The spread of extremist activity in the Sinai Peninsula region is becoming a source of concern for many in Egypt.
A group called Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Last week, 25 Chinese workers were kidnapped in the Sinai by an armed Islamist group in an attempt to force the Egyptian government to release imprisoned militants who were responsible for a 2004 attack in Taba.
In recent months, armed groups blew up pipelines that supply natural gas to Jordan and Israel, attacked the al-Arish police station, and conducted an operation that targeted Israeli soldiers in the city of Eilat.
Al-Shorfa interviewed Dr. Nageh Ibrahim, an ideological theorist for the Islamic Group and the author of its ideological revisions. The group renounced the use of violence in 2002.
Al-Shorfa: What does an oath of allegiance (bayah) to al-Qaeda mean?
Nageh Ibrahim: To Islamist groups, swearing bayah to an imam, or when one organisation pledges bayah to another, means that the organisation that swears bayah is ready to fight, has the arms and men to do so, and awaits orders from the commander to carry out operations that achieve their goals, such as fighting against "infidels" or attempting to topple "infidel authoritarian" regimes.
Al-Shorfa: In August, Ansar al-Jihad declared its desire to establish an Islamic emirate in the Sinai. What is your opinion of this goal?
Ibrahim: Adopting an Islamic emirate is an expression of rebellion against authority, specifically the former Mubarak regime, which used violence to deal with them. Establishing an Islamic emirate is a way to build a separate state from the one ruled by Mubarak and his security apparatus.
However, the stance that the organisation's leaders took is unrealistic because the Egyptian revolution overthrew Mubarak and placed him in jail, and he is currently on trial. Islamists won a majority in the People's Assembly, and the notion of establishing an Islamic emirate is merely a blind imitation of al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations in other places such as Yemen.
I believe [Ansar al-Jihad] is in the middle of a great ideological crisis. It is ideologically bankrupt, which is why it is limited to setting superficial goals and conducting feeble operations such as attacks on police stations and blowing up gas pipelines.
Al-Shorfa: Does the bayah pledge mean the organisation is in direct contact with al-Qaeda or that co-ordination exists between them on matters relating to targets?
Ibrahim: I think there is no communication between Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai and al-Qaeda's central command in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border areas because the leaders of the organisation are under siege by security services and are having difficulty managing their internal affairs. Any step outside into public view exposes them to great risks.
Al-Shorfa: Then what benefit does the organisation draw from swearing bayah to al-Qaeda?
Ibrahim: The organisation's thinking is superficial and immature in terms of assessing the local and regional landscape. They believe al-Qaeda is regaining its strength in the wake of the downfall of authoritarian regimes in Yemen, Libya, and Egypt upon the collapse of their security apparatuses.
That may be true, but only in Yemen. The Arab Spring is the most powerful weapon there is against al-Qaeda's ideology. The fact that millions of young people marched in peaceful demonstrations in Arab countries to demand change is an indication that the majority of Arab youth believe change can be achieved through the ballot box, not with weapons.
I expected al-Qaeda would announce that the use of arms is obsolete and that it now espouses change through peaceful means, which, ironically, was achieved by the Arab masses in less than one year while the organisation failed to initiate change through violence in the past 40 years. I call on al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to adopt the peaceful option in acquiescence to the pleas of the Arab and Islamic masses.
Al-Shorfa: There is a lack of clarity about the identity of armed groups operating in Sinai. Some say they are the Tawhid wal Jihad group that existed in the past and the recently-emerged group called Ansar al-Jihad. In your opinion, who are they?
Ibrahim: These groups first emerged in Sinai in 2005 when the Tawhid wal Jihad in Egypt announced its existence and later claimed responsibility for the Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh bombings. In its first statement, the group swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and pledged obedience to Osama bin Laden. Its objectives were focused on hitting tourism sites in Sharm El-Sheikh by targeting Europeans and Israelis, but most of the victims who died in the bombings were Egyptian Muslims.
After most of its leaders were imprisoned, the group announced revisions of its ideology, similar to what the Islamic Group and Jamaa al-Jihad had undergone before them.
God made me serve as a cause for abandoning their ideas. The Tawhid wal Jihad ideological revisions were announced two years after I had sessions with the group's leaders and the 30 lectures I gave them in Damanhour prison. The group also held numerous roundtable discussions with some of my students.
Many of its members escaped prison during the period of lawlessness that followed the revolution, especially younger group members who had not taken part in the ideological revisions process. They gathered together and formed an armed organisation over the past year, which is known as Ansar al-Jihad in Sinai. Their activities have so far been limited to blowing up gas pipelines, attacking police stations and ambushing security personnel.
Al-Shorfa: There are many conflicting media reports about the current size of the Ansar al-Jihad organisation. How many members does it have?
Ibrahim: Newly-emerged organisations, particularly during the last 10 years, are small and consist of no more than 100 members, while Islamist organisation in the 1980s had as many as 20,000 members or more. The organisations' small size reduces their chances of being hit by security authorities, and newer organizations are subdividing themselves into cells, and each cell can be as small as five members to avoid being detected.
The organisation's size is not an important factor in determining its effectiveness because the activity of organisations like Ansar al-Jihad involves mostly simple operations, such as bombing gas pipelines and storming security installations. But they may also target tourism in the future as they did with the Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh bombings between 2004 and 2006.
Al-Shorfa: Why is Sinai the only region in Egypt where groups are emerging that espouse takfiri thought and armed jihad?
Ibrahim: During the dialogue sessions I conducted in prison, I spoke with some of the organisation's leaders and asked them why they adopted takfiri ideology. They said living conditions in Sinai are conducive to the spread of isolationist takfiri thought because nomadic life is inherently harsh.
Takfiri thought is fundamentally antagonistic and unsympathetic to others because it teaches followers to view all people as kuffar [unbelievers], and life in the desert fosters antipathy.
The level of education also influences the population's propensity to embrace takfiri thought. Most of the Sinai suspects I met in prison were illiterate and at the low end of the cultural and intellectual scale. Takfiri thought spreads in culturally and intellectually poor communities where the level of education is low, but its danger lies in its advocacy of violence.
No development of any kind has reached the Sinai, and the spread of illiteracy and ignorance among the majority of the population there breeds a sense of alienation, as if they live in another country.
One of their leaders also told me during one of the dialogue sessions that the Sinai desert abounds with materials from previous wars. Another member told me they are extracting explosive components from the missiles left over from previous wars, and these components are enough to make two car bombs, so access to arms is not an issue for them.
Al-Shorfa: How can takfiri thought in the Sinai be eliminated?
Ibrahim: Two issues need to be addressed, and both of them are urgent. First, the government must begin implementing a comprehensive development programme in Sinai, led by the local residents in all aspects, in order to link the region to Egypt instead of keeping it isolated.
Second, there is so far no true Islamic advocacy, education, or pluralism in Sinai. Spreading doctrinal pluralism is the way to counter takfiri ideology, and that is why takfir has not spread among al-Azhar students, who are taught to recognise pluralism in the four religious doctrines. Sinai is an entirely different environment that is devoid of Islamic advocacy, and clans and tribes charge each other with being unbelievers. Therefore, programmes must be implemented to disseminate moderate thought among the people of Sinai to dissuade them from supporting extremist, takfiri ideology.