CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military said on Thursday that the leader of the Islamic State's affiliate has been killed in the Sinai Peninsula, along with several key aides and 45 other members of the extremist group.
Few details were immediately available and there was no word from the extremist group's branch in Egypt on what, if confirmed, would be a major setback for the Sinai-based militants.
A posting on the Facebook page of the Egyptian military's chief spokesman, Brig-Gen Mohammed Samir, said Abu Doaa al-Ansari was killed in an operation south of the coastal city of el-Arish. It said the operation was carried out by counterterrorism forces backed by warplanes and guided by "accurate intelligence."
The statement did not provide a total number of those killed or say when the operation took place, but two military officials with first-hand knowledge of the conflict in the turbulent northern part of Sinai said al-Ansari and his aides were killed in an airstrike that targeted a house located amid olive groves south of el-Arish.
Aerial images of the strike released by the military appeared to confirm the account given by the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation with the media.
The name of Abu Doaa al-Ansari is not widely known and had not been previously mentioned as that of the leader of the Sunni militant group, which was known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Soldiers of Jerusalem, before it swore allegiance to the Islamic State group fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Al-Ansari's name is likely a nom de guerre — something militants typically take when joining groups such as IS. These names often allude to the country or city a militant hails from or the place he adopted as his home.
Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian expert on the Sinai insurgency, said it was a "seriously embarrassing situation" that the military did not provide al-Ansari's real name, something he said casts doubts on the purported leader's identity and the report of his death.
"Even if someone with this nom de guerre exists, this will be one more time Egypt's military announces that it has killed the leader, or a leader of a group that never publicly named its leader," Sabry told The Associated Press.
The military's report could not be independently confirmed. Egypt has virtually banned independent media from northern Sinai while the pro-government press relies almost entirely on often brief army and police statements on the fighting there.
Also, an anti-terrorism law adopted last year places severe restrictions on media coverage of anti-government activity, with heavy fines and up to five years' imprisonment for publishing news that contradicts official statements or is perceived as promoting militant causes.
According to the Egyptian military officials, the airstrike that killed al-Ansari was part of an ongoing, intense air campaign that began more than a week ago and in which jet-fighters, helicopter gunships and drones are being used. The campaign of airstrikes, at least in part, were in response to the growing threat to ground troops posed by roadside bombs planted by the militants, they said.
The officials also suggested that the 45 who were mentioned in the military spokesman's statement as slain alongside al-Ansari, may have perished in a series of airstrikes earlier this week that targeted IS positions and ammunition depots near the border town of Rafah.
Egyptian forces have been battling Islamic militants in Sinai for years but the insurgency there has grown deadlier since the 2013 ouster by the military of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president whose one year in office proved divisive for the country.
Earlier this week, a 35-minute video released by the Islamic State's branch in Sinai purported to show IS attacks against Egyptian security forces, including roadside bomb blasts, gun battles and sniper fire.
The military officials dismissed the video as a compilation of heavily edited footage of past attacks.