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Egypt open to jihadist violence, experts warn

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, 10:40 p.m.
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt attends the opening ceremony of the 26 ordinary of the African Summit in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016.

CAIRO — Terrorist attacks continue across Egypt, despite the growing power of the country's security services.

Three Egyptian soldiers were killed and 12 were wounded last week when their armored personnel carrier hit a roadside bomb in the northern Sinai, where the army is battling an insurgency led by an Islamic State affiliate.

The week before, seven police officers and three civilians died when a bomb exploded during a raid of an Islamist hideout in Giza, part of greater Cairo.

Two militants stabbed three tourists in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada this month.

The danger is not as dire today as in neighboring Libya, where U.S. officials say ISIS has established training camps, or in Syria, unraveled by civil war and extremism since 2011. Yet experts worry about the potential of more disaffected Egyptian youths joining the jihadists.

The risk of Islamist radicals destabilizing the most populous Arab nation is a concern not just in Cairo but in Washington, which relies on Egypt and a few other Middle Eastern governments to hold back spreading Islamist movements and the return of Russian influence in the region.

“Although the number of terrorist groups are decreasing in Egypt, there is a generation under the surface that you can't really see,” said Maher Farghaly, a former Islamist who has written several books about extremists.

“Thousands” of young Egyptians “wish to go to ISIS … hope to find weapons to shoot at the police,” he said. “But they haven't found anyone to organize themselves” — until now, with ISIS focused on recruiting angry youths “in coffee houses in popular areas.”

The government is partly to blame, according to Farghaly. It cracked down on all Islamist movements — including the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from the presidency and the parliament after a popular uprising in 2013 — which “blocked all the outlets” for less violent protest.

“The youth who wants to belong to an Islamist party, where do they go?” he asked. “Even those who stand with the government” — such as the Salafis, Muslim conservatives who broke with the Brotherhood in 2013 — “are constricted, so they only find ISIS.”

‘A lot more to come'

Egypt has a 700-mile desert border with Libya, long used by smugglers to transport guns, drugs, weapons and people.

The expanding control of an ISIS affiliate in Libya has grown so worrisome that the United States is considering “military options” there, a Pentagon spokesman said last week.

Egypt's military has quashed terrorist cells in the Nile Delta, Western Desert and Upper Egypt regions, and it killed an ISIS leader in Cairo last year, Farghaly said.

Yet recent terror attacks in Cairo are the result of ISIS-inspired insurgents from the Sinai, according to Mohannad Sabry, a journalist and author who has covered the fighting there. His book, “Sinai: Egypt's Linchpin, Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare,” examined the danger in detail.

ISIS is “either ‘outsourcing' the work, and it comes off in a very amateurish way, or it is a group that does something and dedicates it to ISIS,” Sabry said.

“I think there is a lot more to come, because I think there are a lot of people who are willing to engage in violence,” including “a major part” of younger Brotherhood followers who are “very public about it.”

“Egypt has always been a country that is fertile for radical ideologies. Let's not lie to ourselves about this,” Sabry said.

‘A jihadi university'

The northern half of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has a restive history, a land of geographical and temperature extremes dominated by Bedouin tribes who resist authority.

Since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, however, Islamists have swarmed there and attacked security forces, as well as civilian targets and resorts on the peninsula's Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts.

Their numbers swelled after Egypt outlawed the Brotherhood in 2013. A thousand of its members were killed in rioting, and thousands more were imprisoned or forced into hiding.

One group of Sinai militants, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014 and has killed hundreds of police and soldiers in sophisticated attacks, including a multi-pronged assault on military checkpoints in July that aimed to seize and hold territory.

Nabil Naim, a former member of the Egyptian Jihad and al-Qaida terror groups, thinks Ansar and other Sinai militants “will be annihilated, because they are weak and the military is strong.”

“But,” he adds ominously, “they are gaining strength from the support they are receiving from abroad.”

Naim spent nearly two decades in Egyptian prisons before renouncing violence; he was released in 2011. He says he knew many of the men who joined the Sinai insurgency while in prison, which he describes as “a jihadi university.”

He believes ISIS will fail in Egypt because “the basis of the continuation of any group like that is the sympathy of the people. … There isn't any popular sympathy towards them here.”

As proof, he points to the millions of Egyptians who marched against Islamist President Mohamed Morsy “when they found he was a danger,” forcing the military to oust him in 2013.

Sabry, the journalist who has written extensively on Sinai, disagreed.

“You can never fight an insurgency with a conventional army,” he said. “It doesn't work.”

The military's strategy in North Sinai is a “mostly futile approach ... simply heavy-handed, collective punishment” rather than true counterterrorism, he said. “The more you punish the community, the more you give weapons to the terrorists.”

Egyptian military officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sabry conceded that the military's strategy is “making it hard for ISIS on a certain level. But it is not really powerful enough to paralyze the group or to even weaken its capabilities.”

If Egypt fails to keep up its pressure against ISIS, he warns, “you will have militant organizations actually controlling territory, and thousands of people joining their ranks” — just as in Iraq and Syria.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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