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The borders of terror
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 12 - 2014

In 2014, the Rafah-Sheikh Zuwaid-Jebel Al Halal triangle of northeastern Sinai became the locus of paramilitary activities by Salafist jihadists. These militants joined groups that first began to emerge in Egypt in 2004. These groups developed in three phases.
The first such groups (Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad is perhaps the best known) were made up of Palestinians and enjoyed a degree of Sinai Bedouin backing. Later, local organisations emerged. Among them were Jund Al-Islam, Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and the Furqan Brigades. Their leaders were from Sinai and they were supported by Gaza-based militias.
By November 2014 they had mutated into a subsidiary organisation of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Following the 30 June revolution, these groups began to stage operations outside their home area. They attacked the motorcade of the Interior Minister in Cairo, a satellite station in Maadi and the Daqhaliya security directorate building. The majority of terrorist attacks by these groups outside the Sinai took place in 2014.
Elsewhere in Egypt, other groups began to make their mark. Agnad Masr began its terrorist activities on the third anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, although the organisation was formed during the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in. It attracted members among young militants from the Muslim Brotherhood youth and other fundamentalist groups that were organised in cluster cells.
Typical targets were fixed police checkpoints, particularly in the vicinity of universities and ministry buildings. Their most extensive operation, on 25 January 2014, consisted of three bombs. The Bohooth metro station near Cairo University and the Cairo Security Directorate were among the targets.
Subsequent attacks targeted the universities of Cairo and Al-Azhar, Al-Ittihadiya Palace and the Interior Ministry. The explosive devices were assembled from locally available materials and then planted in public spaces, often beneath trees and under billboards. Security forces discovered a major explosives factory in the 10th of Ramadan City, suggesting that Cairo and its suburbs serve as the group's base.
Other organisations vanished almost as soon as they were formed. Their members lacked the skills and experience to withstand a sustained security clampdown. One was the so-called Helwan Brigades, formed in 2014 by Muslim Brotherhood activists who had taken part in various Brotherhood sponsored demonstrations and received some weapons training.
Their lack of experience was apparent in the video released to announce the group's creation. The Helwan Brigades is the first paramilitary group to be conclusively linked to the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. The connection emerged during judicial hearings when members of the group confessed they were funded by a brother-in-law of the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, Khairat Al-Shater.
The Egyptian government's list of terrorist organisations is limited to groups espousing a radical takfiri position, including the use of violence. The Muslim Brotherhood, with its political and military wings, and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (now IS-Egypt) and its sister groups in Sinai, fit this designation.
There is no explicit definition of terrorism in Egyptian law: the government's decision at the end of 2013 to confiscate the assets of the Muslim Brotherhood and later to ban its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, were based on provisions in the Egyptian penal code.
When transnational groups such as IS and Muslim Brotherhood elements operating out of Qatar came into play, the government turned to the 1998 anti-terrorist agreement signed by members of the Arab League.
Article 2 of the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism defines terrorism as: “Any act or threat of violence, whatever its motives or purposes, that occurs for the advancement of an individual or collective criminal agenda, causing terror among people, causing fear by harming them, or placing their lives, liberty or security in danger, or aiming to cause damage to the environment or to public or private installations or property or to occupy or to seize them, or aiming to jeopardize a national resource.”
It is worth noting that the government did not include in its list of terrorist organisations groups that serve as branches of the Brotherhood organisation abroad or auxiliary entities. This is because the government regards them as part and parcel of the organisation. One example is the alliance founded by Muslim Brotherhood ally Ayman Nour.
The government has adopted a three-pronged strategy against these groups: military confrontation in Sinai, police confrontations in the Nile Valley and Delta, and action to halt the flow of money to terrorist groups. It is simultaneously pursuing group leaders known to play organisational, combat or logistical roles.
The military confrontation against terrorist organisations operating in Sinai intensified throughout 2014. The campaign was reinforced by stringent security measures that included destruction of tunnels under the border with Gaza, construction of a buffer zone along the border, which entailed relocating inhabitants, and imposition of a curfew in the area of Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah.
Many observers believe that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis's decision to pledge loyalty to IS was a desperate response to debilitating blows dealt by the military offensive.
Legal and judicial steps to counter terrorist groups were also taken. In the wake of rulings designating various organisations as terrorist, the authorities drew up a list of wanted persons abroad, including many veterans of the Rabaa sit-in who fled first to Qatar and from there to Turkey and Malaysia. A decision was also made to strip Egyptian members of terrorist organisations such as IS of their nationality.
IDEOLOGY: Two major tributaries feed the ideology of terrorist groups operating in Egypt. The first flows from the Salafist jihadist school of Abu Mohammed Al-Maqdasi, which gained influence in 2007. Following Hamas's seizure of control in Gaza, Palestinian Islamist militants from Jund Al-Islam, Jaljalat, Jund Allah and other groups settled in the Gaza portion of Rafah.
Following confrontations at the Abu Moussa Al-Madasi Mosque, many of these Gaza militants fled into Sinai. The general trend, however, was for Egyptian terrorist elements to seek refuge in Gaza. Even after Egypt's security agencies had pinpointed the whereabouts of these terrorists, Hamas refused to hand over any suspects. And during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule the border was flung open to terrorist organisations.
The second tributary comprises literature from Al-Qaeda's second generation, i.e., IS, as proclaimed by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Of particular importance is The Prophetic State by Al-Baghdadi's military commander, Abu Hamza Al-Muhajer. A common theme of this literature is condemnation of the Egyptian state, army and society as heretic.
The Muslim Brotherhood draws its ideology from the history of its underground paramilitary branch and the ideas of Sayyed Qotb.
Some older organisations that joined the pro-Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL) are Salafist groups that in the past shunned all violence. Outside NASL is Shawqiyin, a group based in the Fayyoum town of Kahk, a district capital closely associated with terrorist organisations that led attacks against the state throughout the 1990s. The town was one of the bases of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind jihadist sheikh currently serving a life sentence in the US.
FUNDING: The funding of terrorist organisations in Sinai passed through four stages. Initially, they relied solely on outside sources. The perpetrators of terrorist operations were for the most part Palestinian militants, aided logistically by some Bedouin elements, and their funding was derived from abroad.
Later, the smuggling of drugs and people provided additional revenues. Then trafficking in weapons and fuel became the chief source of funding. Now the Egyptian authorities are convinced that foreign funding is again playing a significant role.
The sophistication of the Karam Al-Qawadis attack in Sinai, carried out by the Egyptian branch of IS (formerly Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis), reinforced suspicions that IS was itself providing resources. Concern has also grown over the presence of IS operatives near petroleum production facilities in Sinai after a suicide bomber targeted a natural gas pipeline in the peninsula.
QUESTION MARKS: The groups mentioned above, whether jihadist, takfiri, fundamentalist or Qotbist, share the same aim: to kill Egyptian soldiers and undermine the Egyptian army. This raises the question of what organisational relationship, if any, exists between them.
IS has broadcast messages inviting Muslim Brotherhood militia members to join it. Investigations by the Daqhaliya Security Directorate revealed that a number of groups have cooperated over the manufacture of explosives.
Any consolidation of structural links, however, is likely to be hampered by ideological differences. The Egyptian branch of IS — Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in its new guise — requires the bay'a, a pledge of allegiance from all members. Muslim Brothers owe their allegiance to their own organisation and supreme guide and it is difficult to conceive of them shifting that allegiance in order to work under the IS umbrella.
A merger between the Muslim Brotherhood and IS is not on the cards. Far more likely is an exchange of services and personnel, and other forms of what might be termed cross-fertilisation.
The Muslim Brotherhood's history testifies to the group's readiness to form militias. The Brotherhood has contributed a great deal to the legacy of Islamist extremism and warfare against the Egyptian state.
And what will happen to organisations close to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis that fell under the umbrella of the Mujahideen Shura Council, now that Ansar has merged with IS?
There is, too, the question of whether or not we can still consider any of these organisations local. The arrest of so many foreign nationals from among their ranks begs the question of whether they are mutating into international terror groups.


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