On February 14th 2014, Mr. Hasib J. Sabbagh, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, appeared in a special hearing before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the United States House of Representatives 2nd Session, 113th Congress; to deliver his assessment on “Al Qaeda’s Expansion in Egypt: Implications for U.S. Homeland Security”. Here follow some passages of his statement.
Since the July 3, 2013 coup d’étât, there have been at least 22 terrorist attacks in the Sinai and a series of attacks in major population centers in the Nile Valley, including Ismailiyya, Mansoura, the Sharqiya governorate, and Cairo. A group called Ansar Bayt at Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) have taken responsibility for most of the attacks, but other groups including the previously unknown Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) and Jund al Islam (Soldiers of Islam) have also targeted the Egyptian state and security forces. Most ominously, in late July and again in early September, an extremist organization called Al-Furqan Brigade fired on cargo ships in the Suez Canal with rocket propelled grenades, though no damage was reported.
The security problems there have become deeply worrisome. It is important to note that it is the scale of violence that is new, not the problem of terrorism nor its cause. Egypt is in many ways a crucible of transnational jihad and has produced a long list of notorious terrorists. For at least a decade before the January 2011 uprising, Israeli and American officials raised concerns to their Egyptian counterparts over the drug trade, the flow of weapons, human trafficking, and the presence of various extremist groups in the Sinai. There is no evidence that then-president Mubarak took American and Israeli disquiet seriously, but even if he had, there were important political and structural impediments that would have prevented him from taking any effective action.
Ø First, the leadership in Cairo was not inclined politically to address to grievances of the population of northern Sinai, whether they be related to the lack of economic opportunity and development or to the poor treatment of the population at the hands of the Ministry of Interior. Although the Sinai is critical to a set of national myths related to past conflicts with Israel and national redemption, the area has not been incorporated into the political and economic life of the country. Given this neglect and the cultural differences between the largely Bedouin population of the Sinai and other parts of the country, residents of the Sinai do not feel Egyptian. To be fair, this situation is not necessarily unique to the Sinai. The same can be said of residents who live in the Nile Valley who also feel disconnected from the far-flung capital and its leaders who care little about developments outside the major population centers.
Ø Second, Egyptian-Israeli security coordination was not as robust in the late 1990s and 2000s as it is now. During the mid-2000s, for example, there was considerable mistrust between the two security establishments in addition to thinly veiled Egyptian anger over the efforts of Israel and its U.S.-based supporters to draw attention to Cairo’s lackluster approach to the problem of underground smuggling from the Egyptian frontier to the Gaza Strip.
Ø Third, and most importantly, the primary state organizations that were (and remain) responsible for the Sinai—the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Service (GIS)—have maintained different views on how to deal with problems there, have distinct missions, and are in competition with each other. Due to restrictions built into the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the armed forces were only permitted in certain locations in the Sinai and only with certain pre-determined types of weapons. As a result, stability in the Sinai was largely left to the Ministry of Interior, which, as alluded to above, pursued its police functions with zeal and little regard for due process or human rights. For its part, the GIS was less interested in the quiescence of the population than it was in running intelligence operations in the Sinai. The inevitable result was the development of an environment conducive to crime, extremism, and violence.
After the uprising, the Ministry of Interior was badly battered and the Ministry of Defense was consumed with running the country. This almost immediately resulted in the deterioration of the security situation in northern Sinai. Attacks on police stations, bombings of the Trans-Arab and the al Arish-Ashkelon pipelines, kidnapping of security personnel, efforts to infiltrate Israel, and brazen attacks on state facilities in the region’s capital al Arish all became frequent. Military operations during the summer of 2011 and 2012 did little to arrest this instability and violence. It is not accurate to suggest, as many in the media have, that the Sinai Peninsula is “lawless.” There are informal legal institutions in the Sinai: Sharia courts are now taking the place of the tribal ‘Urf court system, which the government under Mubarak was widely believed to have infiltrated. The spread of Sharia courts has become a way to propagate and institutionalize extremist ideologies and worldviews.
The evidence suggests that the violence in the Sinai Peninsula is largely an Egyptian affair. The Sinai may yet attract foreign jihadis, but thus far the Sinai has enticed Egyptians nationals who had been fighting in Syria and Iraq to return home in order to wage war against what they believe to be an illegitimate government. Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian leader of al Qaeda, has offered his support to Ansar Bayt al Maqdis and has encouraged Egyptians to take up arms against the state. There is currently a debate in Washington about Zawahiri and the extent of his control over al Qaeda and its affiliates, but it seems clear that he maintain influence among Egyptian jihadists.
This worrying situation of political uncertainty, economic deterioration, and extremist violence; this instability poses a threat to American national security interests including:
a) navigation of the Suez Canal,
b) providing logistical support to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf,
c) overflight rights, and
d) the preservation of Egypt-Israel peace.
Nevertheless, the question remains however: “how the United States can best help Egypt?”.
Washington should speak out forcefully and clearly against, for example, human rights violations, attacks on press freedoms, and policies that contradict the rule of law; but policymakers must understand that this is unlikely to have a decisive effect on the quality of Egyptian politics.
Some observers have advocated suspending, delaying, or outright cutting U.S. military assistance to punish the military for the July 3 coup and to compel the officers to put Egypt on a democratic path. It is hard to understand how such a policy would advance democratic change or help improve Egypt’s security situation. The Obama administration has already withheld important weapons systems from the Egyptians, including F-16s and Apache helicopters in response to the military’s intervention, but this has not had a salutatory effect on Egyptian politics.
Critics also argue that U.S. support for the military will further destabilize Egypt, reasoning that the officers’ harsh crackdown is contributing to polarization and violence. This “repression-radicalization dynamic” is real, but whether the United States provides assistance or not, the military and the Ministry of Interior seem likely to continue to try to establish political control through coercion and violence. Withdrawing American support will not make Egypt less unstable
The United States has obvious security interests in Egypt that virtually all observers agree remain important in the short-run. The Egyptians have come to terms with the fact that they are likely to be battling extremists in the Sinai Peninsula for the near future. The Ministry of Defense is not always amenable to American advice because they fear that the United States wants to transform the military into a gendarmerie.
If the most optimistic assistance programmes whatsoever would be adopted, it cannot provide an immediate solution to this situation, unless first the Egyptians must break out of their outdated conception of security and rethink their doctrine to respond to the very real threats before them. This is where the United States can be most helpful, but to be successful, American policymakers will need to:
1. reassure Egyptian officers that Washington stands with them in the fight against terrorism and extremism;
2. the administration and the Congress should give the Egyptian military the tools and technology it needs to counter extremist violence;
3. release suspended weapons systems, especially the Apache helicopters;
4. establish a standing group of American and Egyptian officers to coordinate assistance coherently; and
5. develop a trilateral American-Egyptian-Israeli security/intelligence/counter-terrorism mechanism that facilitates the flow of information among the security establishments of all three countries.
The now Field Marshall Al Sissi, and before his appointment as Minister of Defence & Military Production, was for a long time the top agent responsible for running the Military Intelligence activities in Northern Sinai under Tantawi and Mubarak; and among his major job tasks were:
a) coordinating with Israeli counterparts regarding issues like smuggling arms, food, medicines, gas.. etc; and
b) exchange intelligence plans on jihadist activists infiltrations into the peninsula.