SHAFAQNA – The four men knelt in the sand, hands bound and heads bowed. And in what has become a grisly Middle Eastern trope, a video camera’s merciless eye recorded their scripted confessions — swiftly followed by their beheadings. At least nine such executions have taken place since August in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with the latest reported Sept. 19. Egyptian forces in the rugged peninsula are battling an Islamist insurgency that some officials and analysts say appears increasingly inspired by the brutal tactics of the militant Sunni Muslim group Islamic State. Islamic State’s headline-grabbing march across an arc of Iraq and Syria is roiling the region, with other militant organizations aspiring to either copy its methods or seek some direct alliance with what is being depicted in extremist circles as a prestigious franchise, analysts say. In Algeria, a little-known Al Qaeda offshoot known as Soldiers of the Caliphate beheaded French mountaineer Herve Gourdel after declaring allegiance to Islamic State this month.
In a manifesto disseminated online last week, Islamic State urged Sinai-based militant groups to redouble their attacks on Egyptian security forces.
“Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads,” said the statement from a spokesman for the group, Abu Muhammad Adnani.
Even before that call, Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, was emulating some Islamic State tactics. The group claimed responsibility for beheadings of four men who were abducted in August in the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, not far from the Gaza Strip. The decapitated corpses had already been recovered when the grisly footage surfaced online, and Egyptian security officials said the video appeared authentic.
The relationship between the Sinai militants and the extremists of Islamic State came under discussion this month when Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Cairo, trying to drum up Arab support for a regional offensive against the group. A senior U.S. official on the trip told reporters that Islamic State militants “would stop off and sort of lend their professional skills” to Ansar Bayt al Maqdis.
“Basically … these terrorist groups were beginning to cooperate,” the official said, adding that though such contact appeared “episodic and anecdotal,” it “got everyone’s attention.”
Some reports point to eagerness on Ansar Bayt al Maqdis’ part to talk up its ties with Islamic State. The Reuters news agency this month quoted an Ansar commander as boasting that the groups were in online contact, sharing tactical tips.
But some analysts believe this is largely a copycat phenomenon, with lesser-known groups aping Islamic State militants, who over the course of a few months seized not only large chunks of territory but the world spotlight.
“There certainly seems to be a wish to imitate, but there hasn’t been evidence of a lot in the way of active cooperation,” said Eric Trager, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In Egypt, talk of a heightened threat from Ansar Bayt al Maqdis — and aid to it from outside — is somewhat at odds with the Egyptian government’s insistence that the homegrown Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement it drove from power last summer, represents the greatest threat to national security.
Over the last few months, as Islamic State depredations have gathered more and more attention, pro-government Egyptian news outlets have hailed President Abdel Fattah Sisi, the former army chief, as having saved Egypt from a similar fate by deposing Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Sisi himself echoed that theme last week in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, linking the popularly supported coup he led against Morsi to the struggle against violent Islamist groups.
“The upsurge in extremism and violence perpetrated in the name of religion that the region is currently witnessing is evidence of the true objectives of these groups that exploit religion,” he said. “We have warned against them over and over again.”
Egyptian officials routinely depict the relatively mainstream political Islam of Morsi’s Brotherhood — once Egypt’s largest political movement, which insists it does not espouse violence — as no different from the radical worldview of Islamic State.
“Ideologically speaking … these organizations share that common vision, and we don’t believe there’s a difference — perhaps just in the tactics used and the way they depict themselves to the international community,” Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, said in an appearance with Kerry.
The upsurge in extremism and violence perpetrated in the name of religion … is evidence of the true objectives of these groups that exploit religion. – President Abdel Fattah Sisi, addressing the U.N. General Assembly
Like neighboring nations, Egypt has concrete links to Islamic State, in the form of citizens who join its ranks — an estimated 300 of them, according to the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. Egypt says there are no Islamic State fighters in the country now, but the prospect of their eventual return from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria is stirring concern.
Egyptian citizens by no means make up the largest contingent of recruits from around the region; by the center’s estimate, 10 times as many Tunisians have joined Islamic State. But the Egyptian public has been shocked by images on social media, picked up by news outlets here, of compatriots taking part in Islamic State atrocities.
Perhaps the best-known such case was a privileged young man named Islam Yaken, who grew up in an affluent district of the Egyptian capital, spoke fluent English and studied law at Cairo University. From Syria, he posted photos and videos of his new life with Islamic State, including some that featured him posing with severed heads.
Even in the absence of direct large-scale help from Islamic State, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, with relatively easy access to battlefield weapons from chaotic neighboring Libya, has already demonstrated its ability to mount sophisticated attacks. It shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in January and carried out large-scale bombings in the Egyptian heartland, as well as engaging Egyptian security forces in Sinai.
Egyptian officials say the group has been substantially weakened by pinpoint strikes on its leaders and raids on its Sinai hide-outs. But Ansar Bayt al Maqdis has been striking back with powerful roadside bombs, which have killed at least 17 members of the Egyptian security forces this month in the northern Sinai.
Egypt, one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, has made only nominal commitments to assist the United States in the fight against Islamic State. Yet Egypt positions itself as a leading player in the fight against Islamic extremist groups — and uses that as a means of deflecting criticism of its human rights record.
This month, Egypt summoned European ambassadors to object to European Union expressions of concern about indiscriminate arrests, torture and “disproportionate sentencing,” such as the mass death penalty verdicts handed down this year. Egypt responded by pointing to hundreds of its soldiers and police having been killed over the last year in the fight against extremists.