Terrorist attacks have increased in scale and frequency in Egypt in recent weeks. They have also begun to spread beyond the desert in northern Sinai to the western bank of the Suez Canal — most recently Ismailia — and beyond, including Cairo which this week saw a drive-by shooting at a church wedding.
These developments suggest that this trend may continue and leave no shadow of a doubt that they are closely related to political developments in the country.
Militant jihadist groups have declared war on the state and its institutions, particularly its security and military establishments. Statements claiming responsibility for the attacks underscore the takfiri (anti-expiatory) mindset of the perpetrators. They were targeting the soldiers of the “false god” who were in alliance with and collaborating with the Israeli enemy against the innocent in Sinai, they claim.
Analysts suggest that there is a link between the increased frequency of such messages and mounting anger in society at large against all shades of political Islam.
From random encounters with many young army officers working in Sinai and Ismailia it is clear they are bound by a strong determination to end terrorism in Egypt regardless of the sacrifices.
A first lieutenant told Al-Ahram Weekly, “We are not afraid of confrontation, aware as we are of the professionalism of the attackers. We know this mission is hard, but we are prepared and qualified for it.”
“What surprises me is the extent to which poverty and ignorance have enabled the recruitment of certain types of young men from villages in Upper Egypt, the Delta and other rural areas. Most of them are very young — between 16 and 20 years old — and their minds are filled with jihadist and takfiri ideas," the officer said.
"Apparently, they have been intensively brainwashed, and it will take a long rehabilitation process to bring them back to normal. We feel sorry for them. They are being led to their death as fodder to destroy society. They are totally raw material when they arrive and receive training in arms. As for those who actually joined militant groups, the only way to handle them is through confrontation. Our orders are to deal with them immediately and directly.”
According to sources, mercenaries are also involved in terrorist activities. “They are hired to kill soldiers and officers. They set a price on the basis of the rank of the target,” another young officer said.
Some observers have detected a new trend in the composition of militant extremists: the conversion of takfiris into jihadists, which is to say people who regard their social environment as heretic into holy warriors.
Ghazi Abu-Faraj, a member of the Sinai Tarabin tribe and founder of the Sinai National Guard, told the Weekly, “Those takfiris used to keep apart from society, even from their closest relatives. They wouldn’t even eat the bread their mothers baked or pray in the same mosques as their own people.".
"But now, because of reasons connected with the ‘defence of Sharia law’, they have left, like a wave, to support armed jihadist groups that use Sharia as a pretext and cover for terrorism. This is a major turn in the situation in Sinai. It means that we are facing new elements about whom we lack information and who are difficult to track if they undertake terrorist attacks outside Sinai.”
“There were a lot of these elements in Kerdasa, Giza [where militants massacred a number of police officers in August]. Most were not members of Sinai tribes but people from the Nile Valley and the Delta. They are obsessed with the idea of martyrdom which explains the rise in suicide bombings. I imagine that the number of these types outstrips those actually affiliated with militant Salafist jihadist groups,” Abu-Faraj said.
In any case, Abu-Faraj predicts an increase in terrorist operations outside Sinai. “Maybe they think that there are no longer targets left in Sinai or that military headquarters are empty or only used for precautionary measures.”
Nabil Abdel-Fattah, editor of Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies’ “State of Religion” report, believes it is “natural takfiri groups that cut themselves off from society will begin to join organisations at some stage."
"It would be wrong to ignore this as extremist thought is operable here and in a very dangerous way, because they join organisations and become their backbone rather than just ordinary members,” Abdel-Fattah said.
Security expert General Khaled Okasha told the Weekly he agrees with Abdel-Fattah. Okasha said that since he served in Sinai and took part in anti-terrorist operations in the 1980s and 1990s he, therefore, is in a position to reflect on similiarities and differences between what he experienced and what is occurring today.
“There are certain problems concerning the ability of security forces to handle the expansion, escalation and diversification that characterises the new wave of terrorism. Let me say frankly that police security is not at its best in Egypt at present. It lacks sufficient skills and information."
"Nor do I hesitate to say that one part of the security team is injured, another is reluctant to take to the field in full force, and a third is preoccupied by other matters."
"The implications of this are obvious from the results. I believe that the police apparatus needs a reformist minister of interior. Meanwhile, the army is forced to bear the responsibility and lead operations,” Okasha said.
“During the first terrorist wave [in the 1990s] there was total harmony in Egypt on the need to confront these groups, and they were not as well trained and armed as the ones today. Even the political regime at the time — I refer to the Mubarak regime — was in its best shape. It received the fullest support from abroad to strike terrorism with an iron fist. We need to reproduce that experience and to rehabilitate the ideas of skill and competence in the confrontation. Simultaneously, we need a political project that runs successfully in tandem, and that project requires a strong government and strong government institutions, especially the judiciary,” Okasha added.
Both Abdel-Fattah and General Alaa Ezzeddin, former director of the Centre for Military Studies, hold that the combat efficacy of the Egyptian army has risen since General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi became minister of defence.
Thanks to his efforts, the army now ranks as the 13th strongest in the world according to reputable international reports. However, they say, it remains a standing army equipped to fight wars against other armies not guerrillas. Abdel-Fattah stresses the need to send teams of students from police academies and the Armed Forces abroad for training in anti-terrorist combat.
Another military affairs expert, General Hossam Kheirallah, former deputy director of the General Intelligence service, believes that new technologies should be brought to bear, including drones. “We have the capacities for this,” he said.
Terrorism, Hamas, and the Brotherhood
Okasha returned to the oft repeated question as to the connection between the militant jihadist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There was always something suspicious in that relationship that we could sense from indicators and assessments. But today we have clear evidence that confirms the connection between the two, Okasha said.
"I’ll begin with the statements that Islamist leaders issued from the podium at Rabaa Al-Adaweya and in which they threatened violence against the army, the police, Copts, their political adversaries and others. Then we come to the role played by foreign organisations, the International Muslim Brotherhood Organisation above all. I believe that the various forces of political Islam are engaged in a game of distributing and exchanging roles. In spite of the ideological contradictions between them they justify their alliance on the grounds that they are facing a moment of danger that threatens the Islamist project.”
Abu-Faraj of the Sinai National Guard said he also has "no doubt" that there are foreign extensions to the problem.
“As long as the Hamas government exists in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist Salafis exist in Libya then you can be sure that the tributaries of terrorism will keep flowing,” Abu-Faraj said.
Hamas, however, strongly denies allegations it is involved in terrorist activities in Sinai. Its officials have begun to considerably modify their tone towards the Egyptian authorities. For example, in a speech marking the second anniversary of the prisoner exchange deal Hamas government president Ismail Haniyeh referred to Egypt as Palestine’s “elder sister”.
“Haniyeh’s speech represents an attempt to soften the rhetoric towards Egypt but in the end it is all no more than diplomatic words. Hamas has been involved in what has been happening in Sinai for a long time and there is proof of this,” says Mohamed Gomaa, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
While Abdel-Fattah finds Haniyeh’s rhetoric naïve, he says it simply resembles the rhetoric of some Arab nationalists in Egypt towards Hamas.
“We need to re-evaluate Egypt’s relationship with the Palestinian issue and with Gaza and Hamas, in particular. There are major problems that have arisen from seeing Hamas as a national liberation front that needs to be supported against Israel whereas, in fact, it is under suspicion in a number of issues that concern the national security of Egypt,” Abdel-Fattah said.
Some observers believe that Libya is the major source of terrorism from abroad.
“The situation on the Libyan side is a blatant threat,” warns Libyan affairs expert Ali Saleh.
“There is an unnatural proliferation of armed fundamentalist organisations that swear loyalty to their counterparts in Egypt. When we examine the map of those groups we find that they are mostly Salafi jihadist in outlook."
There is what we might term a tactical alliance between those groups and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood which has less influence in the Libyan arena. Political and economic interests play a major role in this alliance which extends via the tribes in the coastal areas from eastern Libya to northwest Egypt and stretched to Alexandria and northern Sinai."
"Even if some political parties, the [Egyptian] Nour and Watan parties, are ideologically closer to them there is a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood — or more specifically, the International Muslim Brotherhood — based primarily on mutual interests and the exchange of money,” Saleh said.
This article was first published in Ahram Weekly