WASHINGTON — A panel of Middle East policy experts say the growing jihadist movement in Egypt poses an increasing threat to the United States.
The experts told the House Homeland Security Committee Tuesday that terrorist and insurgent groups are thriving in the Sinai Peninsula, and they fear the increasingly chaotic environment, if unchecked, could spawn the next major attack on the U.S. within years. The panel made suggestions to Congress and raised several policy points to consider in dealing with a precarious situation:
In recent weeks, a terrorist group in the Sinai Peninsula assassinated a senior Egyptian police official, fired rockets across the border into Israel, shot down a military helicopter over the peninsula and set off a series of car bombs across Cairo. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which means the “champions of Jerusalem,” a militant jihadist group with connections to al-Qaida, has claimed responsibility for the attacks and many others. On Tuesday, ABM blew up part of a natural gas pipeline in the Sinai, part of a new “economic warfare” campaign. Egypt has seen a rise in jihadist terrorist violence since ex-President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on July 3, 2013. Most of the violence is aimed at the military and police, the de-facto interim managers of Egypt, which have banned Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and targeted them for harsh crackdowns.
Al-Qaida affiliates and forerunners have operated in Egypt for decades. Many of the group’s leaders imprisoned under Hosni Mubarak were freed after the 2011 uprisings, and have been highly active in the country since then, especially in the Sinai Peninsula. The peninsula plays a complex role in Middle Eastern affairs. Sinai is of great geographic importance for its shared border with Israel and it’s proximity to the Suez Canal, a vital Egyptian and international economic asset. It’s also a hotspot for insurgent groups and an easy access point for foreign drugs, weapons and terrorists. As the Ministry of Defense deals with managing the country, modest military efforts to combat insurgents in the Sinai desert have been ineffective, and extremist groups have imposed Sharia law on much of the region.
Al-Qaida affiliates based in the area include ABM, the Muhammad Jamal Network and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has tried to attack the U.S. homeland for several years. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a native Egyptian and al-Qaida’s number one since Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, has called on Egyptians to take up arms against what he calls the illegitimate, U.S.-puppet Egyptian government. Egyptian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq are returning to the Sinai and taking up arms against the state.
Since the Arab Spring, the U.S. has tried to walk a thin line between endorsing the current regime for the sake of stability and supporting the rights and freedoms of the Egyptian people. The U.S. has withheld certain arms from the current military administration, including tanks, F-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopters, since Morsi was overthrown in July. In January, Congress voted to restore $1.5 billion worth of aid after the mandatory freeze following the regime-change.
For decades, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Egypt, more than it spends on any other country besides Israel. Experts said U.S. aid was necessary to tighten Egypt’s border security and stem the flow of arms and fighters. They also recommended more intelligence coordination between the U.S., Egypt and Israel.
The witnesses said it’s necessary for the Egyptian government to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood once again as a legitimate political organization and to open the political process to all Egyptians. When young Egyptians have no political recourse for their dissatisfaction with the government, experts said, they resort to violence and join terrorist insurgent groups.
Egypt will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months, but the question is whether the vote will be free and fair or the army will ensure a victory for their man, Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The most recent national vote, to approve a new constitution in January, was tarnished by boycotts by Islamists and allegations of voter suppression by police and soldiers.
A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center showed 81 percent of Egyptians have an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Rather than “broadcasting publicly” and “telling Egyptians what to do,” Elmenshawy said, the U.S. should deal privately with the current regime. The experts agreed that public U.S. denouncements have very little effect on Egyptian politics, and the U.S. should instead make clear that they stand with the military.