assessments

Assessing the Jihadist Threat in Egypt: Mainland Egypt

10 MINS READJun 30, 2016 | 09:17 GMT
Assessing the Jihadist Threat in Egypt: Mainland Egypt
(MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
Police raids apparently have degraded the capabilities of Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State-aligned remnant of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, that claimed credit for a July 2015 explosion outside the Italian Consulate in Cairo.
Forecast Highlights

  • 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.

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Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' split was significant, because up to that point the group had proved itself to be highly competent and capable of undertaking large and complex terrorist attacks. In September 2013, the group narrowly missed in its attempt to assassinate Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim with a large vehicle bomb. In January 2014, the group conducted another attack using a large vehicle bomb, this time against the Cairo Security Directorate, heavily damaging an important symbol of the government's power. On June 29, 2015, the group struck again, killing Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat with a powerful vehicle bomb in an echo of the attempt on Ibrahim's life.

The Egyptian government has claimed that Barakat was killed by Muslim Brotherhood members who had been trained by Hamas in the West Bank, but the operation bore striking similarities to the Ibrahim attack. A more likely explanation is that Barakat was targeted by Ashmawy's Ansar Beit al-Maqdis cell, which possessed a level of terrorist tradecraft unmatched by any militant group inside Egypt in recent years. Its skill is likely due to Ashmawy's background as a highly trained special operations forces officer and the fact that he has reportedly recruited a number of other former soldiers and intelligence officers to join him.

In the April 2016 edition of Sentinel magazine, published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, Mokhtar Awad wrote that after the dissolution of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Ashmawy left Egypt and took charge of an al Qaeda-affiliated group called "al-Murabitun." It is unclear whether this group is separate from the al-Mourabitoun group associated with prominent Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an affiliate of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that has reportedly also been active in Libya. If so, Ashmawy would be a welcome addition to Belmokhtar's fold. Belmokhtar formerly worked with an Egyptian named Abu Bakr al-Muhajir, who was killed by French forces in early 2014, so the idea of Belmokhtar working closely with an Egyptian al Qaeda loyalist is not unreasonable.

If Ashmawy is in Libya working with Belmokhtar or some other group, that does not mean that he and his colleagues are unable to operate in Egypt. Indeed, the desert separating eastern Libya from Egypt has long been a conduit for illicit commerce involving people and contraband, including weapons. So it would not be surprising if Ashmawy's group has the capability to strike again in mainland Egypt, although it is notable that there has not been an attack evidencing the sophistication of Ashmawy's cell since the Barakat assassination.

Wilayat Sinai in the Mainland

Following the dissolution of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, el-Gharably's portion of the group's mainland Egypt organization, operating in the mainland under the Islamic State's banner as Wilayat Sinai, continued to conduct attacks. In July 2015, it claimed a bombing of the Italian Consulate in Cairo that significantly damaged the facility and killed one Egyptian civilian. The group also claimed a bombing of a state security building in Cairo the next month. Like the Italian Consulate bombing, the operation was quite rudimentary and occurred in the middle of the night, causing no deaths.

The Egyptian authorities then began to catch up to el-Gharably's organization. In a September 2015 raid in Giza, authorities killed nine militants they claimed were operating under el-Gharably and involved in both bombings. In November 2015, el-Gharably himself was killed in a police raid in Cairo. A few months later, six people, including three police officers, were killed in a January raid on an apartment in Giza being used by the Islamic State to construct bombs when one of the devices was detonated. In the wake of these operations, Islamic State-affiliated militants have not conducted large-scale bombings in mainland Egypt as they did in summer 2015, although militants associated with the Islamic State remain active in the mainland and have conducted simpler attacks.

Ajnad Misr: Diminished Capabilities

Like el-Gharably's network, Ajnad Misr has been hit hard by Egyptian authorities over the past year. Ajnad Misr, which translates to "soldiers of Egypt," first appeared in late 2013 but did not formally announce its formation until January 2014. The group's founder, Hammam Attiyah, was allegedly a former member of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and propaganda from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis referred to Ajnad Misr members as "brothers."

The group began its militant operations with attacks employing small arms and pipe bombs on checkpoints in the greater Cairo/Giza area. These initial ambushes showed little tactical sophistication and did not warrant the same attention from Egyptian security forces that the more prominent Ansar Beit al-Maqdis demanded. Still, despite their limited terrorist tradecraft capabilities, Ajnad Misr operatives conducted a persistent, albeit low-level, campaign of pipe bombings and shootings that killed many police officers, mostly in the Giza area.

In April 2015, police killed Attiyah in a shootout. Attiyah, who like Ashmawy had remained loyal to al Qaeda after the Islamic State schism, was eulogized by both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That September, police killed two other Ajnad Misr militants. Since then, Ajnad Misr's operations appear to have been significantly reduced, and the number of attacks against security forces in Giza and Cairo has dwindled. This is perhaps because Attiyah was the group's primary bombmaker, although some media sources suggest he taught others to make bombs, meaning that if the pressure is lifted from any remaining Ajnad Misr members they could regroup and resume operations.

Outlook for Egypt

Militancy, including terrorism, will remain a problem for mainland Egypt. The chaos prevailing in Libya will allow Egyptian jihadists to use it as a source for weapons and explosives, as well as a base for training, for the foreseeable future. Operatives affiliated with the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai continue to pose a low-level threat, as will any remaining Ajnad Misr members.

The most profound terrorist threat to Egypt would come from Ashmawy and his cell of highly trained operatives, along with the large number of professional terrorist cadres from Egypt associated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State but operating outside the country. Should these professional terrorists return to Egypt, or attack Egypt from Libya, they could be far deadlier than other actors — especially in carrying out targeted assassinations and attacks against hardened targets in the country.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this report misstated the year of the attack that killed Egyptian Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat.

Lead Analyst: Scott Stewart

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