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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

A look at Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra terror groups

This report, which was first published in February 2017, examines the roots of the two terrorist organizations which carried out deadly attacks against the Egyptian security forces in the last four years

Zeinab El-Gundy , Saturday 3 Feb 2018
Hasm
Hasm militant group logo (Photo:Ahram Arabic website)
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Last February, an Egyptian court of urgent matters designated the militant group Hasm a terrorist organisation, banning its activity in the country.

In January, Egypt's High State Security Prosecution referred 304 people to military prosecution for membership in Hasm, which committed 14 attacks on security forces and public figures over the past six months.

The case, one of the largest terrorism-related cases referred to the military prosecution, includes top Muslim Brotherhood figures.

Days earlier, the little-known terror group released an eight-minute clip online showing its "military training" in a desert location, as well as graphic footage of its attacks on security forces.

Egypt's interior ministry announced in December that security forces killed two men in the Nile Delta who were involved in the murder of a high-ranking army officer several months earlier. 

According to the statement, the two men, aged 36 and 24, were members of Lewaa Al-Thawra (The Revolution Brigade), the militant group that claimed responsibility for the murder of the army officer.  

However, the organisation issued a statement shortly after the killing of the two suspects denying they were ever among its members.

A week prior to the Menoufiya raid, the interior ministry announced that a terrorist was killed in a Giza police raid, though that time authorities said the suspect was a leading member of another militant group; Hasm. 

Hasm, which has claimed responsibility for several attacks against security forces and public figures, vowed vengeance in an online statement for the killing of its member in the Giza raid.

So who are these two relative newcomers to the jihadist scene?

The tale of two terror sisters

Hasm (Determination) first appeared in July 2016, when it claimed responsibility for the assassination of a high-ranking police officer in Fayoum in a statement on its website.

According to the 'Whois' online tracking service, the militant group registered the website one day prior to the murder, submitting a false telephone number, fax number and postal code. The registered address merely stated “Cairo” and the group used an email account with an encrypted email service.

Since then, the group has targeted not only security forces, as has become customary with the country's other militant groups, but also public figures.

In early August, Hasm declared responsibility for attempting to assassinate former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa outside a Mosque in October city before Friday prayers.

The group posted images online allegedly showing the attack, including photos of Gomaa’s house, as a way to prove they could "reach anyone."

In the same month, Hasm congratulated another militant group, referring to its members as “resistance heroes,” for killing two policemen in an attack on a checkpoint on Menoufiya governorate.  

Two days later, another statement introduced Lewaa Al-Thawra as being responsible for the Menoufiya attack.  

In September, Hasm claimed responsibility for two failed attempts to bomb a police club in Damietta governorate and to assassinate the assistant to the prosecutor-general outside his house in New Cairo.  

Also in September, the militant group managed to kill a low-ranking policeman outside his house in 6 October City.  

In October, the group killed another low-ranking policeman outside his house on the outskirts of Giza governorate.

Despite this rise in activity, however, the two groups were still relatively unknown among the public and in the media.

This would soon change, however. 

On 22 October, Egypt woke up to the news that a high-ranking army officer was assassinated outside his house on the outskirts of Qalyoubia governorate.  

Adel Rajaei, a brigadier general, was shot dead in front of his house as he was on his way to his station as an armoured division commander in Dahshur, south of Cairo.

He had previously held a post as a commander in North Sinai, where he oversaw the destruction of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt until 2013.

The North Sinai-based Islamic State-affiliate Ansar Beit Al-Maqdas was the primary suspect in Rafaei's murder, particularly since it came in the same week that witnessed deadly attacks against security forces in North Sinai.   

However, it was the lesser known “Lewaa Al-Thawra” that claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement issued on the group’s twitter account hours after the attack.

The statement was accompanied by photos allegedly showing Rajaei’s army cap and the weapon of his guard.

The Twitter account associated with the group was suspended by Twitter soon after for violating the site's policies, though another account was later created.

The day after the murder, Hasm congratulated Lewaa Al-Thawra on its website, republishing the photos released by the other militant group. 

The assassination of Rajaei put both militant groups in the spotlight, leading many to ask whether they were connected to each other.

“It is interesting that Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra appeared at nearly the same time and used the same terms in their statements,” political researcher Ahmed El-Behairy told Ahram Online, pointing to the fact that Hasm was the first miliant group to congratulate Lewaa Al-Thawra after Rejaei's murder.

El-Behairy, an expert on Islamist militant groups, believes that both Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra -- as well other short-lived militant groups that appeared after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 -- are operating "under one control room that followed late Muslim Brother leading figure Mohamed Kamel.”

Kamal was killed in an exchange of fire with security forces in early October in Cairo, according to a statement released by the interior ministry.  

In its statement claiming responsibility for Rejaei's killing, the militant group announced that the murder was primarily in “retaliation for the killing of Kamal.” 

According to the interior ministry, Kamal oversaw the Muslim Brotherhood's “armed wings” and their “cells.”

In its latest statement about Lewaa Al-Thawra issued in December, the ministry also said that its members’ hideout was at a farm owned by a fugitive Muslim Brotherhood member. 

Ahmed Ban, a former Brotherhood member and researcher into Islamist movements, told Ahram Online that “starting February 2014, we began to see a radical militant branch emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood, as Kamal started founding what is known in the media as 'the special cells'.” 

According to Ban, these special cells began a series of operations, starting with the targeting of infrastructure, blocking highways, mixing peaceful and violent protests, and moving up to assassinating police personnel and bombing checkpoints.

Starting February 2014, nearly six distinct groups appeared and claimed responsibility for the attacks before completely disappearing, after which Hasm and Lewa Al-Thawra emerged.  

“However, this militant branch [of the Brotherhood] was divided into two lesser branches, one that stuck with Brotherhood teaching and another that went rogue and became closer to the Salafist jihadists in their militancy,” said Ban, adding that he believed Lewaa Al-Thawra and Hasm are part of this second branch. 

“They are no longer considered part of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, adding that a distinction should be made between the different groups and their evolution in order to better understand them. 

The High State Prosecution says that according to its investigations, Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra were formed by leading figures in the Brotherhood in an “attempt to revive its militant wing.”

In November 2013, the Egyptian government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.   

Not your usual Jihadist group 

Ban and El-Behairy believe that the two groups, especially Lewaa El-Thawra, are distinct from jihadist like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“The use of secular slogans and concepts in [Lewaa El-Thawra’s] statements like ‘the nation is the source’ directly contradicts strict conservative jihadist ideologies, which call for [the establishing of a trans-national] Islamic caliphate,” Ban told Ahram Online, referring to an online statement released by Lewaa Al-Thawra in September.

“They do not share that same Salafist Jihadist ideology because they still have that Muslim Brotherhood ideological background,” Ban said, adding that the group merely employs the same methods of militant Salafist jihadists.

The Moderate Front to Fight Violent Radicalism, a group made up of former members of the Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyaa groups, share Ban's belief.  

The group was founded in 2013 for its members to distance themselves from pro-Morsi Islamist forces, and in October 2016 it released a statement denouncing Lewaa Al-Thawra.  

The Moderate Front said in its October statement that Lewaa Al-Thawra's rhetoric "contradicts with mainstream jihadist discourse," and that even the group's name is secular and "non-Islamist." 

Following the December bombing of the Cairo church, Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawra both released statements denying involvement in the attack.

Lewaa El-Thawra even extended its condolences to the families of the victims, adding that it does not target civilians regardless of their religious beliefs or views.

Hasm, however, used more religious phrasing when denying involvement in the attack, saying that Islam prohibited the killing of women, children, the elderly and worshipers in temples. The group also echoed a claim made on a Muslim Brother-affiliated website that the Egyptian regime was behind the bombing.

"Unlike the usual jihadists, who have an excellent command of classical Arabic due to their religious knowledge, [Lewaa Al-Thawra's] statements are full of grammatical and spelling mistakes,” researcher Ahmed El-Behairy told Ahram Online.  

What Hasm and Lewaa Al-Thawraa do have in common with some jihadist groups, however, is their online propaganda campaigns.

For nearly six months, Hasm ran a website where it posted statements as well as photos and videos of their operations.

The site was taken down shortly after the group claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed six policemen at a Giza checkpoint in early December.

The group used social media networks like Facebook and YouTube before its own site was re-launched, this time hosted on encrypted servers.  

"These groups' operations and how they market themselves show that some of their members received training somewhere [outside of Egypt]," says El-Behairy, who believes this training ground is likely Syria.

According to estimates by some experts, thousands of Egyptians have joined jihadist groups in Syria, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

"Some of those Egyptians have returned, and I think they joined those small militant groups in Egypt," he said.

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