Q&A with terrorism researcher Mokhtar Awad on the Islamic State’s activities in Cairo

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a Sunday morning attack that left eight policemen dead in the southern outskirts of Cairo. 

The Islamic State is well established in Egypt’s Sinai, where a local affiliate has carried out a string of high-profile attacks, but its activities in the mainland have thus far been comparatively small and sporadic.

In an interview with Mada Masr, Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism, says Sunday’s attack is the Islamic State’s boldest and most sophisticated foray into mainland Egypt.

Mada Masr: What are your initial impressions of the attack in Helwan Sunday morning?

Mokhtar Awad: This is the single deadliest armed assault carried out by extremists in Cairo since 2013. An Islamic State-affiliated network has been operating in Giza since September 2015 and this attack was likely carried out by the same group, despite the fact it has suffered several blows — this is the first attack in about two months. 

The attack itself was sophisticated compared to previous operations. The militants appeared to have carried out basic surveillance to track their targets, who wore plainclothes and were in an unmarked van. They looted their weapons and took photos to document the assault. It is their boldest attack yet. But, this is not a revolutionary escalation in militant capabilities on the mainland, a host of militants have long shot and killed policemen in the Cairo area and the Nile Valley. But due to the unique nature of the Islamic State as a well-funded and experienced militant group, their amateur recruits on the mainland are slowly gaining experience. 

MM: Even before the attack in Helwan, you documented a series of actions in mainland Egypt by groups affiliated with the Islamic State. In your recent paper for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, you describe a “dizzying succession of attacks” planned by Islamic State leadership in the Nile Valley last summer. What was the result of this?

MA: There were two major bombings in Cairo, an attempted attack against a major tourist destination in Upper Egypt, a kidnapping of a Westerner, and an unprecedented suicide attack on the Cairo-Suez road, and, according at least to security sources, there was an under-reported assassination attempt on the State Security Prosecution’s general attorney that they claim was by an Islamic State-affiliated cell. All of this happened in the span of four to five months. That is quite significant. Especially if the Karnak attack had panned out, 2015 would have been an even more devastating year.

MM: Who has been carrying out these attacks, and what role does the Islamic State, as an international group, play in them?

MA: It’s not the Islamic State parachuting in. It’s about the Islamic State trying to find a way to work with existing supporters and other militants who have their own struggles on the Egyptian mainland.

For the better part of the last five years or so, some militants from the mainland have attempted to rekindle the fires of the last attempted insurgencies of the 1980s and 90s, and they’ve struggled. Others left Egypt to fight their battle elsewhere.

So, we have an attempt by the Islamic State to basically inject itself in this landscape where there are native activists — Salafi jihadi activists — who want to do something on the Egyptian mainland, but don’t necessarily have the backing and support of an organization.

MM: Why has establishing a foothold in mainland Egypt been such a struggle for the Islamic State?

MA: There are two ways to answer this: There’s the answer from their perspective and the analytical answer.

The analytical answer is that the Egyptian state has a multitude of problems, but when we compare it to other countries in the region where the Islamic State is operating, there’s a fundamental difference when it comes to the state’s cohesiveness, its strength and the strength of its security forces. Without exalting the prowess of the Egyptian state, when you compare it to the state of affairs in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, there’s an obviously big difference. 

The second issue is the fact that mainland Egypt, and even the Sinai, does not have easily extractable resources. In Egypt you cannot extract oil and sell it on the black market and make big bucks. Obviously, there’s domestic oil production, but its not something you can compare to these other territories.

The third reason is that society is also far more cohesive than some of the other societies the Islamic State has been able to operate in. I don’t necessarily buy into the whole Egyptian exceptionalism thing. I think Egyptian society has faced many problems in the last century that make it as vulnerable as any other society to radicalization. But Egypt is a historical state, where you don’t have existential debates about the state itself. There’s debate about how the state should be, but it’s not the same as we see in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Obviously, this is completely different from the Sinai. Historically — and in the last century by design — the state’s presence in Sinai has been very weak. Of course, by design I mean the Camp David agreements that divided the Sinai into multiple zones where the military has not had a significant presence. Also, because of its history of war, central Cairo lost its incentive to build up North Sinai and invest in it. As opposed to South Sinai, where when the state did recognize economic potential, it mobilized. 

The demographic makeup is such that many in North Sinai are not as historically connected with the traditional capital of the Nile valley in Cairo. That doesn’t mean they are not patriotic individuals. Most of them are, but they face lots of discrimination.

MM: What about the Islamic State’s perspective?

MA: Let’s look at how they see Egyptian society. I have come across three internal studies by Islamic State supporters. These are not secret, they are published from time to time on forums, and give you a window into how they look at Egypt. In one study, The Egyptian Puzzle, they perceive people to be so uneducated that they would follow anyone. In other words, they are too connected to the state and they are not as receptive to the jihadi message. The state has succeeded in positioning itself as the legitimate force in the eyes of the people. This is ultimately why the jihadi experiment, from their view, perhaps failed in the 80s and 90s. 

MM: Clearly, there is a huge amount of propaganda on this issue, from both sides of the conflict. When doing your research, how do you account for the fact that both the Islamic State and Egyptian security forces have an incentive to exaggerate their exploits?

MA: This is at the heart of why doing research specifically on Islamist matters is very difficult in a place like Egypt. Even outside of these two entities, independent corroboration from the media doesn’t always count for much. 

I was seeing Islamic State claims of an attack happening around Giza, but not much about it in the media. Oddly enough, state security services and the police were themselves not talking about it much. So, I started to look at reporting around each incident. And sure enough I saw that, with some exceptions, the media was not necessarily reporting these incidents as terror attacks when they happened.

Many attacks and attempted attacks, whether shootings or IEDs, were covered as crimes, with no mention of the Islamic State. The same goes for the Ministry of Interior, which often relates attacks to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The interesting thing is that the state didn’t seem interested in playing this up. In fact, they did the opposite. They didn’t want the story and narrative that the Islamic State was in Cairo, because that would have been politically costly. They’re saying all the time that they are fixing the situation in Sinai. It doesn’t help their narrative if, all of a sudden, the Islamic State is in the capital.

Using crime reporting, I was also able to see that the Islamic State grossly exaggerated what happened in these incidents in their accounts. For example, if an IED was intercepted, they would say it blew up.

The other thing that I noticed was that after the attack on a hotel in the Haram district, security officials actively denied Islamic State involvement and said it was the Brotherhood. They referred to them as a “South Giza Cell.” This same cell was accused of an assault on the Badrasheen checkpoint. But, the only attack on Badrasheen was carried out by the Islamic State. So it became obvious that this group was an Islamic State cell.

Eventually, I was able to speak to a lawyer representing the South Giza Cell. Sure enough they were being accused of Islamic State affiliation, but this didn’t make it to the press. They were accused of being recruiters for the Islamic State or logistics faciliators for people who want to travel to Syria and Iraq.

The National Security Agency is trying to build a case against individuals for Islamic State involvement, but not necessarily reporting this publicly. Now, there’s a possibility that the people they have may be innocent, they may be pinning this on them. But that doesn’t mean that everything else is a fabrication. That doesn’t change the fact that there were attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State. That doesn’t change the fact that some kind of militant cell is operating in the Giza area.

Note: This interview has been shortened and edited for readability. 

Isabel Esterman 

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