Egyptian officials, including the foreign minister, have acknowledged that coordination exists between ISIS and other militant groups, including ones in Egypt, but have said there are no ISIS fighters in the country.
Egypt has faced Islamist insurgents since the army toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year.
“Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure,” ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani said in an online statement to Egyptian militants.
He praised those militants for carrying out “blessed operations against the guards of the Jews, the soldiers of Sisi, the new Pharaoh of Egypt”—a reference to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi who succeeded Mursi.
Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which has killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces over the past year, has beheaded several people in recent weeks, saying they were spies for Israeli intelligence.
The bloodshed, the first of its kind in the biggest Arab country, suggests the group, which seeks to remove the US-backed government, has become more radical. Sisi, who as army chief last year led Mursi’s ouster following protests against his rule, has expressed concerns about Islamist militants in Egypt and the Middle East.
Egypt has backed Washington’s call for global action to counter the threat from ISIS. But Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri suggested Cairo might not provide direct military assistance to the US in its battle against the group, saying the army was focused on the home front.
The challenge of containing militancy has become more complex since ISIS militants expanded their control over northern Iraq and eastern Syria in June and declared a caliphate, inspiring other militant groups, including some based along Egypt’s border with chaotic Libya.
ISIS, which is made up of Iraqis, other Arabs and foreign fighters, has been coaching the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis militants on how to operate more effectively, a senior Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis commander told news agency Reuters this month.
Egyptian security forces had appeared to be making some progress against Islamist insurgents over recent weeks. The Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis commander said pressure from the army had forced some fighters to flee the Sinai Peninsula for other areas in Egypt.
On Sunday, a bomb attack beside the Egyptian foreign ministry in Cairo, for which militant group Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) claimed responsibility, killed three policemen, including a key witness in the trial of Mursi. The European Union condemned the blast, calling it a “heinous act.”
Egypt has branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and pledged to eliminate it after security forces killed hundreds of its supporters, arrested thousands and put top leaders on trial, severely weakening what was once Egypt’s most organized political group.
The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism, but authorities make no distinction between Islamists, blaming them all for the violence, which has hammered tourism, a pillar of the economy.
Despite several army operations, Egypt’s military has struggled to tackle Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, Ajnad Misr and other militant groups.
The Egyptian state has crushed militant groups in the past but they often recover. In the 1990s, militants staged attacks against government officials and foreign tourists. It took then-President Hosni Mubarak years to defeat them.