Reports of Egyptian youth joining ISIS campaign causes concern
by Kaylan Geiger
The story of Islam Yakan, a recent graduate of Ain Shams University, has been picked up by Egyptian media sites after pictures from his Twitter account depicting him wielding a sword spread across the internet. Yakan claims to have joined the Islamic State (also known as Daish and previously as the Islamic State in al-Sham (ISIS)) in the name of jihad. Aside from Yakan, there are also reports that members of the recently established Ansar Beit al-Maqdis have allegedly traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS and adopt their skills and tactics. With local terror attacks on the rise, many fear that regional jihadi groups may be eying Egypt, but analysts say while those groups may attract disaffected youth, they are unlikely to gain ground here.
After ISIS, which already held large swaths of northern Syria, captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi demanded that Muslims across the world refer to him as Caliph Ibrahim, head of the Islamic State, and join him in jihad.
The Washington DC-based Al-Monitor, which focuses on Middle East news and analysis, reported on June 23 that security in the Sinai peninsula was ramped up dramatically after reports circulated that Egyptians had traveled to Syria to learn and bring back combat skills to use against security forces. The article quoted an anonymous North Sinai Security Directorate officer as saying, “dozens of extremist terrorist groups traveled to Syria to train for combat and the execution of terrorist operations, particularly the building of booby traps and their remote detonation. Their misguided aim was to transform Sinai into an Islamic emirate. Security forces succeeded recently in capturing a number of those trained elements when they attempted to return to Egypt.”
These reports coupled with the increasingly organized attacks, such as the one that killed 22 border guards at a security checkpoint near the Farafra oasis, have officials at the highest levels concerned. On July 6, President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi told local journalists “[ISIS] had a plan to take over Egypt […] I had warned the United States and Europe from providing any aid to them and told them they will come out of Syria to target Iraq then Jordan then Saudi Arabia.”
In early July, however, Ministry of Interior Spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif issued a statement that there were no ISIS members in Egypt.
Despite reports of Egyptian youth joining ISIS forces, the fact that Egypt does not border Iraq or Syria protects it from direct infiltration by the Islamist group. According to Marco Pinfari, an assistant professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo, “Until very recently the distinctive nature of ISIS, when compared to the other Islamist and non-Islamist groups active between Syria and northern Iraq, lay in its ability to act as an effective paramilitary group and in securing control over large contiguous tracts of land across Syria and Iraq, taking advantage of the weakness of state institutions in these two countries.”
“From this perspective,” Pinfari says, “Egypt is not immediately under threat from ISIS simply because it does not share borders with Iraq and Syria. This scenario might change if Jordan fell to ISIS, but this seems unlikely as both the United States and Israel have substantial stakes in the Hashemite Kingdom and already pledged help.”
Mohamed Elmenshawy, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, also feels that ISIS’s influence here is minimal. He is more concerned about youth disaffected by events in Egypt. “I doubt that ISIS poses a direct threat to Egypt,” says Elmenshawy. “However, I believe the Egyptian government should [be] concerned about the sympathy that ISIS may receive from angry and frustrated youth, especially with the closing door policy of the new ruling regime in term of liberties and rights.”
Egyptian security forces have been battling “terrorist forces” since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, and new militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr have claimed responsibility for attacks in Sinai and Cairo. As these groups become more active, some fear these militants may try to form an alliance with the so-called Islamic State. Pinfari, however, points out that not all groups are alike in their ideology and mission.
“In general, we should also keep in mind that not all Islamist groups have the same tactical or strategic goals, nor that their approach to “political Islam” is identical,” says Pinfari. “Indeed, Islamist groups often enter into doctrinal, operative or even physical conflicts with each other, as the on-going dispute between ISIS and Al-Qaeda well demonstrates.”
The December 24 Mansoura bombing, claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, resulted in the government designating the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” on December 25. The government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has led to dozens of protesters killed and thousands imprisoned. Some experts believe the crackdown on opposition groups in general could push youth like Yakan towards radical groups like ISIS abroad or toward local outfits like Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. “The return of the Police State model in Egypt is good news to ISIS,” says Elmenshawy. “Angry youth who are not even allowed to protest peacefully in the street may resort to violence.”
While El-Sisi has promised to put an end to terrorism in the country, Elmenshawy says, “I believe the security solution has a limitation of what could be achieved in counter terrorism […] you need to go to culture, social and economic realities that contribute to the cause of terrorism […] When a terrorist is in despair they think like mad men, and they target civilian targets.”
Elmenshawy believes a security crackdown does more harm than good. “Using force by the state will not end the terrorism Egypt is witnessing,” he says. “We have to reach a political and compromised solution with all political forces in Egypt, including the Islamists [and] the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Pinfari also warns that the tactics used for dealing with local terrorism will make a difference in the long run. “Egypt’s new leadership should learn from the lessons that many counter-terrorist campaigns worldwide, including the “war on terror” after 9/11, have taught – that the use of force alone is not sufficient, or may even be counter-productive, in tackling terrorism and political violence.”