Jihadist escalation leaves civilians more threatened in Egypt

Sherif Tarek , Wednesday 4 Feb 2015

While the frequency of bomb attacks in Egypt — large and small — has picked up pace in recent months and weeks, there appears also a decided turn towards targeting civilians consciously

Egyptian men inspect damages after a flash-bang grenade exploded in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. A flash-bang grenade planted inside an electrical box in an open-air commercial arcade in downtown Cairo exploded, panicking passers-by, but causing no injuries (Photo: AP)

Egypt gets hit by a highly deadly militant operation every several months, the last of which was Thursday's attacks on military and police facilities with car bombs and mortar rounds in the restive North Sinai. Other more frequent, yet usually less lethal, terror acts have been taking place nationwide. But lately jihadists behind smaller operations seem to have altered their strategy and now increasingly threaten civilians.

During the recent past and this week there has been a notable rise in the number of explosive devices planted across Egypt, most of which were home made and had limited impact, if real at all. Many of these bombs, reported on a daily basis, were apparently aimed at civilians, and not security personnel who have borne the brunt of bombings that have grown rife since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

One of these small bombs was found last week inside a toilet at City Stars, one of Cairo's largest shopping malls. The whole mall complex was evacuated with explosives experts brought in to defuse it. Similar bombs were found in non-military buildings and facilities throughout the week. Explosive devices were detected and defused in a parking space at Cairo International Airport Tuesday.

"You also have random shootings at civilians and bombs targeting public services and infrastructure, such as Upper Egypt railways and electricity pylons, which directly touches the lives of civilians," pointed out terrorism expert Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Okasha.

A number of security experts and observers believe the new strategy's purpose is to target civilians to pile up pressure on the state and its security apparatus, who remain the primary target in view of intensifying hostility between the two sides amid recurrent confrontations over the past year and a half.

Jihadists also aim at expanding the range of bombings as much as possible across the nation, and at a higher rate, to exhaust and frustrate the police.

Heterogeneous jihadists

But changes to jihadists' bombing strategies might not have been pre-planned, says Aly Bakr, a senior researcher on Islamist movements. 

"Militants don't comprise one homogenous entity under a unified or clear leadership. What we have is a cocktail of jihadists, which means they don't have a single pattern or mindset. This also means you cannot reach an agreement with them at any point in the future."

The likes of the jihadist Salafists and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia hardcore groups abandoned violence and proclaimed peace in the last decade of the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, after being out-muscled by the security forces in the 1980s and 1990s. It is believed an underhand deal between the state and Islamists was struck to end confrontations and militant operations.

"In general, terrorists have priorities. They mainly target security forces, but wouldn't mind collateral damage, namely civilians," Bakr explained.

The latest attacks in restive Al-Arish last week, for which Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis claimed responsibility and that reportedly killed 44 and injured over 60, saw at least nine civilians amid the toll. 

The Egyptian Sinai-based jihadist group, which has claimed all major bomb attacks in the country and is seeking to seize control of Sinai, lately pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the largest militant movement that has killed numerous civilians in Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Operations executed by other groups in cities outside the Sinai Peninsula, where the insurgency is the most violent and widespread, could also threaten civilians but are mainly impulsive and random, which makes the militancy unsystematic overall, explained Bakr.

"Some of the Muslim Brotherhood has turned violent, while we have hardliner Salafists too among other groups and cells that believe in jihad. Some individuals might even be acting of their own accord without a chain of command, out of revenge against security forces in some cases." 

"One of the main reasons why militancy has become more common is the jihadist and takfiri rhetoric at the sit-ins of Rabaa and Nahda in 2013."

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, along with other Islamist groups and supporters held mass sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adawyia and Nahda squares (in Cairo and Giza) to counterbalance mass protests against Morsi's rule that swept the country in 2013. 

Both sit-ins continued for over a month after Morsi's ouster in July 2013 before they were forcibly dispersed by security forces. Hundreds were killed in the dispersals, mostly from among sit-in participants.

Common were enthusiastic roars at the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins in support of inflammatory rhetoric that often from respective main stages incited violence against security forces as well as Copts and churches.

There was also sporadic use of black flags of Al-Qaeda and photos of Bin Laden at Islamist demonstrations, which indicated a lack of commitment to peace within at least certain sections of the Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins.

Proclaimed militancy, hostility against civilians

For months, the Muslim Brotherhood, its ultra-conservative ally Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and the National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy (NASL) — the Islamist umbrella group supporting Morsi — have more than once categorically denied using violence, saying they have been, and always would be, peaceful in their quest to reverse the "coup d'état."

Yet lately the Islamist rhetoric seems to be leaning towards endorsing militancy more explicitly and even attacking civilians, spurring speculation among political analysts that the sustained security crackdown on Islamists and their continued protests, with no prospect of reconciliation from either side, would lead many of them to adopt violence.

The Brotherhood issued a statement to condemn the recent Al-Arish attacks, but in English only. On their Arabic site, two days before the attacks and right after clashes on the fourth anniversarry of the 2011 uprising, the group posted a statement — later removed — in which they called on supporters to be prepared for jihad. They quoted Hassan Al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood 1928, in which he stressed the importance of physical strength when needed.

Also recently on Rabaa TV, an anti-military channel that broadcasts from outside Egypt and whose logo is the four-fingered Islamist solidarity salute used by Morsi's supporters, a bearded presenter read out what he called Communiqué No 7 from the "leadership of the revolution youth." He said foreigners, including diplomats and investors, must leave Egypt next month or be hunted down.

That was among other televised warnings and inflammatory statements broadcast from abroad on the same channel and Sharq TV.

Meanwhile, a Facebook page called "Losers Conference — Egypt 2015," in reference to the economic summit scheduled for March that persons behind the page seemingly aim to sabotage by stirring chaos, claimed responsibility for some terror acts, such as setting on fire a Cairo KFC restaurant and the City Stars incident. The police reportedly said Tuesday a ten-man cell responsible for torching KFC was arrested, saying it is affiliated to the Brotherhood.

Mahmoud Kotri, a former brigadier general and security expert, has no doubt the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are behind the recent spike of bomb attacks across Egypt, as well as the targeting of civilians.

"It seems that all Brotherhood members and company got orders to turn to bombers immediately. That explains the rise in numbers. This is also why many of the bombings are very basic, because not all these members have the expertise or knowledge to pull off more damaging operations, so they resort to improvised bombs that pretty much anyone can make."

Since Morsi was ousted, the leadership of the Brotherhood was arrested as well as numerous members and followers. Many others were killed in ensuing violence at the hands of security forces.

Many of their properties were also confiscated and the group was declared a terrorist organisation in the wake of a car bomb attack on the Daqahliya security directorate in the Delta city of Mansoura in December 2013. It was one of the more major operations of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, that had rarely took place outside Sinai.

"There is an expansion of terrorism in quantity, not quality. I think the Brotherhood's decision to increase bombings and further terrorise civilians that way came after they grew desperate amid a sustained crackdown on them," Kotri elaborated.

Citizens in the equation

The days that followed the bomb incident at City Stars saw tighter security measures at the mall. People entering the building through gates weren't subject to exceptional measures, though security personnel were more cautious than normally.

Metal detectors followed by manual scans if necessary were more carefully applied, causing long queues. Similarly, cars heading to underground parking were carefully inspected with explosives sniffing dogs and manual inspection of car trunks.

Patrons at the mall were fewer than usual, "But not by much," said Osama, a waiter at City Stars. "For a few days after the bomb was found it was really empty, but near the weekend (Friday and Saturday) it started to get back to normal."

All shops were open at the mall and the ambiance didn't feel different all-in-all from the normal routine of the massive shopping mall.

Elsewhere, in Giza's Mohandeseen district, an owner of a small crepe shop also seemed unfazed by the fact that civilians are becoming more exposed to terror acts.

"The Imbaba court complex is right behind me and it was targeted many times," said Mohamed Hassan, 31. "It was bombed a number of times, but I still go near it when I have to.

"Life won't stop. There is nothing I can do but to carry on with what I'm doing. If I am to die accidently in a bomb blast I won't be able to stop that."

Security expert Ehab Youssef explained precautions must be taken by civilians these days to ensure safety and even to become proactive in the face of terrorism.

"Shop owners must make sure they don't leave their doors open; drivers should look around their cars in case a bomb is hidden around or underneath it," he said. "This is for normal people who are not targeted."

In general, people must be aware of any unusual activities and report those they think might be terror related, or criminal, to the police, Youssef stressed.

"But the police would need to find a scientific method to register all these reports and analyse them so as to better understand what's going on. They also need to assure people that their names won't be used, because that would scare them."

"Also important is that the police keep a good relationship with the people. Abuses at the hands of law enforcers have reportedly increased of late, after they seemed to have reduced for a while. This builds a wall between both sides, and the police definitely needs the help of citizens."

Greater police role needed

The state and the interior ministry has done a lot to put an end to violent jihadism, but obviously still not enough, Okasha says. "The interior ministry has arrested many cells for bombings and exerted huge efforts, but the battle is far from over."

Amid the status-quo, the only way to end militancy is through more comprehensive security operations, opined Kadry Saied, former major-general and a strategic and military analyst. "And the battle will last for long, not a matter of months or even a year, it will take longer than this," he said.

In Sinai, it is the Egyptian army that handles most of the confrontations in the peninsula, where violence has prompted it to demolish houses and clear residents in the North Sinai border city of Rafah to set up a buffer zone aimed at deterring militant infiltration and arms smuggling. Also, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi formed a unified military counter-terrorism command in Sinai two days after the Al-Arish attacks.

However, Korti believes it is the police that should play a greater role in combating terrorism, while the army would only help when needed in big operations. "Because the army is only trained to kill enemies, it can't handle internal security and that's a main reason why Sinai's situation is terrible and uncontained."

"The work of the secret police is important; to infiltrate these groups is very essential, for instance. The army can't play that role. So the police handling the situation there would be ideal, but of course the police have been anything but at their best."

Korti went on to talk about lack of preemptive security in Egypt in recent decades, and that this is part of the problem, "because terror acts are crimes after all. If you have a security system that works on preventing crimes before they happen, that would reduce operations, whether in Sinai or elsewhere in Egypt."

"What we mainly have is the investigative police that take action only after the crime is committed, and not constant presence of police personnel on the street, whether through patrol cars or checkpoints, for crime prevention. A new strategy must be drawn up by the police I'd say, but that would entail reforms to police leadership and policies."

Kotri also stressed the importance of revamping private security firms, which are tasked with securing non-governmental buildings across Egypt, since such facilities and civilians are more targeted these days.

"Employees of these firms have absolutely no training that qualifies them to deal with terrorists; it is the police that should handle their training. In order for that to happen, the police must revamp themselves first."

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