By Ahmed Morsy
Three radical Islamists were arrested on charges of planning terrorist acts in Cairo and Alexandria, including an attack on a foreign embassy, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced during a press conference on Saturday.
“The Interior Ministry has successfully directed a qualitative blow to a terrorist cell which was planning to carry out domestic suicide attacks against vital Egyptian and foreign institutions,” Ibrahim said. He went on to claim the three suspects planned to use either a car packed with explosives, or a remotely detonated home-made device to carry out the attacks. The extremists, he said, were captured with 10 kilogrammes of ammonium nitrate and a computer, flash memories containing bomb-making instructions along with a number of statements issued by Maghreb-based Al-Qaeda linked groups.
The trio of radical Islamists appeared to have been in contact with Al-Qaeda in Algeria, Pakistan and on the Syrian-Turkish border. “One of the suspects also travelled to combat training camps in Iran and Pakistan,” Ibrahim said. The interior minister also claimed the terrorists were in contact with Kurdi Dawood Al-Assadi, an Al-Qaeda leader in West Asia, and other Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and North Africa.
Islamist lawyer and former MP Mamdouh Ismail, who is representing the three men, says the charges against his clients are fabricated. Ismail has accused the officers who arrested the three of rigging evidence. On Monday Ismail submitted a complaint to the prosecution-general against the interior minister, the head of the National Security Apparatus (NSA) and the arresting officers in the case, accusing them of “fraud and tampering with evidence”.
Though Ibrahim stressed the links between the arrested men and Al-Qaeda, he denied that the three were part of Al-Qaeda’s organisational structure. The relationship, he said, was ideological. “There are no terrorist cells belonging to Al-Qaeda in Egypt,” he insisted.
Mohamed Al-Zawahiri, brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and a member of the Salafist Jihadi group, points to the contradictions in the minister’s statement. “How can he claim the arrested cell is linked to Al-Qaeda and at the same time insist there are no terrorist cells affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Egypt?” Al-Zawahiri asked on Al-Arabiya website.
“We are not aware of the names of the three detained men. We know nothing about them,” he added.
Abdel-Rahim Ali, the director of the Arab Centre for Research and Studies and an expert on Islamist movements, believes the three arrested men were part of Al-Qaeda’s organisational structure.
“Two months ago four foreign intelligence agencies warned of growing Al-Qaeda activity in Egypt, including preaching in Cairo and Alexandria and the acquisition of weapons from across the western border with Libya,” Ali told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Egyptian security has a phobia about recognising the existence of Al-Qaeda in Egypt, fearing that the war against terrorism will spread to the homeland.”
Military expert Hossam Sweilam told the Weekly that Egypt had seen growing Al-Qaeda activity since the arrest of the Nasr City terrorist cell last year.
In October 2012, the Interior Ministry announced that it had detained 12 members of a terrorist cell in Nasr City. The group was suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda. Members were charged with plotting attacks against individuals, police and Armed Forces personnel, churches and diplomatic missions.
“The detainees,” says Sweilam, “confessed that they belonged to Al-Qaeda during questioning.”
Ali argues that Al-Qaeda influence in Egypt has a longer history. “The first terrorist group that followed Al-Qaeda was led by Khaled Mosaad who was killed in a gun battle with police near Jabal Halal near Arish in 2005,” he says. “Their first terrorist attack was in Taba in 2004.”
There were three bomb attacks on hotels in Sinai in October 2004. The attacks killed 34 people and injured 171.
“In 2005 the group began calling itself Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad and staged another bomb attack in Sham El-Sheikh,” says Ali. Eighty-eight people were killed and over 150 wounded in the blasts.
In 2006 the group had over 500 members. “They carried out another bombing campaign in Dahab on 24 April 2006.” Three explosions left 23 dead and more than 80 wounded.
“Security forces killed most of the group’s members.” The aim, says Ali, “was to prevent anyone from claiming that Al-Qaeda is present in Egypt”. However, after the revolution some elements reappeared and deployed once more in Sinai.
Ali expects “other terrorist attempts in the future”.
“These radical Islamists accuse President Mohamed Morsi of failing to establish an Islamic state. They see him negotiating with the United States and Israel and hold that this makes his regime a legitimate target.”
Major General Fouad Allam, security expert and former deputy head of the NSA, argues that “the political, economic, cultural and social turmoil that Egypt is experiencing” makes for a particularly dangerous situation.
Sweilam and Ali agree on the need for security measures to be tightened while Allam argues for a more comprehensive solution to tackle the political, social, economic and cultural disintegration.