The Sinai extremist hub

HSI INTERVIEW with Dr Nageh Ibrahim: Militant Salafi jihadists exploited a security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula to train for three years ahead of an assassination attempt on Egypt’s interior minister in September. The co-founder of an Islamic group that has renounced violence says the militants were aided by foreigners with combat experience from Syria and by ex-officers of the Egyptian military.

Abdelwahab Eliwa

On September 5, a bomb ripped through a convoy of cars in downtown Cairo. The explosion killed a police officer and wounded many others, while the intended target ­– Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s interior minister – escaped unharmed.

In August Ibrahim had led a bloody crackdown against supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and his backers, the Muslim Brotherhood, that left hundreds dead. Three days after the bomb attack on Ibrahim, the militant Salafi Muslim group Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis) took blame, calling the bombing the “Invasion of Revenge for the Muslims of Egypt” and warning online that “what is coming is worse and more bitter”.

On December 24 Ansar Bait al-Maqdis carried out a suicide attack targeting the Daqahla security directorate in Mansoura, killing 16 and injuring more than 100.

Photo: Shutterstock

VACUUM: A security vacuum in Sinai made it possible for several extremist groups to train and prepare for high profile terror attacks in Egypt. Photo: Shutterstock. Under copyright.

Dr Nageh Ibrahim, co-founder of another Sunni Muslim group, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), says Ansar Jerusalem is a largely Palestinian group founded in the Gaza Strip, which borders Sinai. It had help, he says, from a Sunni militant group called Kataeb al-Farouq (al-Farouq Islamic Brigades) as well as from Syria-trained jihadists from Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia in addition to Egypt.

“They also received training and help in operational planning from army officers who were discharged from the Egyptian army because of their ideological extremism, including the officer who supervised the assassination attempt on the minister of interior,” Ibrahim tells HSI in an exclusive interview. A video claiming responsibility has been posted on YouTube.

Ibrahim is considered the leading ideologist for The Islamic Group and was a key force behind the group’s public renouncement of violence in the late 1990s. However, the organization is still included on U.S. and European Union lists of terror groups.

Ibrahim himself spent 24 years in prison for his part in a terrorist attack in Asuit in 1981, two days after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In 2011, he was quoted as calling the act a mistake: “Sadat had stopped torture and abolished emergency law, but we young people didn’t realise the value of those steps until after his death.”

He tells HSI that he now believes an “ideological solution” must be found for Sinai, but he warned that violence, including almost daily conflicts between security forces and militant Islamists or others, could well last another year.

That Sinai security vacuum, due in part to a reduced Egyptian military presence, existed even before the Arab Spring spilled over into Egypt with protests in early 2011, sparking the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power.

However, violence worsened across the country after July’s military coup deposed Mubarak’s successor, Morsi, and nowhere has the fighting turned worse than in Sinai, which is larger in area than Croatia.

“The geographical structure of Sinai, the existence of tunnels and the security vacuum were the reasons why it was possible to establish training camps in Sinai, where they could go in and out of Gaza through the tunnels,” Ibrahim explains.

He says Sinai “has an important and strategic position” close to the Suez Canal and Israel, as well as having Cairo and other populated areas in easy striking distance.

According to Ibrahim, all five elements required for the formation of an armed militant group were present in Sinai after the Egyptian uprising that began on 25 January 2011: 1) availability of weapons; 2) angry, frustrated people, 3) safe bases; 4) isolation, and 5) funding.

The weapons, he says, came to Sinai through tunnels and other conduits. Local people, including prison escapees, joined protests on the Friday of Anger (26 Jan. 2011). The terrain provided isolation and security. Funding came from like-minded groups and countries.

“These organizations started out simply, with just a few (members). But the organizations soon became much larger, attracting direct and indirect help and funding from certain countries,” Ibrahim told HSI. He did not say which countries.

He says Ansar Jerusalem is driven by a Takfiri ideology, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim view that divides the world into believers and non-believers. Adherents may even denounce other kinds of Muslims as infidels, a view Ibrahim says his own group does not share.

Ansar Jerusalem “was formed in the Gaza when Hamas was in control, and after the Revolution of 25 January it was able to benefit from the security vacuum situation in Sinai and the ease of moving to it through the tunnels,” Ibrahim says. “This organization recruited from among the people of Sinai.”

Ansar Jerusalem and Kataeb Al-Forqan (The Criterion Brigades) are the main armed religious groups not only in Sinai, but in all of Egypt, according to Ibrahim.

“Kataeb Al-Forqan is a purely Egyptian organization, but it also adheres to the jihadist Takfiri ideology,” he says. “It exists in the governorate of Cairo and especially in Lower Egypt, (in towns) like Zagazig, Mansoura and Matrouh. They can organize strong attacks with an economic or political impact that hurts the Egyptian state.”

He says the arrest of key Ansar Jerusalem leader Nabil El-Maghrabi in October was a severe blow to that group.

“There are also other small and limited groups like Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Jihad), Magles Shora Al-Mojahden and Jundallah, but they do not have much impact,” he says.

Ansar Jerusalem and Kataeb Al-Forqan differ in both goals and tactics.

Ibrahim says Ansar Jerusalem sticks mainly to bombs, as were used in its claimed attacks on intelligence services headquarters in Rafah, in south Sinai and in the attempted assignation of Interior Minister Ibrahim in Cairo. Kataeb Al-Forqan generally prefers direct assault, using automatic weapons or rocket-propelled grenades, says Dr Ibrahim.

He says Ansar Jerusalem trained for at least three years in Sinai, learning to use weapons and bombs. He claimed that Hamas officers from Gaza, as well as ex-Egyptian army officers expelled for extremism, aided them in training and preparation for the attack on the interior minister.

According to Ibrahim, the 5 September assassination attempt appears to be part of a change in strategy by the group, which he says has been responsible for some 500 attacks in the past three years against such targets as Sinai gas pipelines. He says the group began extending its reach into the Cairo area after Morsi was sworn in as president on 30 June 2012, as demonstrated by the failed attack on the interior minister and by the group’s claim of responsibility for the subsequent killing of Lt Col Mohamed Mabrouk, a national security officer responsible investigating and arresting Muslim Brotherhood members.

Ibrahim says the group has become increasingly aware of the usefulness of media coverage, due largely to training by Palestinian militants in Gaza. Prior to 25 January 2011, it had never released images of its attacks, such as those targeting tourist destinations in the mid-2000s. Now it releases video of both preparations and operations.

“Their goal is to gain sympathy from the Egyptian public, like what Kataeb al-Qasesam (the military wing of the Palestine Sunni organization Hamas) does after operations against Israel,” Ibrahim tells HSI.

“In this respect, they send several messages: They try to embarrass the army, show their ability to fight and take revenge on the security services.”

Dr. Nageh Ibrahim.

Dr Nageh Ibrahim

He says Ansar Jerusalem initially targeted police officers and stations, but turned on the army after its bloody May 2012 crackdown against demonstrators at the defence ministry in Abbasiya, and other violent clashes.

“The group killed 16 soldiers in Sinai in revenge against the army (in October 2012). And this was their first attack on the military,” he says.

Kataeb Al-Forqan, in contrast, seeks out economic or political targets. Dr Ibrahim says the attacks for which it has taken blame include firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a Chinese ship in the Suez Canal in September; attacking Copts (the native Christians of Egypt) at the Waraq church near Cairo in October; killing Col Mohammed al-Komi, a senior Egyptian army officer in Sinai, in August; and attacking a key satellite communications station, at Maadi, in October.

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