Sunday,20 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)
Sunday,20 August, 2017
Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Understanding terrorism

How should the current wave of terrorism afflicting Egypt and the Middle East best be analysed, ask Ahmed Eleiba  


Understanding terrorism (photo: Mohammed Hassanien)

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Terrorism in Egypt and the region as a whole remains a constant threat even if some terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) group are receding. The phenomenon might resurface in other ways and forms in the near future, and for this reason Al-Ahram Weekly hosted a roundtable bringing together a group of experts in the field in order to assess the current situation and formulate potential future scenarios.

The discussion was moderated by Weekly Editor-in-Chief Ezzat Ibrahim.

Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayat, an advisor at the National Centre for Middle East Studies, opened the discussion with observations that he said might appear formalistic. Firstly, we do not follow the publications and broadcasts of terrorist organisations as closely as we should, and therefore we may be taken by surprise by events even though we could have seen them coming, he said.

Secondly, we often treat terrorism as a separate phenomenon whereas in fact it is interrelated with many others. Our focus on it as a partial phenomenon considerably hampers possibilities for a radical solution to the problem. Thirdly, it is important to bear in mind the obvious linkage between terrorism in Egypt and terrorism in the wider region. This linkage has become increasingly distinct. Fourthly, there is a perceptual issue related to how we think about the “ends” and “beginnings” of terrorist organisations. When Al-Qaeda declined, attention turned to the entity that emerged from it, namely IS. Today, IS is nearing an end, and attention is shifting to its possible successor.

Turning to the question of what could emerge after the near destruction of IS in Syria and Iraq, Al-Zayat said that Al-Qaeda still has a considerable presence in the region and that it is working to inherit the IS legacy. “If the IS leadership is eliminated, this will mean that the organisation will revert to the embrace of Al-Qaeda as the mother organisation. In fact, signs of this already began to emerge over a year ago, even before people began to speak about ‘the end of IS’,” he said.

A chief manifestation of this was when the main faction of Al-Qaeda in Syria — the Al-Nusra Front — announced its intention to split away from Al-Qaeda. What was curious about this was that the central Al-Qaeda organisation under its leader Ayman Al-Zawahri welcomed the move which preluded actions the organisation could take to reshape itself and recast its image.

“Eliminating the organisation [IS] in Syria and Iraq doesn’t mean that the organisation will be eliminated,” Al-Zayat continued. “It means the beginning of the growth of the organisation in other areas such as Libya and a heightened focus on Egypt in particular, as these areas attract terrorist groups. It also means more ‘lone-wolf’ type actions globally.” 

He pointed to developments in Iraq and Syria and the liberation of the cities of Mosul and Raqqa in particular and observed how few IS POWs had been taken. “They are talking about some 250 prisoners in Iraq. What happened to the 30,000 fighters, according to the testimonies of US experts, who were in Iraq alone? Where are the ones who were in Syria? If we are to presume that all of those were killed, where are the bodies,” he asked.

With regard the Egyptian case, Al-Zayat pointed to the model of how terrorist activities unfold: “a fertile environment in which everyone is afraid to talk openly even though the problem is staring them in the face.” He also raised another important issue with regard to the evolution of IS practices. The organisation has begun to develop its activities in accordance with an approach that could be termed “possible terrorism”, meaning that it does not need cadres, or sleeping cells, or fighters arriving from abroad, but merely individuals who subscribe to IS ideas and its notion of a caliphate and who practise “jihad” by whatever means available, including running over people with trucks, stabbing them with knives or drive-by shootings.

At another level, Al-Zayat called into question the US approach to fighting terrorism. “Is the US really engaged in a war against terrorism,” he asked. “I doubt it. I believe that the US is not serious about the fight against terrorism. Rather, it is managing a process of fighting against terrorist operations.”

He explained that after the Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi Organisation emerged in Iraq, large numbers of its leaders were arrested and confined in the Camp Bucca Prison in which there were also intelligence officers and republican guards from the former Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. “The groups fused with IS. Then they were all released, including Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, and the organisation emerged more powerful and violent than ever.”

On top of this there was the problem of Qatar’s funding of the organisations. “It has been reported that Doha has spent $14 billion distributed through two sources, one in Turkey and the other the US-led Military Operations Centre (MOC) based in Amman, which also served as a conduit for delivering arms. “More than 1,000 US experts are still in Jordan and operating in this manner,” he said.


BORDER THREATS: General Mohamed Ibrahim, former deputy-director of Egyptian General Intelligence and head of the Israeli Studies Unit at the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Council, addressed the status of Egypt’s eastern borders and potential threats from both Israel and Gaza.

The border with Israel was “stable, safe and secure”, he said. “We have a peace treaty that will be 40 years old in less than two years and both sides — Egypt and Israel — fully respect the treaty. All border violations that have occurred, and they have been few, have been contained through the communications channels established between the two countries. We have no problem with Israel in this regard at present.”

On the other hand, the security agreements with Israel worked to encourage terrorism. Ibrahim explained that the Peace Treaty designated the size of the Egyptian forces that could be stationed in Sinai, especially in “Area C” adjacent to the borders which consists of an approximately 10km-wide strip from the Mediterranean to Taba. “As the years passed, that provision became one of the factors that encouraged terrorism in the area in view of the security vacuum there. There was only a local police presence in that area,” he said.

Another issue was the Israeli proposal for a land-exchange deal between Egypt, Gaza and Israel, even if this was still under study in various research centres and had never been mooted at an official level.

The situation with Gaza was of a totally different order, Ibrahim said. Extremist organisations began to appear there in 2000. By 2002, the phenomenon had become more visible through the proliferation of Afghan-style dress in imitation of that worn by Al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It was particularly pronounced in the Palestinian side of Rafah with the rise of such organisations as Geish Al-Islam and the Mujahideen Shura Council.

The other and more dangerous factor in Gaza, according to Ibrahim, was what he termed the “Sharon Project”, which interweaves with other factors. “The Sharon Project was extremely clever and hazardous. Israel withdrew from Gaza with no advance preparation. Then Palestinian legislative elections were held in January 2006, which brought Hamas to power with a sweeping majority. Hamas then formed a government on its own without including any other Palestinian faction and its power began to grow.”

A third important factor was the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by extremist organisations which then passed him to Hamas. Then followed the Hamas coup that enabled the organisation to tighten its hold in Gaza, because there had been no other force to rival it since mid-2007. Around that time, the relationship between Hamas, the Palestinian Jihad and other extremist groups in Gaza started to grow closer with their counterparts in Sinai. “There were relations at all levels: logistical, ideological, smuggling weapons and so on,” said Ibrahim. “The geographical expansion was a tangible reality.” Capitalising on its strengths, Hamas strove to become a parallel authority to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and to claim both political and military decision-making powers.

He went on to list three other factors crucial to shaping the situation in Gaza: the 25 January Revolution in Egypt with its detrimental impact on Egyptian national security in Sinai; the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, enabling an unprecedented rise in weapons and other smuggling activities through Sinai-Gaza tunnels and the passage to and fro of operatives under the sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis declaration of allegiance to IS and the creation of the so-called “Sinai Province”.

“All these factors combined to form a bleak picture of the region,” Ibrahim said. But he also noted positive factors, foremost among them the 30 June Revolution “which marked the real beginning of the second drive to recover Sinai”. Another was the ability to introduce security and military forces into Sinai in unprecedented numbers and levels, despite the provisions of the security annexes of the Camp David Accords.

Ibrahim went on to outline five courses of action that should be pursued simultaneously in handling the western front. Firstly, to sustain the military/security campaigns against the terrorists in Sinai, delivering painful blows to them and destroying the terrorist infrastructure in Sinai to the greatest possible extent. The second is to learn lessons from experiences involving the terrorist attacks against Egypt. The third is to promote economic development in Sinai. Fourthly, Hamas must be forced to face up to its responsibility to contain the situation in Gaza and to prevent it from reaching explosion point.

Understanding terrorism (photo: Mohammed Hassanien)

Finally, Hamas and Gaza’s security and economic actions must be linked to the political dimension and, specifically, to the Palestinian cause, which needs to be revived along with efforts to resume the Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation process.


THE WESTERN BORDERS: Weekly military affairs editor Ahmed Eleiba, presenting a paper on this issue at the roundtable, observed that the geographical length of the western border did not constitute a threat in and of itself, and that it was therefore necessary to distinguish between that length and the stretches of the border that are threatened due to the presence of a terrorist threat on the other side.

There are three areas of concern. The first is the Egyptian-Libyan border extending some 1,200km southwards from the Mediterranean. The second is the joint maritime zone from after Sidi Barrani in Egypt to Musaed in Libya. This coastal area was the scene of intensive arms smuggling during the chaotic period between the 25 January Revolution and the 30 June Revolution. The third critical area is to the southwest in the triangle formed at the juncture of Egypt’s borders with Libya and Sudan in the area known as Gabal Al-Oweinat. Due to features of the terrain there are a number of hot spots or flash points within these three border areas, such as extremely steep mountain paths.

“There are extensive tracts along the borders that complicate the task of securing them and require more intensive security arrangements,” Eleiba said, adding that there were a number of indications that this challenge was being handled effectively. One was the construction of the Barrani Base that was inaugurated this week. Already existing security/military concentrations were being bolstered with additional personnel and arms. At the same time, pre-emptive operations were deemed necessary, at least at the outset, especially following the terrorist attack in Minya.

Eleiba’s second main point regarding the situation along the western border had to do with the possibility of the increased proliferation of terrorist organisations in Libya due to the ongoing political crisis in the country and the decline of IS in Iraq and Syria. Of particular concern was southern Libya following the expulsion of IS and other terrorist organisations from the towns of Sirte and Benghazi after successful campaigns on the part of the Libyan army, he said.

The Shura Council of the Derna Mujahideen was still confined to its position and seemed only to have been affected by the two strikes delivered by Egypt. Eleiba noted that the organisations that had emerged from Al-Qaeda and then from IS had a number of tactics and strategies in common, such as targeting Copts in Egypt, supporting their counterparts in Sinai, and targeting border patrol checkpoints in Farafra and the New Valley, which had come under attack by both organisations in 2014 and 2016.

The foregoing relates to a third point raised by Eleiba, which concerned the challenges facing the international support needed to resolve the political crisis in Libya. On the one hand, the Western powers have been hampering efforts on the part of supporters of the Libyan National Army, Egypt above all, while simultaneously continuing to prohibit the provision of arms to that army. On the other hand, certain parties have deliberately worked to undermine political proposals and initiatives aimed at promoting understanding between the Libyan factions in the west and east.


TERRORISM IN SINAI: This topic was addressed by Brigadier-General Khaled Okasha, director of the National Centre for Security Studies, who described how the terrorist threat had increased sharply in 2011 against the backdrop of the security breakdown in Sinai.

“That one critical year in the history of Egypt made it possible for terrorist organisations to establish a foothold and infiltrate the area,” he said. But this had been compounded by the effects of another year: the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. This proved even more dangerous as the phenomenon proliferated among Sinai tribes and in the border region due to the support it received from Hamas.

“Some 12 militias proclaimed themselves, issued statements, and held meetings, all of which was crowned with the declaration of the so-called Shura Council of Mujahideen, which was a kind of board of directors for the militias that the Muslim Brotherhood saw as its armed backing,” he said.

Turning to the period following the 30 June Revolution, Okasha related that government agencies were now alert to the growing danger and aware that the state had largely lost control over extensive areas near the border. Action had to be taken, and it was, in the first intensive confrontation against terrorism in that area and as part of efforts to make up for the lack of security there. 

In the face of a powerful and intensive onslaught by the Armed Forces, the terrorist organisations responded with steps that led to a qualitative shift in the confrontation. They moved to unite the organisations into single entities, the largest of which was the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis which waged a war against the 30 June Revolution and the state agencies.

“In the first stage of the confrontation, the Armed Forces accomplished major successes,” Okasha said, adding that an estimate placed the number of terrorist operatives at 5,000, a large percentage of whom had come from countries abroad. A significant number had surfaced in other governorates in the Nile Valley and Delta, but these had been quickly routed. At one point, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was surrounded and it seemed as though it was nearing its end. But then came the third phase, which was ushered in by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ declaration of allegiance to IS.

According to Okasha, the army and government had a number of successes in handling the situation in the area, especially those people who had to be evacuated. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through, however, he said. “There had been a plan to absorb these people in a plan to build a ‘New Rafah’ elsewhere and to distribute plots of land. Such ideas evaporated, and all that remains are media statements that are repeated like broken records with no bearing on what is actually happening on the ground.”

The next stage began on 1 July 2015 when the terrorist organisations attempted to seize control of the town of Sheikh Zuweid. “That attempt was driven back and defeated in a powerful and positive campaign in which the Armed Forces were backed by security agencies. Afterwards, we moved to third and fourth periods of encirclement, but we were unable to consolidate those victories and the situation slipped out of control. These breakdowns occurred after reasonable periods of control during which it was possible to build on them in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid,” he said.

Okasha concluded by underscoring a phenomenon that will remain a challenge in Sinai, which is that the environment is conducive to extremism and terrorism. “There is a significant segment of the population there that shifts from the side of the state to the other side with lightning speed. It’s as though they are watching a football match between two teams: the army and the police, on one side, and the terrorists on the other. They sit around and gossip about the side that scores a goal against the other team.”

Ahram Weekly roundtable (photo: Mohammed Hassanien)

RANDOM TERRORISM: Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, addressed the phenomenon of “random terrorism” at two levels: in the Egyptian interior and in Sinai.

Although the phenomenon began to proliferate after 2013, Al-Beheiri noted precedents such as the attacks in Abdel-Moneim Riad Square in 2005 and in Hussein Square in Cairo in 2009. Such attacks, carried out by individuals prone to extremism but not affiliated with any known organisation, had surfaced elsewhere in a rare and intermittent way before 2011. Then, against the backdrop of the security breakdown and the collapse of the security system for four years, a crisis in the availability of intelligence combined with the fluidity in the organisations that attracted individuals unknown to the security agencies began to aggravate the problem.

It was further complicated by the interweave between newly declared organisations and older ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood and by the surreptitious travels of members of these organisations to Syria and back again undetected by the Egyptian security agencies.

A crucial turning point came in the wake of the 30 June Revolution. “Random terrorism spread in diverse forms following the break-up of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in in Cairo, as a kind of act of vengeance on the part of Brotherhood members,” Al-Beheiri related. “It manifested itself in the church burnings, the blocking of roads, IEDs placed under electricity pylons, etc. These acts were undertaken by assorted Brotherhood youths or Salafis or, at best, loose entities that could not be called organised groups. The activities for the most part could be characterised as acts of violence, only occasionally reaching the level of terrorist attacks, such as the targeting of security personnel.”

Al-Beheiri added that this situation did not last and that in 2014 there emerged what he described as “unconventional terrorism” in the IS mode undertaken by organisations with a pyramid-style hierarchy that embraced the radical creeds of Sunni groups.

Terrorism of this sort has a number of traits. The first of these, according to Al-Beheiri, is the rhetoric used in its statements and declarations that is political in nature. The statement that “the people are the source of all authority,” often heard, is a concept rejected by the jihadist organisations, which prefer to speak of “divine sovereignty”, for example. A second characteristic is the retribution motive, one of the chief incentives behind acts of random terrorism. This relates to a third trait, which is the rapid recruitment of most of those who joined the groups after 2011. The phenomenon is new to the Muslim Brotherhood and contrary to the indoctrination practices of the organisation during its earlier years. But within three years, Muslim Brotherhood youth had entered an armed phase in an underground manner.

As for the instruments used, the available information indicates that the three Brotherhood-affiliated armed organisations — Hasm (Decisiveness), Lewaa Al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Al-Iqab Al-Thawri (Revolutionary Retribution) — have relied on instruments that are easily portable, available on the market and powerful, as has been evidenced by the materials used to booby trap vehicles or blow up cars. For the most part, the targets are policemen or soldiers, or members of the judiciary, as was the case with the assistant prosecutor-general, or important symbols of authority, such as the attack against the former mufti of Egypt.

Another characteristic resides in the use of media and information technology. “Clearly, the groups are now quicker and more proficient in their use of media. Video clips feature sound effects reminiscent of professional documentary films. And these features require skills and equipment,” Al-Beheiri said. The last characteristic has to do with the areas in which they are concentrated, primarily in the urban areas rather than the countryside, which helps explain why the greatest number of random attacks have taken place in Cairo and its vicinity and to a lesser extent in the capitals of other governorates in the Delta or Fayoum.

Al-Beheiri spoke of a scenario he described as “a change from the conventional to the unconventional,” which, he said, had been informed by the proximity between these new organisations and conventional Islamist organisations. In the case of the attack on the Ismailia camp, some of the terrorists had received training in Syria, and two of them had been involved in operations in Sinai, after which they had moved to the Nile Valley.

In Al-Beheiri’s opinion, this scenario will most likely gain ground in the post-IS period. “We are therefore looking at a situation in which organisations will draw closer together and intertwine, producing more brutality. They will emerge from the Muslim Brotherhood, and they might place themselves under the umbrella of the Islamic State.”


ARMIES AND TERRORISM: This central issue was taken up by Galal Nassar, the Weekly’s former editor-in-chief and a specialist in military affairs.

The Islamist trend has become the most important weapon for Washington, to which testify actual practices, realities and institutions on the ground. Nassar cited the US intelligence officer Emil Nakhla as saying there was a belief in Washington that the 57 Islamic countries in the world should be ruled by Islamists. “They believe that the Islamist movement has a pragmatic trend that has means that can be utilised,” Nassar said. 

He also observed that the economic crisis that has gripped the world since 2008 had triggered further crises merely in order to pay the costs. Trump had begun to exact from the countries of the region the costs of the next war. There was a bill to be paid, and it could not be known how the money would be spent.

Nassar added that following the 11 September attacks against the US, this scenario had taken another course as the notion of neutralising national armies had taken hold. Embroiling them in confrontations with terrorist organisations was one way to achieve this. Around that time, there had begun to emerge problems along international borders, such as cross-border arms and drug- smuggling and infiltrations, which had given rise to the realisation that armies were needed to confront these phenomena.

But rather than regular standing armies to face down the militias, Washington came up with its “Petraeus creed”. Discussed with Egypt on a number of occasions, the idea was to transform national armies into anti-terrorist battalions or small “mobile” armies consisting of relatively small combat groups that would be armed and trained to perform only certain functions. In this way, it would be possible to dispense with the idea of large standing armies that could engage in direct confrontations with others.

Another idea was the private security firms that do not know the enemy they face and contract and supply militias. “The basic purpose of such ideas was to ensure that there would be no national armies to deal with when the Islamists came to power. This serves the Islamist creed and design,” Nassar said. On top of this had come what Nassar termed “fourth-generation wars” which experimented with various means of psychological warfare.

“The fourth-generation wars include various inputs and outputs controlled through the media and targeting a certain army or institution or state. Even before the Arab Spring, the situation was ripe for this in view of the prevalent poverty, despair, despotic rule and other factors that had prepared the soil.” Nassar pointed out that this type of surreptitious war was still unfolding in deliberate ways, but that people had not been fortified against its tactics and propaganda because some individuals had handled the matter in such a way as to reduce it to a subject of ridicule.

Nassar turned to address another important dimension of the question of armies versus terrorism: namely military rules. “When we compare what is happening in Sinai to what is happening in Mosul, it becomes clear that the rule of the Egyptian military prohibits certain types of operations, such as the ones being carried out by the armies and militias in the war in Mosul. The Egyptian army absolutely rejects inflicting harm on civilians and innocent people,” he said.

Part of the current propaganda war involved the way insurgent militias and anti-state forces are portrayed in certain quarters of the foreign press. In particular, the term “armed opposition” has been coined to be used whenever convenient in order to confer a form of legitimacy on an opposition movement that seeks recourse to armed force.

Nassar concluded by saying that “the current situation in the region is far bigger than a mere military confrontation on the ground. There is an environment for breeding terrorism, a climate, a media battle, and all the rest of the instruments used in the fourth-generation wars that are managed behind the scenes by organisations and private security firms engaged for certain purposes.”

“The theatre of operations is no longer western or western zones, but rather institutions as well.”

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