Egypt: Three generations of terrorism

Rabha Allam
Monday 17 Aug 2015

Terrorism has a long history in Egypt

Terrorism has survived in Egypt for almost two decades. In the past, it seemed to be defeated, then it reemerged in a new form. Thus, it is important to study its transformation process in order to better design an effective policy to face it.

One of the most flagrant manifestations of terrorism in Egypt was in 1981, when Islamist militants managed to assassinate president Sadat. The incident was just the beginning of an ambitious plan to take over the country after eliminating the head of state and triggering public disorder, especially in Upper Egypt.

By then the most prominent terrorist groups, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad, were aiming at forcibly imposing Islamic rule.

However, the president's assassination alerted all the state institutions and they put into operation a wide crackdown on Islamist militants, especially in Upper Egypt and around the capital.

The security operations resulted in thousands of detentions and trials for the leadership and militants of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad. The campaign practically paralysed the two organisations and thus, halted the terrorist attacks for a while.

Nevertheless, the attacks resumed shortly after on different occasions during the eighties and the nineties. They have even extended to target intellectual figures, state officials, Coptic economic interests and tourist sites.

The perpetrators of these attacks were inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran and wanted to produce their own model of an Islamic government.

They had a certain vision to rule the country, to Islamise society and to apply Islamic sharia by force, but the security crackdown on their leadership and operatives resulted in different repercussions.

Such effective measures, though entailing wide human rights violations, were perceived as a military defeat for the Islamic project in its violent version.
Therefore, terrorist leaders, especially from Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, reconsidered the feasibility of violence and started to conduct ideological revisions.

From this point, the state, namely the Ministry of Interior, has successfully triggered ideological dialogue between Al-Azhar scholars and the jailed leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya.

The dialogue questioned the legality of using violence against Muslim societies and the dilemma of takfir, which was behind the wide use of arms against the state officials as well as ordinary citizens.

The revision initiative was quite successful in producing an authentic stance by a wide circle of terrorist leaders in prisons. A ceasefire, in terms of violence against the Egyptian state, was declared in 1997.

Yet, shortly after this stance, the Luxor massacre took place, costing the lives of dozens and producing more doubts about the stability of the end of violence.
However, despite the negative impact this massacre had on Egypt's economy and public image around the world, it helped to emphasise the initiative of ending violence, and to disseminate it among more militants.

The leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya have publicly renounced the use of violence, while those of Al-Jihad thought to change the violent strategy by targeting the far enemy (Western governments) rather than the close enemy (the local government).

Thus, they were motivated to join other jihadists especially in Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan where they cooperated with the Al-Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden and conducted several major attacks against Western interests in Africa and Yemen between 1998 and 2000.

Meanwhile, between 1997 and 2004, Egypt knew an exceptional period of zero terrorism after a successful policy of dialogue with militant leaders. Therefore, when Western countries were taking serious measures against jihadists after 9/11, the Egyptian government was releasing Al-Gamaa militants who had renounced violence and served their sentences.

Al-Qaeda, which has been quite vocal since 1998 in calling radicals to target Western interests all over the world, produced a new model of terrorism. It was more like dispersed cells which used the internet to communicate, recruit and coordinate.

It was highly decentralised, it did not entail a hierarchal organisation, and its militants were less educated on Islamic thought and less linked to their leaders.
It was more like a multinational franchise than a traditional terrorist organisation. Al-Qaeda-linked groups started to operate in Egypt for the first time in 2004 in the attacks in Taba, then in 2005 and in 2006 in Sharm El-Sheikh and in Dahab, respectively.

These attacks were quite different from the older, traditional terrorism that Egypt had managed to defeat. They were conducted in Sinai, not in the Nile valley. They were a protest against Egypt's foreign policy, not domestic policy.

The subsequent security crackdown on Sinai after the first attack in Taba played an important role in generating the following attacks in 2005 and 2006.

The militants involved in these attacks did not have a general vision to impose on the Egyptian government. They were merely seeking to damage its image in front of its international allies, especially the US and Israel.

Yet, after the harsh security respond entailing wide violations of human rights in Sinai, the militants started to recruit among those who were furious about the state's security policy and wanted revenge.

The same logic applies to the minor terrorist attacks which were conducted in old Cairo in the following years. The revenge motive was even obvious in these attacks, because some of the militants involved were close relatives.

Right after the 2011 revolution, the jihadists of Sinai resumed their attacks, benefiting from the security vacuum following the withdrawal of substantial numbers of police from Sinai to face political protests in Cairo and other governorates.

The ouster of Mubarak and the rule of the SCAF gave little room for jihadists to recruit. The country was hoping for democratic transition and the youth were less interested in violent means of change since peaceful means had finally had a positive impact.

However, the jihadists focused on targeting the gas pipeline supplying Israel more than 15 times between 2011 and mid-2012 until the gas agreement was revoked.

Terrorism in Egypt was operating for regional reasons, to attack over the Israeli borders or to cut off gas supplies to Israel. Later on, Egyptian jihadists were motivated to fight in Syria, especially after receiving the green light from former president Morsi.

The international inaction on the massacres committed in Syria motivated the jihadist networks in Arab countries to activate their recruitment.

Young Arab fighters joined Jabhat Al-Nusra, before the schism with the Islamic State (or Daesh) took place and caused the dispersion of the jihadists between the two radical groups. The establishment of the so-called caliphate by Daesh has interestingly increased the rate of radical recruitment from all over the world.

Despite its flagrant dissension with Al-Qaeda, Daesh has generated a new wave of terrorism with its particular brand. It is a hybrid version of Al-Qaeda, a decentralised terrorist group and a state with a hierarchal bureaucracy. Benefiting from the experience of hundreds of former Iraqi military and intelligence officers, Daesh was ambitious enough to actually rule a piece of land, after expelling the state's forces and recruiting among the marginalised population.

Therefore, it was not a surprise that Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, the main terrorist group operating in Sinai, would opt for affiliation to Daesh under the title of Sinai Province in November 2014.

Sinai Province was investing in the bad relationships between the locals and the government, but also benefited from the professional expertise of a few former military officers who have recently joined its ranks. Those former officers gave professional training to radicals from Egypt and neighbouring countries, who came to Sinai for this purpose.

They also planned and committed several accurate attacks on the security forces, being familiar with the official deployment plans, tactics and weaponry. Among others, the most important point of strength of this generation of terrorism is that Daesh in Egypt has actually enrolled some expelled officers from the military, which gave it an inside view of how the Egyptian state would respond to its attacks. Thus, frequently changing the state's forces' deployment and tactics would deprive terrorists of taking advantage of this point.

Yet another asset is the abundance of weapons in the regional market, especially in Libya, and the good connections with the criminal networks operating along the borders. Adding to that, the ousting of Morsi and the wide anger among his supporters had reoriented some of them towards violence. Unlike the accurate attacks carried out in Sinai against security forces, the bombs in Cairo and the Delta seemed to be less sophisticated.

The youth, newly oriented towards violence, spread in almost all governorates, aim to jeopardise the regime's legitimacy by targeting Coptic churches, infrastructure facilities and tourist sites, as well as police forces. However, they obviously lack the expertise that the Sinai groups have accumulated in the past years.

Therefore, it is crucial to contain the angry youth that might use violence to protest the regime's heavy-handed policy on the political scene before they actually connect with the Daesh group in Sinai. Moreover, contesting the franchise of the terrorist groups in Sinai may actually complicate their operations and give a chance for the state to restructure its counter-terrorism policy.

In addition, an intelligence-based policy should be put forward to better infiltrate the terrorist groups without undermining the lives of civilians in North Sinai.


Rabha Allam is a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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