Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A Sinai militia map

A new study offers an authoritative account of the Islamist terrorist groups in Sinai, writes Hanan Haggag

A Sinai militia map


اقرأ باللغة العربية


The mounting frequency of attacks in Sinai has necessitated intensive academic and research efforts with an eye to formulating a detailed map of the terrorist and jihadist organisations in the region. This should identify the ideological and organisational origins of these groups and how they intersect with other Islamist organisations in the Middle East.

Two researchers, Maher Farghali and Salaheddin Hassan, have recently produced a comprehensive study based on documents and testimonies assembled from the organisations under study and from Egyptian intelligence agencies. This offers an authoritative reference work on what is happening in Sinai, which for nearly seven years has been the scene of various acts of extremism and terrorism.

During the months following the 25 January Revolution, old organisations recast themselves in new guises, while dozens of new organisations began to metamorphose into more tightly organised entities through interactions with major terrorist organisations abroad.

The story begins with the murderous attack on Egyptian soldiers in Rafah in 2012 that triggered a military operation that killed 32 people, according to the Armed Forces. The Rafah attack effectively marked the beginning of the still-unfolding war against terrorist groups in Sinai. It was also in this attack that the Sinai groups officially declared former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to be a “heretic” in spite of the considerable ideological overlap between them and Morsi given his membership in the same overarching Islamist movement. 

On the basis of information and testimonies collected in Arish and elsewhere, the authors of the study, entitled “Blood on the sands of Sinai”, describe how after the Rafah attack which claimed the lives of 16 officers and soldiers and wounded seven others Salafi leaders were tasked by Morsi to communicate with the leaders of takfiri groups in Sinai in order to persuade them to cease their attacks against Egyptian soldiers.

Through an interview with Yasser Borhami, a prominent Salafi leader in charge of the negotiations, the authors reveal how the Salafi groups ultimately shared a common ideological platform and perhaps the same goal as the takfiri trend, which was to establish their vision of an Islamic state.

Borhami said that some members of the extremist groups did not have weapons, while others had weapons but did not use them, and that the government should not use a military/security approach against them as long as they did not shed blood themselves. He denied that the jihadist Salafi groups were involved in a violent insurgency against the state, and he believed that dialogue could serve to end the type of violence that he said was a reaction to state violence that had begun against Sinai Bedouins in 2002.

Shortly before the Rafah attack, there was discussion in the media of a proposal to establish a religious academy in Sinai — the Furqan Institute for Islamic Sciences — with Gulf funding. Borhami did not rule out the possibility that the Rafah incident was planned by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and carried out by its collaborators with the purpose of embarrassing the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president of Egypt at the time and tarnishing the image of the Islamist movement as a whole.

Although the jihadist map of Sinai was still indistinct at the time, certain names had gained prominence. Foremost among these was Asaad Al-Bek, one of the most powerful jihadist Salafi figures in North Sinai. Al-Bek had established his own Islamic law court there and appointed himself judge and arbiter. He had also refused to receive Borhami on the grounds that he considered himself to be “more authorised” to handle religious questions.

Al-Bek denied that the mujahideen of Sinai, as he called them, had committed the Rafah attack. In spite of his dispute with Borhami, he too held that Israeli intelligence and its collaborators had been responsible.

The post-January Revolution period also brought the first attacks against the natural gas pipeline that passes through Sinai to Israel. No one at the time knew precisely who was responsible for these, but the bombings of the pipeline were cheered in Tahrir Square as a victory for the revolution even before former president Hosni Mubarak fell.

In fact, however, they marked the beginning of the rise of a new jihadist group in Sinai: Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Ideologically noted for its hatred of Israel and refusal to recognise the treaties or understandings with Tel Aviv, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis was an extension of the Jihad and Tawhid Group founded in Sinai in 1979 in the year in which Arish was restored to Egypt in accordance with the Camp David Accords.

The group became notorious for its attacks in Sinai, especially the Taba attack of 2004 and the Sharm El-Sheikh attack of 2006.

 

A NEW TERRORIST WAVE? Despite the ideological differences between the jihadists and the Muslim Brothers, whom they accused of apostasy at the time of the Morsi presidency and Muslim Brotherhood rule, the jihadist groups that launched the wave of terrorist attacks that struck after August 2013 claimed that these were to avenge the “martyrs” of Rabaa Square in Cairo.

 It would eventually become clear that this was a political pretext for terrorist attacks. As one jihadist at the time put it, the reason the groups accepted the Muslim Brotherhood regardless of the differences they had with it had to do with their faith in “the big fish eats the small fish” rule. To them, the Muslim Brotherhood was only one stage in the drive to reach their goal, the stage in which the Muslim Brotherhood fish devoured the liberal and secular fish following the revolution.

It would not be long before the jihadist groups revealed their true intentions by means of terrorist operations in which they made no mention of the Muslim Brotherhood or the “martyrs of Rabaa”, their catchword now being the “Islamic State” beloved of the emirs of terrorism.

A cloud of mystery enveloped the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group from the start, due to the murkiness surrounding its organisational structure and the identities of its emirs and members. However, many researchers who have been following terrorism in Sinai have drawn a link between Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and jihadist Salafist cells that fled from Gaza into Sinai towards the end of the first decade of this century after the violent clampdowns against them by Hamas and its military wing the Al-Qassam Brigades.

Although Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis had existed in Sinai some years before January 2011, it only declared its presence after the revolution and the weakening of the Egyptian security agencies. There are numerous testimonies asserting that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is an extension of the Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group founded by Khaled Masaad and Nasr Khamis Al-Malakhi. Indications of its affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq have also come to light.

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis sided openly with IS at the time of a dispute with Al-Qaeda and its leader Ayman Al-Zawahri. IS also issued a statement in which it referred to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis as the “mujahideen in Sinai” and called on it to “mine the roads [of the Egyptian army and security agencies], to cut off their heads, and to turn their lives into terror and hell.” Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis obeyed these instructions to the letter. Several days later it posted a video on the Internet with the title “They are the Enemy. Beware” showing scenes of the bombing of the house of a Sinai citizen whom they claimed was an “agent” of the Egyptian army.

As Farghali and Hassan point out, it could be that the fact that the Egyptian-born Al-Masry Abu Hamza Al-Mohagir was connected with the birth of IS helps to explain why the group set Egypt in its crosshairs in spite of its Iraqi birth. What is certain is that after the 25 January Revolution, the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group in Sinai sent a large number of its fighters for training in IS camps in Iraq. The security breakdown in Egypt helped make this possible, and later the security agencies may even have overlooked what it was doing.

Although Al-Qaeda was the mother organisation and the bearer of the banner of “global jihad”, disputes over strategies and doctrines seethed. These tensions erupted after the breakup of the Rabaa Square sit-ins in 2013 when Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis declared that it would act independently of any other party. In a message broadcast after the breakup of the Rabaa sit-ins and addressed to “loyal Islamists” it declared that all those who were killed in Rabaa had died “for the sake of combating Satan” and that from now on it “would move to champion God’s faith.”

However, eventually the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis-IS connection took precedence and loomed increasingly ominously, especially once the mother organisation had begun to supply its Sinai franchise with funds, training and fighters after seizing control of the oil and gas fields in Iraq and Syria.

The “Blood on the sands of Sinai” report addresses the nature of the relationship between Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai and those of its members who joined the ranks of IS in Iraq or Mujahideen Al-Sham in Syria. In a series of videos bearing the title “Messages from the Land of Epics”, Abu Muslim Al-Masry, a senior Islamic judge in IS-controlled Raqqa, promised to furnish the “mujahideen of Sinai” with money, arms and men to wage jihad against the Egyptian state.

Al-Masry called on the “faithful” to perform the “basic duty of jihad.” The connection between Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Sinai with IS in Iraq may explain why the group has persisted with its terrorist attacks in Sinai in spite of the many successful Egyptian military campaigns against it.


A Sinai militia map

TERRORISM ON THE BORDERS: Doctrinal differences and operational disputes between and within militant jihadist groups are frequent breeders of schisms and the rise of new movements.

These vary in their inclination towards more hardline radicalism or flexibility and moderation depending on the outlooks, attitudes and personal convictions of the breakaway factions. The Murabitoun is one of the most dangerous organisations to emerge from the rifts within the general jihadist ideological fold, but it was also shaped by significantly different mechanisms.

The leaders of the organisation are former army and police officers discharged for having embraced jihadist notions. Among the best-known are Tarek Abul-Azm (who formed the group’s Nasr City cell), Hisham Eshmawi, Walid Badr and Emad Al-Sayed. After engaging in terrorist activities in Libya and northern Mali and moving through various jihadist groups along the way, these men became associated with a new jihadist entity: the Murabitoun, which declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

After the 25 January Revolution, the Algerian emir of this organisation, Mokhtar Bel-Mokhtar, delivered a sermon addressed to “Muslims from the Atlantic to the Nile” clearly signalling that he considered Cairo to be within his province. Another significant implication, as the authors of the report point out, was that the practical links between the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Egypt and the mother organisation pass through their counterparts in North Africa, which is to say that Al-Qaeda regards Egypt as part of its North African, rather than its Levantine, sector.

In the same North African sphere, there emerged the Libyan group Ansar Al-Sharia. One of the most dangerous organisations to surface in Libya, it has offered logistical support, such as weapons or combat expertise, to Murabitoun affiliates in Sinai.

Hisham Ashmawi, a former officer who enlisted in the army in the mid-1990s and served in the Special Forces, is one of the most notorious figures associated with the Murabitoun. He is classified as extremely dangerous, firstly because of his excellent training and secondly because he remained incognito and under the intelligence agencies’ radar for years. After the revolution he went to Libya where he enlisted with Al-Qaeda. Then, after the overthrow of Morsi on 30 June 2013, he returned to Egypt and began to coordinate with Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.

Ashmawi staked out the movements of the interior minister preparatory to the assassination operation against him. He also colluded in the planning of the Farafra checkpoint massacre and the second Arish massacre in February 2015 in which 21 Armed Forces members were killed. However, when Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis declared its affiliation with IS, which conflicted with Ashmawi’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda, he split off and declared himself emir of the Murabitoun in Egypt. He then announced the creation of a Murabitoun brigade that would claim responsibility for terrorist operations staged from Libya, the most deadly being the Farafra attack carried out by gunmen arriving in vehicles from the direction of the Libyan border.

As the authors of “Blood on the sands of Sinai” observe, there are three major players carrying out activities in Egypt. The first is Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which later changed its name to IS “Sinai Province” and follows IS cues on matters of doctrine and heresy. The second is Agnad Misr, although this collapsed following the death of its founder Hamam Mohamed Atteya, leading its members to join other groups. The third is the Murabitoun, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that, according to the report, is the most dangerous organisation in Egypt due to its regional backing, its presence along the western borders, the fact that its leaders are outside of Egypt, and the high-quality training of its members.

In addition, it has the potential to move along the whole of Egypt’s extensive western borders, in contrast with Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis/Sinai Province which is geographically confined in Sinai.

As strong as the presence of the three groups is, the military and security forces also have to contend with what might be called independent terrorist cells. Their existence in Egypt dates back many years, and they include Gond Allah, active in Alexandria and Gharbeya governorates and founded by Ezzat Al-Naggar, Al-Geish Al-Islami (Islamic Army) led by Ahmed Nabawi, and the Al-Azhar group. All of these are small and had only limited activity in the years preceding the revolution. The leaders of these groups were released from prison after the 25 January Revolution.

Such small jihadist-oriented entities began to be utilised after the revolution because of the advantages they offered in terms of ideological centralisation (identifying with the same slogans and aims) and organisational decentralisation (unaffiliated organisationally). Effectively they are “flying columns” ideologically bound to the main organisations in three ways: pledges of allegiance, common creeds and/or common aims.

By using them, the larger organisations have been able to ensure the spread of jihadist ideology among young people who would then be indoctrinated and primed to act on instructions when needed, after having independently equipped themselves in the methods of “resistance” up to and including carrying out terrorist attacks.

The cells operate in small independent cells, generally consisting of no more than a handful of individuals and headed by an emir. Their sole function is military. They do not practise any form of proselytising or political activity so as not to attract the attention of the security and intelligence agencies. Some of these tiny brigades eventually evolved into larger entities such as Agnad Misr and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Their existence ensures the continuity of the larger organisations.

The modus operandi of these cells varies from one to the other, depending on training and material and logistical considerations. The activities of those with limited training and resources inherently differ from those whose members have previous training and experience with weapons and explosives as remnants of dissolved jihadist organisations. At a qualitatively different level are the specifically formed squadrons with advanced operational, material and military capacities that are generally made up of individuals that have already received intensive training in underground operations.

Radical Islamist ideologues have devised a classification system for these units that can be found in the jihadist literature. They first category consists of squadrons whose task is ideological guidance, steering and indoctrination. The second consists of decentralised squadrons of elements actively contacted, recruited and put through intensive indoctrination, military and operational training sessions. Afterwards, these are sent off and are free to act and move around in keeping with the circumstances of their daily lives. They remain out of contact with the central squadrons.

The third type is in charge of proselytising and recruitment, and they have no involvement in military activities. They operate incognito, living ordinary lives in their various social communities, but are intellectually equipped to win people over to the ideas of militant jihadism.

The fourth category consists of the brigades that actually carry out terrorist operations. Generally these are made up of no more than 15 people.

 

HAZEMOUN: In order to understand the movements that provided a platform for jihadist ideology after the revolution, the study takes a closer look at Hazemoun, a movement that takes its name from the former Egyptian presidential elections candidate Hazem Abu Ismail.

Most of the radical groups whose members were arrested between 2014 and 2016 emerged from the fold of Hazemoun. This movement stands out from the other groups that emerged after the revolution because of its great fluidity. It contains a broad range of ideas from the spectrum of jihadist thought. It is not organised hierarchically or in cellular clusters, but is more of an ideological umbrella for people who subscribe to militant Islamist acts.

The movement has also been unique for its ability to include several other movements within its framework. One of these is Tollab Al-Sharia, one of the more active jihadist Salafist movements alleged to have organised the Media Production City siege.

If Hazemoun constituted Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ source of fresh recruits, the Najoun min Al-Nar (Spared from Hellfire) group constituted a historic source for it. Originating in the Mubarak era, it was one of the most sweeping in its condemnation of the state and society as being “heretical”. Combining ideas from the Jihad organisation and Shoukri Mustafa’s Gamaat Al-Muslimeen, the Najoun min Al-Nar holds that even to work in a government agency or pray in a state-run mosque is sinful.

Its apostate blacklist included all the members of the police force, the army and the judiciary, and the organisation sanctified the shedding of their blood. Consolidating its ideological and organisational organisation between 1983 and 1986, it was implicated in the attempted assassinations of former interior minister Hassan Abu Basha and of Makram Mohamed Ahmed. It also attempted to assassinate minister of the interior Nabawi Ismail. The religio-doctrinal justification for these acts was the same as that used to justify the attack against Egyptian soldiers in Rafah in 2012.

The geography of the jihadist camps is no less important than the organisational map or theoretical grounding of their ideas. A map of the jihadist camps offers military and security officials a guide for taking them on directly. “Blood on the sands of Sinai” lists three such camps situated in Libya near Egypt’s western border that it describes as more precarious due to the extensive length of the border and the mountainous terrain. These are the Zintan camp controlled by the Libyan Ansar Al-Sharia, the Abu Salim camp, which specialises in training and priming suicide bombers, and the Gabal Al-Akhdar barracks located in the command centre of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Reportedly the most advanced and best equipped of the camps, the latter operates like an academy, organising regularly scheduled programmes and courses. It specialises in manufacturing explosives and training in heavy weapons.


(This article is based on “Blood on the sands of Sinai” by Maher Farghali and Salaheddin Hassan. Recently published in Morocco, this is the first major study of armed Islamist activities in Sinai.)

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