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.”