Earlier this week, a bomb attack on an Egyptian tourist bus took place in Sinai, taking the lives of three South Korean tourists, and one Egyptian driver. More were wounded in the attack, which was claimed the following day by the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) group as part of an “economic war” against Egypt’s military-backed government. A line, it would appear, has been crossed. But will that change the perspective of anyone involved in Egypt’s sordid story? Or will it merely entrench them in their own worldviews?
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, coming into existence after the army removed Mohamed Morsi from office in July last year. It stretches back to early 2011, with roots before then. Until this week, however, it has also targeted state forces – army or police – and not civilians. Indeed, in one of its communiqués recently, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis expressed its concern for not harming civilians – a concern it has seemingly put to one side now. One ought to say seemingly – because that communiqué did make reference to “Muslims”, while the attack took the lives of four Christians (one Egyptian, three Koreans). It could well be that in the militant group’s view, these are not “civilians” to be “protected”, particularly since they were travelling across the border. Such a “distinction” will make (and rightly so) little difference to the Egyptian authorities, or to foreign governments.
The attack was made with reference to an “economic war” – which indicates that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, and possibly other militant groups, could view as fair game other kinds of soft targets that relate to tourism in the future. The statement alone is likely to cause foreign governments to reconsider their travel advice to their nationals with regards to Egypt, which will have knock-on effects on what little tourism exists for months to come. Many European travel operators will be planning their summer packages from now – so even if there are no attacks between now and June, the damage may have already been done. That, of course, is likely to have been part of the calculation behind the Taba attack.
There are, as always, four main actors to consider in terms of the fall out. The first is the Egyptian state, particularly in terms of the security machinery and the military leadership, who, particularly in Sinai, are jointly responsible, operationally speaking, for security. The second is the political apparatus, which will remain responsible not only for executive decisions, but the messaging of the Egyptian state. The third are foreign governments, who remain connected to this particular security problem in so far as they may share intelligence with the Egyptian authorities, assist in certain types of operations and offer aid as well as training. Finally, the political adversaries of the state, formed in large part by the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider “Anti-Coup Alliance”.
The security response to these attacks has been, at best, rather haphazard. There are counter-insurgency strategies, and counter-terrorism strategies – and the two ought to be considered as very different. In all cases, however, there ought to be different strands that relate to stopping attacks, preclude citizens from becoming supporters of those attacks, strengthen protection against such attacks, and mitigate the impact of such incidents when they take place. In the UK, the four strands found themselves described as “pursue, prevent, protect, and prepare”, within a cohesive counter-terrorism strategy by the government. (Disclaimer: I was involved in advising on the flaws and benefits of the particular tactics and strategies within the “prevent” strand after the 7 July bombings in 2005).
In Egypt, there have been criticisms made of all four of these strands – and with good reason. When it comes to the equivalent of “prevent” in Egypt, there has been little to address the grievances that might lead Egyptian citizens to becoming vulnerable to militant recruitment strategies. On the contrary, those grievances have increased over the months, with the security crackdown and political repression widening. The security machinery and political apparatus need to examine that extremely closely – and fast. When a state feels under pressure, it is precisely the time for it to uphold the highest standards of law and order – not to put them to one side on the altar of expediency. It is not only the moral thing to do – it also happens to be an effective tool in counter-terrorism.
When it comes to foreign governments, one might hope that countries friendly to Egypt would offer advice on how to tackle such militancy – and one’s hopes could be dashed when it is clear that they have been trying. In a political atmosphere where foreign criticism is deemed to be unwanted foreign interference, it is difficult indeed to make any worthwhile contribution without it being swept to one side. When it comes to being provided with aid or technical support, that is one thing – correcting policies that may inadvertently create an atmosphere conducive to the growth of militancy? That is quite another – but if foreign governments are serious about wanting to assist Egypt, they need to be more forthright on this point, for Egypt’s sake as well as their own. Everyone needs to remember – in the modern world, what is grown in one place may bear fruit, warts and all, in another. It is not remotely beyond the realm of belief to consider that members of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis one day may be involved in terrorism far beyond Egypt’s borders.
Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Anti-Coup Alliance. As yet, the government has not provided clear and transparent evidence that links Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis to the Muslim Brotherhood operationally – as such, many inside and outside of Egypt continue to doubt that such a link exists. It would certainly represent a fundamental shift for the Brotherhood. What is true, however, is that until now, the Brotherhood has not openly named and shamed Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis as carrying out acts of terrorism. Indeed, where the Brotherhood has said anything at all indicates a belief that the militant group is a front for false-flag operations by the state – a spokesperson for the Brotherhood’s political party said this quite bluntly in response to the 24 January bombings in Cairo. While that sort of approach avoids the Muslim Brotherhood having to condemn an anti-government operation (even one as clearly criminal as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’), it does nothing to reassure the wider public nationally or internationally that the Brotherhood is a responsible political force. Moreover, such messaging can easily be interpreted by disaffected Brotherhood members or supporters as turning the blind eye to their leaving the Brotherhood to join up with Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis – something that has not yet been confirmed, but is being increasingly reported.
The scourge of militant, vigilante and terrorist attacks is going to be with Egyptians and Egypt for some time to come. How long that is, and how much Egypt suffers as a result, is not simply down to the decisions of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis – but all of us as well.