A New Phase for Jihad in Egypt?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 10

The attacks in Taba in Oct. 2004 have led to a reexamination of terrorism in Egypt

The Egyptian government fought a low-level war with Islamist radicals in the 1990s and claimed victory through the use of hard-nosed tactics and negotiations with the larger, known militant groups. Meanwhile, moderate Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Centrists attempted to enter politics by legitimate means, but were essentially frozen out by the country’s restrictive political rules. However, several recent violent incidents have punctured the calm, once again threatening Egypt’s tourist industry, a crucial economic sector employing over a million. The recent attacks raise a number of important questions. First and foremost, is a new phase of radical activity in Egypt emerging precisely because of repressive tactics? How might better tactics against terror be effective if the Egyptian government does not provide more transparency and accountability in its communications to the public? And, are there other means to employ, like promoting moderate Islam as an antidote to radical Islam as some academics and a recent Rand report have suggested? [1]

Three unsettling attacks, or four, depending on one’s sources, have already taken place in the last eight months. On 7 October 2004, car bombs were detonated at resorts in Taba and Ras Shitan in the Sinai; killing at least 34 persons according to Egyptian sources and injuring over 150. Some 12,000 Israeli tourists vacationing during the Sukkot holidays fled. The Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, a heretofore unknown al-Qaeda affiliate group claimed responsibility. On 7 April 2005 a bombing near the Khan al-Khalili bazaar killed three tourists and wounded 18 persons. Egyptian authorities initially announced that the bomber, Hassan Rafa’at Bashandi acted alone, but then sought his accomplices. [2] They arrested Gamal Ahmad ‘Abd al-‘Al and Ashraf Said Yusif, and another suspect and cousin of Ashraf’s who died in police custody. Egyptian authorities claim that Ihab Yousri Yassin, aka Ihab Yousri Mohammad of Saft learned of these arrests shortly before carrying out his own attack. It seems security forces were pursuing him when he was either blown up, or blew himself up by launching himself from the bridge behind the Egyptian museum onto Abd al-Moniem Riyadh square on April 30th. The Ministry of the Interior reported that Yassin jumped from the bridge and subsequently detonated a bomb. [3] However some eyewitnesses described a heavy object falling from the bridge onto a man walking near them, who was decapitated by the explosion. [4] Three Egyptians, an Israeli couple, a Swedish man and an Italian woman were also injured. Soon after this incident, Yassin’s sister, Nagat Yassin, and his fiancée, Iman Khamis, both fully veiled and in their 20s, reportedly opened fire on a tourist bus in the Sayyida Aisha neighborhood.

Sources again conflict. Some reported that police fired on the women, killing one, while others held that one woman shot the other, and then wounded herself, dying later in hospital. [5] It has also been reported that 226 individuals were arrested in the extremists’ native villages, and in the Shoubra neighborhood of Cairo. [6] The driver of a car that transported the two women is still wanted, and a scrap of paper found in one woman’s purse said that “we will continue to sacrifice our lives to let others live,” [7] – a typical characterization of “defensive” jihad. Libya subsequently extradited Yassin’s 17-year old brother, Muhammad to Egypt in connection with the April attacks. [8]

There are essentially three ways of reading these recent events: 1) the truce with the Islamists has ended or is in jeopardy due to political changes; 2) extremists were merely on hiatus; 3) new actors have emerged, unbound by prior arrangements with the regime. These are inspired by attacks in Iraq, and the October bombings in Taba. Immediately following the October attack, Abu al-Abbas al-A’edhi, an al-Qaeda fi Jazirat al-Arabiyya (Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula) leader posted “From Riyadh/East to Sinai,” a document online proclaiming a new jihad in Egypt to parallel attacks in Saudi Arabia. [9] The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, who declared responsibility for the October attacks issued a claim for the Cairo attacks, which were to avenge mass arrests in the Sinai in the wake of the Taba bombings. Another group, the Mujahideen of Egypt also claimed responsibility. Neither claim has been verified, enabling the authorities to argue that the new extremists were home-grown, or that the Palestinian-Israeli issue is involved.

The latest shootings shocked observers because women, who have been active in jihadi attacks in other countries, had not to date engaged in violence in Egypt. [10] Principles inhibiting women from taking part in jihad go back to classical definitions of mujahideen: male, adult, and without debts or, correspondingly, dependents. But such restrictions weren’t operative during the time of the Prophet when Nusayba Bint Ka’b, also known as Umm Umara fought in the battle of Uhud (625 C.E.), or when Aisha, the Prophet’s beloved wife directed the Battle of the Camel, and Zaynab bint Ali, the Prophet’s granddaughter fought in the Battle of Karbala (680 C.E.). Radical Islamists glorify these early Arabian warrior women, and believe men, women, and children should respond when jihad becomes an individual duty of Muslims. Analysts have warned for some time that the “typical” profile of the suicide bomber should not be restricted to the young, desperate, uneducated, or male population.

The internal opposition questions official Egyptian tactics in the war on terror, and calls for reform. Ayman Nour, leader of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow Party) said the violence was the result of the “environment of oppression and depression,” [11] a reference to the emergency laws the country has lived under since 1981.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the attacks, but added, “[W]e only hope that these attacks do not stand in the way of political reform.” Mountasser al-Zayat, the Islamist lawyer who won a key case for the Brotherhood against the Egyptian government said that independently operating, or freelance jihadis are now emerging due to their sympathies with al-Qaeda, or the struggle in Iraq or Palestine. [12] Brotherhood leader, Isam al-Aryan who was since arrested following a wave of clashes with police, claimed Egypt had reached a “boiling point,” pointing to the lack of political reform, and the 20,000 security detainees as a failure of the security forces. Al-Aryan argued for a new government, and said the involvement of women was an indicator of popular despair. [13]

The regional press sharply criticized Egyptian authorities for characterizing the April incidents as being “isolated” and suggesting that the 30 April attacks were just acts of revenge. An editorial in al-Quds al-Arabi blamed Egyptian leaders and the populace alike, saying the country is “sick beyond cure” and that authorities are “as usual, falsifying the facts” and misleading the public while the jihadists re-emerge. [14] Indeed, concealing the facts was a well-established pattern during violent attacks of the 1990s. Many were described as isolated acts of “lunatics,” notably the 1997 attack on a bus near the Egyptian Museum in which 10 tourists were killed by Saber Abu Ulla. Ulla had previously attacked and killed tourists, but was placed in a mental hospital and then released. Yet authorities officially claimed he had escaped the institute. In other regional comments, al-Dustur (Jordan) noted educated individuals now supported radical Islam and condemned the “close-mindedness”, and collusion between the regimes and extremists in the stifling of liberal thought.” [15]

Finally within Egypt, there were questions as to why more than 200 people were arrested, if (as the authorities maintained) these April attacks were merely isolated acts of revenge by some family members. Moreover the tentative re-emergence of radical Islam has once again propelled the forces of moderate Islam onto the spotlight. Indeed just days after the shootings and bombing, police clashed with pro-Brotherhood demonstrators in Fayyum, Mansura and Zagazig, and demonstrations were also held in Alexandria, the Delta and Cairo. The demonstrators were protesting parliamentary efforts to amend a constitutional reform to election procedures in which Mubarak’s National Democratic Party might impose conditions that would limit the Brotherhood’s efforts to obtain votes. They condemned the state-owned media, called for an end to emergency laws and for reform. The police claimed 400 arrests, while the Brotherhood said 1,546 of its members were detained. Four leaders, including al-Aryan, were subsequently rounded up.

Observers believe that the Brotherhood might secure up to 30% to 35% of parliamentary seats in a free and fair election. The key question is whether efforts by moderate Islamists to cash in on democratization efforts have any clear causal effect on the suppression of radical Islam, particularly if is now primarily motivated by events and dynamics beyond Egyptian borders. Conversely, some may argue that since moderate Islamists have established a presence in the Egyptian government and educational system, resulting attitudes and sensitivities enable the more hard-core and violent elements to escape censure and surveillance.

Dr. Sherifa Zuhur is a Visiting Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


1. “The Muslim World After 9/11,” RAND www.rand.org, and as cited in “Generating Alternatives to Radical Islam” World Trends. The Futurist, May/June 2005, 15.

2. 29 April, Al-Gumhuriyya.

3. “Amaliyatan Irhabitan ta’thiran al-faza’ fi Midan Abd al-Mun’im Riyadh wa al-Sayida Aisha” al-Ahram. 1 May, 2005. 1.

4. His remains are depicted along with the official version of events in “al-Irahabi al-Qatil Qafaza min A’ala Kubri Uktubir,” al-Ahram 2 May, 2005, 5.

5. The latter version was provided by Security Chief Nabil El-Ezabi.

6. Jailan Halawi, “Terrorist Replay,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 5/2/2005.

7. Summer Said, “226 Arrested after Cairo Attacks.” Arab News (Saudi Arabia) 2 May, 2005, www.arabnews.com.

8. May 8, 2005 Al Jazeera; also https://english.aljazeera.net.

9. “From Riyadh/East to Sinai” 24/8/1425 h./October 8, 2004 posted on numerous Islamist sites.

10. Abd al-Mun’im Ibrahim, Akhbar al-Khalij (Bahrain).

11. Al-Ghad official statement, 1 May, 2005.

12. Arab News, 2 May, 2005.

13. Doha Al-Zohairy, Al Jazeera, 1 May, 2005.

14. Editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi (London) May 2, 2005.

15. Editorial, Ad-Dustur, May 2, 2005.