The Syrian civil war has now reached the heart of Egypt.
- By David Barnett<p> David Barnett is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Salafi jihadists in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Follow him on Twitter: @dbarn225. </p>
On Sept. 5, a car bomb ripped through the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City, narrowly missing its target: Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group, took responsibility for the attack, which injured more than 20 people.
Almost two months later, the jihadist group released a video that detailed the attack and identified the suicide car bomber as Walid Badr. Most of the media reporting on the video focused on the fact that Badr was a former Egyptian Army officer, which missed an important detail: He had recently returned to Egypt after fighting in Syria alongside jihadists looking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. "Allah destined him to return to Egypt to fulfill his wish [of] carrying out a martyrdom-seeking operation," said the video about Badr, who also purportedly fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Badr’s video included a lengthy scolding of the current Egyptian government for, in his view, violently waging war against Islam. It also included a call to Egyptian Muslims to sacrifice themselves and fight Egypt’s security forces: "We must kill from them just as they are killing from us," he proclaimed.
The raging conflict in Syria may be providing Egyptian Islamist militants with the skills to launch deadlier attacks against the military-backed government in Cairo when they return home. According to a recent study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a minimum of 119 Egyptians have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria. The number may be as high as 358, if not higher, the report noted. In fact, one recent press report claimed that "thousands of Egyptians" have gone to Syria to fight among the opposition since 2011. And while many of these fighters are slain on the battlefield, there will be others who return home.
Badr isn’t the only figure who used the training and connections he gained in Syria to advance the jihad in Egypt. Saeed al-Shahat is another: The Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis fighter was wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer, and died after detonating an explosive vest as Egyptian security forces raided his home. According to the communiqué issued by the jihadist group to confirm his death, Shahat returned to Egypt from Syria to join his "mujahideen brothers," and partake "in their jihad and preparation."
It’s no surprise that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is an attractive option for Egyptian veterans of the Syrian revolt who are looking to bring the jihad home. The group has become the most significant terrorist threat in Egypt today: In recent months, it has killed dozens and wounded hundreds in its attacks in North Sinai, Cairo, and the Nile Delta. The group’s recent attacks, such as its devastating Dec. 24 suicide car bombing in Mansoura, show that its capabilities are growing — perhaps due to the experience of those joining its ranks from Syria.
Egypt has faced the threat of blowback as a result of its citizens fighting in foreign jihadi theaters before. In the 1980s, hundreds of Egyptians joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Many of those Egyptians returned home and contributed to the terror campaign led by two al Qaeda-affiliated groups — al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad — that ravaged Egypt throughout much of the 1990s.
Jihadists are trying to leverage the recent political crises in Cairo to build support among Egyptian Islamists. They have argued that the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, vindicates their claim that the ammunition box — not the ballot box — is the only way to achieve their goals. Calls for violence against the Egyptian state, in particular against the security services, have accordingly seen a notable increase in recent months.
In November, jihadist ideologue Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti called on Egyptians to wage war against Egypt’s security forces. It "is a religious duty and divine obligation," he proclaimed. "Whoever is able to travel to them, fight with them, and increase their ranks, it is a duty to do so."
Senior al Qaeda officials, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Somalia-based al-Shabab, and global jihadi media outlets have issued similar calls for violence in Egypt. "We and you are one," a sharia court judge based in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo told Sinai-based jihadists in one recent ISIS video. "[W]ith whatever we can support you with, we will cooperate with you to establish the religion of Allah."
If even a few of the hundreds of Egyptians fighting today in Syria return home, it could have grave consequences for stability in Egypt. The same, of course, holds for the West, where the number of Western Sunni jihadists joining the fight in Syria is historically unprecedented.
In contrast to the West, which has not yet experienced a direct case of blowback from the Syrian war, the nascent jihad underway in Egypt has already begun to be effected by the full-blown war in Syria. While the world is accustomed to thinking of the situations in Egypt and Syria as separate political crises, they could become more linked than we could have ever imagined.