Egypt’s security establishment divided over ISIS returnees

There is no official estimate of the number of Egyptians who joined ISIS or those in custody in Syria but unofficial estimates put the number in the low hundreds.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Security concerns. Members of the Egyptian Army stand guard in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. (AFP)
Security concerns. Members of the Egyptian Army stand guard in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. (AFP)

CAIRO - Security analysts are divided on whether Egyptian Islamic State fighters, in the custody of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria, should be allowed to return to Egypt for trial.

Islamic State (ISIS) returnees, analysts said, would represent a major threat to Egyptian national security at a time Cairo is fighting an ISIS branch in the Sinai Peninsula.

“This is why they should not be allowed to return,” said Egyptian retired police General Farouk Megrahi.

After liberating the city of Baghouz, the last ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria, in March, the SDF said nearly 5,000 ISIS fighters were in custody. There are also approximately 9,000 ISIS widows and children in camps controlled by the Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria.

With limited financial resources, the SDF along with Washington called for countries to repatriate ISIS fighters and their families.

There is no official estimate of the number of Egyptians who joined ISIS or those in custody in Syria but unofficial estimates put the number in the low hundreds. However, even if there is a relative low number of Egyptian nationals in custody, there are fears about the effects that battle-hardened jihadists could have in Egypt, even from prison.

“These people can never be reintegrated into society,” Megrahi said. “If they are put in jail, they will radicalise other prisoners, which will double or even triple the number of radicals in the jails.”

Many terrorists attacking army troops and police in Egypt are said to have been radicalised in Egyptian jails.

Egypt has a rehabilitation programme, known as “Ideological Revisions,” which involves moderate imams, psychologists, sociologists and former jihadists working to de-radicalise extremists. However, the programme has had few major successes since its efforts in the late 1990s when hundreds of members of the Islamic Group renounced political violence.

There have been calls for the programme to be expanded to include members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organisation in 2013.

Many of ISIS’s Egyptian fighters are believed to have travelled to Syria during the early days of ISIS’s existence, when the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo was encouraging its supporters to join the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. This suggests that many Egyptian jihadists captured in Syria might be extremely battle-hardened.

Egypt has a complicated history with accepting the return of foreign fighters. In 1989, Egypt allowed hundreds of its nationals who had joined in the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to return home after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Authorities closely monitored Afghanistan veterans, fearing that they could stage attacks at home.

Some returnees were accused of terrorist attacks and attempts to overthrow the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. They include Muhammad al-Zawahiri, a brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Even so, the policy should be applied to ISIS fighters in custody in eastern Syria, analysts said.

“The ISIS fighters should be allowed to return and put on trial here,” said Sameh Eid, a specialist on Islamist and terrorist groups. “They can be an important source of information about ISIS.”

While Egypt is fighting an ISIS branch in Sinai, there are fears the group could be revitalised by returning jihadists fleeing the collapse of ISIS in Syria.

If there is a contingent of ISIS fighters seeking a new front line, Egypt wants to make sure it does not gravitate to the Sinai Peninsula or neighbouring Libya. However, captured Egyptian ISIS fighters could also be an important source of intelligence, analysts said.

“Those prisoners can give local security agencies valuable information about the terrorist organisation,” Eid said. “They can also provide information about those who had left Iraq and Syria and might be on the way back to Egypt to stage attacks or join their group members in Sinai.”

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