Since June, Egyptian insurgents have used car bombs, suicide attacks, a prominent political assassination and the beheading of a foreign oil worker to terrorize the country. The attacks have marked the most intense period of militant activity since the homegrown insurgency began two years ago.
Instead of a single group, a cluster of independent but increasingly dangerous cells linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have carried out the violence, security experts say. And rivalries between the jihadist groups are expected to spur more attacks.
At least two factions have launched attacks under the Islamic State banner, including a new cell that claims to be operating for the powerful jihadist movement in Cairo. In July, a former army officer announced that his al-Qaeda-linked group would battle the government. Egyptian officials suspect the former special forces officer, Hisham al-Ashmawy, in two major attacks in June and in a deadly attack on government forces at an army checkpoint last summer.
The army expelled Ashmawy in the mid-2000s after he showed signs of religious radicalization, according to accounts from security officials in the Egyptian press. Now his military training is helping the insurgents, officials say.
Egypt has a long and violent history of Islamist militancy, including a jihadist insurgency in the 1990s that the state eventually vanquished. When the president was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, however, many of those same militants either escaped or were released from jail. Some formed Islamist political parties, but others headed to Egypt’s Sinai desert, where Bedouin tribesmen had routed police during the revolt.
The Sinai Bedouins, who maintain a distinct dialect and culture from mainland Egyptians, had long complained of discrimination and neglect at the hands of the state. The government, in turn, viewed the Bedouins with suspicion and treated the Sinai population as a security threat.
So in the chaos after the rebellion began, the Bedouins in North Sinai took the opportunity to banish security forces. The lawless desert was a prime spot for the jihadists to train, smuggle weapons and begin staging attacks on Israel. Some tribesmen didn’t have the power to stand up to the militants. In other cases, young Bedouin men joined the militant groups.
They eventually coalesced into a single movement called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which later declared itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State.