Egyptian seaports and airports are on high alert following warnings of infiltration by foreign nationals fleeing Syria and Iraq, having joined and fought with extremist groups there such as Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Officials have become sufficiently concerned about these radicalized elements to order security forces to enhance precautionary procedures for regulating the entry of foreign nationals.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the issue top priority at the recent Munich Security Conference. Addressing the session Feb. 16, Sisi asked, “Who brought foreign fighters to the Arab countries, and who supports them?” He called on the international community to step up efforts to reveal the identities of the extremists’ financial backers. Noting that foreigners had been found among extremists killed in counter-terrorism operations in Egypt, Sisi emphasized the importance of not interfering in other countries' affairs.
Two days after Sisi’s speech, on Feb. 18 an extremist targeted the Darb al-Ahmar district in Cairo, near Al-Azhar Mosque, but when intercepted by security forces blew himself up, killing three policemen. According to the Ministry of Interior, the suicide bomber held US citizenship.
Egyptian Interior Minister Mahmoud Tawfik on Jan. 11 ordered security forces to broaden their circle of suspicion and strictly monitor foreigners' entry with the goal of arresting suspected extremists and foiling plans for attack. The standard procedure of circulating data on known suspects is being intensified at all ports of entry.
Egypt has experienced a number of deadly attacks by religious extremists in recent years. The Sinai Peninsula has been plagued by turmoil and unrest since the 25 January Revolution in 2011. The security situation worsened after the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, in 2013.
Among the attacks, extremists using guns and grenades targeted the al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai in November 2017, claiming the lives of more than 300 people. No group accepted responsibility, but a tribal leader, Essa al-Kharafin claimed in a TV interview that nine of the attackers had been foreigners. In February 2018, an Egyptian official announced that security forces had killed 10 members of a terrorist cell at a house in el-Arish, North Sinai's provincial capital.
Egyptian armed forces launched a counterterrorism campaign, Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, last February and arrested some 400 people, including foreigners. Amid warnings of foreign infiltration, the issue has been raised about the need to strike a balance between attempts to boost tourism and tracking potential terrorists trying to enter the country on tourist visas.
Ahmed Madian, a member of the parliament’s Defense and National Security Committee, spoke to Al-Monitor about efforts to track foreign militants, which he described as quite challenging.
“The issue of terrorists’ infiltration is not new, but, unfortunately, this problem has reached alarming levels,” Madian said. “It is very hard to thoroughly monitor all borders. For instance, there is the vast area of desert [straddling the border of] Egypt and Libya, and many terrorists and armaments enter the country through these borders.”
As IS militants continue to flee Iraq and Syria, they are moving into the African desert, especially in Libya. “Egypt is not fabricating stories about foreign militants,” Madian emphasized. “We have crystal clear evidence, as many foreigners have already been arrested and killed in counter-terrorism operations in Sinai.”
On Jan. 11, Egyptian authorities arrested and deported two Germans of Egyptian background, Issa Mohammed Abdel-Ghany Ibrahim al-Sabagh and Mahmoud Amr Mohamed Ezzat Abdel Aziz, on the suspicion that they are IS militants. Egyptian officials claim that Sabbagh, who arrived at Luxor airport claiming to be visiting his grandfather, possessed a compass and maps of North Sinai and that he intended to join extremist cells active there. Abdel Aziz, a student at the Islamic University of Medina, arriving at the Cairo airport from Saudi Arabia and claiming to be visiting his grandparents, was arrested based on information that he had attempted to join IS.
Commenting on the impact of such moves as deporting terror suspects on tourism, Madian said it is terrorism, not enhanced monitoring, that is harming the tourism sector. According to Ahram Online, tourism in North Sinai has been hard hit with shop owners citing a decline of 60-70%.
“Terrorists want to destabilize the country and send the message that Egypt is not safe,” Madian said. “Definitely, Egypt is open for all people of all nationalities as long as they meet the security conditions. All countries worldwide have their entry rules. These rules do not undermine tourists' movement. Rather, they seek to secure them.”
Mohsen Hefzy, a security expert and former assistant to the interior minister, stressed the importance of combining efforts through enhanced international cooperation to prevent extremists from entering the country.
“According to my information, Egypt is now coordinating with some countries to exchange comprehensive data on suspects and terrorists,” Hefzy told Al-Monitor. “Egypt is to send the names of those terrorists to warn other countries and to take legal actions against them if they enter Egypt. Also, it will receive names of persons suspected by other countries to prohibit their entry in case of their attempt to infiltrate the country.”
With terrorism an issue worldwide, Hefzy said, “It is time to exchange information to help undermine the moves of terrorists.”
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