Egypt’s most dangerous militant group on Monday pledged its allegiance to the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, becoming its first international affiliate and expanding the challenge to the government in Cairo.
The announcement, made in an audio statement posted online, is a milestone and a lift to morale for the Islamic State six weeks into an American-led bombing campaign on its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
Almost no other prominent jihadist thinkers or factions have endorsed the group’s grandiose claims to leadership of all jihadists and even all Muslims.
The Egyptian group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, is the marquee militant group in the most populous Arab state. Its decision is the latest manifestation of a swirling descent into violence around the region amid the dashed hopes for democracy of the Arab Spring uprisings three years ago.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first rose to prominence in the northern Sinai Peninsula 16 months ago in a violent backlash against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. It has faced an unusual crackdown from the new military-led government, recently including the forced evacuation of more than 1,100 families from an area near the border with Gaza that has been a haven for the group.
The new alliance is a gamble that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, can help the Egyptian militants survive and expand by providing money, weapons and recruits. The move carries the risk that the Islamic State’s reputation for indiscriminate violence will alienate other Egyptians, especially the disaffected Islamist youth that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has sought to enlist in its fight, according to Western officials familiar with intelligence reports on the group’s internal communications.
Unlike the Islamic State, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has focused its attacks almost exclusively on military and security forces, and Egyptian and Western officials worry that the new alliance could lead the group to target Christians, civilians and tourists.
The group has already carried out at least a handful of beheadings of people suspected of being government informants in Sinai, adopting the signature punishment of the Islamic State. The announcement of the affiliation alone may unnerve investors and tourists.
In its audio statement, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged to “obey” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph.