Najeh Ibrahim, a leading figure in Gamaa Islamiya and one of the most prominent intellectuals for Islamic groups and for Gamaa’s philosophical review that has been ongoing since the 1990s, said that Egypt is going through its worst violent period in the history of extremists and violent jihadist groups, pointing out that the violence exceeds what the country witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s.
He stressed that security measures alone cannot deal with these armed groups and that the factors that led to the growth of these militant organizations should be addressed by confronting the takfiri phenomenon and by resolving Egypt’s political crisis.
Below is As-Safir’s interview with Ibrahim about the activities of jihadist organizations in Egypt.
As-Safir: What do you make of the re-emergence of politically violent groups?
Ibrahim: There are now two violent extremist groups in Egypt: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and al-Furqan Brigade. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is considered the Egyptian branch of a Gazan Palestinian organization, which is based in the Sinai and its environs. It was launched after the January 25 Revolution, when Egypt’s borders became very porous. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis uses bombings as a tactic and the group has claimed responsibility for bombing the military intelligence building in Ismailia, the Security Directorate in South Sinai and the convoy of Interior Minister Major General Mohamed Ibrahim in Cairo. It seems that this organization is skilled with explosives and targets only the army and the police. The group also considers all security institutions apostates, is in a constant state of war against them and wants to destroy them. So far, the number of operations conducted by this organization is 220, mostly involving mines and explosives.
The second group, the al-Furqan Brigade, is a purely Egyptian organization. It is not based in the Sinai but in the Nile Delta and Greater Cairo. It uses missiles, RPGs and automatic weapons. It doesn’t target the army and police as much as it cares about hitting targets that hurt the government, such as the shipping route in the Suez Canal because it’s Egypt’s primary source of hard currency, and the international communications station in al-Maadi in order to cut off communications between Egypt and the outside world, as well as targeting some churches.
As-Safir: Why do you think the breadth of the violence has increased to the point of reaching the heart of the capital?
Ibrahim: All of what’s happening today was expected. The first reason was the ouster of [former President] Dr. Mohammed Morsi. The second reason was the large number of victims caused by the excess violence used to break up the protests at Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares. The third reason is that Egypt has been living in security chaos for nearly three years [between Jan. 25, 2011, and June 30, 2013], when weapons spread everywhere, especially the Sinai, after being smuggled from Libya. In addition, there’s the spread of takfirist thought, the worsening political conflict, al-Qaeda ideology spreading into Egypt and the formation of several branches for that global organization.
As-Safir: Some tend to link these jihadist operations with the meetings of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. What do you think about that?
Ibrahim: I don’t think that the Brotherhood is involved in such operations because that would completely eliminate the group. The Brotherhood committed a strategic error when, during the rule of President Morsi and during the Rabia al-Adawiya and al-Nahda protests, they formed a strategic alliance with armed extremist groups. By ousting Morsi, there was a plan to turn the Sinai into a new Peshawar [Pakistan] and use it as a launchpad for armed extremist movements toward various areas, such as Jerusalem, Egypt, Libya and other countries, considering [the Sinai’s] strategic geographic location.
[The Muslim Brotherhood], with that alliance, was naive because the Egyptian state cannot in any way agree to what the extremist groups want. Morsi mistakenly thought those groups could protect him one day. In my opinion, if Morsi remained in power and that alliance continued, then a clash was inevitable, especially because during Morsi’s reign those groups killed 17 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai and abducted seven others, for whom the state made a deal to release.
As-Safir: Is Egypt now returning to the period of violence it saw in the 1980s and 1990s?
Ibrahim: Egypt is going through its worst violent period in the history of extremists and violent jihadist groups, even worse than what happened in the 1980s and 1990s.
As-Safir: Some say that Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya figures, whom Morsi released from prison, are involved in the recent violence. Do you agree with that?
Ibrahim: I don’t think that any of the Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya figures are involved in such events because they are wiser than to repeat an experience that they have reviewed and examined, and whose dire consequences they are aware of.
It’s sad to see a soldier or police officer leaving his institution, joining a radical Islamist group and becoming a takfirist because of his ignorance of religion and jurisprudence. He then uses his military expertise to conduct bombings, thus combining bombings and extremism. For example, Tariq Abdul Aleem, who killed Sheikh al-Zahabi, was a discharged police officer. He was the one who dragged extremists toward violence. He received help from an arms dealer named Sheikh Mahmoud. The same applies to the discharged army officer who was accused of bombing the convoy of Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim. That officer traveled to meet al-Qaeda and carried out the crime immediately after returning.
As-Safir: What do you think of the security remedies used by the state to deal with these groups?
Ibrahim: It is more important to deal with the problem's ideological aspect than with its security aspect. The person who pushes the button is not as important as the thought that drives him. Extremist thought is the worst pollution that has stricken the Islamic mind. It is what destroyed the Islamic caliphate and killed Ali bin Abi Talib, and it was the reason for the killing of thousands of Muslims.
Extremist thought emerges when there are political conflicts. When there was a political conflict between Ali and Muawiya, extremist thought grew. And when political conflict in Egypt grew, extremist thought grew as well. Extremist thought makes one act as a judge who unjustly passes judgment on others. Then, [extremists] take the state’s role and carry out the judgment. Then they take God’s role and [decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell].
As-Safir: What do you think of the military campaign targeting extremist gatherings in the Sinai?
Ibrahim: This campaign has largely succeeded. Without it, Egypt would have witnessed a long series of car bombings. We must admit that this military campaign prevented the arrival of this danger to the Nile Delta and to Cairo in a major way. Extremists in Sinai can equip a thousand booby-trapped cars and dispatch them to other areas in Egypt. The military campaign destroyed many mine and weapon stockpiles, and of those who committed terrorist attacks were arrested. Many smuggling tunnels were closed. And the sources of funding for these groups in the Sinai were controlled.
As-Safir: Can the leader of Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya control these extremist organizations?
Ibrahim: The leaderships of Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya can only control their affiliated organizations.
As-Safir: In your opinion, what’s the best way to end the state’s conflict with these groups?
Ibrahim: The situation in Egypt now needs political solutions. It is possible to reach them through dialogue, alongside security and ideological measures. Egypt is in a major crisis. The solution starts by stopping the bloodshed by all parties. Egypt will not be calm until the bloodshed subsides. It is true that the state has made great strides in restoring security, but states are not built on the security aspect alone.
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