CAIRO (Reuters) - A previously unknown militant group with links to al Qaeda claimed responsibility on Friday for an attack in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed at least 16 policemen two weeks ago, announcing the start of a holy war against the Egyptian state.
The new group, Ansar al-Islam, gave no evidence for its claim of responsibility for the Oct. 21 attack but said Abu Hatem Emad al-Din Abd al-Hamid, a fighter suspected by the authorities of involvement, was one of its leaders. He was killed this week in an air strike.
“We have started our jihad with the battle of the Lion’s Den in the Bahariya Oasis area on the borders of Cairo and were victorious against the enemy’s campaign,” the statement said.
An interior ministry official said he could neither confirm nor deny the validity of the claim as it was being investigated.
Two security sources and a forensic doctor said DNA analysis of bodies of militants killed in the air raid showed Abd al-Hamid was among them.
The security sources said he was the deputy of Hesham al-Ashmawy, a former Egyptian military officer turned jihadist who has operated out of the city of Derna across the border in Libya and is blamed for past attacks. The two men graduated from Egypt’s military academy the same year and were both fired from the army for adopting radical Islamist beliefs.
Ashmawy is known for being loyal to al Qaeda, which means that if Ansar al-Islam’s claim of responsibility is verified it could herald the emergence of a new Egyptian cell of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
In recent years most attacks on security forces in Egypt have been blamed on fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group. Ashmawy is believed to have switched allegiance from Islamic State to al Qaeda, which operates more on a system of linked cells rather than a formal hierarchy.
“We have information that Ashmawy and Abd al-Hamid broke away from (Islamic State) after a third colleague of theirs was killed and also for doctrinal issues,” said one officer with Egypt’s Homeland Security agency on condition of anonymity.
Three security sources said at the time of the Oct. 21 attack that at least 52 police officers and conscripts had been killed when their patrol was struck by militants. The interior ministry denied that figure the next day, saying 16 policemen had been killed.
The attack was the latest to plague Egypt’s security forces who face an Islamic State insurgency mostly focussed in the Sinai Peninsula but which has expanded to mainland Egypt. Other militant groups are active in Cairo and other cities.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appointed a new military chief of staff after the militants struck. The Interior Ministry dismissed several high-ranking officials.
Security forces responded with two raids in the span of a week, killing dozens of militants and freeing a police officer who was taken hostage during the attack.
Ansar al-Islam said it used rocket-propelled grenades in the attack but provided no estimate for how many people were killed. It said the Egyptian air force struck 11 days later, killing several members including Abd al-Hamid.
Security sources say Ashmawy has carried out some of the most high-profile attacks in Egypt, including the attempted assassination of a former Interior Minister in 2013 and the killing in 2015 of Egypt’s top public prosecutor in a car bomb.
Ashmawy moved in 2014 to Derna, a hotbed of Libyan Islamist radicalism near the border with Egypt, where he runs an al-Qaeda cell, security sources say. Derna has been hit in air strikes by both the eastern-based Libyan National Army and its ally Egypt. Both denied carrying out air strikes on Derna on Monday which killed at 1east 15 people, however.
Ansar al-Islam’s statement was carried by groups with al-Qaeda links, including Guardians of Sharia, whose social media feeds carry statements from al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein and John Davison; Editing by Larry King and Peter Graff