Consortium Against Terrorist Finance May 25, 2016, 3:27pm

A week after the EgyptAir plane traveling from Paris to Cairo crashed in the Mediterranean, French and Egyptian authorities have not ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack amid contradicting reports on the aircraft’s final moments. While French air travel security is being investigated for potential gaps, the lack of accountability of Egypt’s government for the country’s complex security situation and its longstanding “culture of denial” are back in the limelight.

Just several months ago, in October 2015, 224 passengers and crew traveling on an A321 operated by Russian airways Metrojet lost their lives when a bomb took down the jet over the Sinai desert. The attack was planned and executed by Wilayat Sinai, an Egyptian terrorist faction once known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis who pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014. Certainly the deadliest and most concerning terrorist actor in Egypt due to the sophistication of its weaponry and techniques, Wilayat Sinai is only one of the threats destabilizing the Egyptian scenario.

Mainland Egypt is plagued by militancy of different kinds – from Islamist groups occasionally resorting to violence to pursue political goals, to homegrown jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS, to locally focused heterogeneous groups inclined to jihad. Ajnad Misr, who claimed responsibility for the July 2015 explosion in Roxy Square in Cairo, is an example of the latter.

The changing face of a faction of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood further complicates the deteriorating security situation in the country. While several Muslim Brotherhood members have engaged in low level warfare against symbols of the establishment – including infrastructures, power stations and headquarters of corporations – a younger branch of the Egypt-born movement, mindful of the August 2013 Rabaa and Nahda Square massacres, is evolving into a revolutionary wing that has renounced the Brotherhood’s traditionally moderate political strategies and is embracing more violent means.

Egyptian Islamism is going through a transformational phase no less significant and unpredictable than that which gave birth to the first jihadi cells that eventually became al Qaeda,” wrote expert Mokhtar Awad in February 2016. Its evolving strategies so far may have proved less lethal than jihadi Salafism, but not less problematic. The implications of this uncertain transition are especially evident in the Sinai Peninsula, where the local reservoir of Islamists is reputed extremely vulnerable to the Salafi appeal.

Besides the conspicuous Islamist presence, the growing number of disaffected Bedouin youths turning loyal to local Salafi circles in the Sinai is cause for serious concern. Recent reports have pointed out that some members of the Sinai-based Bedouin tribes have already joined the ranks of Wilayat Sinai and provided logistical support to the group. The Bedouins, who made up the majority of the Sinai population, are excluded from major economic opportunities and prohibited from joining the military. Their receptivity to Salafism has been amplified by their long-standing frustration over the absence of meaningful alternatives to make a living outside of subsistence agriculture, and is posing a critical problem with devastating potential for the region’s security situation.

The Sinai Peninsula has long hosted indigenous jihadi groups connected to international jihadi organizations over which the Egyptian military has no substantial control outside of military checkpoints. And especially in the Sinai, ISIS has proved an adaptive strategic actor capable of leveraging local grievances to maximize its recruitment. Early this month, the group launched a coordinated propaganda campaign in fourteen regional divisions to promote its affiliate Wilayat Sinai and has tailored its calls to join its ranks to specific and widely cherished political issues which are behind the increasing disaffection of the local population.

The group is, in fact, trying to create a united jihadi front by absorbing al-Qaeda affiliates and by cultivating ties with ISIS operatives and supporters based in Gaza, especially with the Jaysh al-Islam group. Haaretz recently reported that Jayish al-Islam is believed by some Palestinian sources to be “a straw group acting on behalf of ISIS and Ezzedine al-Qassam [the military wing of Hamas] while allowing Hamas to disavow any involvement.” Yet the extent of the threat posed by Wilayat Sinai in the country has induced Egyptian authorities to reopen a negotiation channel with Hamas, an opportunity long reputed unviable after Egypt had blamed Hamas for the assassination of its Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 29, 2015. Through an agreement with Hamas, Egyptian President Absel el-Sisi may be able to influence Hamas’ game with Israel and hopes to contain, or at least consolidate, the front against the rising terror threat in Egypt.

However, the Egyptian strategy based on micro-policies and bilateral partnerships with independent interlocutors – from Hamas to the Bedouin tribes, as for the past several years – is doomed to fail, faced with the more and more intricate relationships between the several “threat actors” in its territory. Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy cannot be disconnected from local grievances and domestic affairs, the same factors that terrorist groups, especially ISIS, are adaptively manipulating to attract recruits.

Equally crucial is for the Egyptian government to dismiss its longstanding tradition of denial and unaccountability that tends to subordinate facts to national interest. The Telegraph reporter Robert Spencer emphasized that “all forms of first-hand reporting on Egypt’s war against ISIL in the Sinai have been made virtually impossible, with media forced on pain of criminal conviction to follow the official statements in describing events,” a fact that has rendered a full assessment of the military’s own claim of success of its counter-insurgency strategy non-viable. Accountability must be encouraged especially in the security sector to more effectively counter jihadi groups’ claims that jihadists “must take matters into their own hands.”

By Monday, Politico columnist Dorian Geiger noted, “President Sisi was no longer using the word “terrorism” or saying any cause [for the most recent plane crash] was likely at all.” No meaningful security reform will take place in a country that cannot, or does not, want to deal with its own ghosts.

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