Ansar Jerusalem claims SAM attack as 3 soldiers killed in Sinai bus ambush
In a statement released to jihadist forums on Jan. 25, the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) said its fighters fired a surface-to-air missile (SAM) at an Egyptian helicopter operating in North Sinai. The group later released video showing the attack. Hours before Ansar Jerusalem released its statement, Egypt's army spokesman had confirmed on his official Facebook page that an army helicopter operating in North Sinai had crashed around noon.
In the statement, Ansar Jerusalem also claimed responsibility for a number of other attacks over the past couple of days in the Sinai, including the targeting of a security forces camp with mortars, the targeting of troops near an airport, and a sniper attack on a soldier. Notably, the group also appeared to slightly back off its original claims of responsibility for a couple of the smaller attacks in the Cairo area on Jan. 24.
According to the Ansar Jerusalem, Ajnad Misr, a group that appears to have announced itself on Jan. 23, was operating in the same area at the time as Ansar Jerusalem fighters and there was "confusion" over who exactly was responsible. In the statement, Ajnad Misr was described as "our brothers" by Ansar Jerusalem. At a minimum, the statement suggests that Ansar Jerusalem knows of Ajnad Misr, and possibly even has ties to it.
With regard to the helicopter incident, Egypt's army spokesman today confirmed the deaths of five soldiers, but did not confirm that the crash had resulted from a SAM attack. Army chief Abdel Fattah el Sisi attended the funeral of those killed, photos released by the army spokesman showed.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, conflicting reports emerged as to its cause. Although the army said the cause had yet to be determined, security sources told Masrawy that the crash was the result of a "technical malfunction." However, local residents said the helicopter had crashed after being "gunned down," Ma'an News Agency reported. "They said they saw gunmen in a pickup truck hit the helicopter with a missile," the report stated. According to Daily News Egypt, the helicopter had been hit by an RPG. A Sinai-based journalist similarly tweeted that locals stated that the "helicopter was fired by something and went into fire in the sky."
Today, security sources acknowledged that the cause of the crash was a missile, Reuters reported.
Video that shows the shootdown of the Egyptian helicopter was released to jihadist forums by Ansar Jerusalem in the afternoon on Jan. 26. The video shows a man, whose face, upper body, and the weapon is digitally blurred, deploying a shoulder-fired SAM. The SAM strikes a helicopter, which then catches fire and plummets to the ground.
The presence of SAMs in the arsenal of Sinai-based jihadists has long been speculated. The shootdown of the Egyptian helicopter by a SAM is the first such confirmed attack in the region. The use of antiaircraft guns by Sinai jihadists has been reported since at least September 2012.
In August 2013, Israeli authorities closed Eilat's airport for a few hours due to a security assessment. Egyptian officials said that a warning from them regarding plots by jihadists in the Sinai was shared with Israeli officials and led to the airport closure. More recently, in October, a Dutch charter airline announced it was canceling its flights to Sharm el Sheikh over fears that Sinai-based militants would try to bring down a passenger plane with antiaircraft weaponry.
In addition to yesterday's alleged SAM attack, at least three soldiers were killed and 11 injured when a bus traveling in the Sinai was ambushed today by unidentified gunmen, the army spokesman said in a statement. Security sources told Reuters that the targeted bus was transporting soldiers "on their way back from holiday when gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades." According to Ma'an News Agency, military sources believe Ansar Jerusalem was responsible for the attack.
Several smaller-scale attacks have also been reported in North Sinai over the past three days. According to data maintained by The Long War Journal, the number of reported attacks in North Sinai over the past three days (Jan. 24-Jan. 26) rivals the total seen between Jan. 1 and Jan. 23.
Since July 3, there have been more than 280 reported attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, most of which were carried out against Egyptian security forces and assets, according to data maintained by The Long War Journal. A good number of those attacks, including the Nov. 20 car bombing that killed 11 Egyptian security personnel, have been claimed by Ansar Jerusalem.