CAIRO – Egypt's chief prosecutor charged 200 suspected militants Saturday with carrying out over 50 terrorist attacks, killing 40 policemen and 15 civilians and conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in the first mass trial of a Jihadi group since the country's recent turmoil.
The defendants, 98 of whom remain on the run, are all suspected members of the al-Qaida-inspired Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group, or Champions of Jerusalem, which has claimed responsibility for the bloodiest attacks since a wave of violence picked up following the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer.
The prosecutor's statement refers to the group as "the most dangerous terrorist group," and accuses the defendants of receiving military training in the Palestinian Gaza Strip under the patronage of Hamas. It also says they traveled to Syria where they took part in fighting against government forces before returning to Egypt.
Washington designated the group as a terrorist organization in April, accusing it of carrying out attacks in Israel, against security forces and tourists in Egypt.
Officials in Egypt accuse Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the violence. The government has gone further, outlawing the Brotherhood and branding it a terrorist organization.
Although producing little evidence of any links, authorities, including ex-military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, allege the militant groups are a front for the Brotherhood. In this referral, the prosecutors say Morsi had dealings with the group while in office but gave no further evidence of the alleged links.
The Brotherhood, which officially renounced violence in the 1970s, denies the accusations and calls them a pretext to wipe out the government's top political rival, which won a string of elections since the 2011 fall of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
El-Sissi, who overthrew Morsi, is the front-runner in the presidential elections scheduled later this month, and has vowed to fight terrorism and said he will not allow the Brotherhood to return to politics during his term.
In the first rally to back el-Sissi's bid for presidency since the campaigning began last week, supporters of the former military chief organized an evening event in the gardens of a Cairo conference center, drawing several thousand people but far less than the 30,000 organizer and media personality Mahmoud Bakry had expected. The rally, not part of the official campaign's events, included dancing bands and speeches by supporters of the retired military chief.
So far, el-Sissi, who is riding an overwhelming media frenzy lauding him as Egypt's savior for overthrowing Morsi, has appeared in one pre-recorded interview, and met privately with representatives of professional groups, businessmen, and tribal leaders. His campaign is expected to include few street appearances, mainly because of security concerns. In the interview, he said two assassination plots against him have already been uncovered, without giving details.
"El-Sissi saved Egypt. We pushed him to finish off his good deed and run for president," 63-year Abdel-Aal Darwish, the head of a bakers association, said at the rally. Asked about the lack of el-Sissi appearances in public, he said: "It is an honor for us to come see him wherever he is. He doesn't have to come to us."
Since Morsi's ouster, authorities have cracked down heavily on Islamists, arresting thousands and putting hundreds on trial, including Morsi, on charges that include instigating violence and holding illegal protests. Morsi is also accused of conspiring with foreign groups to destabilize Egypt.
In the Saturday referral, prosecutors charged the defendants with founding and leading a terrorist group, attacking state institutions, conspiring with Hamas, premeditated murder and possession of weapons. A date for the trial will be set later.
The statement said the defendants carried out 51 attacks in recent months, including a spectacular bombing of the capital's security headquarters in January that left six killed. The attacks also include a failed assassination attempt against the interior minister in September, and a December attack against the security headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura that killed 16, almost all policemen.
The attacks also included the assassination of a senior police officer, who was the main investigator and a key witness in one of the trials in which Morsi is the main defendant.
The group had claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The statement also said the prosecutor's investigation revealed that Morsi had negotiated with the group while in office to ensure it abstained from violence during his rule in exchange for a presidential pardon to their colleagues in prison.
The prosecutor's statement said the group had operated in eight clusters, which oversaw eight different cells handling recruitment, explosives making, arms smuggling from Libya, Sudan and Gaza, documenting attacks, monitoring targets and implementation and planning of attacks.
The statement said the group's leading figure, Tawfiq Freij, and Mohammed Badawi of Yemen's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had helped organize the training of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis recruits in Gaza with Hamas. Ansar Beit al-Madqis said in March Freij died when he accidentally set off a bomb he was transporting in a car.
The statement said the group is linked to another little known militant group known as Furqan Bridages, which claimed responsibility for an attack on a carrier ship in the strategic Suez Canal. The prosecutors said Furqan Brigades members were recruited among supporters of former presidential hopeful and ultraconservative Islamist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, a Morsi supporter who is favored by many young conservatives and who is currently on trial.
The prosecutors also refer to Hamas as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying the trainees adopted the more radical ideology of a late Egyptian Brotherhood leader. Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first arose in the Sinai Peninsula, lobbing rockets into neighboring Israel and at times opening fire on military and police. Attacks escalated after the fall of Mubarak, when militants turned their guns more directly against Egyptian soldiers and police.
But after Morsi's July 3 overthrow, militants dramatically stepped up their campaign, and it has since spread to cities of the Nile Delta and in Cairo. In recent months, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri took up the cause, urging Egyptians to join the fight against the man who removed Morsi. Al-Qaida in Yemen also praised the group.
In February 2014, the group expanded its targets to include foreign tourists, claiming responsibility for the bombing of a bus in Sinai carrying South Korean tourists, killing three of them and the Egyptian driver.