One of the major challenges facing national counter-terrorism efforts in Egypt is that the map of terrorist groups that are active domestically is extremely fluid and constantly mutating.
This dynamic is not new since it dates from the beginning of the current wave of terrorism that began following the 30 June 2013 Revolution, but it has been on the rise.
The fluctuating nature of the terrorist situation in Egypt derives in part from the government’s intensive counter-terrorist drive, which has compelled terrorist groups, especially those operating in the Nile Valley governorates, to go underground, regroup and re-emerge under different names and identities.
Muslim Brotherhood cells are a prime example of such changes, which are also the product of the complex ways in which local terrorist activities and groups are influenced by terrorist organisations in other countries in the region, most notably the Islamic State (IS).
IS rhetoric, operations and propaganda methods have had a large impact in Northern Sinai, especially after the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) group declared its allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in November 2014.
IS influence has also extended to the Upper Egyptian governorates through “Daesh cells”, called thus using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Following the group’s defeat in Iraq and Syria, the situation in Egypt will likely now be affected by a wave of IS foreign recruits returning from the conflict zones in Syria as well as in Libya. The intention here is to cast light on three aspects of the terrorist situation in Egypt.
Conventional Terrorism And New Modes
An analysis of the recent activities of terrorist groups and cells active in Egypt allows two types of terrorism to be differentiated.
The first is conventional terrorism of the sort that exists primarily in North Sinai. The second is “leaderless terrorism,” which takes major urban centres as its primary theatres of operation.
Both types take advantage of the methods and tactics of urban terrorism, which primarily involve using civilian communities as camouflage and carrying out attacks either against civilian targets or attacks that result in civilian casualties.
Conventional terrorism is practised by terrorist organisations that subscribe to radical religious ideologies and have a clear hierarchy consisting of a leader and various ranks of subordinates with set duties and functions.
ABM is the most notorious terrorist group of this sort. Active primarily in the North Sinai area between Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish and the Sinai Desert, it is made up primarily of jihadist Salafis with the addition of foreign operatives coming from the above-mentioned conflict zones.
In November 2014, this group declared its allegiance to IS, renamed itself the IS “Sinai Province,” and set its sights on the physical establishment of such a “Province” on a stretch of territory in North Sinai. The law-enforcement agencies put paid to this plan in the Sheikh Zuweid battle of 1-5 July 2015.
“Leaderless terrorism” has proliferated more recently in the form of small cells that have from three to eight members. Most members of these groups have had no systematic training in terrorist operations, but they have been heavily exposed to extremist content on the Internet and through direct contact with extremists and terrorists in mosques, prisons and elsewhere.
Active primarily in the Nile Valley governorates, they are numerous but vary in their ability to survive the government’s counter-terrorist actions.
It is also impossible to speak of a dominant cell, in contrast to the situation in the Sinai where ABM has asserted its dominance over other terrorist groups active in the area since 2011, especially after its declaration of allegiance to IS. This led other groups either to freeze their activities or to merge them with the newly declared “Sinai Province”.
As for the cells themselves, these display loose and fluctuating modes of communications between their members, making it difficult to identify a leader or guiding ideology.
According to the available information, the cells coalesce on the basis of mutual trust shaped by kin relations or shared grievances. A well-known example is the Amr Saad Cell that attempted to recruit new members from Upper Egypt to carry out various terrorist attacks.
On the basis of information made available by the Interior Ministry on some small cells whose members have been arrested, it appears that members are often well-educated, middle-class, employed and may have been enrolled in university.
In other words, they enjoy relatively high standards of living and are not cut off from their social environment. Some examples of these types of groups are the Execution Brigade, the Helwan Brigades, the Revolutionary Retribution Brigade, the Popular Resistance, Hasm and the Revolution Regiment. All are active in the Nile Valley governorates.
It is important to note that most of these groups have Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathisers among their ranks.
Their appearance on the terrorist map occurred after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in 2013, which was when the middle and lower tiers of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, together with their followers and supporters among such jihadist Salafi groups as the Hazemoon that took part in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in, turned to terrorism as a strategy.
It is not clear whether any of these groups can survive the government’s counter-terrorist policies. The types of weapons they use varies, as do the types of attacks they carry out, as can be seen in the accompanying table.
A number of small cells that first proclaimed their existence in 2013 then disappeared during subsequent years. Examples are the Molotov and Inqilab (coup) Cells, which claimed responsibility for attacks against security targets in the Cairo, Alexandria and Giza governorates.
The lifespan of some cells lasts no longer than a single attack or even just the planning phase for an attack, after which their members are arrested.
The Helwan Brigades is one example. On 15 August 2014, a video clip was leaked to the press showing 15 masked men carrying arms, one of whom warned that they would carry out an attack against the police in southern Cairo.
Investigations then led to the arrest of 215 suspected members.
Other cells have proven more resilient, such as Ajnad Misr, which remained active throughout 2014 and during the first half of 2015.
According to what came to light during the public prosecution’s investigations, this group carried out 27 attacks, starting with a bombing in the vicinity of the presidential palace in Heliopolis on 18 June 2014 that killed two policemen.
Subsequently, it claimed responsibility for the bomb attack against two Interior Ministry checkpoints on 21 September and the gun and bomb attack against security personnel outside the Congolese Embassy in Cairo on 25 March 2015.
Ajnad Misr’s activities ceased following the killing of its founder Hammam Attiya on 9 April 2015. Since then, it has made no further claims of responsibility for any attacks.
Rivalry Between Groups
The Nile Valley governorates have become a theatre for the rivalry of terrorist groups of various sorts.
First, the activities and influence of ABM/“Sinai Province” did not remain confined to North and Central Sinai. In 2015, this group claimed responsibility for the attempted terrorist attack against foreign tourists in Luxor in June, for the attack against the Italian Consulate in Cairo on 11 July, and for the downing of the Russian passenger plane over Sinai on 31 October.
It then claimed responsibility for the attack against St Peter’s Church in central Cairo on 11 December 2016, attacks against a church in Tanta and another in Alexandria in April 2017, and the attack against the St Mina Church in Helwan on 29 December 2017.
Second, many Nile Valley governorates have seen the emergence of terrorist cells inspired by IS ideas. One example of these “Daesh cells”, as the Interior Ministry refers to them, is “Daesh Assiut”, a seven-member cell that had a hideout in the Gebel Arab Al-Awamer region of the Abnoub district in the Assiut governorate.
On 11 April 2017, police raided this hideout and eliminated the cell. Another example is “Daesh Minya,” whose six members were apprehended on 4 March 2018.
Third, the Nile Valley governorates have become a recruitment source for ABM/“Sinai Province” as law-enforcement forces have met with increasing success in frustrating the plans of terrorist cells in the Nile Valley governorates.
A landmark occurred on 4 October 2016, when police killed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Kamal who had worked as an ideologue in turning Brotherhood youth towards terrorism and the creation of militant cells.
The ABM apparently had a growing appeal for these young people, which it would then prepare for the “hijra” to North Sinai and for fighting the “jihad” from there. If it continues, this trend could herald a form of fusion between the two movements.
Fourth, a growing interweaving of IS, Qutbist and Al-Qaeda ideas in the Nile Valley governorates can be observed. In addition to the blend of jihadist Salafi and IS ideas that characterise the ABM ideology or the ideas of ideologue Sayed Qutb that inspire the Muslim Brotherhood cells, Al-Qaeda has also been gaining an ideological foothold in Egypt.
The Egyptian law-enforcement agencies uncovered an Al-Qaeda bid to create subordinate cells in Egypt when in August 2016 they apprehended the Libyan terrorist Abdel-Rahim Al-Mismari and 14 other operatives who had infiltrated the country across the border and made their way through desert routes in Qina, Sohag and Assiut until they reached the Bahariya Oases in 2017.
Al-Mismari belonged to an Al-Qaeda affiliate called Ansar Al-Islam, which proclaimed its existence by claiming responsibility for the terrorist attack in the Bahariya Oases on 20 October 2017, killing 16 police.
Analysts anticipate that Al-Qaeda ideology will hold a growing appeal for extremists in the light of IS’s continued weakness in Iraq and Syria and its shift away from a strategy of seizing control over a portion of territory in the Levant or elsewhere to establish a “province” under its umbrella.
Finally, of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in Egypt since the summer of 2013 quite a few have gone unclaimed and might be described as having been perpetrated anonymously.
Such attacks have been relatively rare in North Sinai, especially when compared to the Nile Valley governorates. And the vast majority of attacks in North and Central Sinai were carried out or claimed by ABM/“Sinai Province”.
However, these attacks have recently been on the rise in tandem with the intensification of counter-terrorist efforts.
Among the terrorist operations in North Sinai that have remained unattributed are the attack against the security detail outside a church in Al-Arish on 31 January 2018, the murder of a young woman in Al-Arish on 2 May 2017 for having collaborated with police, the bombing of a vehicle transporting three civilians employed with the West Al-Arish Water Company on 2 May 2017, and the two bomb attacks against the Al-Azhari Golf Club in Al-Arish on 4 February 2017 and 25 March 2017.
There are two possible explanations for why ABM did not claim responsibility for these attacks. One is that the law-enforcement agencies have developed mechanisms for coordinating with civilians in North and Central Sinai compelling ABM to act more circumspectly.
Another is that ABM wants to avoid alienating the civilian population further in the areas in which it operates.
*The writer is head of security and military unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mapping terrorist groups