x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt now fighting ‘an enemy it doesn’t know’ as attacks by militant cells rise

Surge in brazen attacks everywhere from the Sinai to Cairo points to diffuse groups drawn to an ideology of violence, analysts say.

Egyptian security forces inspect the site of a suicide car bombing on security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El Tor. Mostafa Darwish / AP
Egyptian security forces inspect the site of a suicide car bombing on security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El Tor. Mostafa Darwish / AP

CAIRO // Six soldiers shot dead at a checkpoint. A bomb explodes on a busy street. In a Cairo suburb, a communications centre is attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade. Later, a suicide bomber targets a police station in the Sinai Peninsula.

Attacks like these against security forces and state institutions in Egypt are becoming more common. The increase follows this summer’s widely popular removal of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi by the military and a subsequent clampdown on his associates and supporters.

The violence has been low-level and uncoordinated, analysts say. But the assaults have been consistent, increasingly brazen and sophisticated, and are taking place everywhere from the Sinai desert to Cairo.

On Tuesday, the Furqan Brigades, a Islamist militant group, released a YouTube video of the RPG attack on a satellite transmission centre in Cairo’s Maadi district. In the dark of night, the video shows masked men stalking Cairo’s streets with heavy weapons. With a military checkpoint reportedly nearby, one of the assailants fires a grenade at the satellite dish, scoring a direct hit.

At least 15 police and army soldiers have been killed in attacks since the beginning of October, with dozens more killed over the summer, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula.

“It’s too early to talk about command and control,” Barak Barfi, a specialist in Islamist movements at the US-based New America Foundation, said of the groups carrying out the attacks.

Right now “we’re seeing small cells attack”, he said. “But history has shown us that in time these groups will coalesce into a hierarchical structure.”

That time may soon be approaching. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahri, on Friday called on Islamists to unite and wage a “popular” religious uprising “to rid Egypt of this criminal gang that jumped over power with fire and iron”.

Analysts and Egyptian security officials say two broad groups were perpetrating the violence.

One group is made-up of random but frustrated Brotherhood supporters and ultraconservative Salafis who have taken up arms after the military crackdown.

They are likely planting the rudimentary explosive devices outside government offices or firing on checkpoints, according to security sources. There has been a surge in this type of violence in the cities lining the Suez Canal, where support for the Brotherhood has traditionally been strong.

The other faction consists of battle-hardened extremists who had undergone training in places like Sinai, Libya, Iraq or Syria. These militants are blamed for the powerful car bombs and other more sophisticated attacks.

Both the military, when it ruled from 2011-2012, and Mr Morsi released a handful of militants from prison following Egypt’s uprising.

Many of the erstwhile militants renounced violence and formed political parties, while some revived old extremist networks and connected with newly created armed groups.

“It just shows these people have experience in other jihadist theatres” in the region, Mr Barfi said of the more complex operations. “We know, for example, that right now there are Egyptian jihadists fighting with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant inside Syria.”

Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit Al Maqdes took responsibility for a car-bomb attack on a security headquarters in Al Tor in South Sinai on Monday. The organisation, which is believed to be behind an attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in 2012, also claimed responsibility for the September 5 explosion that targeted the convoy of the interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City.

According to the London-based Action On Armed Violence, an organisation working to prevent armed conflict, there have been five reported suicide bombings in Egypt in the past three months. From 1981-2011, there were just six suicide attacks, the group says.

“Over the past couple of years, there has been a lot of room for Islamist organisations to work, and they didn’t have to be accountable to anyone,” said Zaki Ali, a senior researcher at Al Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo.

According to Mr Ali, some of these groups were “under the big cloak of the Muslim Brotherhood” before the crackdown on the group.

“The Brotherhood knew how to shut them up and how to mobilise them,” Mr Ali said. “However, when Mohammed Morsi’s administration collapsed, now you have angry Islamists and some radicals whom the Brotherhood does not really control.”

Mr Barfi said Islamists felt that their suspicions of the democratic process – that the military they long were at odds with would let an Islamist government rule – were vindicated when Mr Morsi was removed. The older generations that had renounced violence in favour of the ballot box “are basically discredited now”, Mr Barfi said. “They went into politics and now they’re in jail cells. Now you’ll see a younger generation disillusioned by the events in Egypt and which is drawn to the ideology that claims power only flows from the barrel of a gun.”

But the groups have yet to rally around a single ideology. Some want Mr Morsi to be reinstated while others want the implementation of strict Sharia.

It is the diffuse nature of what is still forming into a low-level insurgency that will make it hard for the armed forces to defeat the militants, both Mr Ali and Mr Barfi say.

The military is neither trained nor equipped to fight a successful counterinsurgency campaign in urban cities – or even in the Sinai desert, said Robert Springborg, an Egypt military analyst.

“You have emergency law, an opposition that is shut down and the media that is supporting the [security] campaign, and still they cannot pinpoint who is responsible or stop what is going on,” Mr Ali said.

“We’re just really fighting an enemy that we do not know.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae