- Islamic State and al Qaeda militants in mainland Egypt are still a minor threat to soft targets in the area.
- The schism between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, however, will continue to limit Islamist factions in Egypt.
- If a professional terrorist cadre returns to Egypt, it will pose a more acute threat to harder targets.
The activities of radical jihadist groups have died down in mainland Egypt in recent months, but that does not mean the country's security situation is settled. Low-level attacks against police officers and other targets, for example, still occur. But between government crackdowns and internal disagreements, Egyptian jihadist groups' power to conduct sophisticated, large-scale operations appears to have been suppressed.
Egypt has a long history of radical and even militant Islamism. Ideologues such as Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna held sway in the 1920s, followed by radical theorist Sayyid Qutb in the 1960s. Jihadist groups such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gamaah al-Islamiyah were active in the country from the late 1970s through the 1990s. And perhaps one of the most well-known manifestations of militant Islam was the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo by members of Gamaah al-Islamiyah.
Egyptians have also served as notable figures in international jihadist operations. Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the leader of Gamaah al-Islamiyah, was arrested in 1993 and convicted for his role in fomenting terrorist plots in the United States, where he is still in prison. The leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, eventually helped found al Qaeda and became the transnational terrorist group's leader after the death of Osama bin Laden.
But after Sadat's assassination, the administration of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, came down hard on Egypt's jihadists, imprisoning many and chasing others from the country. Some who went into exile became enmeshed in the armed struggles in Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Those who stayed had a difficult time establishing themselves in the Egyptian mainland during Mubarak's reign. Al Qaeda attempted to launch a franchise group in Egypt in 2006 but could not gain much traction. It was simply nowhere near as active and effective as Tawhid wa al-Jihad was in Sinai during the same period. Yet a weak jihadist presence persisted in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Then came the 2011 revolution that led to Mubarak's overthrow and the election of President Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had renounced violence in the 1970s and had become a political entity. During the uprising and in its aftermath, hundreds of political prisoners, including a number of jihadists, were released. They went on to play a leading role in helping to form the Muhammad Jamal Network and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which by late 2013 had become the most active and deadly terrorist group in Egypt, with cells in both the mainland and the Sinai Peninsula.
The 2013 coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's current president, that toppled Morsi just a year into his term pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to the margins of power. But despite the Egyptian government's repeated claims, it is unlikely that a link exists between the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Some Egyptian commentators have classified the latter as the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. But these claims appear to be politically motivated, an attempt to justify the Egyptian government's crackdown on the group, which it has designated a terrorist organization. And when a significant portion of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis became the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, it helped underscore just how incorrect these assertions were. While Ansar Beit al-Maqdis had been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State has labeled the group as apostate. Certainly, some young Muslims who had been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood became disillusioned by the group's policy of nonviolence and joined jihadist groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr. But it is evident that those jihadist groups are not and were not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Great Schism and a Split in Egypt
The schism that developed between the Islamic State in Iraq and al Qaeda in 2013, and eventually led to the breaking of ties between the two groups and their affiliates in 2014, had a major impact on jihadists in Egypt — especially Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, whose mainland organization split into two factions. Before the division, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' mainland cells were led by former Egyptian special operations forces officer Hisham Ashmawy. After the split, Ashmawy retained leadership of the faction of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis that remained loyal to al Qaeda. The second faction, which joined Wilayat Sinai, was led by Ashmawy's deputy, Ashraf el-Gharably.
Lead Analyst: Scott Stewart