Can the Islamic State Establish a Foothold in Mainland Egypt?

Executive Summary

The Islamic State, via its Sinai-based branch, Wilayat Sinai, continues to attack the Egyptian military and security services despite a surge in the number of army and security personnel. Northern Sinai is an ideal operational environment for an organization like the Islamic State: state control is limited, much of the population is disenfranchised and dark networks that deal in everything from arms to human beings abound. Many of these same conditions exist to a lesser degree in mainland Egypt. However, the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt may find that it is far more difficult to exploit these vulnerabilities outside of Sinai. 

Introduction

On November 2, 2014, the leadership of Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis swore bayah (allegiance) to the Islamic State’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Arabiya, November 4, 2014). In the ten months since joining the Islamic State, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—now called Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province)—has carried out a series of increasingly complex and audacious attacks on some of the Egyptian military’s most heavily fortified bases. Wilayat Sinai launched its most ambitious operation on July 1, when as many as 300 militants attacked multiple targets in the northern Sinai town of Shaykh Zuweid (al-Jazeera, July 1). Much like a January 29 attack that targeted the fortress-like Battalion 101 headquarters in al-Arish, the July 1 operation made use of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs), mortars, Grad rockets and RPGs to attack more than 15 different military and security sites in and around Shaykh Zuweid. The attack resulted in at least 21 dead army and security personnel.

The attack on Shaykh Zuweid was launched after the Egyptian government had increased the number of military and security personnel deployed to northern Sinai. The deployment of additional military personnel to the peninsula and the increased tempo of operations against Wilayat Sinai has, so far, not impeded the group’s ability to plan and launch complex operations.

Wilayat Sinai, as the name suggests, primarily operates within the Sinai Peninsula. However, on July 11, the Islamic State claimed credit for a car bomb that targeted the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo. It is unclear whether the attack was carried out directly by its Wilayat Sinai branch or by an affiliated group as the announcement did not reference Wilayat Sinai, but instead stated that the bombing was carried out by the “Islamic State in Egypt.” In July, Wilayat Sinai kidnapped a Croatian national, Tomislav Salopek, from the affluent Cairo suburb of Maadi, and demanded that the Egyptian government release prisoners in exchange for the man’s life. On August 12, as of yet unverified photos found online indicate that Wilayat Sinai has executed Salopek. The targeting of the Italian Consulate and the abduction and execution of a foreign national from Cairo may indicate that the Islamic State—via its Sinai-based branch—is escalating its attacks in mainland Egypt (al-Ahramhttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/08/concern-croatian-isil-execution-deadline-looms-150806103026709.html, August 12).

Expansion by the Islamic State to mainland Egypt will present the organization with as many opportunities as challenges. Many of the same factors that have contributed to Wilayat Sinai’s success are present in mainland Egypt. Among these factors are: a large pool of potential recruits which militants can draw on; limited state authority in alternatively governed spaces that already exist in parts of Middle and Upper Egypt; an ample supply of small and medium arms and an abundance of soft targets. Chief among these factors is the large pool of potential recruits, many of which could be peeled off from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fertile Ground

Since the removal of President Muhammad Mursi, the Egyptian government has pursued a hardline policy aimed at dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party. Following the removal and arrest of Mursi and much of his cabinet, the Egyptian government led by Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi first banned the Muslim Brotherhood and in December 2013, declared the organization a terrorist group (al-Jazeera, December 25, 2013). Mursi and much of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership have been tried and found guilty of various crimes ranging from corruption to espionage. More than 500 members of the Brotherhood, including Mursi, have been sentenced to death (al-Jazeera), March 25, 2014).

The current government’s heavy-handed response to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was—and may still be—the largest and best organized Islamist organization in the country, has alienated tens of thousands of Egyptians who are or were members of the group. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has long decried violence against the state, instead preferring slow, steady efforts to build its organization and insert itself into the established political structure. With Mursi’s removal and the crackdown on the Brotherhood—the most severe in its eighty year history—there are signs that some members of the younger generation within the organization are questioning the efficacy and validity of what has been a largely non-violent approach to political and institutional change. While most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leadership continues to speak out against violence against the state and condemn terrorist attacks, its message may fail to resonate with a percentage of its younger membership who have witnessed and in many cases been the victims of the state’s crackdown. [1]

The Islamic State almost certainly views some of these younger members as ripe for recruitment into an organization that in most respects represents the polar opposite of the Muslim Brotherhood. The jihadist organization does not seek slow, steady change within state institutions but instead uses violence to destroy what it sees as heretical states. Its relative success in Iraq and Syria as well as Wilayat Sinai’s audacious attacks combined with the organization’s technically and psychologically adept propaganda will undoubtedly allow it to draw off some—albeit a small percentage—of those dissatisfied with the Brotherhood’s leadership.

While the Islamic State may be able to persuade some members of the brotherhood to defect to their side, they will likely focus most of their efforts more broadly on recruiting from within Egypt’s large and growing population of unemployed youth. According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), 29 percent of those between ages 18 and 29 are unemployed. Unemployment among male youths with a university degree is even higher at 36.4 percent. [2] The inability of young Egyptian men, even those with graduate and post-graduate degrees, to find jobs that will allow them to marry, is a key driver of unrest and dissatisfaction with the status quo offered by the government. While only a very small percentage of these men will ever be attracted to an organization like the Islamic State, Egypt’s youth bulge ensures that even a small percentage translates into thousands of unemployed and well-educated potential recruits. The Islamic State offers these young recruits a salary, a purpose and not insignificantly, a sense of adventure—even though this may well end in death.

Alternatively Governed Spaces 

Mainland Egypt has a number of alternatively governed spaces that—much like Sinai— are not subject to the full control of the state. In parts of Middle Egypt—the area between Cairo in the north and Asyut in the south—the control of the state is weak. [3] Tribes, clans and influential families predominate. While the state maintains a presence—whereas in parts of Sinai, it does not—its authority is far from absolute.

Ungoverned spaces—or more correctly alternatively governed spaces—are often easily exploited by insurgent and militant organizations. This has proved to be the case in a large part of north Sinai where Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis—now Wilayat Sinai—was able to rapidly expand its area of influence. Sinai has provided fertile ground for the expansion of Wilayat Sinai because much of its indigenous population, the Bedouin, was disenfranchised by successive Egyptian governments. The Bedouin, many of whom consider themselves to be Bedouin first and Egyptian second, are regarded as a “fifth column” by many in the Egyptian government since some Bedouin did work with the Israelis during that country’s 1967-1982 occupation of Sinai. Many Bedouin are denied citizenship, are prohibited from serving in the military and are not allowed to own land. Despite promises by governments going back to the presidency of Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) to commit funds to development, schools and water projects, living standards in much of Sinai have declined since the early 1980s. [4] While the vast majority of Bedouin oppose Wilayat Sinai, the lack of development in the Sinai and a large disenfranchised population that includes both Bedouin and Salafist exiles from mainland Egypt, have worked to ensure that the jihadist group has a foothold in the peninsula.

In contrast to the Sinai, the tribes, clans and families that exercise influence and control in Middle Egypt are not disenfranchised, but are tied into the state’s formal and informal governing structures. While these groups may, at times, compete with the state for authority, they are beneficiaries of—and rely on—extensive state-funded patronage networks. If the Islamic State attempts to establish itself in these areas, it will be viewed as a direct competitor and threat by the majority of the groups who wield influence in these areas. As a result, the Islamic State will likely find it far more difficult to establish large operational cells in Middle Egypt.

The differences between operating in Sinai and mainland Egypt were recognized by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which, before its allegiance to IS’ caliph, maintained a separate division, the Nile Valley Division, for operations outside of Sinai. The leadership and membership of the Nile Valley Division differed with the Sinai-based elements of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis over how to proceed in mainland Egypt. The membership of the Nile Valley Division is largely drawn from second- and third-generation militant Islamists who know what can happen when an organization overreaches and alienates those among the local population who might be supporters. This happened in the late 1990s, when al-Gama’a al-Islamiya was forced to reconsider its strategy in the aftermath of its 1997 attack on tourists at Luxor. The attack led to a dramatic loss of support for the group and more broadly for militant Islamism—even among stalwarts within the organization. [5]

On June 10, the Egyptian security services foiled an attack on tourists at the temple at Karnak. Egyptian authorities claimed that one of the men they caught had ties to the Islamic State (al-Jazeera, June 10). However, Wilayat Sinai did not claim credit for the attack. Whether this is because it failed, or because they were not involved is unclear. It is worth noting that despite the abundance of soft targets associated with Egypt’s tourist trade, attacks on these sites have been limited. Instead, Wilayat Sinai has focused the majority of its efforts on attacking hardened targets directly associated with the state and the Egyptian military.

There were indications that following Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ allegiance to the Islamic State, the Nile Valley Division broke away due to internal differences over how to proceed in Egypt. The fact that Wilayat Sinai has focused on attacking the targets directly associated with the state may indicate that it is taking on board the concerns of its Nile Valley Division and may still be working in concert with them.

Connectedness, Complexity and Sectarianism

Wilayat Sinai will likely find it challenging to establish a base of support outside of Sinai. However, mainland Egypt offers the group a host of vulnerabilities to exploit and opportunities to seize upon. The dense interconnected urban environments of the Nile Valley are an ideal operational environment for insurgent and terrorist organizations. In contrast with North Sinai, which is thinly populated, the Nile Valley and its cities are densely populated (95 percent of Egypt’s population of 84 million live in the Nile Valley). In the Sinai, the group’s movements are more easily observed by aerial and ground surveillance—though increased use of drones and manned surveillance aircraft has done little to impede their operational freedom. Urban environments like Cairo, Mansoura, Asyut and other major cities, which are ringed with slums with little or no state presence, could allow the Islamic State to operate with an even greater degree of freedom than what it now enjoys in northern Sinai. Urban environments, especially those with large areas of informal housing, are notoriously difficult for security services to operate in and control. Dark networks also thrive in these same environments.

In North Sinai, Wilayat Sinai has benefited from—and exploited—the dark networks that proliferate there. Illicit trade in everything from arms to drugs thrives in the Sinai because it is a corridor between Africa and Asia and because of the state’s limited control of much of the peninsula. In parts of Middle Egypt, there is a similarly thriving trade in small arms and other contraband. Since the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi in Libya in October 2011, parts of Middle Egypt have been used as a transit point from arms sourced from Libya (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 26, 2011). While the flow of arms and materiel has subsided since 2013, the availability of small and even some medium arms remains high. If the Islamic State were to expand into Middle Egypt, it is likely that it would be able to tap into these existing dark networks to meet its own demand for arms and to provide a source of funding for its operations. This is the case in Sinai, where Wilayat Sinai works hand in hand with well-organized smuggling gangs: in exchange for protection, Wilayat Sinai is provided with all the arms that it requires, which in the Sinai includes medium weapons like MANPADS and Grad rockets.

In addition to an abundance of dark networks that the Islamic State can tap into, it could exploit existing sectarian tensions between Egypt’s majority Muslim population and its minority Coptic Christian population (estimated at 10 million). Sectarian tensions in Egypt have often led to violent clashes between Muslims and Copts—particularly in parts of Middle Egypt. Current Egyptian President al-Sisi has made a concerted effort to reassure Egypt’s Coptic minority that they have a place in all aspects of Egyptian society; for example, he was the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas Eve mass (al-Ahram, January 6). Still, attacks on Copts, while limited, have increased over the last six months.

Nevertheless, sectarian tensions in Egypt cannot be compared with the sectarian divisions that exist in Syria or Iraq. However, as demonstrated in both Syria and Iraq, the broader Islamic State organization has shown that it is able to exploit these tensions and that it can effectively exacerbate them. The Islamic State’s Libya branch beheaded 20 Egyptian Copts in February (al-Ahram, February 18). Following this gruesome attack, Wilayat Sinai issued a warning to Coptic families living in North Sinai, where there is a small population of Copts. Many of the families subsequently fled their homes for mainland Egypt (Al-Monitor, July 1). However, given the fact that Egypt’s Coptic and Muslim communities are relatively well integrated, the Islamic State will not find it as easy to exploit tensions in Egypt as it has in Syria and Iraq. With attacks on Copts, it also risks alienating even the tiny minority that might support it.

Outlook

The Islamic State’s expansion into mainland Egypt will bring with it numerous possibilities but will also present the organization with a host of challenges. In many respects, North Sinai is the ideal environment for an organization like the Islamic State: it is impoverished, much of its population is disenfranchised, state control is limited and dark networks proliferate there—for many of the same reasons. Parts of mainland Egypt, in particular areas within Middle Egypt could provide the Islamic State with a similar operating environment with the added advantages that dense urban environments provide along with the possibility of sectarian tensions to exploit. The Islamic State would also have a much larger pool of potential recruits to draw on—many of whom will have the specialized skills and local knowledge that the group seeks out. The current Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups—which includes mass arrests and extralegal detentions—will ensure that the Islamic State will have no difficulty in attracting new recruits.

However, the challenges of operating in mainland Egypt may well counteract the possible advantages. In Middle Egypt in particular, the Islamic State will be competing with established sources of authority that work with the state on both a formal and informal basis. These groups can impede the growth of the organization more effectively than the state can in many cases. The Islamic State must also face the dangers of overreach. The group’s brutal tactics and the indiscriminate use of violence could well delegitimize the organization—even among those hardcore radical Islamists that might support it.

Over the short-term, it is unlikely that the Islamic State will be able to establish the kind of foothold that it has in Sinai in mainland Egypt. However, it is almost certain that the group will continue to plan and carry out limited attacks throughout Egypt. The attacks serve the purpose of showing the membership of the Islamic State, through Wilayat Sinai, and more broadly, Egyptians, that it remains on the offensive and that it can thwart ongoing government efforts to contain it.

Michael Horton is an independent Middle East analyst.

Notes

1. See: “Unprecedented Pressures, Uncharted Course for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 29, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/07/29/unprecedented-pressures-uncharted-course-for-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood/ie2g.

2. See: http://www.capmas.gov.eg/Pages/StaticPages.aspx?page_id=6162.

3. Egypt is traditionally divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt is the northern part of the country that stretches from Cairo to the Mediterranean and includes the Delta. Upper Egypt is the southern part of Egypt—upstream—that runs from Aswan in the south to Cairo in the north. Middle Egypt is technically part of Upper Egypt and is variously defined as running from Cairo or Beni Suef in the north to Asyut or the Qena Bend in the south.

4. See: “No Arab Spring for Egypt’s Bedouin,” Brookings, February 15, 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2012/02/15-egypt-bedouin-akins-ahmed.

5. See: “Middle East and North Africa Briefing,” International Crisis Group, April 20, 2004, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/North%20Africa/Egypt/B013%20Islamism%20in%20North%20Africa%202%20Egypts%20Opportunity.pdf; Kepel, Gilles, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Belknap Press, 2003.