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Monday, August 22, 2011

Egypt and Israel both struggling with Al Qaeda

In the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Southern Israel, many are still wondering who was behind the attacks. Israel believes that the Popular Resistance Committees had a hand in the attacks and retaliated against them. The in Gaza based PRC denies involvement, but the PRC is obviously not only present in Gaza, but also in Egypt:

As the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs points out in an interesting article:
To stop the loosening of the Egyptian grip on Sinai, Israel agreed twice to significant Egyptian troop increases to their force deployment in the peninsula, thus changing the parameters set in the military annex of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. The latest deployment of more than a thousand troops was made only a few days before the terrorist incursion into Israel and was meant to boost Egypt’s efforts to regain its hold on Sinai. Assessing that the main threat to Egypt’s authority was in northern Sinai, where the gas pipeline splits toward the neighboring countries, Egypt decided to deploy its forces in that area, thus leaving the southern part diluted of forces and open to infiltrations.
However, from day one of the operations against the extremist organizations in northern Sinai, the Egyptian authorities realized to their dismay that the phenomenon is not limited to Sinai but engulfs the whole of Egypt.
Islamist cells have been created all over Egypt so as to topple the regime by force. The network of Palestinian organizations in Gaza has already proved to be a threat to Egypt itself. In January 2011 Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, charged that the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamist group Jaish al-Islam was responsible for a New Year’s Eve attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria that left twenty-three Egyptian Christians dead. Jaish al-Islam is an Al-Qaeda affiliate and was formed by members of the Popular Resistance Committees, the organization responsible for last week’s attack within Israel.

The blog also mentions what happened two days before the event on Road 12: Egyptian forces mounted an attack east of the town of el-Arish and revealed:

  1. The members of the group were part of a Takfiri organization, that is, the same organization of Muslim zealots that assassinated President Sadat in 1981, some of whom subsequently joined the Al-Qaeda militants.
  2. The group was trained militarily in Gaza and in the region of Jabal Hilal in central Sinai, which is now the area where most of the fundamentalists fleeing the Egyptian security forces have found refuge. Jabal Hilal has been a notorious base for Al-Qaeda in the recent past and the location of difficult battles between Al-Qaeda and the Egyptian army, in which, in one case, an Egyptian general was killed.
  3. Those militants were part of the groups that sabotaged the gas pipeline to Israel.
  4. The leader of the Palestinians who allied with the Egyptian members of the El-Arish group was a member of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. He managed to reach El-Arish by using one of the underground tunnels. He had been in prison in Egypt but was able to escape to Gaza in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.
  5. The Egyptians associated with the Palestinians were highly educated (one a mechanical engineer, another with a BA in administration) and came from Suez, Alexandria, Qalyoubiah, and Suhaj. The Egyptian security forces were surprised, since this was the first time a Sinai terrorist cell included members from outside of Sinai.
  6. The interrogations revealed that there was a Takfiri presence almost throughout Egypt. El-Arish was a convenient location because it is close to Gaza and Israel, making it easier to obtain weapons.
  7. The group clearly had a theological, jihadist outlook. Basically they wanted to replace the regime by force according to the tenets of Takfir (in which one Muslim declares another an unbeliever) and of the Egyptian Salafist movement.
    Most of the Egyptian detainees had been members of fundamentalist organizations for years.
  8. Their main targets were Egyptian security forces (which they viewed as heretic) and strategic installations such as the gas pipeline.

The so-called Arab Spring might be - for the time being - refreshing towards former opponents of the Mubarak regime as they now seem to be able to express their views without fears; it did create an opening towards Islamist actors as legitimate political entities:
The rise of various Islamist factions (...) that are striving for power makes it difficult for jihadists to directly threaten the regime’s stability. Realizing that they cannot (...) confront the Egyptian state head-on, the jihadists are trying to undermine the regime indirectly by exploiting the situation regarding Gaza and Israel and through renewed militancy in Sinai, and also by reviving religious tensions between Copts and Muslims, (...)

And that's a serious reason for concern:
Particularly significant is that the cell captured in El-Arish shows that the Takfiri and jihadist movement in Egypt is very much alive and even gaining more terrain. It can be assessed that the Takfiri militants are either part of Al-Qaeda or working hand in hand with their Al-Qaeda operators.

Indeed, as the The Jerusalem Center concludes:
Only a tight, effective, but mostly tacit partnership between Israel and Egypt can help both parties, each for its own reasons, cooperate in eradicating the fundamentalist cells in Sinai and beyond.

I hope the Egyptians will understand.