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CAIRO – 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.
The government alleges the Brotherhood has been behind the militant campaign from the start, accusing its leaders of working with militants to launch the insurgency. In December, it declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood, which officially renounced violence in the 1970s, denies the accusation and calls it a pretext to wipe out the government's top political rival, which won a string of elections after Mubarak's fall.
Egypt's security agencies say they have amassed evidence of the Brotherhood's role. But so far it has largely not been made public or been put through judicial scrutiny. Instead, their purported evidence has come out in a flow of leaks to the Egyptian press by anonymous officials — making its veracity impossible to assess independently.
In December, for example, officials in the prosecutors' office leaked to the Egyptian press the purported confessions of Mohammed el-Zawahri, the brother of al-Qaida's leader who is himself a prominent figure in extremist circles and was a strong supporter of Morsi's presidency. He was arrested soon after Morsi's ouster.
According to the leaks, he told interrogators that the Brotherhood's deputy leader Khairat el-Shater gave him millions of dollars to buy weapons from Libya for Sinai militants and demanded they attack the military and government institutions.
Officials also have spoken of recorded telephone calls between Brotherhood leaders and militants. They claim the Brotherhood had access to police files during Morsi's presidency and passed information to militants, helping them assassinate security officials. Among them was a top Interior Ministry official in charge of investigating the Brotherhood who was gunned down outside his home late last year.
During Morsi's presidency, he formed a political alliance with radicals, including former members of militant groups that fought a bloody insurgency against the government in the 1990s. Also while president, Morsi sent ultraconservative Islamist envoys to negotiate with Sinai militants to stop attacks in return for a halt to military operations against them. Morsi's allies represented the contacts as aimed at finding a peaceful solution to Sinai violence, but security agencies allege the contacts built the alliance with jihadis.
In the days just before the coup and in the weeks after, some of the top leaders of past militant movements appeared on the stage of the main pro-Morsi protest camp in Cairo, outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque. Among them were Rifai Taha, who was once allied to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and two brothers, Tareq and Abboud el-Zomor, who spent years in prison for masterminding the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
One former militant leader, Assem Abdel-Maged, openly threatened violence against Morsi's opponents from the stage at Rabaah, telling the crowd, "We will have to press the knife now."
Regardless of the truth of the government accusations, experts warn that the crackdown is pushing Islamists into militant violence and creating a pool of potential recruits for Islamic militant groups.
Aside from the well-planned attacks claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, there have been frequent less sophisticated bombings, including explosives planted outside police stations or on roadsides targeting police patrols.
Last week, a new group calling itself Ajnad Misr, Arabic for Egypt's Soldiers, claimed responsibility for several such bombings, including one on Jan. 24 that hit police just as they returned from clashes with Morsi supporters. To experts, that suggests the group is drawing recruits from the ranks of Islamist protesters.
"The emergence of Ajnad Misr testifies to how a large number of Islamists who had been adopting peaceful means are now resorting to violence since there is no use to peaceful protest," said Ismail Alexandrani, an Egyptian expert in Islamic militancy.
AP correspondent Maggie Michael contributed to this report.