ISTANBUL, Turkey — A militant Egyptian group that recently pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State claimed late Sunday it was behind the killing in August of a 58-year-old American oil worker, who died during a carjacking in Egypt’s Western Desert.
Formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (roughly, Champions of Jerusalem), the group now calling itself Sinai Province announced the slaying on a Twitter account and posted images of oil worker William Henderson’s passport and identification cards. It did not say how the slaying was carried out.
The announcement will add to rising alarm about the safety of Westerners working and vacationing in Egypt. Months ago the U.S. State Department posted an extensive safety warning about travel to Egypt, urging Americans to avoid protests because they can escalate quickly into violence and cautioning about the dangers of terrorism.
U.S. officials say the travel alert may now be hardened in the light of the claimed jihadist killing of Henderson, which is being investigated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, The U.S. embassy in Cairo has so far remained silent on the jihadist claim.
The oil worker from Fayetteville, Arkansas, was working in Egypt for Houston-based Apache Corporation on a joint oil venture and an obituary published by his family in the Enid News and Eagle in Oklahoma, where he went to high school, said he “passed suddenly” on August 6.
In an email statement an Apache spokeswoman, Castlen Kennedy, said: “The tragic carjacking incident this past August involving our colleague Bill Henderson is still under investigation by the U.S. government.” She added: “Out of respect for the family and the ongoing nature of the investigation, I cannot comment further.” Henderson had worked for Apache for 28 years.
The Sinai-based jihadi group claiming responsibility for the oil worker’s murder has grown increasingly proficient carrying out attacks and sophisticated selecting targets based on their “strategic value.” It has conducted scores of attacks since the July 2013 ouster by the Egyptian armed forces of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and with each blast or shooting the group has been expanding its theater of operations. Originally it was a low-level insurgency mainly confined to the Sinai Peninsula . but recently it has been hitting at high-profile targets and foreigners elsewhere in the country—including right in the heart of Cairo.
In January, the group rocked Egypt’s capital with four blasts —the biggest targeting the city’s police headquarters in the deadliest explosion to hit Cairo in living memory. The bombing of the police headquarters that left four people dead and wounded 80 marked an escalation in jihadist violence. It also undermined also claims by the army that it can contain terrorism, which has been spurred by the military’s ouster of Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
David Barnett, a researcher on Egyptian jihadist groups at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, noted the coordinated bombings were “the first ever multi-pronged attacks launched by the group outside North Sinai.”
Four months earlier in September 2013 the jihadists came close to assassinating Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. The Egyptian government claims the group has links with the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has denied this repeatedly and vehemently, but a former Muslim Brotherhood member, Sameh Eid, calls Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis “the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In a separate social media statement at the weekend the Sinai Province claimed responsibility for nearly a dozen attacks in the past month, saying it had blown up six armored vehicles, killed seven police officers and conscripts, and wrecked the house of a man accused of spying for the army. In northern Sinai in October the group killed 31 soldiers during a raid on an army checkpoint. That attack prompted the government to declare a three-month state of emergency in parts of North Sinai.
The sophistication of the terrorism has gone hand-in-hand with a growing tie-up between Egyptian militants and, at first, al Qaeda and subsequently Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL. Some analysts have identified Ramzi Mowafi, an Egyptian physician who was close to Osama bin Laden, as one of the veterans shaping the burgeoning insurgency.
In August 2013 The Daily Beast reported that American intelligence had intercepted an Internet-based conference call between al-Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, and representatives of 20 jihadist groups, including some from the Sinai Peninsula. Since then both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been seemingly vying for the group’s allegiance—a rivalry won by the latter when last month Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis changed its name to Sinai Province and pledged itself to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader.
“After entrusting God we decided to swear allegiance to the emir of the faithful Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caliph of the Muslims in Syria and Iraq and in other countries,” the group announced.
On Sunday, an Egyptian court designated formally the Islamic State and any of its affiliates as terrorists and banned it in the country. The court ruling came, as it emerged that jihadists successfully hijacked in the Port of Damietta in northern Egypt in November an Egyptian missile boat, planning to use it to help capture an Israeli ship for leverage in negotiations for the release of Palestinian prisoners. The plot was thwarted when other Egyptian naval vessels intercepted the hijacked ship and, according to Egyptian authorities, neutralized it during an exchange of fire.
An Egyptian military spokesman said in a statement that five sailors were injured and eight remain missing. Several militants were killed and 32 arrested.