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Terrorism expands from Sinai to Cairo

Armed extremist groups in Egypt have spread their operations from the remote areas of the Sinai Peninsula to the densely populated metropolises of Cairo and the Delta.
A plainclothes policeman shouts after an explosion, which was followed by two further blasts, in front of Cairo University April 2, 2014. A series of explosions outside Cairo University killed two people on Wednesday, including a police brigadier-general, security officials said, in what appeared to be the latest militant attack in a fast-growing insurgency. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3JNLM

CAIRO — The violence in Egypt has taken a marked geographical shift in recent months from the remote areas of the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal to the metropolises of Cairo and the Nile Delta. Analysts have two divergent opinions to explain this shift. Some analysts believe that the move by armed extremists toward the capital did not happen voluntarily and was not a planned strategy, but rather a shift enforced on these groups due to security measures and army operations in the Sinai Peninsula. The second opinion argues that what happened was a premeditated step taken by armed groups, to extend the war against the post-Muslim Brotherhood regime.

Brig. Gen. Khaled Akashe, a security expert who was formerly in charge of the security issue in the northern Sinai, explained to Al-Monitor that the shift in terrorist operations from distant locations to the heart of the country was one aspect of the escalation against the state. According to him, at first these groups were betting on isolating and controlling the Sinai Peninsula to establish an Islamic emirate. The targeting of locations such as Ismailia, Suez and Port Said was aimed at the most important navigation passage in the world: the Suez Canal. This was done to influence international public opinion, as foreign states would fear for their own interests in the canal. In addition, these three provinces have the largest gathering of Egypt’s army units.

Akashe described the shift toward the capital as a move intended at striking the “lifeblood” of the country. Attacks against Cairo and the cities of the Delta, which are densely populated, would result in a high number of casualties, as happened during the bombing of the security directorate in Mansoura on Sept. 24, 2013, and the bombing of police and army checkpoints in Sharqiya and Qalyubiya provinces on Dec. 29, 2013, and March 15 of this year. The attacks on these provinces, in addition to those in Cairo, attract both domestic and international headlines.

“The shift of terrorist operations toward the capital represents a strategy adopted by these groups to achieve victory on all fronts, whether in remote locations or in the heart of the capital. They see Cairo and the Delta cities as the hottest battlefield, where there is a group of Muslim Brotherhood facilitators providing protection and hiding places [for fugitive members]. The dense population provides freedom to easily move around explosives and hide between human masses,” Akashe added.

Kamal Habib, an expert in the affairs of Islamic groups, told Al-Monitor the shift of violence from the outskirts to the heart of the capital was a normal and expected change used to pressure the security apparatus. The groups wanted to show that they have the upper hand within the state and can extend their operations to the heart of the Delta cities and even the capital. It was only normal for groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the Furqan Brigades and Ansar al-Sharia to launch violent operations where they are geographically located.

Habib draws a link between the violence currently taking place and that of the 1990s. At the time, the Egyptian state faced a large number of violent operations that targeted tourism, security figures and politicians. “What is currently coming to pass is a repetition of the 1990s strategy. [The violence] of Gamaa Islamiya started where it was founded — in Luxor, Minya and other cities of Upper Egypt, then violence expanded to include assassinations and bombings in Cairo,” Habib said.

“There are no longer any large organizations or groups with a political vision. They are just groups that are closed and have no organizational body or mother organization, which creates a sort of unorganized and region-based violence, just like the incident at Cairo University,” Habib added.

Mahmoud Tarbushi, an expert in Islamic movements, agreed with Habib. He said to Al-Monitor, “These organizations have no strategy or prospective plan because they have no theorists or leaders on the ground. The orientation of these groups toward violence in Cairo, after they were focused on remote locations, is a mere escape from the attacks these groups faced in the Sinai. All these organizations have adopted the ideology of al-Qaeda since 2003, and until today have drawn their beliefs from the opinions of Assem al-Maqdisi, Ayman al-Zawahri and Osama bin Laden.”

Talking about the reason behind the shift of violence from the suburbs to the capital and Delta cities, Tarbushi said, “What is happening in Cairo and the Delta cities is an act of revenge for the elimination of these groups in the Sinai. They know that attacking Cairo causes more pain to the regime, and more embarrassment to security agencies.”

Tarbushi expects the emergence of new groups opting for violence in the capital and provinces in the event that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is elected president. He believes they will be fiercer than the groups of the 1990s, with operations focused on densely populated regions.

Nabil Naim, founder of the Democratic Jihad Party in Egypt, said that members of violent religious groups were already spread throughout some regions of Cairo and the Delta cities, and did not move from the Sinai Peninsula to the capital, because they have bases in Qalyubiya, Sharqiya, Cairo and Dakahlia.

“The groups in Cairo and the cities of the Delta have hosted those who ran from the hell caused by the army in the Sinai, and joined efforts to conduct these latest terrorist operations. The latter was not instantaneous, rather the groups set up a strategy to carry out these attacks, which were hastily made after what they have been through in the Sinai at the hand of the army. They have a plan that was not yet implemented inside Cairo and the surrounding areas: dealing a blow to tourism, water, and electric power and high-pressure plants. Yet, the lack of capability that resulted from the security attacks will make the implementation of this plan less likely,” said Naim.

The shift of these groups toward the capital has instilled fear among Egyptians who are concerned about the targeting of vital facilities such as metro stations. Egyptians are holding their breath and waiting for what will happen after the elections, hoping that the future will be free of blood.