Returning jihadists, Egypt’s latest security threat
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.”