In a recent visit to North Sinai, CBS News‘ Clarissa Ward, like other journalists who have visited the area in recent months, interviewed Haitham el Menai, the brother of purported Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) leader Shadi el Menai.
During the interview, Haitham praised his brother, also known as Prince Shadi, as he said, “If my brother is a terrorist, I thank him. They burn our houses, who else will defend us?” When asked whether he viewed his brother as a hero, Haitham told Ward: “Not just my brother. We treasure anyone who defends our children.”
And, when asked whether Ansar Jerusalem has “any relationship with al Qaeda,” Haitham did not deny a connection, but rather stated that “only God knows. It is possible.”
Shadi el Menai
Numerous recent reports have indicated that Shadi el Menai plays an important role in Ansar Jerusalem. His exact role is unclear, however. For example, McClatchy described him as “a founding member” of the Salafi jihadist group, while Slate referred to him only as “a member” of the group. And, according to CBS News, Prince Shadi is “the leader” of Ansar Jerusalem.
According to his brother Haitham, Shadi was the fifth member of the Ansar Jerusalem cell that was targeted on Aug. 9. In that attack, four members of the group, including two of Shadi and Haitham’s relatives, were killed. At the time, Ansar Jerusalem did not name the fifth member, but described him as the cell’s “commander.”
More recently, on Nov. 22, rumors swirled in the Egyptian media that authorities had arrested Shadi, who has been linked to a number of attacks in North Sinai as well as the May 2013 kidnapping of seven Egyptian security personnel. Security officials quickly squashed the reports, however.
The current location of Shadi, pictures of whom circulated with the recent rumors of his arrest, is unknown. However, indications from those who have visited North Sinai in recent months are that he is still in the area. Shadi was last seen in September after Egyptian forces targeted his home.
Ansar Jerusalem’s links to al Qaeda
Although a pledge of allegiance (bayat) to al Qaeda or its emir Ayman al Zawahiri has not been revealed, Ansar Jerusalem’s material is released through official al Qaeda-linked channels. On Oct. 21, Ansar Jerusalem announced that it was not operating any social media accounts and that any purporting to be the group’s account was unofficial.
“[T]he only source of our statements and productions are the jihadi forums from al-Fajr Media Center (Shumukh al-Islam Networking and al-Fida’ Islamic Network),” the group said. The group’s videos often feature clips from al Qaeda figures such as Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
The al Fajr Media Center is a key distributor of al Qaeda’s propaganda online. “Al-Fajr maintains communication with representatives of all the affiliates, and therefore, it can facilitate the rapid transfer of information between these groups and pass on information it has gathered,” the SITE Intelligence Group noted in an August report.
Ansar Jerusalem fighters were lauded in August 2013 by an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official as “our mujahideen brothers.” Prior to this, in February 2012, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri lauded “the heroes who blew up the gas pipeline to Israel.” While Zawahiri did not direct his praise toward any specific group, Ansar Jerusalem has claimed responsibility for attacks on the Arish-Ashkelon gas pipeline on numerous occasions in recent years.
More recently, reports in the Egyptian media suggested that Ansar Jerusalem may have links to Muhammad Jamal and the Muhammad Jamal Network [MJN], which were added to the US government’s list of designated terrorists and the UN’s sanctions list in October 2013.
Jamal, a former commander in Egyptian Islamic Jihad, “has developed connections” with al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), according to the State Department. Jamal also has ties to Nasir al Wuhayshi, AQAP’s emir and the newly appointed general manager of al Qaeda, and Qasim al Raymi, AQAP’s senior military commander.
When Jamal was arrested by Egyptian authorities in November 2012, Cairo uncovered communications between him and al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. In one letter, Jamal told Zawahiri that he believed “in the necessity of establishing a jihadist entity in Egypt” and that he had taken steps to establish “groups for us inside Sinai.” According to Jamal, who had petitioned Zawahiri for consent to start al Qaeda in Egypt, the Sinai is “the next frontier of conflict with the Zionists and Americans.”
Jamal, whose fighters have been linked to the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi terror attack, is also said to have established “several terrorist training camps in Egypt and Libya” with funding from AQAP.
In late November, in response to a Long War Journal query on whether the State Department believes there is a connection between the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN) and Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, a State Department spokesman said: “We have no comment on the inter-relationships between MJN and the other Sinai groups.”