Jihadi threat mounts in Egypt
CAIRO — Just days before Halloween, the U.S. Embassy emailed a security alert to Americans in Egypt.
An Islamist website had called for attacks on U.S. and other Western schools and teachers in the Middle East, the embassy warned. It listed Maadi, Egypt, as a potential target.
Wayne Rutherford was attending a conference in Istanbul when he learned of the threat.
Rutherford is superintendent of Cairo American College, a K-12 school founded in 1945 in Maadi, a leafy, upscale section of Cairo.
The Islamist posting “specifically talked about how disruptive it would be … if you were to ‘kill a teacher’ ” in an American school, he recalls.
“Teachers are susceptible to certain degrees of predictability in their life. They have to be here when the kids are here. Things like that (threat) make it a bit difficult.”
The school and its staff remain unharmed. But Egypt has suffered a rise in terrorism in the past two weeks.
Jihadists in the restive Sinai peninsula killed more than 30 soldiers in a sophisticated ambush; an explosion on a train in the Nile Delta killed five police officers. Another bomb — one of the crude devices that have become almost routine in this mega-capital of 20 million — wounded a woman.
The increasing attacks and widening targets have experts here warning of a long, bloody battle with jihadists and their growing base of supporters.
“(We) expect an expansion in the numbers of jihadi groups in Egypt, as all over the world, regardless of all the security attacks upon them,” says Salahedin Hassan, chief of the political department at Cairo’s Al Watan newspaper and an expert on jihadi movements.
Mahar Farghaly, a former member of the Gama’a al Islamiya terror group and Islamist expert, describes Egypt as “the open front of jihad” and predicts “another major attack … in Cairo and other cities.”
According to Farghaly, terrorists hit but then go quiet to unbalance security forces: “It is like the waves of the seas; it flows up and down. Now this wave is rising.”
‘A fight for existence’
Egypt — still a key U.S. ally despite Washington’s anger at the 2013 overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsy — has long battled terrorism.
In 1981, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad assassinated President Anwar Al Sadat, then joined Gama’a al Islamiya and other radicals in a bloody uprising. They slaughtered 58 tourists and Egyptians in Luxor in 1997.
From 2004 to 2006, Islamists blew up tourist resorts in the southern Sinai towns of Taba, Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab.
After Egypt’s 2011 revolution, a new group — Ansar Beit al Maqdis — attacked Israeli targets and an Egyptian gas line along the border, as well as police and soldiers in the Sinai. The group increased its attacks when Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government fell in 2013.
The government has imposed a three-month state of emergency in northern Sinai and is razing houses and destroying tunnels to develop a buffer on the border with Gaza.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ordered quick compensation for evicted homeowners. He said the “struggle with militants is a fight for (our) existence.”
Egypt’s border with Libya is a danger, according to Al Watan’s Hassan.
Rebels in the eastern Libyan city of Derna have allied with ISIS, the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Ansar al Shariah terrorists are battling in Libya’s civil war, too.
The connection between Egyptian jihadis and others “around the world is very fundamental and strong since the beginning of al-Qaida,” Hassan says.
He believes Egypt’s army is “not properly trained to counter these kinds of operations,” and he fears “a bigger danger from the ideological side.”
“There is a huge problem with Islamist speech,” he explains. “The government doesn’t try to decipher it or … find an alternative. This allows the jihadists to represent their ideology unopposed, which in turn is being accepted by a lot of youth factions.”
That promises increasing attacks “in the years to come.”
The government is trying to bring mosques under stricter control; it requires imams to be state-licensed and to deliver the same Friday sermons. Licensed clerics must study at government-affiliated Al Azhar University, a respected center of Islamic Sunni learning, and through the government’s religion ministry.
In April, officials said they had licensed 17,000 clerics and dismissed 12,000 to prevent mosques from falling “into the hands of extremists.”
Human rights groups claim the new rules are part of a crackdown on legitimate dissent.
At Iman Hussein Mosque next to Cairo’s sprawling Khan el Khalili bazaar, worshippers spilled into the square Friday after hearing its imam declare, “It is important to teach our children to respect the laws.”
Hassan, an Al Azhar graduate, says the university and the religion ministry “don’t have enough power to fight this jihadi ideology. Al Azhar is very weak, in my point of view.”
Farghaly, the onetime terrorist, agrees; he thinks Al Azhar is swayed by ultra-conservative Salafist thought.
‘A lot of sympathy’ for ISIS
Hassan vehemently opposes the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet he says only “a political solution” can defeat the Islamists, one that finds “a formula to live together.”
“Give them hope of the possibility of the return of moderate political Islam to practice democracy. Give them security and a … margin of freedom of expression,” he advises.
He does not foresee that happening.
“We have monitored already a lot of sympathy, even within the Brotherhood, towards ISIS.”
Farghaly worries that jihadists will assassinate journalists and politicians “to exhaust the country and the economy.” The threat against the U.S. school in Maadi shows they “are trying to attack the political interests of the countries, embassies, schools and foreigners” in Egypt.
At Cairo American College, with 850 students from 55 countries, Rutherford increased security, as he did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Egypt’s revolution.
“We’ve had tremendous cooperation from the local police,” he says. “They really have ramped up their security around schools all over the city.”
He sent letters to students’ parents and met with teachers about the threat, encouraging them to “vary their behavior.”
“We have the community here that cares about us,” he says. “We hire seasoned teachers, most of whom who have worked abroad elsewhere. So they are understanding (that) what shows up on the TV screen isn’t necessarily representative of what is happening down the street from us.”
Egyptian officials said Saturday that they arrested Alsayyed Abu Saree, 60, an Egyptian American, for the Internet threat against the school. Saree, arrested in Alexandria, has an American teaching certificate and lived in the United States for 27 years, they said.
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review’s foreign correspondent. She can be reached at [email protected].