Dr Michael Barak
In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.
Against the backdrop of the decline of the Islamic State (IS), as expressed in the loss of the Caliphate and the loss of its strongholds in Mosul, in Iraq, and Al-Raqqah, in Syria, many experts estimate that the organisation is doomed to extinction. The Islamic State is indeed in decline in the Syrian-Iraqi region, but this should not be seen as its end. The IS will be able to exploit future ethnic and religious tensions as it did in the past, and to carry out terrorist attacks in order to undermine the existing order. The Islamic State’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula is prominent in leading this trend in all matters related to the escalation of tension between the Coptic Christian minority and the Sunni majority in Egypt. The Egyptian army’s increasing activity and the growing opposition of coalition tribes in the Sinai Peninsula to the establishment of the IS in the region is indeed dampening its activity, but this distress has led the organisation to establish terrorist cells in several of Egypt’s main cities to carry out deadly terrorist attacks. The focus of the Islamic State’s efforts against the Coptic community, the growing trickle of jihad operatives from Al-Qaeda and the IS into Egyptian territory, the increasing radicalisation among Muslim Brotherhood members and the cooperation between them and Al-Qaeda fighters, and the faltering economy in the county increase the terror threat posed to Egypt in the coming years. The Egyptian regime, led by President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi, is aware of the growing threat and is investing a great effort to eradicate it by, among other things, establishing alliances with African countries intended both to strengthen the security cooperation between them and Egypt’s regional standing. Despite these efforts, there is still a long way to go before the threat is completely eradicated.
Jihadi movements see Egypt as an enemy
Global jihad operatives, especially Al-Qaeda, view the Egyptian regime as one of the jihad movement’s most bitter enemies. It is important to remember that the leader of Al-Qaeda, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, and several senior members of the organisation of Egyptian origin have a long history of grievances against the Egyptian regime since the 1980s, when they were persecuted by it. The Egyptian Al-Mourabitoun, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and led by a Egyptian army officer defector Hisham Ashmawi, expressed the organisation’s efforts to establish itself in Egypt and to create terrorist networks there. Increasing attempts by jihad operatives to infiltrate from Libyan territory against the backdrop of the Islamic State’s defeats in its battle against Libyan General Khalifa Haftar and other countries, such as Sudan, demonstrates how Egypt continues to serve as an attraction for the organisation. In August 2017, Egyptian border guard forces caught over 250 infiltrators, including jihad operatives, who had attempted to infiltrate into Egypt from Libya. The system of networks established by Al-Qaeda in the Sahara, especially in Mali, serves as a convenient platform for smuggling weapons and operatives into Egypt.
Undermining the economy and Christian-Muslim relations
In April 2017, the organisation carried out suicide attacks against two Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta, and against Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. This selective targeting the Copts is designed to undermine the fabric of relations between Christians and Muslims, deepen the tensions between them, and present the Egyptian regime as a failed regime that is unable to protect its citizens, and in this way to deepen the antagonism against it. Jihadi and IS operatives view one of the pillars of a country as its economy and believe that an increase in terrorist attacks that target tourism, transportation, churches and other institutions is likely to destabilise it. Based on this logic, an IS fighter stabbed six tourists in a seaside town near the Red Sea in July 2017. Encouraged by Jihad operatives, this phenomenon will continue in the coming years.
Increased collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood
An additional central fundamentalist player that has not received much attention and recently has been courted by Al-Qaeda is the Muslim Brotherhood. Its declaration as a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian regime as well as by the US government, the trial of many of its members on the pretext of involvement in terrorism, and the exclusion of its activists from the Egyptian religious and public space have led many of them to radicalise and turn to terrorism. The Egyptian “Hasm” terrorist organisation stands out as a relatively new jihadist organisation affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadists that is involved in the assassinations of security personnel, judges and journalists in major cities. In the last year there has been a change in the rhetoric and attitude of Al-Qaeda towards the Muslim Brotherhood, with al-Zawahiri praising Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, as someone who fulfilled the obligation of jihad against the enemies of Islam, including the Jews. This statement indicated an attempt by Al-Qaeda to get closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is a real possibility of cooperation between them in the Egyptian arena. The Muslim Brotherhood is also being courted by Turkey and Qatar, which support the organisation. In Istanbul, at least three satellite channels, which were established by Egyptian exiles among the Muslim Brotherhood, broadcast programmes against al-Sisi, while in Doha, Al-Jazeera maintains a Facebook page that focuses on taunting the Egyptian regime by emphasising alleged social injustices by the regime against civilians.
Egypt under al-Sisi will continue to serve as a target for jihad activists such as Al-Qaeda, the IS and the Muslim Brotherhood. In light of this threat, al-Sisi is not only investing great efforts in the military realm but is also focused on diplomatic and ideological components well. Al-Sisi enlisted the Al-Azhar Institute – considered a leading religious authority in the Sunni world – in order to challenge the religious narrative of jihadist organisations and to spread values of tolerance, including the “other”. In the diplomatic realm, al-Sisi has carried out a number of polices. He has sought to resolve the issue of the distribution of Nile water with Ethiopia and Sudan in order to strengthen Egypt’s regional standing. Al-Sisi has also attempted to reinforce security cooperation with Israel, (and even Hamas) to prevent the strengthening of the IS in Sinai and with Libya and Chad in order to prevent the crossing of jihad operatives over the Egyptian border. In addition, Egypt is being courted by Saudi Arabia to create a Sunni bloc that would prevent the strengthening and consolidation of a “Shi’ite Iranian empire” in the Iraqi-Syrian arena in light of the vacuum left behind after the IS.
ISIS has not yet been defeated territorially and its ideological component in Iraq and Syria remains strong. As it is forced to adapt from a terrorist organisation that dominated territories with a population of several million to a non-territorial terrorist organisation, it will try to focus on establishing new strongholds and on strengthening existing strongholds in areas that are relatively comfortable for it to operate. With the loss of territories that were under its control, the IS was relieved of the heavy burden involved in managing the cities it controlled and the provision of basic services, such as health services. In their absence, the organisation can allocate economic resources and manpower to the execution of revenge attacks and guerrilla warfare management. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Ray al-‘Am, shares this assessment and believes that the loss of most of the territories and the Caliphate “makes [the organisation] more aggressive and dangerous … and it will return to the strategy of the mother organisation, Al-Qaeda, namely terrorist attacks”. The IS will continue to invest efforts to spread “the brand,” which it has successfully generated in all of its messages on every possible platform, especially social networks, in order to serve as a source of inspiration for Muslims around the globe to act on behalf of the “cyber caliphate” and to increase terrorist attacks, especially in the West. Jihad operatives, especially Al-Qaeda, will continue their activities in the Egyptian arena as well, and will take advantage of the growing radicalisation among the Muslim Brotherhood in order to collaborate with them against the Egyptian regime. It is very likely that the IS will continue with its strategy of terrorist attacks against the Coptic population in the country with the aim of shaking the delicate fabric of relations between Muslims and Christians. Therefore, a comprehensive plan is required on the part of the Egyptian regime to involve all state institutions and civilians in order to prevent radicalisation and eradicate the plague of terrorism.
Dr Michael Barak is senior researcher and project manager at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.