In Egypt, terrorists resort to divide–and-conquer tactics

Cairo- When little known terrorist group An­sar al-Islam claimed responsibility for a deadly ambush on Egyptian police in October in the Western Desert, it was keen to clari­fy that it was only targeting security officials, not the Egyptian public.

This is a line that other terrorist groups in Egypt, particularly al- Qaeda-affiliated al-Mourabitoun and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hasm Movement have played up. The Islamic State (ISIS), which remains most active in the restive Sinai Peninsula, has sought to inspire fear among Egyptians, including launching a campaign targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

This difference in modus op­erandi, security experts said, meant al-Mourabitoun and Hasm were likely operating out of ur­ban areas and seeking to win the public to their side.

“This, in fact, serves many of the objectives of the terrorists,” said retired Army General Sameh Abu Hashima. “Alienating the public would make it more difficult for terrorist groups to attract recruits from among them.”

The Ansar al-Islam that surfaced in Egypt is not known to be affili­ated with the group of the same name operating in Syria and Iraq. Its statement explicitly urged Egyp­tians to join its fight against the government and stressed it had released all conscripts it had cap­tured, implying the group was spe­cifically targeting officers.

Many terrorist organisations have emerged in Egypt since the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mu­hammad Morsi. While some have direct links to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, others with ties to ei­ther al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS) have found Egypt to be a fer­tile recruiting ground.

The recent arrest of several Hasm members revealed that many were radicalised a short time ago and showed no history of violent extremism.

In drawing their recruits, security experts said, these groups capital­ise on traditionally strained rela­tions between police and some of the public.

“So, by declaring their enmity to police, these groups pretend to be in this war on behalf of those vic­timised by some policemen,” said Mamdouh al-Kidwani, a retired po­lice general.

By portraying the situation as a domestic battle against the Egyp­tian government and its security apparatus, rather than targeting Egyptians or seeking to establish an Islamic state, terrorist groups can recruit from among disenfran­chised Egyptians.

Ansar al-Islam said Abu Hatem Emad al-Din Abd al-Hamid was in­volved in the al-Wahat al-Bahriya attack. Hamid had been the deputy of Hisham al-Ashmawi, a former Egyptian army officer who founded al-Mourabitoun.

The Ansar al-Islam claim of re­sponsibility said Hamid was killed in a subsequent Egyptian air strike, leaving questions about the group and its leadership.

It is not clear if Ansar al-Islam and al-Mourabitoun are the same group or two separate but allied groups or whether this is another schism in the intricate world of Islamic ter­rorism.

Hamid and Ashmawi graduated from Egypt’s military academy in the same year and were both dis­charged from the army for radical Islamist beliefs. Both were believed to have been members of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based terrorist group that split in 2014 with most of its members pledging allegiance to ISIS. Hamid and Ashmawi report­edly left to form al-Mourabitoun.

In July 2015, Ashmawi released a six-minute audio recording in which he called on jihadists to tar­get state institutions, police and army troops.

“Public support to law-enforce­ment agencies is indispensable for the success of these agencies in the fight against terrorism,” said Mahmud Qotri, a retired brig­adier-general. “When you take this public support away, these agencies can be greatly weakened, which gives terrorist groups an unparalleled edge.”

The arrest of hundreds of mem­bers of ISIS and other terrorist organisations over the past three years would not have been possible without cooperation from the pub­lic, officials said.

Egypt enforces compulsory mili­tary service, meaning that, with few exceptions, every Egyptian male between the ages of 18 and 30 must complete an 18-36-month military service, followed by a nine-year reserve obligation. Conscripts are likely to be ordinary soldiers, not officers, perhaps ex­plaining Ansar al-Islam’s claim that it released conscripts it had cap­tured.

“If this means anything, it means that the terrorists cannot separate the public from army troops or po­licemen,” Hashima said. “Every­body in this country considers the war against terrorism a personal or family issue because army troops and policemen come from every home here.”