The attack against an Egyptian military post south of Rafah resulted in the death of 16 soldiers and the theft of two armored military vehicles, before the attackers fled across the Israeli border. This attack has sparked debate over Jihadist groups in the Sinai, which were first brought to the public’s attention following a series of bombings in Sinai tourist areas in 2004. These groups have taken advantage of the security vacuum that appeared as a result of the police withdrawal in the wake of the January 25 revolution. They are now making their activities more open and public.
Although these groups committed many crimes before and after the revolution, they had not previously attacked military forces. This attack came in light of their growing strength in the region, a fact that was illustrated last year when they openly attacked a police station in Al-Arish. Following this attack, they drove through the city’s squares waving black flags and machine guns in a show of force that ended with them destroying a statue of late President Anwar Sadat. The Sinai has always been a hotbed for Islamic extremism, both before and after the revolution. However, the weakness of the state and the collapse of some security institutions have exacerbated the situation and given these groups a chance to increase their strength.
Najeh Ibrahim, an official in the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al-Hayat that Khaled Mosaed — who was killed in 2005 after establishing the organization Tahwid and Jihad — led these Takfir groups, which consist of Muslims declaring other Muslims unbelievers or “infidels”. He added that Takfir ideology prevails in these groups, which are responsible for the bombings in Taba, Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively that killed a large number of Muslims.
Ibrahim continued, saying that “after the revolution, the groups occupied a police station in Al-Arish, killing one army officer and one police officer, kidnapping three more police officers, destroying an armored police vehicle and capturing a group of soldiers and tourists. They held the soldiers and tourists for ransom, demanding that the police release members of their group who had been detained. The police later released a number of the Takfir groups’ members in exchange for the soldiers and tourists. These events illustrate that the Egyptian state is weak and completely losing its control over the Sinai.”
Ibrahim noted that “the number of Takfir members increased after they were given more freedom of movement,” adding that he firmly believed that “they are behind this attack on the army.” He stated that “they are positioned in the area of Al-Halal Mountain in the Sinai, where their ties to arms smugglers allowed them to obtain a large quantity of weapons”. He added that “acquiring funds is not a problem for these groups, since they believe that the ends justify the means.”
Ibrahim did not rule out the possibility that these groups might be behind the string of auto thefts that took place after the revolution. The groups may be smuggling the cars to Gaza in order to fund their activities. They might also be sponsoring human and arms trafficking through tunnels along the Gaza border in exchange for money.
He said that “a number of these groups’ members escaped from Damanhour and other prisons when Egypt witnessed a lack of security following the Friday of Rage” on January 28, 2011. Ibrahim pointed out that he had lectured a number of the group members for months in prisons, “trying to convince them to review Islamic jurisprudence, to not declare other Muslims infidels — whether they be leaders, civilians, policemen or soldiers — and that killing civilians is unacceptable.” He added that “some of them have responded well to these lectures.”
Ibrahim went on to say that the Tawhid and Jihad organization adopts al-Qaeda’s ideology. He pointed out that their fundamental idea is based on “Takfir and explosions,” and that these groups' motto is “as long as there is Takfir, there will be explosions.” Ibrahim added that after a number of these groups’ members were killed when the army broke up a Salafist protest in front of the Defense Ministry in May, these groups vowed retaliation against the army. Ibrahim also stressed that these groups have links with external actors.
Mohammad Yassine, a foreign-affairs official from the Muslim Brotherhood, ruled out the possibility that some of the Jihadists who returned to Egypt following the revolution joined these groups. He explained that these groups started as Salafists, and later on became more extremist. Their increase in numbers and extremism can be attributed to the killing and torture many members were subjected to in prison.
He said, “These groups have ties to Palestinian groups and a number of their members are non-Egyptian.” He also criticized the inconsistent manner in which security forces have dealt with this issue. Yassine said that intelligence and security forces are dealing with this issue using two different mentalities, adding that “they should have taken action earlier; many incidents had obvious warning signs yet were executed without any deterrence.”
Yassine said it is true that most of these groups’ members escaped from prisons as a result of the security vacuum and others were released after they completed their sentences. He pointed out that these groups are “receiving donations from internal and external sources.” Yassine didn’t rule out the possibility that some intelligence services “have penetrated these groups and are manipulating them through agents,” especially the Mossad.
Abdel Mouniem Al-Rifai, a Sinai tribal leader, told Al-Hayat that “Jihadist training camps are present in the Sinai,” adding that “everyone knows this fact, including security forces.” He explained that Sinai residents have informed the security forces about the different locations of these camps, but there was no action taken against them.