Egypt fears ISIS militants entering on tourist visas

Tightening security surrounding tourist entry is a tough task and Cairo will have to walk a fine line between national security and scaring away tourists.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Security personnel wait to screen passengers at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. (AP)
Stronger monitoring. Security personnel wait to screen passengers at Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. (AP)

CAIRO - The arrest of two foreign nationals of Egyptian descent, who authorities claimed were seeking to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai, has led to calls for stronger monitoring of the entry and movement of foreign nationals in Egypt.

The calls coincide with the exodus of many foreign militants from Syria and Iraq, where ISIS once controlled large areas. Foreign ISIS militants, security analysts said, would either return to their home countries or try to enter other nations, including Egypt, where a branch of the terrorist organisation is active in North Sinai.

“ISIS militants are escaping from Syria and Iraq and settling in the African desert, including in Libya, Chad, Mali and some parts of southern Algeria,” said security analyst Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “There are fears, of course, that they can enter other countries, too.”

Egypt has tightened control on its expansive western border with Libya. Egyptian fighter jets have reportedly foiled attempts by militant organisations active in Libya to smuggle arms and militants into Egypt. It is estimated that hundreds of trucks carrying explosives, arms and militants had been destroyed by the Egyptian Air Force as they tried to cross into Egypt from Libya.

There are new fears, however, that foreign militants leaving Syria and Iraq could masquerade as tourists to enter Egypt using fake passports.

“Some of the terrorists active in Sinai are foreigners,” said retired Army General Sameh Abu Hashima. “Most of them come from central Asia where terrorist organisations find it easy to draw in recruits.”

The two German nationals of Egyptian descent who entered Egypt separately in December and were arrested and deported denied they were seeking to join ISIS. Issa Ibrahim al-Sabagh, 18, and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, 23, have both been repatriated to Germany.

“Based on the information published in the Egyptian media, the prosecution service… is investigating whether there are any indications of criminal offences,” authorities in Celle, Germany, told Agence France-Presse.

Egypt’s increasing suspicion of Muslim or Arab tourists — particularly of Egyptian descent — can perhaps be explained by reports from survivors of terrorist attacks that ISIS militants include non-Egyptian natives.

Following ISIS’s attack on the North Sinai al-Rawda mosque and village, which left 305 people dead, survivors said some attackers spoke in Arabic but not in an Egyptian dialect.

On November 25, a day after the attack, Sheikh Essa al-Kharafin, a tribal leader in Sinai, told local al-Mehwar television that nine of the 14 masked militants involved in the assault were foreigners.

On February 13, 2018, army spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifal confirmed that Egyptian troops cracking down on the terrorists in Sinai had arrested 400 suspects, including foreigners.

Some of those fighting within the ranks of ISIS Sinai entered Egypt through tunnels from the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian Army has destroyed dozens of tunnels, continues to search for others and is establishing a buffer zone along the border with Gaza.

Tightening security surrounding tourist entry is a tough task and Cairo will have to walk a fine line between national security and scaring away tourists at a time Egypt is seeking to revitalise its tourism industry.

The tourism sector is vital for the Egyptian economy. Egypt’s tourism industry is only recently getting over the 2015 bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Sinai that resulted in several countries cancelling direct flights to Egypt.

However, some in Egypt speculate that the entry of foreign fighters as tourists has two aims — not just to harm Egypt’s national security but also its economy

“Some regional players stand to benefit from harming the Egyptian economy as a whole,” Abu Hashima said. “They think they can do this by hampering the growth of the tourism sector and giving the impression that Egypt is no longer in full control of the security situation inside it.”

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