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Terrorism and Sinai
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 11 - 2014

The threats to Egyptian national security are mounting. These are related to an array of menacing regional developments, from the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria, through the upheavals in Yemen and the southern Red Sea, to the situation in Sinai and on Egypt's eastern and western borders.
While terrorism is hardly new, its spread and ability to fragment national cohesion, dating from the end of 2010, have combined to aggravate its impact on the complex regional scene. Internationally, the awareness of this peril increased dramatically with the sudden rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq earlier this year.
Unfortunately, Middle Eastern countries are home to many terrorist groups, each of which poses a very real and concrete danger to the security, unity and social cohesion of these countries. But such domestic dangers are not the only problem. These dangers are not confined by national boundaries, and they can spill over and spread to other countries in the region and abroad.
It follows that confronting this danger cannot be restricted to a single country, regardless of whether a country is an exporter or importer of terrorism's perpetrators. As President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has rightly said, “The fight against terrorism necessitates international cooperation. No country can confront it on its own.”
It is also a fact that the many terrorist groups have emerged from a single womb and are fed from a single root. There is no alternative but to remove that womb and sever that root. To fight a terrorist group or branch here or there, without addressing the roots of the problem, is like trying to plough water or remedy the symptoms of an illness rather than treat the disease itself.
The US, which has declared a war against terrorism — even if the latter has not always been accurately defined —has been unable to achieve any progress of note in its campaign, in spite of the fact that more than a decade has passed since it began. Today, IS has spurred Washington to intensify the fight, but the US continues to use the same approach. As Albert Einstein once said, it would be foolish to think that you can do the same thing twice in exactly the same way and expect to get different results.
Perhaps this is the crux of the difference between Egypt and the US over the coalition that has been formed to fight IS. Washington's approach to the war against terrorism is to narrow its definition to IS, much as it narrowed it to Al-Qaeda before the current campaign.
Egypt, on the other hand, is promoting a more holistic approach, one that treats the terrorist groups as part of a larger whole that needs to be confronted comprehensively, in such a way as to strike at their roots and not just their branches.
What the terrorist groups in Egypt are doing at present is no different from what their counterparts are doing in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen and are preparing to unleash on other countries of the region.
In an interview with the Saudi newspaper Okaz late last month, President Al-Sisi re-emphasised how important it is to bring a comprehensive perspective to the fight against terrorism. The battle, he said, “should not be limited to the military dimension. It should also embrace the developmental dimensions with their various economic and social aspects.”
Al-Sisi was underscoring Egypt's holistic perspective on national security, seeing it as not only entailing the state's ability to protect the country from existing or potential threats, but also to extend its ability to safeguard the wellbeing of its citizens and to improve their standard of living and the quality of their lives.
The DIY illusion: The national security of a nation is inseparable from regional and international security. These three levels overlap and constantly impact on each other. It is therefore inconceivable that the fight against terrorism should be confined to the national level, especially given the global developments that have affected national sovereignty in the classical sense and in view of the ability of terrorist groups to network with other groups in other countries.
By the same token it is impossible to speak of the security of a particular region if the national security of one or more of its component countries is in jeopardy, or if a country in that region is classified as a sponsor of terrorism. As Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Bin Ahmed Al-Khalife has said, “National security and regional security are indivisible.”
The same applies to international security, all the more so when the source of the threat is terrorism, which knows no national boundaries. Terrorism is a global phenomenon, and the response to it should be commensurate with this reality, both in terms of the countries taking part in the battle and the approach to the groups, movements and ideas that practice and promote terrorism.
Events in Egypt since the 30 June 2013 Revolution reveal the interrelationship between national security and regional and international security. The situation in Sinai interweaves with the conflicts currently raging elsewhere in the region. Indeed, one could say that Sinai is not on the margins but rather is a hub, or primary aspect, of this fabric of conflict.
Accordingly, Sinai is no longer just a barometer of relations with Israel, the efficacy of the Peace Treaty, the state of bilateral relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv, or even between Egypt and Gaza as a belt of extremism and actual or potential threat. It has become an arena for indigenous and transnational terrorist groups.
As a result, the war that Egypt is waging against terrorism, especially in Sinai, which makes up six per cent of the country's total land area, is not necessitated by the priorities of Egyptian national security alone. It is also demanded by the exigencies of regional and international security.
As a major player in the regional order of the Middle East, Egypt is fully aware of its responsibilities. It has been tightening the security of its borders, preventing the exporting of terrorist risks to other countries, and eliminating potential threats to navigation through the Suez Canal, through which passes 10 per cent of all international trade.
If the complexities of the regional and international orders sometimes aggravate the problem and compound the challenges of dealing with terrorism, it should be stressed that the cooperation of these orders with Egypt will considerably facilitate the task of eliminating the terrorist danger.
It should also be mentioned that the emergence of IS has galvanised all the parties. They now recognise how perilous the terrorist threat is, and, hence, how necessary it is to work together to eliminate it. Unfortunately, the US has obstructed such cooperation through its insistence that it take place within the framework of its policies and in the service of US interests and those of its allies.
These things should be kept in mind when analysing the terrorist attack that took place at the Karam Al-Qawadis checkpoint on 24 October. This was qualitatively different from its predecessors, in the series of acts of violence that have taken place in Sinai for nearly a decade, especially in view of the redeployment and unprecedented scope of operations of the Egyptian military in the peninsula.
The attack is thus a clear sign of new threats in that arena, even as the existing threats that the region has experienced since the Sharm El-Sheikh attack ten years ago persist.
The significance of the scaling up of terrorist operations, as manifested in the Karam Al-Qawadis attack, raises crucial questions. Above all, who carried it out? Were they the usual suspects in Sinai, such as the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the paramilitary wing of the Shura Council of the Mujahideen? Or were new players involved, operating alongside Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, for example, in carrying out a plan of an unprecedented level of sophistication?
Specifically, are we looking at the presence of IS members or cells in Sinai? Or, alternatively, have these organisations joined forces under the IS umbrella? Facts are needed in order to answer the questions that have arisen concerning the relationship between IS and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
It is useful to turn first to the remarks of Adel Habara, chief suspect in the second Rafah massacre, that were uploaded 48 hours before the Karam Al-Qawadis attack on a local news website. Habara said that he did not belong to one of the organisations in Sinai, but rather that he had pledged allegiance to the so-called caliph of IS.
Perhaps this was the intention behind the website report: to announce his bay'a, or pledge of allegiance, to IS. Or perhaps it was meant to hint at a secret pledge of allegiance by the Shura Council of the Mujahideen to IS. It should remembered that known members of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and the Shura Council of Mujahideen, including Shadi Al-Mani'i, are only field commanders, rather than spiritual leaders or central decision-makers, in the organisation.
Certain developments favour the idea that the IS model had already begun to take shape in Sinai when the Shura Council of Mujahideen announced that the jihadist organisations had been unified under its umbrella as field command units. This marked the beginning of the institutionalisation process which led to the creation of the so-called Islamic Law Court, whose judge, known as Abu Feisal, proceeded to appoint some 400 gunmen to carry out his rulings.
This process lends itself to reports that the emerging organisational structure in the peninsula is designed to transform Sinai into an IS state loyal to the new “caliph of Baghdad.”
An IS website briefly broadcast video footage of the Karam Al-Qawadis attack before it was removed, taking care to note that the clip had been submitted to it by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Habara is also known to have communicated with IS in the past, and surveillance has recently intercepted appeals for help from the organisation during a fierce military pursuit.
Furthermore, there is an Egyptian component in IS that hails from the old Al-Qaeda apparatus, as well as in the recruitment operations taking place in Egypt to supplement IS ranks in Syria.
Local sources in Sinai stress that referring to IS or any other such organisation as proof of the change in the terrorist situation in the Sinai Peninsula is an approach that lacks precision and an awareness of certain realities. The Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis could easily drop its standard and hoist that of IS on the grounds of common goals and doctrinal approaches.
Sources say a shared ideology draws on commonly held perceptions of Islamic history that merge the battles of the Euphrates in Iraq and Al-Ghota in Syria with the heroics of a land proclaimed for jihad and conquest on the path to the ultimate revival of the rightly-guided caliphate.
To add to the blind ignorance that drives these organisations, explaining why they have so little time for subtleties or details that might shake their belief in the epic literature or refute their doctrinal assumptions, there is the recruitment abroad of people who are also uninformed or misinformed about the true nature and origins of Islam and Islamic culture.
According to a recent UN report, some 15,000 foreigners have signed up with IS, which, to compound the danger, has recently extended a call to the Muslim Brotherhood to join its ranks.
The similarities between the Karam Al-Qawadis operation and the Farafra checkpoint attack throw into a relief a number of points with respect to the organisation and how it works. Above all, it has the capacity to act on different fronts using highly trained members or affiliates. It has its own intelligence apparatus, and it has the financial means to fund large-scale operations and purchase high-quality weaponry.
There is little doubt that Al-Sisi is right in his suspicion that the Karam Al-Qawadis and Farafra operations were funded from outside, and it seems highly likely that the source would be an organisation the size of IS. The group is known to have huge revenues from the sale of oil from areas it now controls in Iraq and Syria.
The Sinai crisis: The Egyptian leadership's response to the Karam Al-Qawadis attack is important. The plan to tighten border security has been accelerated. A buffer zone to halt infiltration and smuggling has been created, and coordination at the highest levels of government has been strengthened.
But there remains an urgent need to investigate the full ramifications of the Sinai crisis in order to disentangle overlapping areas in which the civil and military intertwine.
This entails an examination of the exceptional nature of Sinai as a Bedouin environment, an environment where there may be lower degrees of identification with the concept of the state. We should not ignore the toll taken by the security policies of the Mubarak era and the effects of the transformations that took place following that regime's fall.
But it is also important to take into account the general spread of religious intolerance associated with the growth of Salafist and takfiri jihadism under Muslim Brotherhood rule, which both fostered its proliferation and forged a network of alliances with many extremist groups, contributing to the break-up of traditional tribal fabrics and patterns of authority.
In addition to these factors, which helped create an ideal environment for extremist thought, there has also been the booming black market trade, controlled by a class of nouveau riche Bedouin tunnel and smuggling entrepreneurs and jihadist war lords. Such groups often thrive in border areas.
They flourished in the northeastern Sinai due the breakdown in security after Mubarak's fall and the considerable support they received from the other side of the border with Gaza.
It is necessary here to refer to the leader of the independent Bedouin sheikhs, Ibrahim Al-Mani'i of the Sawarka tribe. In an interview with the Weekly in 2012, Al-Mani'i emerged as a model of the individual who represents the convergence between jihadists, arms traffickers, land merchants, political traders and entrepreneurs in the jihad industry.
When asked about taking up arms against Israel against the wishes of the Egyptian state, Al-Mani'i said that those who had done so were fighting the enemy, namely the Zionist entity. Yet, when asked about his view of Camp David, at a time when there was a movement demanding changes to its provisions, he said that the agreement had protected the people of Sinai from the intrusions of the Egyptian state and that the tribes were deliberating the idea of creating an army similar to the Kurdish peshmergas.
It could be that Al-Mani'i is the exception rather than the rule. It is important not to generalise. Certainly, the people of Sinai feel an intimate connection with the land, which in their collective mentality represents the homeland that they wish to defend and for the defence of which they are willing to pay any price.
It is also useful to point out that there are what might be termed “semi-cosmopolitan” towns in Sinai, of which a model is Al-Arish. The train of development efforts may have stopped short of Bi'r Al-Abd, but there are other factors at play, not least of which is a large and growing sector of educated youth.
Society in Sinai is keeping pace with the evolution of civil society more generally. Groups and associations that have formed on social networking sites have created connections that have shortened the distances between the mountains and deserts of Sinai.
These young people, in all their diversity, could become the engines of change in their society. With the rise of the new generation, the commonly held image of the Bedouin may now be fading, which suggests that there is not so much a need to rehabilitate the tribe as to rehabilitate the idea of citizenship and the concept of the Egyptian citizen, whether in Sinai, the Delta or the Nile Valley. Perhaps in this regard plans to redistribute the border population are a step in this direction.
However, such analyses will remain oversimplified until the scope of examination is expanded. Just as Egypt advocates the concept of a comprehensive war against terrorism without discriminating between IS in Iraq and Syria and its counterparts in Libya, such as Ansar Al-Sharia, or between the belt of extremism in Gaza and its various manifestations from Jaljalat to Jund Allah and Ajnad Beit Al-Maqdis, and from Al-Tawhid to Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad and all their mirror images in the Sinai, we must also study the Islamist literature produced by the ideologues of these organisations.
Prime among these is Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdasi, currently being held by the Jordanian authorities, who has managed to send messages from behind bars via his lawyers to IS. It is sufficient here to note that a document entitled the “Prophetic State,” written by IS's first “minister of war”, Abu Hamza Al-Muhager, an Egyptian by birth, has shaped the new wave of Islamist militancy. Though this is just one item in a flood of fatwas and other literature.
Clearly, any proper analysis must expand its scope to Iraq and Syria and beyond, and follow the evolution of what might be termed the “Al-Qaeda Spring” and Egypt's place in it, especially given that IS does not recognise borders and does not differentiate between its followers in Egypt, Libya, Iraq or Syria.
The eastern border currently poses the most direct threat to Egyptian security. While Gaza accounts for only 14 km of the eastern border and Israel 240 km, the Egyptian border with Gaza is currently the most volatile in view of Hamas's control, since mid-2007, over the Strip. Egypt's relations with Hamas have deteriorated sharply, and in spite of efforts to contain that deterioration they have not succeeded in providing any guarantees that the situation will remain calm and controllable.
However, we should not ignore the other portion of the border, that with Israel. While general calm prevails, here too there can be intermittent tensions, though these are calculable and the two sides are able to contain them so as not to jeopardise their respective interests.
In general, the threat from Gaza is as permanent as the political reality that prevails there. However, the rise in the threat level from that direction requires definitive action to halt it. Events over recent years have made it palpably clear that Sinai has become a major playground for Hamas and a backyard for the flow of supplies and the movement of whatever Hamas deems necessary to sustain and bolster its position.
This movement is not restricted to smuggling operations to bring in goods essential to the lives of the people of Gaza during the Israeli blockade. It has long since extended beyond this to the smuggling of money, weapons, explosives, wanted criminals, stolen goods (stolen vehicles in particular) and other contraband.
Hamas has taken advantage of the relatively weak Egyptian military presence in Sinai (especially in Area C, in view of the restrictions imposed by the protocols of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty), to transform Sinai into its own free corridor for all types of activities that could be detrimental to Egyptian national security. Egyptian officials have frequently cautioned Hamas against this, but these demands have fallen on deaf ears.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as stated in its own charter. The attendant organisational links between the two groups have meant that Hamas will carry out instructions issued to it by the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of the consequences.
Hamas cannot be exonerated by its attempts to deny these bonds, its efforts to portray itself as being unconnected with the Muslim Brotherhood, or by its denials that it has helped support the Brotherhood materially, militarily, politically and morally.
The fact is that Hamas has furnished all these forms of support to the Brotherhood movement in Egypt. Hamas's connections with some regional forces known to be hostile to Egyptian stances have also put it in a position of serving as these forces' spearhead in achieving objectives that promote their interests.
Hamas has become central to carrying out these objectives in two primary areas: the Sinai and Israel via the Sinai. In both these cases, Egypt would be targeted and would be adversely affected by the policies of such forces and the acts committed towards the realisation of certain ends, whether for themselves or on behalf of other powers.
Quite simply, the weapon of resistance has itself become prey to the regional balance of power, diverting it from the primary focus of the Palestinian resistance, namely Israel.
Hamas's attitude toward Egyptian efforts to halt the recent Israeli assault on Gaza was a response to the political transformations in Egypt since 30 June 2013. It was one of Hamas's ways of demonstrating its support for the party that was ousted from power in Egypt by a popular revolution, which should cause concern with respect to Egyptian national security. In other words, Hamas's stances towards Egypt since the 30 June Revolution place it under general suspicion, if not close suspicion, for involvement in the terrorist operations in Sinai.
Since seizing power in Gaza, Hamas has worked to consolidate its hold in two ways. One has been to tighten its grip over all aspects of life in the Strip, especially those that pertain to security and trade. The second has been to confer a unique and unprecedented status on the Gaza-Sinai tunnel network.
The network was transformed into a vital artery that supplied Hamas with the necessary sustenance to survive, perpetuate its rule, augment its influence and even enhance its autonomy: in short, everything it has needed to leverage itself over the Palestinian Authority into one of the two major players in the conflict with Israel.
At another level, the objective was to elevate the Muslim Brotherhood (through a stronger Hamas) into an influential force in the regional balance of power.
In tandem with the foregoing developments and the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, extremist groups began to surface in the Strip. This trend became palpably obvious at the end of 2005, when Gaza became the scene for demonstrations of support for Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahri and Al-Qaeda.
Although these did not spread, the trend also began to manifest itself in the emergence of organisations like the Army of Islam, Jaljalat and other groups that sought to prove themselves. Some attempted to found an Islamic emirate in Gaza. Others kidnapped and killed foreigners. Hamas, for its part, quickly moved to cap such manifestations of extremism out of a realisation that they jeopardised its rule in Gaza.
In order to do this, Hamas used various means. It killed some extremist group leaders and arrested some of their followers; it took various security measures to contain the phenomenon; and it struck up arrangements that suited its purposes with some of the more amenable leaders. What is important here is that Sinai came to serve as a playing field not just for Hamas, but also for all those extremist groups whose activities took place beneath the watchful eyes of the Al-Qassam Brigades.
There is another factor that needs to be borne in mind in this regard: the nature of the relationship between Hamas and Israel and the impact of this on Egyptian national security. Israel perceives it to be in its interests to keep Hamas in control of Gaza so that it can remain a theoretical threat to Israeli national security without actually acquiring the power to become an actual or practical one.
The three military operations that Israel launched against Gaza over the past seven years were intended to keep Hamas in check. But it is also certain that they had adverse effects on Egypt, which faced the possibility of an influx of thousands of refugees from Gaza and had to deal with the repercussions of the impact of the assaults on broad segments of Egyptian public opinion.
Courses of action: Egypt has had no alternative but to move on several fronts to confront such threats and dangers, especially as the current environment in Gaza is conducive to the transmission of the extremist ideas of Al-Qaeda, IS, the Al-Nusra Front and other takfiri militant groups.
As noted above, the threat is also concrete in the form of the movement of illicit goods, of persons with extremist and criminal tendencies, and of arms of every sort, from light to heavy weaponry. The upshot of the recourse to violence was the series of terrorist attacks that have taken place against the Egyptian army and police in Sinai, the most recent being the Karam Al-Qawadis attack on 24 October.
This galvanised Egypt into setting into motion a qualitative shift in its operations in Sinai, the first and most important feature of which was the creation of a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza. The purpose of this was to seal off the tunnels that have long posed a threat from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
However, even as it proceeds to take the necessary precautions to safeguard its eastern borders and Sinai, Egypt is also taking all possible measures to minimise any adverse effects from the creation of a buffer zone on the people of the area. It will also continue to work to promote Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation so that the legitimate authority can resume control over Gaza, enabling the Rafah crossing to remain open.
Egypt will also strive to undertake an important role in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations when they resume, out of the conviction that a solution to the Palestinian cause will hugely contribute to restoring stability in the region.
It is impossible to turn the clock back to before the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, or even before Hamas's monopolisation of power in Gaza in 2007. Nevertheless, it is crucial that Egypt, first, reassess its relationship with Hamas in view of the threat it poses to Egyptian national security, and, second, use all available pressure regionally to staunch the growth of the jihadist extremism, for which Hamas's rule in Gaza has furnished a fertile environment for the past decade.
However, Egypt must also maintain a systematic and pragmatic approach to its handling of Hamas by working to ensure that the progress made through the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation process and Egyptian-sponsored reconstruction of Gaza works not to ultimately reward Hamas but rather to promote Egypt's interests.
For example, progress in these processes could be linked to major changes in Hamas's political and security structures and pressure Hamas into cooperating effectively with Egypt in security matters. In addition, there is a need to create a parallel security buffer on the Gaza side of the border. This could be incorporated either into the arrangements surrounding the reconstruction process or into the security track of the Palestinian reconciliation process.
In sum, a comprehensive approach is needed to confront terrorism at the national and international levels. There are no longer any grounds for the claim that any one country can be solely responsible for its national security, or that it can realise that security singlehandedly in the face of terrorism, or that a country that is directly threatened by terrorism must shoulder the burden of contending with it on the basis that other countries are out of danger's reach.
With regard to Egypt, one can be confident in the assertion that the threats to Egyptian national security have increased quantitatively and qualitatively in view of recent developments in the region. This underscores the close interconnection between Egyptian national security and regional security in its Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Yemeni dimensions.
Nor can we ignore the potential threat to Egypt from Ethiopia's construction of the Renaissance Dam, which completes the circle of threats that surrounds Egypt in a series of converging circles.
One cannot escape the impression that the emergence of these threats from several directions at around the same time has been deliberate. This should compel Egypt to take the measures it believes necessary to safeguard its national security, whether independently or within the framework of a regional or international system for countering the terrorism that has come to threaten the very survival of entire nations.
Reducing the solution to the problems in Sinai to only military and security dimensions, as vital and necessary as these are, falls short of a creative approach to the crisis. Any viable and lasting solution necessitates efforts to restructure and redraw Sinai, not just administratively but also culturally, economically, socially, educationally, and in terms of the provision of healthcare and other essential services.
Terrorist rhetoric must be uprooted and the promoters of terrorism must be broken. Toward this end an acceptable alternative must be made available, in real and concrete ways, as opposed to the periodic reassurances that appear in official speeches. The institutions responsible for reforming and renewing religious discourse (religious, educational and cultural institutions) must create the cognitive and institutional foundations for this new religious discourse.
This entails restructuring the semi-official religious organisations such as Al-Azhar (mosque and university), official bodies such as the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and non-governmental religious organisations, with the aim of encouraging these forums of religious enlightenment to move away from rote instruction.
If we are to make this system of security measures complete — choking off terrorist religious rhetoric through the reform of education, religious leadership and culture, and promoting enlightened religious discourse — an additional element is needed. This is the media, an essential conduit for transmitting enlightened ideas that will silence the religio-fascist rhetoric that breeds terrorist ideas and practices.


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