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Terrorist cell uncovered
Published in Ahram Online on 22 - 04 - 2020

On 14 April the Egyptian public was able to watch, live, a six-hour shootout between security forces and a terrorist cell in east Cairo's Amiriya neighbourhood. Security forces succeeded in killing all seven members of the cell who, according to a Ministry of Interior statement, were planning attacks against churches over the Easter weekend. Police discovered a weapons and ammunition stash in the cell's Amiriya hideout, and more weapons in the Matariya neighbourhood. One police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Al-Houfi was killed in the shootout, and two policemen were wounded.
No organisation has claimed affiliation with the cell. The Interior Ministry statement referred to the cell members as “takfiri elements”, a term often used to suggest links with the Islamic State (IS). However, as Ali Bakr, an expert on terrorist groups, explained, the vast majority of militant Islamists in Egypt can be described as takfiri.
“They brand the state and society as apostate. It is a category the Muslim Brotherhood falls into,” he said.
While some commentators have conjectured that the cell was linked to IS Sinai Province, Bakr doubts that the group's members could have infiltrated central Cairo, and especially a district in which the security forces were aware the Muslim Brotherhood was active. Bakr believes the Amiriya cell was a one-off group, unaffiliated with a mother organisation and bent on carrying out a single attack.
“IS claims responsibility for many terrorist attacks, even those it has nothing to do with, in order to demonstrate it is still active. Yet a week after the shootout it has remained silent over any links with the Amiriya cell.”
Maher Farghali, another expert on terrorist organisations, discounts the possibility of the cell being linked with Hasm, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.
“The Muslim Brotherhood realises that they are losing in Egypt. Their leaders abroad, specifically Ibrahim Mounir and operations director Yehia Moussa, have initiated processes of ideological revision and Moussa has threatened to report anyone planning an attack,” he said.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Farghali noted the Muslim Brotherhood has already turned in some militant elements and the group has ceased funding militant operation, inducing some Hasm members to join the Al-Qaeda-linked Morabitoun.
So why has no major organisation released a statement about the shootout?
Farghali argues the silence can be accounted for by the realisation that the National Security apparatus must have been tipped off by an inside source. And even if an organisation, such as IS, does not claim affiliation with the Amiriya cell, it may still attempt to stage another attack and claim it was to avenge the members of the cell, he says.
“The Muslim Brotherhood targeted senior officials through different organisations. The Revolution Brigade, for example, specialised in assassinating judges, while other organisations targeted army officers. But no organisation has targeted churches like IS. It has claimed responsibility for all such operations,” points out Farghali.
The Amiriya cell appears to have been well armed, perhaps in anticipation of a confrontation with security forces. According to eyewitnesses, last week's shootout began when cell members opened fire on security forces which immediately called for reinforcements. These arrived quickly, dispersed onlookers and cordoned off the area. Police microphones could be heard over the broadcast footage urging people to remain indoors and away from their windows.
“The Amiriya security operation showed the professionalism of our security agencies,” says Khaled Okasha, a member of the Higher Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism.
“Members of the terrorist cell had assumed the security agencies would not uncover their plans, whereas National Security had been monitoring their movements just hours after they had arrived in the Amiriya flat.”
Okasha, who is also the director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), is convinced the cell was planning to carry out a terrorist attack over the holiday weekend.
“The weapons that were seized indicate that this terrorist cell had ample funding,” he said.
Since the July 2013 Revolution, Egyptian security agencies have succeeded in dismantling 19 terrorist organisations, most of them active in Sinai.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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