Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Terror’s shifting battleground

The assassination of a senior military officer near Cairo signals a change in tactics by terrorist groups, writes Ahmed Morsy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

An army officer was killed on Saturday outside his home in Obour city, 35km north-east of Cairo. Brigadier General Adel Ragaai, 52, a commander in the Ninth Armoured Division, was leaving home in the early hours when armed assailants opened fire on him, his driver and bodyguard. Ragaai and the driver died shortly after being taken to hospital. His bodyguard is still being treated for injuries.

Hours after the attack the obscure militant group Lewaa Al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) claimed responsibility via its Twitter account. “A group of our fighters eliminated the criminal Adel Ragaai, one of Al-Sisi’s militia leaders, this morning, shooting him in the head and taking his weapon,” the tweet reads.

According to security sources, three Muslim Brotherhood members have been identified as suspects. They are thought to have used a rented apartment on the outskirts of Obour city to plan the assassination. The three suspects remain at large though investigators have identified the car used in the attack.

In a later statement Lewaa Al-Thawra justified its action as revenge for the killing of Mohamed Kamal, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who the Interior Ministry says it shot in the course of a gun battle earlier this month. The statement is the first clear link between the Brotherhood and a militant group.

This week’s assassination is the second operation for which Lewaa Al-Thawra has claimed responsibility. In August it said it was behind the attack that month against a police checkpoint in Sadat city, 94km north-west of Cairo. Two policemen were killed and five injured in the attack.

Lewaa Al-Thawra’s statement claimed Ragaai “led and participated in the forced displacement of our people in Sinai and the demolition of houses in Rafah city”.

The army began demolishing houses in Rafah, North Sinai, in 2014, razing 837 houses and moving over 1,000 families in order to create a buffer zone along the border with Gaza. In January 2015 the buffer zone was extended and 1,220 more houses demolished.

Though Ragaai once commanded the Rafah sector Al-Ahram Weekly has learned he left his position before the beginning of the first phase of the buffer zone to head the Ninth Armoured Division, responsible for securing the capital and six other governorates.

Former military intelligence officer Tamer Al-Shahawi, a member of parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee, says “the assassination of Ragaai confirms that terrorist groups are stepping up their operations.”

Ashraf Gamal, a colleague on the committee, agrees. “The assassination of Ragaai underlines the fact that the country is in a state of war and is being targeted by the forces of darkness,” Gamal told the Weekly.

The English edition of CCTV news website quoted Major General Samir Ragheb, head of the Arab Foundation for Strategic Studies, saying: “The terrorists succeeded in their main aim for the operation which was to send a message that the army has failed in protecting its own leaders, and citizens to feel that terrorism is getting closer to them.”

Although terrorist attacks against policemen and senior officials have grown in number in recent years, Saturday’s assassination is the first time a senior army officer has been targeted.

The assassination would have required Ragaai’s assailants to track his whereabouts and to have known the armoured vehicle in which he usually travelled was temporarily unavailable owing to maintenance. Some observers doubt the ability of a small militant group to have undertaken such an operation and have pointed the finger at the involvement of unnamed foreign intelligence services.

Security expert Hossam Sweilam discounts such speculation. “Any terrorist group with a modicum of experience can monitor when a potential target enters and leaves his house,” he says.

Sweilam told the Weekly that he did not, however, exclude the possibility that Brotherhood sympathisers within the army’s ranks may have provided the address of the target.

“The terrorists may have succeeded in assassinating their target but that success will backfire. The general public and the opposition responded by rallying behind Egypt’s political leadership. The terrorists also inadvertently alerted the people to the fact that the army acts as a safety valve for them and for the country,” says Sweilam.

Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as president in 2013 Egypt has been fighting an Islamist insurgency led by the Islamic State’s branch in North Sinai, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, during which hundreds of soldiers and police — mainly in North Sinai — have been killed. Though Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is at the forefront of militant groups launching attacks against security targets, since 2013 other smaller militant groups have emerged, claiming responsibility for minor attacks.

Last month another little-known militant movement, Hasm (Decisiveness), claimed responsibility for the failed assassination attempt on Deputy Prosecutor-General Zakaria Abdel-Aziz as his convoy was passing through the First Settlement of New Cairo. Hasm also claimed to be behind August’s failed attempt on the life of former mufti Ali Gomaa. In July 2015 a shadowy militant group claimed responsibility for the assassination of prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat whose motorcade was bombed days before the second anniversary of Morsi’s removal.

“The shift of terrorist operations from Sinai to Cairo is a result of the success of counter-terrorist operations on the peninsula. It is the beginning of the end for militant groups,” says Gamal. He added that the Defence and National Security Committee will hold a meeting on Sunday to discuss the latest developments.

Following Saturday’s assassination, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with senior security officials, including the defence and interior ministers. He ordered both to exercise maximum vigilance and increase security at vital public institutions.

Sweilam believes the heightened security alert must be ongoing.

“It needs to continue as long as the war on terrorism continues,” he added. In our war against terrorism, Sweilam says, we need to see such militant elements referred to quick and deterrent military trials. He added that, for example, Sinai-based militant leader Adel Habara who had been found guilty, with other five others, of killing 25 police conscripts in an ambush of a police convoy in Arish in August 2013 and received death sentence last year, is still alive.

In the wake of Ragaai’s assassination TV presenter Ahmed Moussa also called on Saturday for more military trials to be held.

International rights organisations have criticised Egypt for the number of civilians it tries before military courts. According to a report by Human Right Watch published in April, 7,420 civilians have appeared before military courts since October 2014, when Al-Sisi decreed a new law expanding military jurisdiction.

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