Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Egypt Terrorism Watch: The Salafis in Egypt's Closet

While many in the west focus on the Muslim Brotherhood as the predominant strain of Islamists in Egypt's religious and political life, another strain of Islamist, more fundamentalist and more violent, is rearing it's head again inside of Egypt.  

Coptic Christian churches are bombed.  Six Christians and a Muslim police officer are gunned down in front of their church after a religious holiday celebration.  These are not new experiences for Coptic Christians in Egypt.  Under the Mubarek regime, these incidents were investigated and suspects brought to trial, but justice was hard to find.  

In the case of the men arrested for the Christmas shooting, two men were acquitted and one sentenced to death for premeditated murder during the height of the Egyptian revolution.  There is no mention of their religious or political attachments.

Today, other religious buildings and icons are under attack even as assaults against Christian Coptics are growing.  In the last month, since a major part of the police and security have disappeared from the streets, sixteen historic mosques belonging to the Sufi order of Islam have been damaged or destroyed.  A shoot out occurred in a small village south of Cairo when a band of men attempted to burn down a wine and tobacco shop.  Another man, working on a farm in southern Egypt, was killed by his fellow employee for not rising to pray the morning prayers.

In Egypt, there is becoming little doubt as to who is behind these attacks even as many express surprise at how prevalent it has become.  On a recent twitter feed, a young woman wondered where this sectarian violence had come from as it was not her Egypt.  A young man proclaimed: the Salafis are everywhere in Alexandria.
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Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt.  It is a major port city and hosts the modern day Alexandria Library.  It is also the Egyptian city with the largest population of adherents to the Salafi strain of Islam.  They have become increasingly vocal and apparent, holding demonstrations and calling for the implementation of Sharia law, based on their interpretation of "correct" Islam.  They have also supported the suggestion for a Modesty Police by the Muslim Brotherhoods Shura Council member Dirbala.  They prefer a police similar to the Saudi Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Muttawa.

Alexandria is not the only area that the Salafi have risen to take advantage of the newly free Egypt to express their opinions in demonstrations of various sizes as well as starting a campaign of destruction and intimidation.  In the small delta city of Qualiab, two Salafis were arrested for destroying five Sufi shrines.  They claim that the visiting of shrines is forbidden in Islam, suggesting that such shrines constitute worship of others besides God and the adherence to idols. In the city of Munifiya, a group of Salafis charged into a woman's house and accused her of being a prostitute.

At the height of the revolution, conspiracy theories abounded.  Rumors that the Interior Ministry had orchestrated the church bombings to cause sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians.  As the Salafis became more vehement in their actions and demands and the attacks have increased, others suggested that the Salafis were being prompted by the Saudis to undermine the revolution.  The Saudis had offered Mubarek financial support to help stay in power and widely known to provide monetary support for Salafi mosques and organizations.  These accusations are the product of years of repression of information that has prompted many to look for greater trends, even as the reality is much closer to home.  

Egypt has had Salafi and terror related organizations for years, only kept under control by Mubarek's very tight police state and intelligence bureaus.

The Salafi movement has had a long history in Egypt.  It is a trend of Islamist ideology that has it's origins in the Saudi Wahhabi strain of the Sunni sect.  Like most strains of Islam, they claim to be practicing "correct" Islam and that it is their duty to enforce these edicts by hisbah.  

The Salafi trend in Egypt first came to attention in 1980 when the group Tanzim al Jihad, also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the assassination of Anwar Sadat.  The Salafi trend had become more active in Egypt during the 1960's.  After Nasser had come to power through the Free Officers Movement and with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser began to arrest members of the Brotherhood to avoid sharing power and on the grounds that the Brotherhood had planned to overthrow the government to establish their own.  

During this period, a now famous Muslim theologian and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, was arrested as part of the Brotherhood's leadership.  During this time he wrote several treatise including the book titled "Milestones" which later became the basis for the Al Qaeda ideology.  Qutb was temporarily released from prison, but was re-arrested eight months later on charges of planning to overthrow the government.  He was sentenced to death in 1965.

Qutb had written:

  • Rather than support rule by a pious few, (whether a dictator(s) or democratically elected[45]), Muslims should resist any system where men are in "servitude to other men" — i.e. obey other men — as un-Islamic and a violation of God's sovereignty (Hakamiyya) over all of creation. A truly Islamic polity would have no rulers — not even have theocratic ones — since Muslims would need neither judges nor police to obey divine law.[46][47] It was what one observer has called "a kind of anarcho-Islam."[8]
  • The way to bring about this freedom was for a revolutionary vanguard [48] to fight jahiliyyah with a twofold approach: preaching, and abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system by "physical power and Jihad."
  • The vanguard movement would grow with preaching and jihad until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world, attaining leadership of humanity. While those who had been "defeated by the attacks of the treacherous Orientalists!" might define jihad "narrowly" as defensive, Islamically correct Jihad (according to Qutb) was in fact offensive, not defensive.[49]

In that same year, at the age of 14, Ayman al Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood.   Greatly influenced by his uncle and a renowned lecturer on Islamic thinking, Zawahiri had read Qutb and admired his works.  He and several other members of the new young Brothers formed an underground cell who's goal was to over throw the Egyptian government and install an Islamic State based on Qutb's teachings.  

This cell later developed into Egyptian Islamic Jihad.  This group had split from the Brotherhood over issues of how to bring about the Islamic state in Egypt.  The Brotherhood had made several conciliatory moves with the existing government, including renouncing violence. Part of those agreements resulted in the 1971 Egyptian constitution stating that Islam was the religion of the state and Sharia the basis of law.  The insistence of working through established political process was the last straw for these followers who believed it was their duty to physically fight the apostate government.  

Zawahiri later denounced the Muslim Brotherhood in two books.  The first, Bitter Harvest, went over the Brotherhood's many failures in it's sixty years of existence and activity.  The second, Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, largely written as Zawahiri's view of the birth of Global Jihad, spent an entire chapter remonstrating with the Brotherhood and even accusing them of crimes against Islam.  The split between the these two Islamists groups seemed to have become final.

The group had become active in the Egyptian military and several plans were hatched to assassinate Sadat.  These plans became more imperative after Sadat had signed a peace treaty with Israel.  In the run up to the assassination, 1500 members of the group were arrested when information on the upcoming assassination was obtained during an arrest.  However, one cell, led by Khalid Islambouli, managed to escape detection and carried out the assassination on October 6, 1981.  The cell went ahead with it's plans after receiving a fatwa from Omar Abdel Rhaman, now infamously referred to in the United States as "the blind Sheikh".

The cell was quickly rounded up, including Ayman al Zawahiri and Khalid Islambouli.  Islambouli was found guilty and executed in 1982.  Zawahiri, who claims to have been tortured, gave up the location of another member of the cell and was given only a three year sentence for dealing in weapons.  

After his release, Zawahiri traveled to Saudi Arabia and then to Peshawar, Pakistan where he met Osama Bin Laden who was attempting to organize the Jihad movement to throw the USSR out of Afghanistan.  Zawahiri traveled back and forth to Egypt, working with members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and a similar organization al Gama'a al Islamiyya, led by Omar Abdel Rhaman, who carried out many violent attacks inside Egypt killing over 200 soldiers, police and civilians.  

In 1991, Zawahiri took control of EIJ and began moving it towards more active offensive against the Egyptian government, culminating with the attempted assassination on Atef Sidqi, Prime Minister of Egypt.  The car bombing killed 21 Egyptians including a young school girl whose funeral became a rallying cry against terrorism.

Two hundred and eighty members of EIJ and Gama'a al Islamiyya were arrested and imprisoned and six were executed.  Members of the EIJ fled to Pakistan and joined Bin Laden's al Qaeda.  After many attempts to assassinate President Mubarek in the 90's, the EIJ was all but decimated by arrests, imprisonment and execution.  The remaining members determined to join al Qaeda in the "global jihad", but at first resisted being incorporated into Al Qaeda.  Zawahiri signed the 1998 document, "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Christian's and Jews" as the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.  

The EIJ was split over this movement, some insistent on focusing their efforts in Egypt while others believed that the nearly crushed organization could only survive under al Qaeda's umbrella.  One of those who split from the group and returned to Egypt was Zawahiri's younger brother, Muhammed.  In June 2001, just a few short months before the September 11 attacks, EIJ formerly merged with Al Qaeda taking six of the nine Shura Council seats. 

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the EIJ had survived imprisonment with only a few hundred adherents remaining.  Many believe that they are "separate" from Al Qaeda but still take their orders directly from Zawiri.  The group has recently returned to the public square after Mubarek was deposed.  

Gama'a al Islamiyya was suffering from it's own internal split over the acts of terrorism and the duties of Jihad as offensive requiring violence.  Members of the movement had renounced violence after many debates with clerics from al Azhar the grand mosque in Cairo from their prison cells.  Several thousand members were released.  Others rejected these calls saying that Gama'a al Islamiyya had strayed from the true path.  In 1997, Zawahiri enlisted Mustafa Hamza, the new emir of Islamic Group, to carry out an attack to derail these reconciliation movements. The Luxor Massacre resulted in the horrific death of 58 tourists. The resulting back lash from the Egyptian public caused the Islamic Group to completely renounce violence.  Some rejected the call  and elected to join al Qaeda in 2006.  

Egypt has not been immune to terrorist attacks in the last decade.  Attacks in the Sinai in 2004 were reported to be the work of Palestinian militants who were unable to make it into Israel and improvised the target.  A series of attacks in Cairo in April 2005 and a bombing in Sharm el Sheikh of that same year (now being rumored to have been carried out by some segment related to a business dispute between Gamal Mubarek and another land owner).  The last was an attack on the resort town of Dahab in 2006.   Egyptian security believed the attacks were carried out by Jama'at al Tawhid al Jihad (an organization that was likely associated with Zarqawi's al Tawhid al Jihad in Iraq that later emerged as Al Qaeda in Iraq).

As the 2011 Revolution began, leadership of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama'a al Islamiyya issued edicts condemning the protests as un-Islamic (as the Qu'ran insists that the leader of Muslims, regardless of how far he has traveled from the path, must be followed and it is the Muslim's duty to correct his path; democracy, the government of men above God's law and the freedom being demanded by the protesters were also forbidden).  Younger members pushed for participation. 

Many Salafi Islamists have been released from Tora Prison or escaped when the prison was attacked.  While there were many rumors among the revolutionaries that the state had released the prisoners in order to send thugs among them and terrorize the populace, the current head of the Interior Ministry, Issawi, gave an interview stating that the wall of the prison was breached by a bomb and armed gun men came in shooting at the guards and releasing prisoners.

He went on to say that the guards were unarmed and had to flee.  The men were unarmed because guns were not allowed inside the prison because it presented a danger that the prisoners might overwhelm the guards and use the guns against them.  The prisoners released ranged from general criminals to known Islamist jihadis who had not renounced violence or who had been sentenced in more recent trials. 

Sectarian attacks are not the only threat in Egypt though no one knows exactly who is perpetrating the attacks  In Beni Suef, south of Cario, an oil well was attacked by a group of armed and masked gunmen, shooting it out with security forces at the site.  Another attack attempted to blow up the gas line in the Sinai running to Israel.  These attacks are unattributed, but may be the work of small terrorist cells in Egypt.  The Sinai attacks maybe related to Palestinian organizations with a confluence of Bedouin as they have been the most active in the past in this area.

Other disturbing activities are occurring.  Recently, the leader of Gama'a al Islamiyya (Jamaat al Islamiyya) Akrm Zuhdi, and the spiritual leader, Nageh Ibrahim, have been forced to resign from the leadership.  While some reports suggest that this is simply to allow fresh elections of leadership since the revolution and the internal debate over participating in elections, other reports suggest that the split is being forced over Zuhdi and Ibrahim's conciliation with the former regime and rejection of violence or "force" (hisbah) to institute their ideas of the Islamic state.

All of this is occurring as reports continue to indicate a rising Salafi problem with the attacks on Mosques, shrines, liquor stores and various other places they believe are outside of correct Islam.  Other reports have indicated that there is a possibility of 3,000 Salafis returning from exile, many who have been participating in Jihad in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Students in Alexandria have been staying home over rumors that the Salafi movements were planning to impose strict adherence to their version of Islam, insisting on the wearing of hijab by women and that they be accompanied by a male, among other statements.  While some Salafi leaders are claiming that there was no such threat, the emergence of the statement suggesting Modesty Police seems to indicate otherwise.  Female students at the Alexandria University have been returning home and abandoning their studies.

Judges in Alexandria have requested protection inside the court rooms by the military.  The military rejected the request saying that their responsibility for security was outside the court room.  There was no indication of exactly what kind of "violence" the judges had the judges concerned.  Political parties and others have been calling on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to "crack down" on the Salafis.

All of these issues have prompted the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to issue a statement insisting that extremist forces will not be allowed to take over the country.  They are making efforts to keep the return of 3,000 Salafis from occurring, though the lack of security may make this difficult.  They also stated that they would not remove any segment, rather Salafis, Wahhabis, etc as they were all part of Egypt's society

The Muslim Brotherhood has gotten involved, issuing statements against the Salafis  Al Qaradawi, a recently returned "spiritual leader" of the Brotherhood, issued a statement that the Salafi movement was "extremist" and "stagnant", not allowing for itjihad, or modern thinking on Islam.  While many believe that the Brotherhood benefits from the rising Salafi voice, who, in comparison, seem "moderate".  After denouncing the Salafis, the Brotherhood has made overtures of political alliance for contesting the elections.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Egypt, struggling to make their way through the political reformation are being faced with other forces that are attempting to derail freedom and democracy and install their own ideology.  Echoing the young man from Alexandria, another young Egyptian reports that his mosque, the one that his neighborhood raised money to establish, has been taken over by the Salafis.  

The Salafi tendency of the group in charge of the mosque was obvious the first time I went there; I liked that because they focused on virtuous conduct and deep spiritualism. But this has all changed over the past few weeks whereby political conversations have replaced discussions of moral behaviour and spiritualism. The Friday sermon by the Salafi cleric has transformed into a lecture about Salafi ideas regarding rule, borders, disparaging democracy, secularism, liberalism, socialism and even the Muslim Brotherhood.

And since these are topics of dispute among those who know more about worldly matters, I noticed that worshipers looked bored and uncomfortable, but because of worship decorum they were unable to express themselves.

Several of my neighbours and myself have stopped going to the nearby Salafi mosque, but I noticed this did not stop the cleric now that this mosque —which was built with neighbourhood donations —has become a meeting point for many Salafis. They are keen on filling up the mosque that they liberated from the irreverent of our ilk after the revolution
He finishes with the lament:

At minimum, the majority of Salafis give themselves the right to physically change what they believe to be sinful.

We witnessed this and read about it in the assaults against Copts whom the Salafis believe had crossed the line, women who have a [bad] reputation but there is no proof against them, and the shrines of revered notables. It is as if the Salafis came out to terrorise[sic] those who oppose them in Egypt, and as if our fate is to continue living in fear in spite of the revolution.

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