ATbar Egypt as a New Front of al-Qaeda
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Egypt as a New Front of al-Qaeda

05/05/2006 | by Karmon, Ely (Dr.)  

A chronicle of rising violence

Egypt is the cradle of Sunni Islamist radicalism, but since the Luxor terrorist attack in November 1997, in which 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were killed, there has been no significant jihadist activity, despite al-Qaeda's return to the Middle East in the wake of the war in Iraq.

All this began to change in September 2003. At that time, Egyptian police arrested 23 suspected Islamist militants who allegedly sympathized with al-Qaeda and sought to carry out attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere. The group included 19 Egyptians, a Turk, a Malaysian, an Indonesian and three Bangladeshis-all students at Cairo's Al-Azhar University.1

After seven years of a de facto timeout from terrorist operations conducted on Egyptian soil, the new jihadist campaign against Egypt began with the first attacks in Sinai, on October 7, 2004, targeting Israeli tourists in the Sinai Peninsula and killing at least 34 persons and injuring over 150. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a heretofore unknown al-Qaeda affiliate group claimed responsibility.

Then, on March 29, 2005 an Egyptian man stabbed and wounded two Hungarian tourists in Cairo in revenge for Western policies towards Iraqis and Palestinians.

This was followed soon after by the April 7, 2005 bombing near the Khan al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, which killed three tourists and wounded 18 other bystanders. Egyptian authorities initially announced that the bomber, Hassan Rafa'at Bashandi acted alone, but then other three suspects were arrested, one of whom died in police custody.

Two weeks later, Ihab Yousri Yassin, pursued by the police, launched himself from the bridge behind the Egyptian museum in Cairo and subsequently detonated a bomb, wounding seven, including two Israelis, an Italian and a Swede. Soon after this incident, Yassin's sister and his fiancée armed with guns opened fire on a tourist bus in the Sayyida Aisha neighborhood. This marked the first time that a woman had ever engaged in Islamist violence in Egypt.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the attacks. Brotherhood leader Isam al-Aryan claimed Egypt had reached a "boiling point," due to the lack of political reform and said the involvement of women was an indicator of popular despair.2

On July 23, 2005, two car bombs and a suitcase bomb ripped through hotels and shopping areas in Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 88 and wounding over 200, making the attack the deadliest in the country's history. The bombing coincided with Egypt's commemoration of Nasser's 1952 overthrow of King Farouk. Again the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed it carried out the bombings. Additional claims were later made by two other groups calling themselves the "Tawahid and Jihad Group in Egypt" and "Holy Warriors of Egypt." In the Tawahid statement the group said it was continuing its "war to expel the Jews and Christians from the land of Islam. [The] war has begun by targeting the axis of Zionist evil and immorality in Sinai, where Moses spoke to God."

It should be mentioned that two Canadian members of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) were wounded in August 2005 when a bomb exploded in al-Gorah as their vehicle passed, days after the multiple bomb attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. A group calling itself "Egypt's Mujahideen," claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said at the time was carried out with gas canisters.3

Finally, on April 24, 2006, a day before the Egyptian national holiday marking the handover of Sinai by Israel to Egypt, three bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in the Sinai resort of Dahab, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 80, mostly Egyptians. The explosions occurred in a bustling area popular with tourists during the early evening when many people would have been out in cafes and restaurants.

Two days later, a suicide bomber blew himself up as a MFO vehicle carrying two MFO personnel (Norway and New Zealand) and two Egyptian officials passed by the MFO camp near the border crossing to Gaza in northern Sinai. None of them were injured. Half an hour later a second suicide bomber on a motorbike attacked an Egyptian police vehicle at another location in the same area but no police injuries were reported.

Interestingly, several days before the 23 April blast, the Ministry of Interior announced it was holding 22 Islamist militants suspected of planning attacks against tourists, a gas pipeline on the Greater Cairo ring road, and Muslim and Christian religious leaders. The ministry identified the group as Al-Taefa Al-Mansoura-"the Victorious Sect"-with members mostly from the shanty-towns of Torah and Al-Zawya Al-Hamra, northeast and south of Cairo. The group espouses Salafi takfiri, a Jihadist ideology that identifies anyone with whom they disagree as infidels and therefore potential targets. Al-Taefa Al-Mansoura had depended on the Internet to download information on how to manufacture bombs and poisons, and in arranging meetings among its members. The group is also alleged to have attempted to buy land in Al-Saff, south of Cairo, to be used as a training camp for members before they departed to fight in trouble spots such as Chechnya and Afghanistan. Families of the detained have dismissed the accusations as baseless.4 

Who leads the new jihadi campaign?

The Cairo daily Al-Ahram claimed that a preliminary investigation into the April 24, 2006 terrorist attacks pointed to the involvement of a group calling itself Tawhid wal Jihad (Unification and Holy War) in the explosions of April 24, 2006. The three suicide bombings in the Sinai resort town of Dahab are most probably an operation by al-Qaeda. The question is…which al-Qaeda? 

A branch of al-Qaeda in the Peninsula?

At the time, the October 2004 Sinai attacks were presented as the first of several forthcoming attacks in Egypt, as part of a clear strategy approved by the mujahideen in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. The jihad in Iraq and Egypt were viewed as "the ropes to strengthen the Jihad in Arabia."5

Another jihadist analysis, seemingly based upon the 1,601 page book by Abu Mus'ab al-Suri relates to the Sinai attacks of October 2004, the consequent Cairo (April 2005) suicide attacks, and the Sharm al-Shaykh (July 2005) attacks. According to al-Suri the most important jihadist target in this phase must be attacks against tourists. The attacks in Sinai were, therefore, a highly successful example of this strategy, both against the Egyptian government and in terrorizing the Westerners. This also seems to be an attempt to identify new fronts in the Arab world-apart from Iraq-in which to conduct the struggle.6

Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman flew to Yemen on April 26, 2006 for talks on the Dahab bombings. Egypt wants to know if al-Qaeda activists who escaped lately from a prison in Yemen might be connected to Sinai terror cells.

There are indications that Egyptian security had foiled an attempt, perhaps inspired by the recent Abqaiq operation in Saudi Arabia, on petroleum supplies in Egypt. A car filled with explosives was stopped en route to a complex of the largest petrol storage containers in Egypt. There has been no subsequent confirmation of this incident. If it indeed took place and is related to the attempt in Saudi Arabia, its purpose would be to create an impression of organized, international attempt to disrupt and to stretch enemy forces through the dispersal of targets.7

It is possible therefore to identify the Egyptian/Sinai al-Qaeda infrastructure as the result of an effort by the Saudi jihadists (the al-Qaeda of the Peninsula) to strengthen and expand their own influence in the region by destabilizing the Mubarak regime.

Revival of the Egyptian Jihad and Gama'a Islamiyya or new local organization?

It is interesting to note that Egyptian Islamist groups quickly denied responsibility in the October 2004 bombings in Sinai and even condemned them. This was seen as further proof of the rapprochement between the Egyptian government and the Islamic groups in recent years. Many of al-Gama'a Islamiyya's leaders-some of whom are serving jail sentences in Egypt-issued a public statement urging their followers to halt all operations and to renounce violence.8 Gama'a Islamiyya described the Red Sea bombings as a "random" operation perpetrated "at the wrong time and the wrong place," and argued that even if the perpetrators of the triple bombings intended to avenge Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "intransigent policies," they lacked any "political sense and religious justification."9

In July 2005 the Gama'a Islamiyya and al-Jihad group openly accused al-Qaeda in Iraq of having as its aim the destruction of the Shiite and Kurdish communities in Iraq, rather than removing Western forces from the country. Moreover, in March 2006 al-Jihad groups in prisons had renewed legal consultations concerning the repudiation of their previous policies of takfir ("declaring as infidel") of society and the government, the assassination of prominent figures and prejudicial treatment of the minority Coptic Christians. It goes so far as to oppose the formation of secret organizations and guarantees the dissolution of jihadist groups.
The groups called on intellectuals, religious scholars and writers and civic society organizations to form a negotiations committee to activate this initiative, and mediate it to public opinion.10 This represents a significant defeat for jihadism in one of its potentially most fertile grounds.

Between August and late November 2005, the Egyptian security forces conducted an intensive operation in Jebel Helal, a remote region in northeast Sinai, in pursuit of fugitives from a Salafist-Bedouin group suspected of links to the July 2005 attacks. During this operation, several Egyptian security personnel, including two high-ranking police officers, were killed. In separate skirmishes, several of the fugitives were shot and killed, including Salim Khadr Al-Shanoub and Khalid Musa"id, whom the government identified as key planners of the July Sharm el-Sheikh attacks and three 2004 attacks in Taba involving tourist targets. The Egyptian Government maintained that all of the terrorist incidents that occurred in 2004-05 were conducted by small domestic groups.

The former head of Egyptian state security, Fouad Allam, estimated that those responsible for the 2006 Dahab bombings belong to the same group that attacked Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh and clearly differ from those that emerged in the eighties. Given that Jihad and Gama'a Islamiyya never staged attacks in Sinai, the perpetrators and supporters of the recent attacks probably are locals from the peninsula. The group behind the attacks does not appear to have the technological or financial resources associated with al-Qaeda and is using limited amounts of explosives and primitive bombs. According to Amr El-Chobaky, from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the bombers operate as mobile cells and seem to lack any clear long-term strategy but "to embarrass and thus damage the regime."11

Some analysts consider the involvement of Bedouins in the Sinai attacks to be the result of Egyptian authorities" heavy-handed handling of the situation. After Taba and Ras Shatan bombings in October 2004, Egyptian security forces rounded up thousands of people, including Bedouin women, considered in the Bedouin culture a violation of honor that must be avenged. According to Human Rights Watch as many as 2,400 people remained in custody in February 2005. Some prisoners were alleged to have been tortured. Similar roundups occurred after suicide bombings in Sharm el-Sheik in July 2005. According to the Egyptian government, intensive efforts have been made in recent months to create employment for the unemployed Bedouin, yet Sinai Bedouins complained they are poorly served by the government.12 According to foreign observers the Bedouin population of Sinai is not very sympathetic towards Egypt; and development programs implemented in Sinai by the central authorities have intensified the Bedouin opposition.

It is interesting to note that immediately after the first attack in October 2004 the Bedouin participants were considered to be more part of a logistical support network, due to their smuggling abilities in the mountainous desert of Sinai and terrorist activity was considered to be counter-productive to the economic interests of the community. Egyptian intelligence was surprised to discover that al-Qaeda managed to lay an extensive net in Sinai and captured a substantial amount of arms and explosives, probably smuggled from Sudan or Saudi Arabia by sea.

The Zarqawi group?

Egyptian courts announced that the Islamist group Tawhid wal Jihad was responsible for the Taba attack in October 2004, and the Sharm Al-Sheikh operation in July 2005. Three leading members of the group, Nasser Khamis Al-Milahi, Id Salamah Al-Tarawi, and Muhammad Abdallah Jarjar operated within the organization. It should be recalled that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group was also called Tawhid wal Jihad, before it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and changed its name to Tandhim Qa"idat al-Jihad fi bilad al-Rafidain (The al-Qa"ida Jihad Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers).

Islamists in London claimed that those who carried out the April 2006 simultaneous attacks probably embrace Al-Qaeda's ideology and methods. Abdullah Uns, son-in-law of Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual leader of the Arab Afghans, argued that although the new groups accept Al-Qaeda's ideology, they use different names.13

One analyst considers the above mentioned Al-Taefa Al-Mansoura group as the third generation of the Salafi-Jihadist movement in Egypt because although their statement did not indicate a connection with Zarqawi, it did point to the group's intention to recruit young men to fight "abroad."14 This might correspond with the rise of a more ideological movement, especially since the targets have been vital locations that might undermine Egypt's economy and civil order.15

On April 25, after a silence of almost four months, Zarqawi issued a 34-minute video posted on the Internet. The video presents images of Zarqawi, much in the style of bin Laden during his stay in Afghanistan. Diana Mukkaled, an Arab TV journalist, claims that despite all his efforts Zarqawi appeared as a poorer version of the man who inspired him, Osama bin Laden. "His seating position, the way he spoke, his turban, the watch he wore on his right hand, the gun in the background and other details" imitated earlier footage of bin Laden and wanted to give the impression that he was qualified to wage war against infidels.16 In an effort to turn Zarqawi's own propaganda against him "by mocking him as an uninspiring poseur," the American military released selected captured outtakes from the same video. In one scene Zarqawi appears confused by how to discharge the machine gun in fully automatic mode. A man walks over and fiddles with the weapon so Zarqawi can fire it in bursts. One insurgent later appears to grab the machine gun absent-mindedly by its scalding-hot barrel and drop it.17

US intelligence experts said the tapes presented bin Laden and Zarqawi "emerging as rivals for pre-eminence within Al Qaeda…[a]lthough Mr. Zarqawi pledged loyalty to Mr. bin Laden in 2004 and referred to him in his most recent videotape as "our prince," there was little else in his fiery message to suggest he was operating under orders from Mr. bin Laden." Perhaps it was an effort by Zarqawi "to quell rumors that he had been marginalized and to portray himself as a leader of the global jihad." Iraqi and American military officials interpreted the video as showing that Zarqawi was weak, "because he felt the need to advertise with his muscles and guns." At the same time the State Department 2005 survey of global terrorism claims bin Laden is no longer capable of exercising daily operational control over the organization but only inspire it through propaganda and morale-building.18

In this author's opinion, the video conveys to Islamists a much stronger message. It presents Zarqawi as the real leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and in the region, as his allusion to the Palestinian issue implies ("While we are fighting in Iraq our eyes are always on Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem]"). Bin Laden's name ("Our Amir and leader, Shaykh Osama") is mentioned only once, while Zarqawi is addressed several times as "noble Shaykh."19 It is true that much of it is an imitation of past bin Laden and Zawahiri videos. But Zarqawi appears in the "official" video like "Rambo," much stronger and well-built than the frail bin Laden, firing standing long bursts from a heavy American automatic rifle. More interestingly in the video appears a picture of Bin Laden, while portions of an audio message by him aired July 2004 is played in the background. But he looks like a portrait of an old man, a far away virtual figure, but not the leader in command.

As Zarqawi appears in the Arab world as the most feared and successful insurgent in Iraq and the region he probably influenced the choice of the Egyptian jihadist group's name as Tawhid wal Jihad, or possibly even had contacts with Al-Taefa Al-Mansoura for the recruitment of Egyptians to his ranks. However, Zarqawi did not mention Egypt in his video.

Failure of the Egyptian security forces

Egyptian observers maintain that the third attack in the Sinai in less than 18 months has exposed major holes in the peninsula's security regime, as well as in the management of the ensuing crises. That the bombers can seemingly avoid checkpoints with ease suggests not only inefficiency on the part of those in charge of security but knowledge on the attackers" part of the deployment of security personnel. There is an urgent need, argues the ex-head of Egyptian state security Allam, to upgrade security operations and recruit better educated officers, as well as employ more advanced technology.20

Most residents of Dahab complain that security procedures in the town have been "lax", and blame the attacks on failings within the security apparatus. If the police are unable to secure such a small resort, with only one access road, then the country is facing "a major problem". The shop owners also criticized the security procedures used to check those entering and leaving the town, without electronic gates that could detect explosives, or computers that could check the identities of those entering or leaving through checkpoints. Those behind the attack seem to be in control and can carry out attacks at any time they want, without being stopped even when the security forces suspect an attack is going to happen.21

Some Egyptians charge that the authorities are so focused on political control they have undermined their ability to fight terrorism. According to Emad Gad from the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, it is not possible to separate what's happening now from the general atmosphere in Egypt. "There is a state of apprehension. Part of the problem rests in the fact that the Egyptian security agencies are concerned about confronting civil society interactions."22

Most commentators concur that the Dahab bombings will be used as a green light to extend the state of emergency and to distract attention from the failure of the government to properly tackle sectarian conflict in Alexandria and recent police attacks against judges.23 Indeed, on April 30, President Mubarak pushed through Parliament a two-year extension of the emergency law.

Conclusion

At this stage of the Egyptian investigation in the April 2006 and past Sinai bombings and the parsimonious bits of information provided by the authorities, it is difficult to have a clear idea concerning the al-Qaeda presence in the country.

However, some general patterns emerge:

Some of the Sinai Bedouin tribes constitute a new constituency in which al-Qaeda flourishes. The very closed nature of these people, their estrangement from the Egyptian establishment, their geographical isolation and the topography of the terrain make it difficult for the security forces to control them. The successive attacks against the MFO force in July 2005 and April 2006 and the battles these elements waged against the Egyptian military prove this infrastructure is not afraid to challenge the central government.
Egypt's tourist industry is targeted in an effort to destabilize the Hosni Mubarak regime in imitation of the Egyptian jihadist strategy of the 1990s, the lessons learned from the al-Qaeda attacks since its demise in the war in Afghanistan (Djerba, Bali, Mombassa, Casablanca, Istanbul) and possibly Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's teachings in his 1,600 page manual.24
There is clearly a new organizational work by jihadist elements in the Cairo district, as the April 2005 suicide attacks and the arrest of the al-Taefa al-Mansoura militants prove.
There is no proof of a link between the Sinai Bedouin network and the Cairo groups.
It seems the historical leadership of al-Jihad and Gama'a Islamiyya (besides Zawahiri) are opposed to the revival of terrorist activity in Egypt.
The peninsula was used these last years for smuggling weapons and terrorists to Gaza and even the West Bank, through the Negev desert. Enhanced jihadist activity in Sinai could directly influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and radicalize it even more. As al-Qaeda is trying to bandwagon the Palestinian violence and penetrate the Palestinian arena and on the background of Hamas" victory in the Palestinian elections, the risk of such a scenario is increasing.25

In a previous article by this author, "Al-Qa'ida And The War On Terror After The War In Iraq," it was mentioned that after the beginning of the jihadist terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 al-Qaeda strategists had to define the main struggle front-Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or possibly Egypt.26 It seems now Egypt risks becoming a new active front of the Middle Eastern Jihad under the influence and impulse of Saudi jihadists and, less likely, Zarqawi's insurgency in Iraq. It is of note that bin Laden and Zawahiri have not mentioned the jihadist activity in Egypt.


Notes

1 See Yahoo! News, September 3, 2003.

2 See Sherifa Zuhur, "A New Phase for Jihad in Egypt?" Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 10 (May 19, 2005).

3 Since 1982, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent peacekeeping force not related to the United Nations, has performed its mission under the 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel. It currently has contingents from Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Hungary, Italy, Fiji, New Zealand, Norway, the United States and Uruguay.

4 The arrests were made public less than a week after sectarian riots in Alexandria following attacks on three churches that left two men - a Copt and a Muslim - dead. In a separate development, on 23 April police arrested five men in Qalyubiya Governorate on charges of distributing leaflets in schools and government establishments calling for the overthrow of the regime and its replacement with an Islamic state. See Jailan Halawi, "sects and politics," Al-Ahram Weekly Online, No. 792, 27 April - 3 May 2006.

5 See the article entitled "From Riyadh/East to Sinai," by the Saudi Abu Abbas al-Aedhi published on several Islamist Internet forums.

6 The analysis was published on September 25, 2005 by a known al-Qaeda supporter, nicknamed Abu Muhammad al-Hilali. It appears to be the first analysis of this kind to be based on the 1601 page book on Jihad by Abu Mus'ab al-Suri which was published via the internet in January 2005. See Reuven Paz, "Al-Qaeda's Search for new Fronts: Instructions for Jihadi Activity in Egypt and Sinai," PRISM Occasional Papers, Vol. 3, No. 7 (October 2005).

7 See Stephen Ulph, "Possible Terrorist Attack Foiled in Egypt," Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 11 (March 21, 2006).

8 This public declaration effectively signaled the end of the latest round of the long-running war between the Egyptian government and radical Islam. See Khalil Gebara," The End of Egyptian Islamic Jihad?" Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 3 (February 10, 2005).

9 See AFP, October 11, 2004.

10 In 2002, the Gama'a Islamiyya prison groups undertook a similar exercise, publishing their resolutions in a series of booklets. Their work, titled "The Strategy and Bombings of al-Qaeda: Errors and Perils," was serialized in January 2004 by the Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. See Stephen Ulph, "..as Egyptian Mujahideen Face Ideological Attrition," Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 11 (March 21, 2006).

11 See Neveen Mahish and Sherine Abdel-Razek, "The guessing game," Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 27 April - 3 May 2006.

12 See "Egypt: Bombings Linked To Past Attacks," CBS/AP, April 26, 2006.

13 Mohammed Al Shafey, "Dahab Bombers Inspired by Al-Qaeda," Asharq Alawsat, April 29, 2006.

14 Paz remarks that it is particularly striking the absence of Egyptians among foreign Arab volunteers for the insurgency in Iraq, even though Egypt is the largest Arab country, and hundreds of Egyptians took part in previous Islamist battles in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. See Reuven Paz, "Arab volunteers killed in Iraq: an Analysis," PRISM Series of Global Jihad, No. 1/3 - March 2005.

15 See Murad B. Al-Shishani, "Egypt Breaks-up al-Ta'efa al-Mansoura Jihadist Group," Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, Vol. 3, No. 16 (April 25, 2006).

16 See Diana Mukkaled, "Al Zarqawi… Between Myth and Reality," Asharq Alawsat, May 1, 2006.

17 Richard A. Oppel and David S. Cloud, "U.S. Uses Iraq Insurgent's Own Video to Mock Him," The New York Times (NYT), May 5, 2006.

18 See David Johnston and Mark Mazzetti, Hints of Disharmony in Qaeda Tapes, NYT, May 1, 2006.

19 See translation of Zarqawi's video at the U.S. Central Command website "What Extremists are Saying," at https://web.archive.org/web/20080122143033/http://www2.centcom.mil/sites/uscentcom2/shared%20documents/exposing%20the%20enemy.aspx 

20 See Neveen Mahish and Sherine Abdel-Razek, The guessing game.

21 See Jailan Halawi and Salonaz Sami, 'shattered dreams," Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 27 April - 3 May 2006.

22 Michael Slackman, "Peacekeepers Targets of New Sinai Attacks," NYT, April 27, 2006.

23 See Neveen Mahish and Sherine Abdel-Razek, The guessing game.

24 Meanwhile, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's aka. Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a Syrian who also holds Spanish citizenship, was captured in a November 2005 sting operation in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta. See "Report: Top Al Qaeda Fugitive Detained," CBS/AP, May 2, 2006.

25 See Ely Karmon, "Who bombed Northern Israel? Al-Qaida and Palestine," 1 January 2006, at http://www.ict.org.il/Article.aspx?ID=1139

26 See at http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2006/jv10no1a1.html.