Small Wars Journal

The Egyptian Sinai: A New Front for Jihadist Activity

Tue, 03/26/2013 - 3:30am

In the past year and a half, a resurgence of violent attacks have ripped through the Egyptian Sinai. Many of these attacks have been callous and calculated, displaying brute force and a worrying resurrection of an Islamic radical group thought to be long extinct. This has troubled Egyptian authorities but for the most part, groups calling themselves Takfir wal-Hijra have had the freedom to recruit, meanwhile increasing their numbers and strength without ample opposition from the Egyptian government. This freedom has caused the area to become a growing security problem for the country. As the Egyptian Sinai rapidly becomes a breeding ground for Takfir wal-Hijra and other radical Islamic group cells, Egypt is increasingly putting its security and welfare at risk.    

For many years, Egyptian authorities have regarded the Sinai as Egypt’s rouge province. For decades, the Egyptian government has turned its head the other way, neglecting and marginalizing the more than 300,000 Bedouin citizens that live there. Many of the Bedouin believe that they are treated as second class-citizens, having little or no economic opportunities thus tensions between locals and the government are high. Feeling disgruntled and rejected by authorities a number of the inhabitants have turned to illegal smuggling and arms dealing. On top of this, the northern Sinai is a location at the heart of centuries of regional conflict with the key location of Rafah, a divided border town with Gaza, being a significant hot-spot. With all of these elements involved Egypt’s Sinai has become an ideal location for Takfir followers.

Al-Takfir wal-Hijra was founded by Shukri Mustafa. In 1965 Mustafa was placed in Tura prison for distributing Muslim Brotherhood pamphlets at his agricultural college. Later, in 1967 he was moved to Abu Zubal prison. During his imprisonment in Abu Zubal, Mustafa joined a splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood called Jama’at al-Muslimun (Muslim Society), which took on a more radical view of the world around them. The group separated themselves from other inmates, referring to them as infidels which became a key behavior of the group’s ideology. After Mustafa’s release from prison in 1971, he established the organization, which became known by the media and authorities as al-Takfir wal-Hijra due to its guarded ways and radical beliefs. The organization practiced a radical withdrawal from Egyptian society; pronouncing almost the entire Muslim populace as non-believers and therefore infidels. Hijra, meaning migration, refers to this occurrence and the flight from what al-Takfir wal-Hijrah considered unorthodox Muslim societies who had gone astray. The group’s core philosophy was to build its strength in isolation, away from the polluting influences of Egyptian society, and later strike out once that power was achieved. In 1978, members of al-Takfir wal-Hijra kidnapped and murdered an Egyptian, ex-government minister and Mustafa was executed. This occurrence began the demise of the organization and eventually al-Takfir wal-Hijra was crush, becoming a distant, uncomfortable memory for Egyptian authorities. 

The organization’s doctrine of hijra, remains a central philosophy to radical Islamic groups today; the Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan being a prime example. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, pronouncing their own societies as infidels, did a hijira, or exodus from the Arab world, relocating to Afghanistan where they aimed to create their own miniature Islamic state. Such actions and principles are a literal interpretation of al-Takfir wal-Hijrah: the denunciation of one’s society, the flight to a remote space where the group could build its strength and eventual attacks on a so-called, corrupt society which the group originally fled from. 

Today, Takfir wal-Hijra has become a decentralized network of groups thought to be allied with Al-Qaeda but often with more extreme views. The actual depth of Takfir wal-Hijra’s relationship with Al-Qaeda is still unclear however; members of the group have been implicated in several terrorists plots linked to Al-Qaeda such as, providing support for the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. Although the group dismantled in Egypt in the late seventies, their ideology traveled to Europe and became a foundation for violent, jihadists Salafi movements which lashed out at what the group considered polluted Muslim societies. In 1994, Takfir followers gunned down sixteen Muslim worshippers in the Sudan, whom they considered were from a rival Muslim sect and in December of 2000, a gunman linked to the organization killed twenty people and wounded dozens at the Sudanese, al-Sunna al-Mohammediyya Mosque. In the early to mid 2000’s a handful of attacks in Lebanon were linked to Takfir wal-Hijra including the killing of Christian civilians in the Dinnieh region of the country. Takfir wal-Hijra was also a prime suspect in the series of terrorist’s bombings from 2004 to 2006 which rocked tourist resorts in Southern Sinai and left nearly one hundred and fifty people dead.       

Recently, a new surge of violent acts in the Egyptian Sinai have been attributed to groups calling themselves Takfir wal-Hijra. The northern Sinai with its mountainous terrain provides ample hideouts for militant groups and has become an attractive location for Bin-Ladenists who have left countries such as, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. These wayward holy warriors have been joining forces with local insurgent groups, a number of which are calling themselves Takfir wal-Hijra. Since the Egyptian Revolution on January, 25, 2011 which marked the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, local Bedouin leaders and residents have noticed an alarming increase in the growth of these Takfir organizations. These bands seem to be mainly concentrated in the regions of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid. This increase in Takfir organizations has also been marked by amplified violence in the region.

Since the Revolution, the Egyptian Sinai has witnessed fourteen different attacks on the gas pipeline linked between Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Other operations have targeted both Egyptian soldiers and Israeli patrols. Some of these attacks, such as the gas pipeline bombings, have been attributed to militant groups other than Takfir wal-Hijra such as the self proclaimed “Mujahidin Shura Council-Protectors of Jerusalem” which took responsibility for two separate attacks on the pipelines and an operation that targeted an Israeli border patrol which killed three people on August 21, 2012.

In Rafah, on February 7, 2011 Egyptian police barracks came under what was described as a two-hour long battle between Egyptian forces and a heavily armed militant group. The grouped, later identified as Takfir wal-Hijra, fired rocket-propelled grenades at the barracks and two people were reportedly injured.  

Further accounts of incidents related to Takfir wal-Hijra have been reported in the last year and a half. A Time’s article described a minor argument between two men which took place in the town of Sheikh Zuwaid in late July. This argument later became a full-fledged intimidation tactic when one of the men involved returned with his Takfir wal-Hijra mob carrying dozens of guns and firing round after round into the air, prior to driving away. Many in Sheikh Zuwaid believed that this was a blatant display of their numbers and force; a policy to frighten local residence and make the group’s presence in the region, known. A few days later, on July 29, 2011, a group of armed men carrying rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, and machine guns, launched a mid-afternoon assault on a police station in the Northern Sinai capitol of al-Arish. According to accounts, the attackers were dressed in black, their faces were masked, and they carried black flags with the words “There is no God but God” on one side and the word “Revenge” on the other. Witnesses reported that the assault lasted nine hours, leaving five dead, and over a dozen injured. Earlier that day, a group demanding Islamic law for al-Arish had distributed fliers in the area. On the fliers, the group called themselves Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula however, later that day Northern Sinai security forces arrested twelve assailants who they claimed were responsible for the attacks and were members of the Takfir wal-Hijra organization.

On August 5, 2012, another brazen attack was launched on Egyptian security forces at a post near the country’s shared boarder with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Militants stormed the station as security forces sat down for a meal, breaking their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. By the end of the attack, at least sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed and two armored vehicles were stolen. These vehicles were later driven towards the Israeli border, where one exploded and the other was taken out by an Israeli air strike. This blatant attack, along with those in 2011, displays a rising worry that militant groups in the Sinai are becoming well structured and wholly capable of producing high-level assaults on Egyptian and possibly Israeli forces.  

The increasing violence in the Egyptian Sinai points to a major problem developing for the Egyptian government. The brazen, attacks on Egyptian authorities are a clear sign that these groups are well organized and highly armed. If the Takfiri groups in the Sinai were to unify, creating a stronger, centralized organization, the result would be a significant security risk for Egypt, Israel, and Gaza taking into consideration their shared borders. Another notion that should not be overlooked is the ramifications of Egyptian Takfiri groups enlisting the support and expertise of Takfir wal-Hijra and/or Al-Qaeda organizations outside Egypt. With the potential melding of ties between Egyptian Takfir groups and their affiliated organizations overseas, attacks in the Sinai could become even more sophisticated and on a larger scale. With this in mind, along with the increasingly violent turn the Sinai has taken, the political and economic effect on the Egyptian state could be monumental. The potential for further attacks on Sinai resort like those in 2004 to 2006, poise a huge threat to not only the security of the region but also the Egyptian tourism industry which in 2009, brought in 11.6 billion dollars. Of course this number has dropped since the Egyptian Revolution yet tourism is still a vital source to the Egyptian economy. Consequently, continued unrest in the area would not only create further destabilization in the Sinai but could also greatly affect the Egyptian economy. If the Sinai further deteriorates into lawlessness this would also be damaging to U.S. interests in the region. Billions of dollars in aid have been invested in Egypt with the hopes of reinforcing a stable, strategic environment in the Middle East.       

As mentioned earlier, it is still unclear whether these groups calling themselves Takfir wal-Hijra are becoming centralized in the Egyptian Sinai or if they are in fact separate entities using an organization’s name from the 1960’s which generates unease with authorities. On the other hand, it is evident that the Egyptian Sinai has become a breeding ground for militant groups, Takfir wal-hijra or otherwise. This worrying trend points to a major security crisis taking place in Egypt, not only for the country’s own government but for the greater stability of the Middle East. Israeli security is also jeopardized with the country’s shared boarders and United State’s interests in the region could potentially be at risk. If militant groups are allowed to continue their growth in the province, it will provide a remote location for planning acts of terrorism both in Egypt and potentially abroad. There is a possibility that further attacks could begin to spread outside of the Sinai and into the rest of Egypt, putting the Egyptian government in a precarious place and destabilizing the country overall. The Egyptian Sinai is becoming a breakaway state. The further it goes, the harder it will be to regain. Egypt should heavily focus on this growing problem before it is too late.

Categories: Sinai - jihad - Islamist - Islamism - Egypt

About the Author(s)

Chelsea Daymon is an independent researcher living in Washington D.C. She holds an M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern studies from University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and B.A. in Oriental Studies from Cambridge University (UK).