Analysis

Egypt Faces ISIS-like Jihadist Threat Unseen in Years

The assassination of Hisham Barakat marks a potentially devastating new development: jihadist groups expanding their activities into the heart of Egypt's cities.

Egyptian Presidency via AP

Egyptian state prosecutor Hisham Barakat had been in office for exactly two years when he was killed Monday by a car bomb, which exploded near his motorcade on the way from the Misr al-Jadida quarter of Cairo to his office. A number of Barakat’s security guards and passersby were also injured in the blast, more than 30 cars were damaged, and the country went into shock.

This is the first time in many years that terror groups in Egypt have managed to assassinate such a senior official. Some called the attack a vengeful reminder to Abdel Fattah al-Sissi of the ousting of former President Mohammad Morsi on June 30, 2013. But other than a statement by an unknown group calling itself the “Popular Resistance of Giza,” which quickly took down the claim of responsibility on its Facebook page, there are still no clues as to the perpetrator.

A year since Sissi’s election, and two years since he ousted Morsi, he still has not kept his promise to his voters to root out terror. This is a far-fetched demand, no less so than the promise itself. The terror groups operating in Egypt now are different than those operating there three decades ago. Most have declared loyalty to ISIS (Islamic State), some still support Al-Qaida, while others act independently.

The supply lines of these groups extend from Libya through the Western Desert, from Sudan and, until recently, from Gaza. According to Egyptian security officials, there are some 2 million illegal guns in Egypt, which have been responsible for the killing of at least 500 police and soldiers since 2013, most of them in Sinai and some in Cairo and other cities.

The Egyptian army at first believed it could handle these organizations by means of accepted strategy of stopping their funding and arming and pursuing them in the regions where they are strongest, in Sinai and the Western Desert. In Sinai the army flattened more than 2,000 homes along the border with the Gaza Strip, deepening the “sterile” zone and installing sophisticated electronics along the border. Most of the tunnels have been destroyed, the Rafah crossing closed (reopening only recently).

But these preventive measures are no replacement for pursuit on the ground. This is the Egyptian army’s tactical difficulty, although with Israel’s permission it uses helicopters and jet fighters, but it is having great difficulty locating and striking the jihadists’ caves and hideouts in Sinai.

On the opposite side of the country, the army is using its air force and planes belonging to the United Arab Emirates against ISIS bases in the eastern part of Libya, where, as in Sinai, the Egyptian security forces are trying to use the local tribes to gather information.

The terror groups in Egypt have expanded their activities, both geographically and in terms of targets, focusing not only on the army and police, but, since last year, also against tourism in Luxor, civilians in cities and public figures. This strategy could show that these groups have managed to build a logistical base in the cities that bypass Egyptian intelligence.

Terror groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis act independently even if they are ostensibly connected to an umbrella organization. And as opposed to terror groups that operated in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, these new groups have no known or unifying spiritual leadership to dictate moves or negotiate with the government.

The spiritual leader of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Abu Osama al-Masry, has no deep religious education and his authority is that of a mosque imam. Scholars of the Islamist movements in Egypt say there are no spiritual leaders left there to lead the way as spiritual leaders did Al-Qaida and now lead ISIS. Most of these former leaders are in jail or have repudiated terror.

As a result, the Egyptian terror groups depend on outside leadership, such as Abu al-Hassan al-Falastini, who was a spiritual leader of ISIS in the Qalamoun region of Lebanon, and who published a 101-page book in 2010 explaining why it is permissible to kill civilians, police and soldiers. Some say he was killed, others say he is still active. But Egyptian intelligence officials have found al-Falastini’s writings in searches of terrorists’ hideouts in Egypt, and it is believed ISIS has managed to market his strategy and ideology in the current spiritual leadership vacuum.

That is bad news for the Egyptian war on terror, which could find itself facing an ever-broadening front in the cities, a front that could emulate the infamous tactics of ISIS.