Islamic Group theorist: education and development can counter al-Qaeda in Sinai

Gas pipelines have been frequent targets for extremist groups in the Sinai. Pictured above is a pipeline that was attacked in August 2011. [Stringer/Reuters]

Gas pipelines have been frequent targets for extremist groups in the Sinai. Pictured above is a pipeline that was attacked in August 2011. [Stringer/Reuters]

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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.

Arab Spring 'most powerful weapon against al-Qaeda'

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.

Lack of development in Sinai 'conducive to extremist thought'

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.

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  • READER COMMENTS

    عبد الغفور

    2013-1-13

    What you do and say has no relationship with the divine sharia, which is valid until the Day of Judgment without any blemish or stain.

  • مهند عبد

    2012-7-13

    If the education systems in our country follow methods that are based on understanding and not just learning by heart, and on the basis that the student is aware of what is written before memorizing it, this will make a lot difference. It is obvious that the student, as time passes, becomes a man with an influential point of view based on logic and understanding of what he says because since he was young, he was used to doing this, and he will not be led to carry out orders before thinking logically in this matter, distinguishing between correct and wrong. Logic is the master of the situation for him; what a person grows on, he grows old upon it. And also among the sterile methods of procedures in the education systems in our country are the excessively violent, stupid methods of punishment, instead of the use of methods of encouragement, which have a positive effect on the human spirit that drive him to really do the right thing, instead of the negative effects of the use of violence in the punishment of a student at a young age. This creates nothing but suppression, suppression of anger waiting for the right time to come out and explode into the world of humans, hating the world before knowing it because he believes that the violence he experienced is the way of life in general.

  • وجيد

    2012-3-10

    The Egyptian people and its political currents, whether religious or sectarian, must be aware of the dangers of terrorism. We have to be united to prevent the terrorist organizations from imposing their control over Egypt and its people. Egypt will pay dearly if terrorism gets control over it. It will suffer from insecurity and instability and many people will die. Furthermore, the danger of terrorism will be greater if it succeeds in spreading its dark and infidel thoughts, which will destroy the Egyptian society and plant extremism and Takfiri ideology. We must remember that Egypt has more than one religious group and such diversity will be exploited by the terrorists and criminals to disunite the people and destroy their solidarity. Hence, the terrorist organizations are very dangerous and they cause irrecoverable destruction, especially in the countries that are still at the beginning of the process of change. Hence, the dangers would be immense if the criminals and the terrorists controlled Egypt.

  • جبار

    2012-3-1

    We want you, sons of the land of Arabism, to fight every terrorist and extremist. Do not allow anyone to call on militant ideas to exist on the land of Kenaan. If you do not rectify it from the beginning, the consequences will be dire upon you and then your neighbors. So, watch out for terrorism because it is the biggest threat to the people.

  • سلام كريم

    2012-3-1

    We are still suffering from terrorism in some Arab countries. These murderers caused the deterioration of the security situation in those countries as well as the bad reputation and image of the Arabs and Muslims. We do not want Egypt to be the next station for terrorists to settle down. Therefore, we warn the people of Egypt and the Egyptian government to pay attention to terrorism and al-Qaeda because those criminals are taking advantage of the unstable situation in the countries to get in between the people. They transmit toxins in the street and start conflicts and struggles because discord is spread wherever the terrorists are found. If it were up to the terrorists, there would be no Egypt anymore because these people will destroy everything in addition to the fact that Egypt is located in an important geographic situation. The terrorists will control the shipping lanes at the Suez Canal, for example, and this will affect all the Arab countries and the world, because that channel is a vital and strategic route, not to mention that terrorism in Egypt means that the strife between the Muslims and Copts in Egypt will reach its peak because terrorism and al-Qaeda will put fuel on the fire to ignite sedition.

  • TR

    2012-2-26

    There are serious threats that would face Egypt if it fell under the control of the terrorists. Believe me; the world’s balance of power will be disturbed, without exaggeration. However, terrorism will exploit the many factors, including the important location of Egypt and its great leading role in the Arab arena, as well as the fanaticism inside Egypt, which would mean that the consequences would become dire. Surly, I do not want this, but at the same time, I cannot minimize the possibilities in case the terrorists manage to gain control over Egypt. Certainly, there are terrorist cells that seek to become active in Egypt; but to speak about complete control, I think that this would be impossible, because the Egyptian people love their home and will never sell it or leave it to the terrorists, despite the hunger and poverty. Hence, if they thought about this, they would find that the Egyptians will stand against them strongly. If the terrorists were seeking to control Egypt, then they would first think about fomenting political disputes, followed by the sectarian strife between the Copts and the Muslims on one hand, and between the Fatimids and Sunnis on the other hand. They would also loot the money of the state and sow the seeds of dissension between the state and the other countries. There would be mass murders and they would control the minds of the fanatical people who will be recruited by Al-Qaeda. Countless problems will occur, and we ask God to protect us.

  • عمر

    2012-2-26

    What has been happening in Egypt? There are things that call for suspicion, anxiety, and panic after the occurrences of difficult and painful circumstances and conditions. Therefore, the Egyptian people are supposed to keep calm and not create chaos and disturbances. The security forces must control the situation more and something ridiculous should not happen because of internal fighting or inflaming the situation more than it is now, because of those who united and created the revolution of the Egyptian people. What is happening now? Why is there chaos, violence, criminality, and dissemination of hatred and discord as well as internal fighting among the sons of the Egyptian people? Who is the beneficiary of all that? Why did the sons of the Egyptian people stand together during the time of the revolution? Why are they destroying each other? The competent authorities and the security forces must impose tranquility, security, and stability in Egypt and the Interior Ministry should do what is necessary in order to calm down the situation and not be involved in harsh conditions, like what happened in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, and Libya.

  • مراد

    2012-2-25

    Whoever remembers the era of the nineties may recall one of the most important periods in Egypt, which has suffered the scourge of armed terrorist groups, which came on the dry and the green and won many of the souls of the martyrs and the innocent people who lost their lives in their brutality. Perhaps the confusion between things in Egypt makes some people cautious in anticipation of the control by some groups of the reins of power in Egypt because as the decades have passed the Islamic movement in Egypt has been linked to some acts of sabotage, and the belief remained that they are banned groups because they are certainly the sponsors of destruction. Despite the differences of vision about the future of the Islamic movement in Egypt and the nature of the leadership of Egypt in the future, a pessimistic point of view is dominant on the question of rule by some of those groups. The fact that the Islamic movement has been always associated in the past with some question marks does not necessarily mean that no change may occur. However, if we assume abnormalities other than that rule and some groups were controlling the reins of power in Egypt, there is no doubt that Egypt will suffer for quite a long period of time from a scourge resembling what happened before in the nineties, which could lead the country into civil war and sectarian strife the repercussions of which will not be only economic, but may lead to the disintegration of the state and its division, as the victims will not be individuals in this case, but the entire country.

  • ربيع علي

    2012-2-25

    Egypt is a country that everybody is looking at in a different way, so Egyptians should never go against that expectation. The Egyptian people need to stay quiet and ask for their rights peacefully. The bloodshed has to stop, along with the killing, hatred, violence and animosity among all Egyptians, even if they embrace different religions or beliefs. All of you are citizens of the same country, so the respective authorities have to work harder and exert efforts to establish security, stability and peace in Egypt, so as to end these circumstances peacefully, without any losses or disorder. The Egyptian people were dreaming of ending all this suffering; they were hoping that everything would end the right way, not in that tragic way, such as shedding a lot of blood for trivial and irrational reasons. When people kill their brothers, it is sad and unfortunate at the same time. How come people commit such acts against each other, after all the oppression they were subject to from the tyrant and dictator, and then they commit oppression against each other?! We hope the situation stabilizes and things calm down with a good end, God willing.

  • ام العنود

    2012-2-24

    A year after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the possibility of terrorist groups gaining control in some parts of the country has greatly increased. The power vacuum following the fall of the totalitarian government, coupled with the sharp swing towards extremist Islamic opinion, has created a situation in which Islamic terrorist groups have an opportunity to push their agenda. The unstable civil situation is the main focus of the Egyptian security forces at a time when extremist Islamic opinion is gaining popularity. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the security forces to track and counter the threat posed by extremist groups.

  • اسماعيل

    2012-2-24

    Well, such a scenario would be close to Armageddon for Egypt because terrorists being able to control some parts of Egypt would be gravely consequential for the country. The terrorists may start forcing their “sickening and incorrect” version of Islam on the people in the areas they control and make life a misery for them such that they are fully under the control of the terrorists and are unable to exercise freedom of speech or action as individuals. The terrorists may also blackmail the government in the center of the country by way of threatening to kill the people in the area under their control if their demands are not met in the given timeframe. This and much more could happen in those areas with people being executed in line with the “terrorist-compliant Sharia” that has neither reasoning nor sense to support its ideologies. Such are the “scary scenarios” that an event such as this may unleash and, therefore, every effort must be undertaken by the security forces of Egypt to make sure that such a situation remains a “supposed scenario” at best!

  • صفا سعيد عبدالرحمن

    2012-2-24

    Apparently there is a possibility of terrorist groups inside Egypt controlling some parts. The reason for this assumption is the recent attacks even after the overthrow of the long-serving President Mubarak. Many parties played active roles in the Arab uprising and it was emerging that one of the parties was a terrorist group. These claims have some facts backing them. Egypt is an Arabic nation with close ties with the Middle Eastern countries where it is the stronghold of notorious terrorist groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There was a terrorist attack on a minority group of Coptic Christian and they killed a lot of people. The majority of people living in Egypt do bad deeds in the name of Islam and there are some regions under the hold of terrorists who are controlling them. These terrorists are comprised of the bitter section of people who are not satisfied with the military government which has not allowed the use of the Sharia law.

  • نعمان محمد صالح

    2012-2-23

    I think that the probability of the terrorists taking control of Egypt is very weak as the Egyptian Army is an independent institution and of strong status and power. I do not think that the military will allow this; nevertheless, it is a possibility. He who follows the news and events of what is happening in Egypt after the revolution of January 25 will arrive at the conclusion that the revolution has produced a Salafi Islamist state that does not give women their rights and does not recognize the right of opinion and expression, therefore marking the failure of the revolution on a basic level and threatening the existence of the Copts as well as their protection. During the days of the revolution, everyone was calling for freedom and ensuring the rights for all, including freedom of religion and the protection of everyone as an integral part of the Egyptian people. Therefore, the Islamist takeover of power in Egypt hinders the progress of this country towards democracy since the policy of Islamists is based on the exclusion of an important segment and that is the Copts. In addition, the Islamists have a sacred speech which is not likely to be debated on the pretext that it is inspired by the Quran and the noble Sunnah, and is not likely to be debated, disregarding the freedom of opinion and expression.

  • كامل محمد كامل

    2012-2-23

    I pray to the Almighty God to abort any terrorist attempts to dominate Egypt and to prevent any more losses. We supplicate to God to lead Egyptians to success and good. O my Lord, waste all the efforts of al-Qaeda terrorists, bring in all good to all Arab countries, and shake the ground under the feet of the terrorists, who are too distant from your religion. These filthy terrorists want to blacken the reputation of your tolerant religion. O Lord, please make security, safety, and stability prevail in Egypt and lead elections to success. May God enable the Egyptian people to live in peace away from any intervention by any side whatsoever. I call upon the temporary Egyptian Government to work on achieving security, safety, and stability in the country, especially at the Egyptian borders in order to prevent bigger problems that result from possible terrorist infiltrations. My Lord, please protect Egypt from every misfortune or discomfort and make security and safety prevalent in all Arab countries, Amen.

  • محمود جمال

    2012-2-20

    The security situation in Egypt has become very bad; that’s why the new government and the security forces should work on stabilizing the situation, in order not to increase the problem or the anger of the people, who can be a source of violence, crime, terrorism and brutal crimes like the ones in Iraq, Yemen and a lot of countries that witnessed tragic situations. We do not want that to happen to any Arab country, but what is happening now in reality is killing, violence, crimes and hatred among the people. The security situation is inadequate, and it is unfortunate that that should happen in a great country like this, which has its own position among the other countries of the world, especially since Egypt is the Mother of the World. It is the duty of the army, the security forces and the current government to lead the country in the best way. But what is happening is a very tragic situation for the Egyptian people, who asked for their freedom, prosperity and for all the necessary needs to be provided that every Egyptian citizen is dreaming of. But the reality is that they faced severe pressure, and the cooperation that occurred during the Egyptian Revolution against Hosni Mubarak is gone. They have now been divided into groups, parties and categories. Of course, this is not a good thing and it doesn’t indicate anything good; especially for the Egyptian people, because they are the only ones harmed, due to all the internal fights, violence and lack of control over the current affairs. So it is very necessary to work on stabilizing the situation from the security aspect. There should be discipline, and all the needs of the Egyptian people should be provided in order not to complicate the situation more by following the violence and the negative things against the Egyptian people, because they aspire for the better, not for the negative and bad things.

  • الخوري

    2012-2-17

    All of the people must be careful because Egypt is witnessing a strange situation despite its stability and its people’s loyalty as well as patriotism to the point of death. This is strange and I think that al-Qaeda has played a big role in what has happened. I hope that al-Qaeda will not be able to commit more crimes. I hope that there will be no one who adopts terrorist beliefs in Egypt.

  • اركان سلطان

    2012-2-17

    We all know that the terrorists have tried to dominate Egypt. Currently, the dog al-Zawahiri has become the leader of the terrorist organization of al-Qaeda after the death of the criminal bin Laden. In fact, he has showed that al-Qaeda wants to dominate Egypt. I think they know that this is difficult. That is why they have worked secretly in order to create problems and discord in the country. Now, Egypt is witnessing unknown killing operations and strange events in the province of Port Said. Many innocent people have been killed. This has paved the way for the spread of the mass murder phenomenon in Egypt. They have tried to spread discord between the Copts and Muslims. This is in addition to spreading discord between the young rebels and the interim government. This will help al-Qaeda in dominating Egypt. Al-Qaeda has pretended that Islamic rule is the best. This is in order to get many supporters. In reality, this is a dangerous matter.

  • مهند احمد

    2012-2-16

    Terrorist activities in Egypt are on the rise and the situation there is very alarming. Many terrorist attacks were conducted there by many groups which aim to gain control over Egypt. They conducted attacks on government officials, tourists and the Christian minority. This is the shocking news: 4 out of 30 most wanted terrorists, as declared by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, are Egyptians. To gain control of Egypt, many terrorist groups attacked various parts of Egypt. Many areas were bombed by many terror groups, but things got worse after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. As after the ouster of the Egyptian president in 2011, al-Qaeda terrorists have boosted their activities in the Sinai area. Members of al-Qaeda exploited the lack of security over there, and this resulted in the withdrawal of the security forces from the Sinai area. Some have even said that now the security forces of Sinai will never be able to control the Sinai area, as it is under the control of al-Qaeda now.

  • منذر

    2012-2-9

    God willing, this kind of thinking will end in the garbage heap of history.

  • صفاء محمد

    2012-2-7

    Yes, you deserve it!