, November 25). Ansar al-Shari’a also has bases further afield in Misrata and Sirte, but access to Benghazi from the latter base was prevented by a roadblock set up at Wadi Ahmar by the newly created Barqa defense force, the armed element of autonomy-seeking Cyrenaicans in eastern Libya (Libya Herald, November 25; for the Cyrenaican autonomy movement, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31).
Violence returned to the streets of Benghazi on the evening of November 26 – 27 as gunmen threw grenades and clashed with the Libyan Army in three parts of the city. The situation was brought under control as reinforcements were sent to the affected areas. Ansar al-Shari’a elements were suspected, but security spokesmen admitted they were unsure who was responsible (Libya Herald, November 26; Reuters, November 27). Three soldiers were assassinated in Benghazi the same day by unknown assailants.
Laws 27 and 53 of Libya’s ruling General National Council (GNC) call on all Libya’s militias to disband or join the national army by the end of the year. However, this raises the possibility of large numbers of new additions bringing an extremist ideology with them as they are integrated into a national military. Saiqa commander Wanis Bukhamada has promised his Special Forces would use force against any militia that failed to disband and attacked the police and army after that date (Libya Herald, November 26). Bukhamada is a former officer under the Qaddafi regime who defected to the rebels during the revolution and led the liberation of Brega.
There are signs that the security situation in Libya’s two major cities may be shifting in favor of those seeking the removal of the militias from the streets. Most of Tripoli’s warring militias left the city after the Misrata militia discredited its claims to be protecting the people of Tripoli when its fighters opened fire on peaceful demonstrators calling for their removal on November 15, killing 46 and wounding more than 500 more (Ahram Online [Cairo], November 26).
On the same day as the Benghazi clashes, a representative of Ansar al-Shari’a appeared on Libyan TV to announce that all those who chose not to comply with Shari’a in Libya would be fought and killed, as would the French and anyone seeking democracy or secularism. Derna-based commander Mahmoud al-Barassi fueled the GNC’s efforts to disband the militias by saying the GNC and the Army are apostates, insisting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan knows “nothing about Islam” and claiming that all opponents of Ansar al-Shari’a are “enemies.” Other elements of Ansar al-Shari’a were believed to have gone into damage control after al-Barassi’s remarks (Libya al-Ahrar TV, November 25; Libya Herald, November 25).