Returning jihadists, Egypt’s latest security threat

Sunday 23/04/2017
On the look-out. Egyptian policemen keep watch from a police vehicle at Cairo airport. (AFP)

Cairo - Fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and Libya fuel Egypt’s wave of terrorist attacks and are expected to be the country’s larg­est security threat, security experts said.
“Those returning from the front lines in Syria, Iraq and Libya have their fingerprints in the latest string of terrorist attacks in our country,” said Nabil Naeem, a former jihadist who is now considered an expert on jihadist groups. “These peo­ple are dangerous in that they are hardened by years of fighting in these volatile countries and are ca­pable of posing a tangible threat to Egypt’s security.”
The Interior Ministry said hun­dreds of Egyptians were reported to have travelled to Syria, Libya and Iraq and joined various militant groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS). There is no accurate estimate of the number of Egyptians who were recruited.
The fighters are returning to Egypt as ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria and is defeated in battle in Libya. Some of them are report­ed to have entered Egypt in secret from Libya and Sudan or through other countries.
Experts said those returning may wish to start their own jihad in their home country. Developments in the past months support that line of thought. The attacker who set off a bomb in a church in the north­ern coastal city of Alexandria on April 9 was reported to have fought with ISIS in Syria before he returned to Egypt.
In February, security forces ar­rested a man whose job was to li­aise between militant groups affili­ated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the ISIS branch in Sinai and be­tween those returning from Syria, Iraq and Libya, on one hand, and ISIS Sinai, on the other.
“Tracking down and preventing the entry or arresting those return­ing from these war zones is, in fact, the main task of security agencies these days,” said retired police gen­eral Farouk Megrahi. “Apart from their vast fighting experiences, these returnees have a strong abili­ty to attract recruits to them, which threatens to widen the scope of danger.”
The Interior Ministry refused to comment on the measures it is tak­ing to track returning jihadists.
Media reports said the minis­try recently formed a new sec­tion whose job is to determine the names of those who travelled to Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Leba­non and Libya in the past six years. The section is also to take measures to prevent their return or arrest them.
Special security points were also set up at Egypt’s airports, seaports and land border points to find re­turning jihadists and question them before allowing them into the country.
Egypt is not among the top coun­tries where ISIS gets its foreign re­cruits, according to a 2016 study by the National Bureau for Economic Research, a US non-profit private organisation. Most ISIS recruits are from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan, the study said.
This, however, is the age of glo­balised jihad, security experts said, which is why the readiness of ISIS recruits to fight in foreign lands is worrying.
Some ISIS operatives from Raqqa, the radical organisation’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, mas­queraded as foreign tourists and sneaked into Sinai to join the ISIS branch there and provide training and expertise, newspaper reports said.
When the Egyptian Army raided the Mount Halal region, an area stretching from the north-eastern to western Sinai and known as Egypt’s “Tora Bora” among securi­ty experts, officers participating in the raid found passports of foreign fighters.
Naeem said some ISIS Sinai lead­ers were his former comrades in Afghanistan. He added that those leaders have unlimited abilities in attracting new recruits, especially those returning from countries like Libya, Iraq and Syria, and mak­ing them part of their plans inside Egypt.
“The problem is that most of those returning from the front lines in these countries do not have crim­inal records in Egypt,” Naeem said. “This is why it will be difficult for security agencies to recognise them once they come back, especially if they enter Egypt secretly or when they come back from a country not having shared borders with any of these volatile states.”