Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

The Russian Airline Disaster and Islamic State in Egypt

Abu Osama al-Masry
Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in a Wilayat Sinai propaganda video; from SITE Intel Group

Who downed Russian airline flight 9286 as it left tourist resort Sharm el-Sheikh in October, killing all 224 on board?

Russian officials have confirmed a bomb brought down the plane, while Whitehall has labelled shadowy leader of the new ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai – Abu Osama al-Masry – ‘a person of interest’ in on-going investigations.  Egypt has yet to release details from their investigation.

‘Foreign tourists, workers, and troops in Egypt are at greater risk than ever’, wrote Zach Gold in Egypt Source.

‘Whether [WS] was responsible or made an opportunistic claim, the group’s willingness to even rhetorically target foreign interests in Egypt is another dangerous marker in a pattern of threats’, he added.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.

‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.


‘Eloquent in quoting the Qur’an’: Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in propaganda video. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Al-Masry, a nom-de-guerre indicating he is Egyptian, is said to have been born in northern Sinai but grew up in Sharqiya in the eastern Nile Delta.

The 42-year-old former student at the Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Masry is said to be ‘well versed in Islamic jurisprudence’ and ‘eloquent in quoting the Quran’.

Wilayat Sinai, meaning ‘the province of Sinai’, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 November, 2014.

It was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), translated roughly as ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ – implying the same apocalyptic zeal as IS.

Lapido Media nailed this affiliation a year ago – and the fact of the reluctance of the West to believe it amid the complexity of Egyptian culture and the prevalence of ‘conspiracy theories’.

On 5 November 2014, we wrote:  ‘Ali expects the “Supporters of Jerusalem” – a home-grown terrorist outfit operating out of Sinai – to soon announce their allegiance to ISIS. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, he said, was an associate of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi in the Islamic State of Iraq and believed to be killed by US forces in 2010.

‘But some evidence suggests he is still alive and operating out of the Sinai with the Supporters of Jerusalem,’ Ali said.


If the Russian airline attack is confirmed, it will not have been the first time Wilayat Sinai has targeted foreigners.

Strategy, however, is shifting from attacking tourism in Egypt as part of an economic war, to attacking tourists in retaliation for their nation’s policies.

In February 2014 the group killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver in a bus traveling from St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.

They also claimed responsibility for the hideous executions of American oil worker William Henderson in August 2014, and the Croatian Tomislav Salopek in August 2015.

Wilayat Sinai’s fighting force is estimated between a low of one to two thousand militants, and as high as five to twelve thousand.

The sparse population of North Sinai is approximately 435,000, or forty per square mile.

Unlike the Islamic State, WS’s composition is mostly local, consisting of veteran jihadists, disaffected Bedouin, and disillusioned youth. Some foreign fighters come from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and WS have issued a call for more.

Egypt has accused Turkey of providing support for Wilayat Sinai, posting names and pictures of alleged operatives they have captured.

Wilayat Sinai also benefits from members who previously served in the Egyptian military, before defecting or being expelled.

Walid Badr, a former major in the army, was the suicide bomber in the September 2013 assassination attempt on the interior minister. One month later former officers Emad Abdel Halim and Hisham Ashmawi led an assault on a checkpoint in Sinai killing 31 people.


WS, under its original guise of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was formed sometime in 2011 in response to the Egyptian revolution of 25 January.

Egyptian security says ABM breathed new life into existing bands of militants such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which had conducted operations against tourism hotels in Sinai in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

After formally merging, ABM originally targeted Israel, launching a few cross-border attacks and several acts of sabotage against the Egypt-Israeli gas pipeline.

President Mohamed Morsi authorised military action against ABM after it killed 16 border guards in August 2012. But he is also understood to have preferred negotiation and tried to limit their influence through dialogue with other Sinai parties.

After Morsi’s removal from office on 3 July, 2013, ABM shifted focus and deliberately targeted Egyptian security forces.

Abu Osama al-Masry deemed Morsi an apostate and equated democracy with atheism – a typical militant Islamist trope.

But ABM sought to take advantage of the military-versus-Muslim Brotherhood conflict to paint itself as the defender of Muslims.


A leaked Egyptian security document from February 2015 accused the Muslim Brotherhood of working with Al-Qa’eda to send three thousand fighters to the Sinai.

Morsi, like the transitional military council before him, released jihadis from prison.

But an Egyptian researcher says that while he permitted militants a degree of operation, he did not nurture them as a ‘last resort’ to protect his office.

In addition to the acts of terrorism listed above, ABM has been a leading force in a long list of attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland.

The small Christian population of roughly 650 families in the Sinai have also suffered at their hands. Many have relocated, though local Muslims have promised to protect them.

Wilayat Sinai
Logo of Wilayat Sinai


Four hundred attacks killing seven hundred soldiers: Wilayat Sinai. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Targeting Christians is only one of the ways Wilayat Sinai is imitating the Islamic State.

Mixing terror and piety, they have beheaded opponents and moved against drug trafficking. They have appealed to the sympathy of Bedouin tribes and distributed money to those whose homes have been destroyed in the conflict.

But Wilayat Sinai has so far failed to reproduce the primary marker of the Islamic State – territorial acquisition. They hide out in the desert, mix with the people, plant roadside bombs, and adopt guerilla tactics, but have failed to claim and hold land.

It has not been for want of trying.

Wilayat Sinai has led over four hundred attacks on security forces between 2012 and 2015, killing an estimated seven hundred soldiers.

On 1 July, 2015 militants led a full-day assault on the city of Sheikh Zuweid, following multiple coordinated attacks on surrounding checkpoints. The effort failed when the military employed F-16s in the city’s defense.

Reporting on Sinai is difficult as the government has criminalised publication of information that contradicts official statements.

One month ago on 22 October, an army spokesman declared ‘full control’ over the Sinai, but terror attacks continue.

An anonymous officer said failings stemmed from unfamiliar terrain and a scorched-earth policy that alienated the population. There are also conflicting reports as to whether local tribes are joining the fight or just watching idly by.

But an anonymous militant admitted the military have severely restricted their operations, and the closing of tunnels on the Gaza border has dried up the weapon supply.


Human Rights Watch has criticised the government over the creation of a buffer zone meant to destroy the network of tunnels long exploited by traffickers and terrorists alike. Between July 2013 and August 2015 HRW reported the destruction of at least 3,255 homes and properties.

Israel claims that Hamas is aiding Wilayat Sinai, though leaders deny any connection to this ‘black extremism’.

But on Egypt’s Western border the Islamic State has been more successful in setting up a franchise. They call Libya ‘the strategic gateway’, noting its proximity to Egypt, Tunisia, African nations of the Sahel, and Europe.

In spring 2014 Libyans in Syria returned to Derna near Benghazi and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Fledgling states have been created for each of Libya’s three traditional regions: Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and the Fezzan.

This has sparked terrorist activity in Egypt’s Western Desert as well. In July 2014 ABM claimed responsibility for an attack in Farafra that killed 22 soldiers. Last month in pursuit of terrorist targets, the military accidentally killed eight Mexican tourists in the Bahariya oasis.


The terrorism network in Egypt is fluid. Abu Osama al-Masry indicated his support for the Islamic State as early as 30 June, 2014, praying for them to conquer Baghdad. By September reports of co-operation and training emerged.

But by November the eventual pledge of allegiance was disputed, with veterans said to support Al-Qa’eda, yet with the youth vote winning out.

Since then splinter groups have formed, though there is no evidence of direct conflict. Jihadi Ribat was created in December 2014, eschewing support for Islamic State claims to the caliphate. The aforementioned former military officer Ashmawi split with others in July 2015 to formal-Murabitoon.

Ajnad Misr declared its intention to focus on attacks against security personnel in Cairo, in January 2014. It has been implicated in over 25 attacks, but focuses on Egypt rather than a global cause.

There even appears to be diversity within the Islamic State network. Recent attacks on the Italian Consulate in Cairo and on a security directorate in Shubra el-Kheima were claimed by Islamic State in Egypt, not Wilayat Sinai.

The Egyptian government claims progress in the fight against terrorism, and last week killed Ashraf el-Gharably, reportedly a top commander in Wilayat Sinai. The UK has offered the support of special forces to help kill or capture Abu Osama al-Masry.

The British government declared Wilayat Sinai, then ABM, a terrorist entity in April 2014.

‘Egypt deserves support, not punishment,’ Anglican Bishop of Egypt Mouneer Hanna Anis told Lapido Media, critical of Russian and British decisions to restrict air travel to Egypt estimated to cost the nation nearly £185 million per month.

‘My prayer is to see the international community working together to fight terrorism.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: New Face in Terrorism

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Terrorism in Egypt has been connected to franchises, but not faces. Whether driven by political frustration or extremist ideology, the forces causing havoc have earned infamy as a whole and not as a part.

But this week there is a name. It is an old name for those who know, but Hisham al-Ashmawi, a former military officer, has seized a new limelight for himself.

God, may he fail. But may you not fail with him. Redeem him. With his colleagues, may peace come to both soul and land.

Authorities have linked him to various recent terrorist acts, but his release of an audio call for jihad against Sisi resulted in media attention. His background, his al-Qaeda (rather than ISIS) allegiance, and his announcement of a new cell all contribute.

Sin is destructive, God. If there is division in the ranks of terrorism, God, then allow conflict. If there is ambition, let jealousy stir. Save many from self-combustion; save all from collateral damage. May this cancer eat itself.

But God, cancer kills unless treated. Even then it can be too late. Whatever surgical steps are needed, may they be administered with professionalism, in accordance with all medical standards.

Help Egypt to recover, whole. Turn frustration into participation. Turn ideology into righteousness. Forgive. Reconcile. Heal.

All with justice, God. Hold Egyptians accountable for their sins, but do not burden the nation. Many are tempted to employ evil in their quest for the good they imagine. Rebuke them. Transform them.

But may they see you honor those who hold to the good, risking failure. Provide Egypt examples of good issuing from good, untainted with even a hint of wrongdoing.

Make their faces shine forth, God, like glory unveiled. May all darkness recoil in terror, and Egypt praise your name.



Researching the Islamic State

Researching ISIS

I confess to not having kept up well with the so-called Islamic State. My focus has always been on Egypt, with peripheral attention given to the region. If Egypt has been difficult to understand – living here – the rest of the region seemed near impossible. And fortunately, the complicating factor of the Islamic State had stayed distant from Egypt, until recently.

I am afraid a partial reason for my inattention is a success of their strategy. The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq, where it was one of many groups blowing up lots of stuff. Amid the moral ambiguity of the US occupation, yet another suicide bombing had a numbing effect. Why read one more template of the same story?

As they expanded into Syria the tale changed slightly, but with the same effect. The Islamic State was just one of many groups with unclear origins and less clear funding sources. Whatever nobility the original uprising may have had, it was quickly lost in a devastating civil war and the international hand-wringing that talked much and did little – which may have been for the best except for all the accumulated ‘little’ done behind the scenes.

And late last summer when the Islamic State drove out the historic Christian community and enslaved other religious minorities, it just accelerated a pattern recently established but seemingly inevitable. Palpitations of horror stimulated some writing, but what could be done to stem the tide? For every sympathetic Arabic letter ن placed on a Facebook page in solidarity, the futility of a hashtag campaign just became more apparent.

Finally, the Islamic State became another tool in the tool belt of conspiracy theorists, so abundant in the Arab world. For some their leader was a Mosad operative. Others saw the dirty hand of America looking for an excuse to reoccupy the region. Turkey and Qatar were blamed. As the US-led coalition rained more bombs upon the region in an effort to ‘degrade’ their capabilities, sorting through the conspiracies was far too daunting to contemplate.

All this is said to my detriment, for as noted it fits well with Islamic State strategy. They wish to wear down the morale of their enemy and give the appearance of the inevitability of their victory. Conspiracies aside, this is a key reason why the Iraqi army fled before them. Though greatly outnumbered ISIS believed in their fight. And their fight included years of kidnapping, assassinations, and suicide bombings that convinced the American-trained military it just wasn’t worth it.

My responsibility is Egypt, so I don’t believe I have run from a fight. But allowing myself to fall behind in the scholarship on the Islamic State is a dereliction of duty all the same, for Egypt is part of the on-edge region. The emergence of the Islamic State is one of the most important developments in a long time. Far more than a radical insurgency or religious revolution, their gains are a direct challenge to the nation-state system. That they have been successful relates directly to the weakness of this system in the region.

In the past few days I have finally taken time to remedy my negligence. This has come through reading some of the journalism and research on where the Islamic State stands today, in addition to fabulous video obtained by a journalist given a unique tour of their operations. I hope this brief summary will serve to compensate any deficiency in your knowledge, with less time investment.

But if you have the time to view this 45 minute feature from Vice News, I would recommend it. Published on August 15, it predates the beheading of foreigners and represents a moment in time the Islamic State was more open to outside eyes. They have allegedly issued a set of guidelines for journalists more recently, but I suspect few would be willing to trust their hospitality, let alone agree to the stipulations therein.

The footage is from Raqqa, the 500,000 population city now known as the capital of the caliphate. Familiar with cities in the Arab world, it was surprising to witness the normalcy of the environment mixed with the normalcy of atrocity. Familiar looking desert landscapes were cut with unfamiliar trenches, filled by familiar looking men carrying unfamiliar weapons.

Far worse was the familiar looking city square filled with familiar Arab facial features severed from their bodies. The Islamic State shows no pangs of conscience in its displays of brutality, but as will be remarked later, it all fits into a code that allows, even facilitates the rule of law.

For familiar scenes abounded in roadside shops and government installations, where the Islamic State has assumed the responsibility for service provision and justice. But unfamiliar morality police roam the streets, curbing the unfortunately familiar practices of bribery and corruption. And whereas it is normal to watch fathers and sons playing in a depleted riverbed, it is less common to hear preteens spew the vilest hatred of infidels and eagerly anticipate killing them.

For as Mara Revkin has detailed in Syria Comment, the conventional wisdom about jihadists being agents of chaos is ill-founded. Supported by Sarah Birke in the New York Review of Books, she shows that the chaos inducing practices of insurgency are quickly replaced by law and order once territory is seized. Patterns of governance, she remarks, are actually quite similar to those practiced by Europeans in the dawn of their industrial nation-state building efforts.

In pattern, that is, not necessarily in practice. The task of a state is win a monopoly on violence. To do so in contemporary Syria and Iraq requires quite a bit of violence at the outset. To secure an area the Islamic State uses a combination of fighting and buying loyalty. Upon submission of either kind they first demand repentance, and then disarmament. The Sheitat tribe in Deir Ezzor chose resistance, failed, and then had 700 men slaughtered, and 1,800 disappear. When none rose to their aid surrounding tribes learned a lesson. At the least they made common cause against a common enemy in Shia-led Baghdad. Several top leaders of the Islamic State are former ranking officers in the Baathist Iraqi military.

But once an area is in submission they work to restore functionality. Employees are left in their administrative positions. Zakat is collected and social service established for the poor. Police officers are well paid, enforcing a strict code based on sharia. This includes the cutting off of hands, whipping, and crucifixion. But it is not simply a code of deterrence. The Islamic State has punished, even executed its own members who transgress. This has been key to win at least the tacit acceptance of the population, who see a measure of justice at work. Used to the corruption of the previous regime, if people lie low and stay out of trouble it seems they can get on quite well.

In theory this applies even for Christians, some of whom have agreed to pay the dhimmi jizia tax. But most have fled when given the opportunity, leaving their churches behind which have been ransacked or converted to mosques. The video depicted one interior re-designer who took particular joy in destroying the crosses worshiped by the infidels.

But even in the far worse treatment for Shia and Yazidis, the Islamic State operates according to code. Guidelines have been issued for the treatment of enemy combatants and female slaves that horrify many modern Muslims. They meticulously draw from historic sources and practice, but the point is the importance of law. They are trying to build something that will last, and expand, in imitation of the earliest centuries of Islam.

But the question is, where do they get the money to do so? Long reports by Charles Lister in Brookings Doha, and Martin Chulov in the Guardian describe the history and funding sources of the Islamic State. And the conclusion is they largely earn it themselves. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theories, though it demands investigation of different ones altogether.

The original progenitor of the Islamic State is actually from Jordan, from whence Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hailed. But he made his name in Iraq, stoking sectarian tension to enflame the conflict against the Americans. After his death leadership of then-al-Qaeda in Iraq passed to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who led the incarnation of the first Islamic State effort from 2006-2008, defeated by the Sahwa tribal uprisings supported by the United States. But when Abu Omar was killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership, and in 2014 he declared himself caliph. Intelligence sources say many of these jihadis passed through Syria first, given free conduct by President Assad.

Origins of this movement, however, trace all the way back to 2004 in a US prison in Iraq. Research indicates 17 of the top 25 Islamic State leaders spent time incarcerated, which actually helped their efforts. Outside of prison insurgents and jihadis operated independently; prison put them all in contact with one another. They even wrote contact information on the elastic lining in their underwear. When released or freed in jailbreak, they reconnected to put strategies in motion. Boxers helped us win the war, said one leader in an interview.

But the new leadership was at odds with their former worldwide partners in terrorism, and even their own disciples. Baghdadi sent his deputy to Syria when the Arab Spring began. Eventually he created Jabhat al-Nusra and chose not to submit, maintaining allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. The two groups have clashed several times since, including in Raqqa before the Islamic State took control.

But once in control, and in expansion to other regions, revenues skyrocketed through the sale of smuggled oil. Additional sources included extortion money, ransom payments, and general taxation. At its height before the coalition bombing campaign, revenue equaled $2 million per day. No conspiratorial funding relationship with Saudi Arabia or Qatar is needed, but still conspiracies exist. Who purchases the oil, and from where? Who lets the foreign jihadists, now numbering 18,000 of the 31,000 fighting force, across the borders?

Indications point strongly to Turkey, though regime controlled areas in Syria also have a role. But all articles indicated the Islamic State is indeed becoming a state, though fully outside the nation-state system. What is to be done?

Going further than just this collection of articles, suggestions have included American reengagement on the ground, US support to Arab nation engagement on the ground, arming ‘moderate’ rebels against the Islamic State and the Assad government in some order, or supporting Assad in his position while negotiating a better political situation. Drying up revenue sources by pressuring regional allies to clamp down on the black markets has also been demanded, but with limited success.

It should be stated that I have heard Islamic State-type rhetoric the Arab world over, long before this current emergency. Rarely have I encountered an inclination to mete out such violence in implementation, but the goals of the new caliphate resonate with many a Muslim. It connects to their glorious past, claiming fidelity to the honored scriptures and righteous ancestors. And psychologically it allows non-introspection about current woes, finding refuge in the simpler hope of ‘if only we were more faithful Muslims, God would honor us.’

Of course, Muslims the world over have condemned the Islamic State, though in various fashion. The modern world is far different than the Ottoman Empire, or any other caliphate before it. Islam can get on very reasonably as a spiritual faith, disembodied from political power. Many Muslims are quite happy here.

But there is that something in Islam that clamors for power. It is not enough to live righteously and call others also to do so. Living righteously calls for stopping evil. Stopping evil requires power. Power resides best in governance. But, oh so unfortunately, power in governance tends to corrupt.

The Islamic State is doing its best to root out corruption. They are not after personal gain (presumably), but divine principle. Their horrors are obvious, but not random. They enact a code as they understand it. But at the same time, they issue contracts of sale for their black market partners who purchase the smuggled oil. The Arab world has suffered much evil, and they are fighting back. But so easily are compromises made.

And so wretched when moral horrors find justification in religious texts, rightly or wrongly. Sharia law has a place detailing the legal uses of spoils of war. It is from this heritage the Islamic State draws its regulations on proper conduct toward female slaves.

But war is human, as is power and governance. Muslims have long defended this aspect of their revelation as divine elevation of primal realities. Many state the norms of the past must be updated with the times, but they see it as a credit to their faith that it details all aspects of human existence, even unseemly ones.

So then, what to do with this catch up reading on the Islamic State? I hope this essay is at least partial fruit, that you as well may be better informed. But what good is information in the light of atrocities? Is not more demanded?

I confess I am not well placed to offer policy analysis on what to do in Syria and Iraq. With respect to all those placed in positions of influence, I wish them wisdom, discernment, and a pure heart. The current troubles are built upon compounded errors stretching back decades, from local and foreigner alike. It is far easier to criticize than find solution, especially from the outside. I tend to wish we would leave bad enough alone, and give up policing the world. But then so much would fall apart. It is hard to be on top, responsible to defend the stability of a world order upon which one’s prosperity depends. It is also hard to stomach the interventions at times necessary to maintain it.

But these are idealistic wishes of justice and responsible economy, not the workings of realpolitik. I would like to trust American leadership cares for our prosperity in good conscience with the prosperity of others. Alas, I fear this is not always so. Interest often trumps principle, especially when in power.

I have more confidence, perhaps, in weighing religious response in interaction with the rhetoric of the Islamic State. I see how their conduct is drawn from religion, and I see how rebuttal is drawn from the same. Islam is not monolithic, it is a flexible heritage. It must be, to have been so influential across time and geography.

Therefore, on this front, both groups must be challenged from their own sources. Jihadists and those of similar thought must realize Islam has torn itself apart in history, and created mechanisms to prevent reoccurrence. One many not call a Muslim an infidel, no matter how much he sins. And preventing evil has a rich heritage of interpretation, so that a zealot in his effort to forbid wrong does not wind up creating even more. These are basic lessons of civilization, and they have a religious root.

But for those who are quick to condemn the Islamic State and demonstrate Islam is a religion of peace, this is fine rhetoric but poor research. This group also, both Muslim and non-, must struggle with sources that mirror the practices witnessed today. Many Muslims try, and their efforts have been controversial. Some have looked to find modern ethics in their own heritage, rightly reinterpreted. Others have relegated the heritage to a bygone era, however superior it was to the ethics of the time. This effort is ongoing, but few will dare to condemn, for example, the early wars of Islamic expansion.

In both instances, though, care must be taken to win people and not arguments. The goal is a better vision for peace in this world, and for those who believe, also in the next. The goal is not to demonstrate the superiority of one faith or civilization over another. It is not to tear down a beloved heritage or corrupt sincerely held doctrine. It is to challenge each and every person to live up to higher ideals of truth and love, even as these ideals are debated. It goes without saying one must subject him or herself to the same process.

This will do little to change the Islamic State, but it may do well in conversation about it.

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Are Islamic Terror Plots in Egypt Just ‘Crazy Theories’?

Abdel Rahim Ali
Abdel Rahim Ali

A desperate Egypt reaches out to the West, trying to communicate the dire threat of terrorism.

A celebrity researcher ties this terrorism to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the West yawns.

But 33 soldiers died last Friday in separate brazen attacks on security personnel in Sinai, and now Egypt’s Christian leaders have picked up the mantle to call for help.

‘Egypt now needs the support of its friends,’ wrote Revd Mouneer Hanna, Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Egypt, in an open letter on the diocesan website. ‘This support involves understanding of the real situation.’

One week earlier Revd Andrea Zaki, general director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, joined a semi-official Egyptian delegation to the United States. It was made up of diplomats, journalists, civil society members, and men of religion, who were eager to present Egypt’s perspective to a sceptical West.

On many issues Zaki found an agreeable reception. But their counterparts in Washington DC bluntly told the group that the Egyptian government has not provided ‘clear evidence’ linking the Muslim Brotherhood to the ongoing terrorism campaign.

Due process

Perhaps this is because Egypt appears to be giving this ‘evidence’ first to the people, and only later through judicial channels. This reversal of due process causes Western observers to be dismissive.

‘Isn’t he that guy on television with the crazy theories?’ remarked a European journalist as Abdel Rahim Ali walked into the room to hold a press conference on 1 November on the possible emergence of ISIS in Sinai. The mixed crowd of Egyptians and Westerners awaited his evidence.

Ali expects the ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ – a home-grown terrorist outfit operating out of Sinai – to soon announce their allegiance to ISIS. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, he said, was an associate of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi in the Islamic State of Iraq and believed to be killed by US forces in 2010.

But some evidence suggests he is still alive and operating out of the Sinai with the Supporters of Jerusalem, Ali said.

On 4 November, without mentioning al-Muhajir, Reuters confirmed Ali’s prediction of the merger with ISIS. But Egyptian state-run Ahram Online denied the news, quoting from what is alleged to be the Supporters of Jerusalem’s official Twitter account, @3Ansar_B_Almqds.

Leaked conversations

In Ali’s presentation, however, the source of his evidence was not provided, fitting with his general modus operandi. Host of the popular television show, ‘The Black Box’, and editor-in-chief of al-Bawaba newspaper, Ali regularly releases leaked conversations of revolutionary and Islamist figures.

Despite their illegal nature, Ali operates freely. And he freely admits his sources are connected to the security apparatus.

One of the most damning allegations concern leaked recordings of phone calls between President Morsi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda. In them an agreement is made to cease operations against Egypt while allowing jihadist groups to exist on Egyptian soil.

In this context, reference in Bishop Mouneer’s open letter about the Brotherhood finds verification. He spoke of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed el-Beltagi’s statement from the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa in Cairo, prior to its bloody dispersal.

‘We do not control the situation on the ground,’ Beltagi said in a July 2013 video on YouTube. ‘But what is happening in Sinai …will stop the moment …the president [Morsi] returns to power.’

Bishop Mouneer told Lapido Media that, like many others, he is not happy that thousands of people are currently in prison without judicial rulings. He understands this makes the West feel Egypt is being very harsh with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But after listing a long litany of Brotherhood offenses – attacks on protestors, churches, and calls for jihad in Syria – he provides Egyptian perspective on this reversal of due process.

The courts are slow, he said, and Egypt is in a state of war against terrorism: ‘In times of war countries sometimes take extraordinary measures, such as America with Guantanamo Bay.

‘In order to educate the people and influence public opinion, [security] leaks some of these things.’

But of these recordings and allegations, Bishop Mouneer cannot say what is true and what is not, as long as Ali does not release his sources.

Similarly, Zaki does not feel compelled to make the case against the Muslim Brotherhood for the sake of his American audience. ‘This is the responsibility of the government,’ he told Lapido Media.

But he does want to convey Egypt’s general satisfaction with the situation following the post-30 June deposing of Morsi. The military answered the call of millions, he said, and the people ratified this action in subsequent elections.


This message is beginning to be heard. Zaki said the Americans expressed their acceptance of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, as well as the necessary role of Egypt’s military in fighting terrorism.

Economic support will also be forthcoming at the expected 21 February economic summit in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Americans told him. Egypt will present investment opportunities in fifteen projects worth $100 billion.

But the message of Egypt’s popular belief in Muslim Brotherhood culpability in terrorism is still awaiting judgment in the West. The Whitehall report authorised by the British government remains delayed.

‘I have no idea about the link between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda,’ said Bishop Mouneer, expressing more caution than many Egyptians.

‘But I know one thing, we were going backwards during the time of Morsi.’

This article was originally published on Lapido Media.


The Syrian State of Play

Here is a link to a well organized and concise description of the different actors present in the ongoing Syrian conflict, from War on the Rocks. If you would like a good primer, it is worth your time to read. Keeping up with the news reports and ever-changing developments is difficult.

Here is the general outline, with a brief excerpt from each section:

International Players:


Russia happily incurs international opprobrium for backing Assad so that it can preserve access to its last remote naval base in Tartus, which remains a symbol of Russia’s global reach; discourage external interference in a country’s internal affairs; and, most importantly, remain a counterweight to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

United States:

With chemical weapons off the table, Assad’s external opposition in disarray, Islamists dominating the insurgency, and an American public unhappy with foreign wars, the Obama administration feels it has few options other than taking steps to prevent the civil war from destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and harming U.S. security.

Regional Players:

Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:

Assad’s three greatest regional foes—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are divided according to their taste in proxies. Saudi Arabia favors more nationalist-minded groups, perhaps because members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and the jihadis in the 2000s challenged the royal family’s rule.

Qatar and Turkey have worked together to bolster the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sway over the external opposition, which has waned despite the two countries’ best efforts. On the battlefield, Turkey appears to have turned a blind eye to Sunni jihadis gaining access to northern Syria while Qatar is widely alleged to have supported conservative Salafi Islamist militias united under the Islamic Front.


Iran has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to sustaining the Assad regime by helping provide cut-price fuel and weapons and deploying members of its armed forces, including the special Quds Force, to train Syrian paramilitaries and coordinate military operations against the rebels.

Syrian Players

Assad Government:

The Syrian government is militarily and politically stronger than its opponents. The U.S. reversal in September 2013 of its threat of punitive strikes in favor of the signing of an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles awarded President Assad diplomatic leverage to play for time and stymie a peace accord. Unless the balance of power changes, Assad will continue to be defended on the international stage by Russia and draw military and financial sustenance from Iran. With such an advantageous position, the regime’s delegation at Geneva played it slow to ensure the opposition got little of any benefit from attending.

Pro-government Militias:

An assessment of the Syrian military’s performance in 2012 revealed that the Syrian Arab Army lacked the numerical and command capacity to sustain effective operations in multiple domestic theaters. Beginning in mid-to-late 2012, the SAA—with apparent training and coordinating assistance from the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—began merging existing “popular committee” local protection militias into an organized, trained, and salaried paramilitary force, the National Defense Force (NDF). Since then, the NDF has become a critical part of the Syrian military structure, usually used to hold seized ground and to bolster coordinated offensives.

External opposition:

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the main body representing various factions of the Syrian opposition outside Syria. Internal infighting between rival groups has structurally weakened the organization. The infighting came to a head on 18 January 2014 when a third of its members boycotted a vote to attend the Geneva II talks. One of the SNC’s main components, the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, withdrew from the coalition as a consequence. The infighting is a result of conflicts among the factions’ regional backers or irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria.

Free Syrian Army / Supreme Military Council

The FSA has not represented a distinct military organization for a long time now. Today, the FSA name represents more of a brand or umbrella with which primarily nationalist and often secular groups associate themselves. The SMC, meanwhile, presents itself as a coherent structure with organized local, provincial, and national components led externally by Selim Idriss. The command structure, however, has not proven itself nationally and Idriss has been more of a distributor of military aid than a commander.

Islamic Front:

The Islamic Front represents the singly most powerful opposition military organization in Syria, with an estimated 50,000-60,000 fighters operating in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The IF’s political charter calls for an Islamic state in Syria governed by sharia law, but is vague regarding the specifics of what this would actually entail. While all seven constituent groups within the IF are certainly Islamist, they in fact represent a relatively broad spectrum.

Jabhat al-Nusra:

Despite its admitted links to Al-Qaeda, JN has since mid-to-late 2012 demonstrated a remarkable level of pragmatism in religious, political, and military matters. Its military forces consistently demonstrate levels of professionalism and effective command and control superior to that of comparatively moderate groups. While JN represents a numerically smaller organization than most members of the IF, its fighters often represent something more akin to special forces, taking a key frontline role in offensive operations. Because the group fights effectively and does not seek to dominate the opposition, it has healthy relations with all Syrian rebel groups from moderate to Salafist. JN’s widespread provision of social services to the civilian population through its Qism al-Aghatha (or Department of Relief) and avoidance of incurring civilian casualties in areas hostile to Assad has meant the group enjoys a surprising level of popular support.

Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS):

Since its emergence as an active armed entity in Syria in late April/early May 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham focused on acquiring and consolidating territorial control in eastern and northern Syria, particularly in regions bordering Iraq and Turkey. As this proceeded, ISIS began establishing outposts further into Syria’s interior in Hama, Homs, and areas of the Damascus countryside, most notably in the Qalamoun and in Eastern Ghouta. As its influence expanded and confidence rose, ISIS began imposing its harsh behavioral codes and kidnapped, imprisoned, and sometimes executed its opponents. Public beheadings became common, as most importantly, did incidents of ISIS violence against other rebel groups.

The only two major players the article does not describe are Israel, as a state, and Christians, as an element of the population. This is likely because the article focuses on those actively participating in the struggle. Israel, apparently, is taking a wait and see approach. Christians, meanwhile, are understood to be pro-Assad historically, are sometimes besieged by Islamist elements, but are generally keeping quiet, careful not to be seen taking sides.

Of course, those following the conflict closely will likely take offense at some of the descriptions above. For those generally bewildered, however, I trust this summary is helpful.

Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

Who are Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis?

Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader
Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader

From my article at Middle East Institute, analyzing Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis, but from before the recent deposing of President Morsi:

The Egyptian Islamist Mohamed al-Zawahiri is most famous for being the brother of al-Qaeda front man Ayman, but his story is also a gripping one. Zawahiri was arrested in 1999 for his alleged participation in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He spent 13 years in Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was tortured by the mukhabarat and did a five-year stint in solitary confinement. He was released in March 2012 when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who ruled after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, issued a general pardon for scores of political prisoners.

Just six months later, Zawahiri sent a message of peace when he offered to mediate a truce between the West and Islamists through his connections with al-Qaeda, promising cessation of global terrorist activity in exchange for non-interference in Muslim nations.

But Zawahiri’s doings aren’t limited to such an offer. As a leader of an Islamist organization called the Salafist-Jihadists, he is often in the public eye. Yet it is difficult to determine who he leads and what ideology the group espouses—and whether the United States and others should worry about the organization’s activities in post-uprising Egypt.

The group appears to thrive on such ambiguity. Ahmed Ashoush, a fellow leader, claims that the organization does not, in a sense, exist, as it has neither a leadership structure nor a membership count. “We know how wide our support is on the street,” he says, “but we don’t want to talk about it. We want you to see it, in the coming days, if God wills.”

As of yet, Egypt has not seen it. And as strong as the demonstrations in support of Morsi have been, they are far short of the ‘Islamic Revolution’ some predicted as a response to the Rebel Campaign collection of signatures for early elections.

Even so, this group of Islamists who graft ‘jihad’ onto their name bear watching for Egypt’s future. Please click here to read the rest of the article at Middle East Institute.

Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part One, Background

Hani Nour Eddin

A few months ago, before President Morsi was deposed, I had the chance to interview Hani Nour el-Din, a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who was elected to the most recent parliament. His group is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States, but they formally gave up violence as a doctrinal strategy in the early 2000s.

This fact – indeed question – is very important now that Islamists find themselves outside the political spectrum. They gave up violence at a time when there was still no means to enter Egyptian politics. The revolution opened up political space, but now it appears closed. Will the group decide they made a mistake – that the only way to transform Egypt into a political state is through a violent seizing of power?

This is a very necessary question to put to al-Gama’a al-Islamiya now. But in the meanwhile, here is a window into the group’s thinking while they were on the winning side.

The interview was reduced and published by the Middle East Institute. Please click here to read the article.

But here on the blog I will post parts of the interview that had to be trimmed for space. Part One here will concern Nour Eddin’s personal history before his group gave up violence. Part Two, in a few days, will concern his views on violence, whether or not the party truly has abandoned the principle. Please enjoy.

Please introduce yourself to us:

My name is Hany Nour Eddin and I represent the Building and Development Party and serve on its high council, and was a member of parliament in 2011 before it was dissolved. I got to know IG in university, when I joined it and engaged in a number of student activities and preaching campaigns. After university I was arrested and spent many years in prison. This is where I became better acquainted with the group’s leadership.

I have read about this experience, and you maintain your innocence. What happened during this clash with police?

Here in Suez we were giving lectures in opposition to Hosni Mubarak and his remaining in the presidency. It was around 1993 and the GI organized a campaign called ‘No to Mubarak’. The state line was to forbid any opposition to the renewal of his presidency. We organized a large exhibition against him and spoke about the damage he was doing to the country, whether politically, economically, or otherwise. So he gave the order to security to stop the campaign, and to do so forcefully.

A large number of police arrived and we understood we needed to withdraw, but were surprised at the gunfire that began as we were doing so. One the bullets struck an officer accidentally, and a campaign was launched against us accusing us of killing him.

Who did kill him?

Someone from security, as the bullet hit him from behind. Part of their tactic was to disperse the crowd with gunfire, but he was hit from close range. Afterwards we all started getting arrested.

What was your role in GI at this time? Did you organize the exhibition?

Yes, I supervised it, collecting pictures and articles to help educate the people. The level of arrests practically stopped the work of GI in Suez, except for taking care of the families of those incarcerated.

So if you were imprisoned unjustly, why were you released later on?

When we were arrested they wanted to dissolve the Islamist movements, and especially our operations, targeting even our preachers. A violent clash took place between us and the police which became an armed struggle, targeting leaders on both sides, including Mubarak himself on many occasions.

By 1974 we realized the struggle was shedding the blood of the nation in general, and not just of the GI. We wanted to overthrow the state, but our violence was met by greater violence by the regime. We considered that we were defending ourselves, but it resulted in oppression and hostility, which reached even our families and relatives. It was not good.

So we undertook a campaign in the prisons, suggesting a unilateral cease-fire, stopping all violence against the regime, both inside and outside Egypt. It is important to note the whole time, even from outside, we targeted only Egypt and were working on its behalf alone. This is opposed to al-Qaeda, for example; we specified our conflict and goals were only against the regime. By 1979 we launched the non-violent initiative officially, opposing all violence against the regime, whether in the media or with weapons.

For a period of time we tried to send this message to GI members internationally, while we waited for a response from the government. Unfortunately the regime did many things to undermine our credibility, representing us falsely. But by 2000-01 they accepted the initiative. We published our ‘Revisions’, publicizing them first in the prisons and then internationally. They began releasing us from the prisons, and I got out in 2005.

So you found normal work to do?

Yes, after the necessary legal procedures, I returned to my job in the Suez Canal Company. I have a BA in Agriculture but my work with them is administrative.

But you have the time to take off work and talk to me today?

(Laughing) Yes, it’s normal, it’s ok.

So from 2005 until the revolution, what were you doing for GI?

We chose to work in preaching, rather than in organization. We would meet in mosques, talk to the people, and engage in social work – helping the poor, the orphans.

Were you a preacher in the mosque?

Sometimes, but not much. I served on the Shura Council of the GI in our governorate.

Served? But not any more?

Since we started the political party it has taken my priority and I left the Shura Council. Politics is different than preaching and social work. But we agreed to keep the party as the political arm of the GI for about two years until its administration is complete and mature. Then it will become independent, and when the appropriate laws are passed the GI will register legally also.

Please click here to continue reading the interview at Middle East Institute.

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Who are the Salafi-Jihadis?

Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of the al-Qaeda leader
Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of the al-Qaeda leader

From my recent article in EgyptSource, following up on the last post of pictures:

Zawahiri is the leader of what has been dubbed the Salafi-Jihadis. Long associated with Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, following his release from prison in March 2012 he has positioned himself to the right of the now politically engaged Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and traditional Salafis. But who does he represent?

“We are just Muslims, protesting the killing of civilians,” said Walid, one of about 400 demonstrating against French military activity in Mali. “We have no leadership and we don’t belong to al-Qaeda.”

‘Not belonging to al-Qaeda’ was a frequent refrain of protestors.

But there was plenty of sympathy, as well as conspiracy:

Ashraf, who declined to give his last name but consorted comfortably with al-Zawahiri, praised the Benghazi attack which killed the American ambassador, and said more of this nature was needed. But as to the nature of Salafi-Jihadis, he was circumspect.

“There is no such thing as Salafi-Jihadism,” he said. “This name is simply a creation of state security, used to divide Muslims.”

The Egyptian regime, he believes, has always conspired with the Americans to distort Islam. “Is there any Salafism without jihad?” he continued. “Who are the Salafis but the first generations of Muslims, and were these not engaged in jihad?”

By all appearances their numbers are few, but this may not matter much, and surely not all are visible:

Salafi-Jihadis appear to be less an organization than an idea. So while the idea of Islam violently reordering world relations – today focused on Mali – is unable to attract many, it does attract a dedicated few. For Zawahiri, this is enough.

“Over the centuries Muslims have been the victorious ones,” he said, “even when they have had small numbers.”

Please click here to read the full article on EgyptSource.


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Photos from the Salafi-Jihadi Protest at the French Embassy

There are several strands of Salafism in Egypt, and the differences are not easy to understand. The group which is called Salafi-Jihadi – they do not necessarily call themselves this – is differentiated easily by the second part of their moniker. While many Salafis have joined the political, democratic process in Egypt, these reject it outright. Instead, they favor the continuation of a violent struggle against the Egyptian regime, of which they see the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafis as selling out to the world anti-Islamic system.

This group held a protest on January 18 against the French military intervention in Mali. In Mali criminal-cum-jihadists have piggybacked onto a tribal Tuareg rebellion in the north. The central government, along with many surrounding Arab and African nations, has sanctioned France’s effort to resist them through force of arms. Salafi-Jihadists, however, support them due to their desire to implement sharia law.

I hope to write more about Salafi-Jihadis soon, but for now, please enjoy the protest through these pictures and video.

Click here for the first video. It is only two minutes long because it represents the length of time necessary for their full march to approach the site. There were only a couple hundred protestors in total.

Click here for the second video. It also is only two minutes because this was about the length of time the protestors jostled with police who had set up a barricade preventing them from reaching the embassy. After that they accepted their place about 100 yards further down the street.

Crowd Pressing

Next to the man in the police cap is Ezzat al-Salamony. He is a leader with the Islamic Group, not the Salafi-Jihadis, and worked to restrain the crowd. He later gave a rousing speech against the French, though, calling for jihad in the lands of the infidels.
Next to the man in the police cap is Ezzat al-Salamony. He is a leader with the Islamic Group, not the Salafi-Jihadis, and worked to restrain the crowd. He later gave a rousing speech against the French, though, calling for jihad in the lands of the infidels.


Eventually a car drove up with speakers to serve as a platform for speakers. The police maintained their line, but were left in peace from then on.
Eventually a car drove up with speakers to serve as a platform for speakers. The police maintained their line, but were left in peace from then on.
As speakers condemned France, other protestors set up their banners. This one reads: Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment.
As speakers condemned France, other protestors set up their banners. This one reads: Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment.
After a little while the star of the show arrived. Mohamed al-Zawahiri is the brother of Ayman, the leader of al-Qaeda. Everyone pressed around him.
After a little while the star of the show arrived. Mohamed al-Zawahiri is the brother of Ayman, the leader of al-Qaeda. Everyone pressed around him.
As he hung around for hours, eventually the crowds dissipated around him. Here is awaits giving an interview to al-Jazeera.
As he hung around for hours, eventually the crowds dissipated around him. Here is awaits giving an interview to al-Jazeera.
Around 5pm, the police relented and allowed the protestors to advance and demonstrate in front of the embassy, though the police presence guarded it and otherwise surrounded them. Graffiti and other banners were hung in the area, this one across the street on the wall of the Giza Zoo. Pictured are Osama bin Laden and Mohamed's brother Ayman. The sign reads: God have mercy on the jihadists. They are the men who gave victory to God and his prophet. Where are you?!
Around 5pm, the police relented and allowed the protestors to advance and demonstrate in front of the embassy, though the police presence guarded it and otherwise surrounded them. Graffiti and other banners were hung in the area, this one across the street on the wall of the Giza Zoo.
Pictured are Osama bin Laden and Mohamed’s brother Ayman. The sign reads: God have mercy on the jihadists. They are the men who gave victory to God and his prophet. Where are you?!


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Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Salafis, Muslim Youth Protest anti-Muhammad Film at US Embassy

To mark September 11, Muslims in Egypt stormed the US Embassy.

Actually, it is not that simple. Certain Copts resident in America produced an amateur film purporting to expose the frails and falsities of Muhammad, and advertised its release for September 11. Word carried back to Egypt, of course, prompting protest from religious institutions, Muslim and Christian alike. Salafi Muslims in particular called for a protest at the US Embassy, and they were joined by hardcore soccer fans in denouncing the film as well as the US government for allowing it to be made. The US Embassy, for its part, issued an official condemnation, calling the effort an abuse of freedom of expression.

Several thousand Egyptians gathered at the entrance of the embassy, falling into roughly two categories. While it was clear all participated, bearded Salafi Muslims largely stood peacefully, while the soccer youth led vociferous, and playful, chants. It was the latter which scaled the walls of the embassy, pulled down the US flag, and burned it.

Later, they also draped a black Islamic flag over the signage of the embassy, above its entrance. These flags were in abundance and resemble the standard used by al-Qaeda. It is al-Qaeda, however, which appropriated the black flag from earlier in Islamic history, which was used in Muhammad’s campaigns. It bears the Islamic creed: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his apostle. Its use at this rally does not imply the presence of al-Qaeda.

I did not witness the US flag being desecrated, but Egyptian security was present in abundance and permitted the action. I was told that the Islamic contingent of the protest calmed the youth and did not permit a more serious storming of embassy grounds, if this was even intended. Security seemed to rely on these Islamists to make certain things did not get out of hand.

The atmosphere was charged, but calm and peaceful. Even so, offensive chants were issued and questionable signs displayed. Foreign Copts were called ‘pigs’, and the Jews were warned about the soon return of Muhammad’s army. One sign declared, ‘We are all bin Laden, you (Coptic) dogs of the diaspora,’ another celebrated the heroes of September 11, asking God’s mercy upon them. Please click here for a brief video of the protest, and pictures follow below.

I would not say this demonstration was representative of Egyptian society; several thousand people are a small scale protest. Yet dangerous ideas are afloat and society is yet in an unstable transition. I felt somewhat uncomfortable in their midst and kept a low profile, yet spoke with some and suffered no ill reception. Afterwards I spoke at length with some Islamists there I know well, and hope to convey their thoughts in a separate post, perhaps tomorrow.

Such is Egypt these days, for better or for worse. May God bless them.

Black flag draped over US Embassy sign
Youth Leading Chants
Translation of graffiti: Muhammad is God’s Apostle
Protest banner
Some signs were in English for foreign understanding
Calling for Egyptian nationality to be revoked from foreign Copts
Some Copts were present in solidarity with offended Muslims
Translation: We are All bin Laden; continues underneath, You (Coptic) Dogs of the Diaspora
Translation: God have Mercy on the Heroes of September 11

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Friend’s Brother Killed by US Drone

Translation: Conference of Supporters for the Imprisioned Scholar, Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman; No to killing civilians or innocent; No to persecuting Muslims or religious scholars; On the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001

I should take care with a word like ‘friend’. It may well be this line of work promotes a false intimacy between the subject and the interviewer. My goal is to learn, to honor, and then to share. A friendship, however, is self-contained; others may be invited in, but there is never an inside-out. If the subject has a message to share, he is inclined to be friendly, that it be given justly. I know this. All the same, the power of this line of work lies in the crafting of relationships. They may be false; I aim for them to be true. I aim also to maintain objectivity, while seeking to incline my heart.

Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman was killed in Afghanistan on October 14, 2011, by an American drone. One of thirteen sons of the ‘Blind Sheikh’, he and his brother Mohamed followed the encouragement of his father to travel to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. Ultimately successful in league with a chorus of such mujahideen, both foreign and local, the Egyptian contingent discovered they could no longer go home. In absentia, Egypt convicted them of plotting to overthrow the Mubarak government, at least in association with groups like al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, of which the Blind Sheikh is the spiritual head.

Mohamed was captured by the Americans when the superpowers passed the baton, and was extradited to Egypt in 2003. He spent four years in a secret underground prison in Nasr City, Cairo, with all communication between him and his family halted. Afterwards he was transferred to a public prison in Tora to the south of Cairo, current home of former Mubarak regime figures deposed since the revolution. Mohamed, however, was never a fellow inmate, as his release was granted in August 2010. He reentered society and decided to continue his education, pursuing a degree in historical literature at Cairo University.

Mohamed joined in the events of the revolution, but thereafter dedicated himself to a further goal – gaining the release of his father, the Blind Sheikh, from an American prison. It is within these efforts I met him, as well as his brother Abdullah, at a sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in downtown Cairo.

Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, was imprisoned in 1993 as part of the plot to blow up the World Trade Center. He is kept, at least some of the time, in solitary confinement, though he is able to communicate with his family in Egypt. He is now old, and perhaps dying. His family sits-in day and night on the pavement outside the embassy asking the United States to allow him to return home, and for Egypt to help plead his cause.

Mohamed and Abdullah not only ask his release on humanitarian grounds, but also because they maintain his innocence. Abdel Rahman freely criticized the government of Mubarak during his residency in America. Fearing America might facilitate a triumphant return home as France allegedly did with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Mubarak regime sent agents to the United States to incriminate Abdel Rahman. His sons argue their father never advocated violence against civilians, and is wrongly charged. In exchange for doing away with this political menace, Mubarak promised to toe the American line on Israel and other issues of concern.

I have not yet investigated these claims, nor the original case. Neither am I fully aware of the activities of Mohamed and the now deceased Ahmed in Afghanistan. Mohamed tells me they stood on the sidelines during the internecine conflict that enveloped the nation after the Soviet pullout. He states as well they were never in league with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and that their father condemned the attacks of September 11. I will need to have further conversations on these matters, as well as do my homework.

Originally, I had planned on holding the content of these early conversations until I was more fully prepared. Then the newsflash: Their brother was dead.

I have been long troubled by the use of drones, which have increased significantly during the administration of President Obama. The issue surfaced in American political consciousness when al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone in Yemen. Meanwhile a Reuters report revealed the existence of a secret government council connected to the National Security Council, which places American citizens on a ‘kill list’ to be submitted to the president. Additionally, Turkish President Erdogan states the United States has agreed to give drones to his nation, and Saudi Arabia has asked for them. Currently, Israel flies drones over its border with Egypt.

Few Americans would lodge complaints against the nature of person killed so far in drone attacks. The profile is of the terrorist, al-Qaeda member, dedicated to killing innocent civilians. I will inquire if this was true of Ahmed.

Furthermore, there can be a logic to the use of drones. Scattered in caves in far away, unfriendly nations, such militants oversee operations that directly threaten American soil. Drones are cheaper in both expense and human lives. Our soldiers need not risk the operation necessary to apprehend the criminal.

Yet I argue this is exactly why the use of drones is dangerous. A virtue of democracy is that it is less likely to promote war, as the nation’s citizens must commit to bear the cost of its own sons’ lives. The use of drones breaks this link, placing the decision to kill squarely in the hands of the government. Yes, the government is still accountable, but it is a step removed from requiring a popular mandate. Elected representatives, we trust, are judicious in who they label an enemy, or at least in their appointment of military and intelligence officials bequeathed with this task, however extra-judicial it may be. Is there adequate monitoring? Is there transparency? If the public is largely separate from decision making, are their checks on who may be killed? Without a contingent of American troops also suffering casualties, who will care, or even know, that Ahmed is now dead?

To some degree at least, I do. Upon hearing the news I called Mohamed and Abdullah and offered my condolences. They were not grieved; they believe he died in the path of God and is now a martyr in paradise. All the same, I will render my social duty and pay them a visit soon.

The question is, will I be rendering a duty of friendship? Am I being played? Was Ahmed a terrorist? Was Mohamed? Is he still? I don’t yet know, but neither do I yet feel it.

All I have experienced so far are two men among many, with families and children, who have sat outside the American Embassy since August for the sake of their father. This is a noble act, whether or not they and their father are ignoble men. I hold the questions above as a check for my objectivity. I write with this in mind, but also with an inclined heart. I have not yet fully learned, so I cannot yet fully share. But I can honor, and I wish this plea against the use of drones to be a mark of what may become a friendship. It may be false; I aim for it to be true.

Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Published on Aslan Media: An American Perspective on the Culture of Conspiracy through the Lens of Sinai

The Sinai peninsula and the present day Israel...
The Sinai Peninsula

In the last day or two I had my first text published by a source outside of Arab West Report. Aslan Media is a new media project from Reza Aslan, an author of several books on Islam such as ‘No God but God’ (read and enjoyed) and ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’ (hope to read soon). The following text was featured on the front page, but has now moved to the sidebar. Click here for the direct link.


As an American, I am used to politics being partisan and even at times vitriolic, but all agree on the rules of the game and the validity of the constitutional system. Moreover, though political opponents criticize their adversaries as being servants of particular agendas, these cries generally do not descend into the realm of conspiracy. Yes, some on the Left believe there is a theocratic effort to take over government, and some on the Right find liberal secular humanism on the prowl to destroy traditional values. Yet on the whole the mantra proves true: Politics is the art of compromise. Following their vitriol, most American politicians do just that, and Americans appreciate it.

In contrast, the American resident in Egypt – if he or she pays attention to local politics – finds the culture awash in conspiracies. Worse, many of them are directed at his or her home shores. The tendency is to be dismissive; it is the response of a paralyzed people seeking to blame others for their problems, and a government actively encouraging the paranoia. Yet as a respected Egyptian journalist friend has said, with experience on both sides of the Mediterranean, foreign hands have been playing in Egypt for centuries. A palpable paranoia is fueled by reality.

The odd thing as an American is that the longer you live here with an open heart to the people, the more the culture of conspiracy can take hold. There are a thousand applications to choose from, but of particular recent concern is the development of threats in the Sinai. Here is found a regional Holy Grail of conspiracy, at the intersection of Israel, Camp David, the ruling Egyptian military council, and Islamic terrorism.

The story in brief is that Palestinian terrorists crossed into southern Israel from Gaza through the demilitarized Sinai, and killed a number of Israeli citizens during an attack on the port city of Eliat. Israel quickly targeted those it accused of responsibility with military retribution, for which Hamas unleashed heretofore largely suspended rocket fire into Israel, until a ceasefire was brokered. Meanwhile Israel also pursued fleeing Palestinians into Sinai, and several Egyptian officers were killed in the process.

Prior to this tragedy Islamist forces in Egypt conducted a massive rally in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to demand an Islamic government. In the Sinai city of Arish that evening armed bandits purporting to be Islamists attacked the local police stations, engaging in a several hour long firefight with authorities. They allegedly identified themselves as al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, seeking the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the territory. The presence of al-Qaeda in Egypt had been long denied by the government, and was rejected once more. Yet the armed forces in the days to come cooperated with Israel to allow the movement of military personnel into the peninsula – as required by the Camp David Accords – in an effort to clamp down on armed groups. This mission was pursued more urgently following the terrorist attack on Eliat.

During the Egyptian revolution it is said that several prisons were opened, and jailbreaks took place in others. A large number of these escapees remain at large, and it is reasonable to assume many have sought refuge in Sinai. With Camp David regulations limiting military presence, as well as a restive Bedouin population long frustrated with government neglect and resistant to government authority, Sinai has a reputation as a lawless frontier. Furthermore, when police stations were attacked during the revolution the weapons cache was opened. Unrest in Libya has also reportedly contributed to a dramatic increase in arms availability in Egypt. Many neighborhoods have witnessed violence in family feuds, gang activity, or attacks on police. While still small in scale, these incidents forebode what may be an emerging crisis in the Sinai, especially as the doctor of Osama bin Laden, also an explosives expert, has been allegedly identified in the territory.

Or, it is a crisis at all? This is where the power of conspiracy threatens to take over. From the Israeli side the benefits of a crisis are many. Israel has suffered widespread social protests over housing costs this summer. Israel faces a dramatic challenge to its Palestinian policy as the issue of statehood is prepared for submission to the United Nations. One can wonder also if Israel was not averse to testing the nascent Egyptian military authority, to see which way its domestic winds might influence commitment to its international agreements. More wildly, might preparations be underway to retake the Sinai to establish security, or dump responsibility for Gaza onto Egypt, or expand Gaza at Sinai’s expense, or else craft Sinai anew as an independent buffer state?

Conspiracy can take aim at the ruling military council as well. While still overwhelmingly popular with average Egyptians, it has come under severe criticism by revolutionary forces for its handling of the transition to democracy. Reuniting the people against the common enemy of Israel could diffuse attention to these complaints. Moreover, could the specter of terrorism in the Sinai lead to restoration of full Egyptian sovereignty over the territory, through amending the Camp David Accords with Israel? More wildly, might greater Egyptian control of the Sinai pave the way for the threatened million man marches from Cairo to Jerusalem, in support of Palestinian independence, or even eventual Islamist government hostility against Israel?

This is the nature of conspiracy, to delve further and further into the extreme. Conspiracy is built on explanation without information, striving to make sense of confusing events in an absence of transparency. Yet who can deny that the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others exercise influence over Egypt’s affairs? Do recent events represent an attempt to escape from this influence, or a confirmation thereof?

Whether or not Israel intended this as a test for the military council, it has quickly become one. Popular protests quickly surrounded the Israeli Embassy, and were allowed to continue several days. Mixed messages have been sent about recalling the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. Calls for a joint investigation into the incident have been issued, may have been rebuffed, but are still open. Meanwhile the government is erecting a wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy, to provide further protection in case of need. Many Egyptian parties and politicians are calling for a harsher response, especially following the example of Turkey. Is the military council treading nimbly between the niceties of diplomatic language and the fury of popular demands? It is too early to tell. After all, it was a full year between the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, and the now enacted diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey. The test is still underway, and its results may be long in coming.

For the American living here such conspiracy musings may be entertaining, but they can summon great passion from involved Egyptians. To make clear, the label of ‘conspiracy’ is dismissive and degrading, reflecting a subtle superiority of ethnocentric origin. Of greater concern, to both Americans resident and Egyptians permanent, is the direction of the story toward greater instability. Al-Qaeda or not, weapons are proliferating, and extremist movements are (likely) in the Sinai. Increased tension between Israel and Egypt can as easily lead to war as to greater mutual respect and sovereignty. Conspiracies of invention and play acting for the benefit of domestic distraction are possible, but could also become self-fulfilling prophecies. Egypt is a peaceful nation; it is likely to remain so. These trends, however, are worrisome.

As to the culture of conspiracy, orientalist bias or not, the world is not the same as it was at America’s independence. George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and succeeding presidencies set the nation on a path of isolation from European politics keeping the colonial powers from interfering in the Americas. It is questionable if this is even a possibility for Egypt today. To hint back at conspiracy, is it even possible in America?

If hope can be found, it is in the establishment of transparent institutions of democratic governance. People must rule, and be able to hold their elected representation accountable. The military council has promised to hand over authority to a civilian government, and this process is still underway. Though a million conspiracies posit why this will not happen, it is yet within the power of Egyptians to see the process through. As one American who still believes in the reality of our independence, I wish the same for Egypt. May she win for her people such an honorable right.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Reflections on the New Year’s Eve Massacre in Alexandria

By now much of the world has heard of the horrific attacks perpetrated against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Alexandria, Egypt. As of the latest count, 21 people are dead and another 170 are injured following an explosion outside the Church of St. Mark and St. Peter, as the New Year’s Eve mass ended and people were filing out into the streets. It is yet unclear if it was a car bomb or the work of a suicide bomber. Various international terrorist groups have claimed responsibility on the internet, and Alexandria Governor Adel Labib claims that foreign hands are behind the massacre. Investigations, however, are ongoing.

In the aftermath of the October 31 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, al-Qaeda in Iraq issued threats against the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. They warned that due to the presence of Christian women converts to Islam held in monasteries against their will, attacks would commence if their freedom was not granted. The church denied this report, stating that the women in question, Wafa Constantine and Camilia Shehata, both wives of priests, remained Christians of their own free will. Both women were apparently fleeing bad marriages, disappeared, and Christians raised protests about their abduction. While Wafa officially began the process of conversion to Islam before yielding to church admonition, and Camilia is understood to have released a video confirming her adherence to Christianity, neither has appeared publically since the church intervened in their cases. The Coptic Orthodox Church has strict regulations concerning divorce, making allowance only for adultery or conversion to another religion.

While most analysts deny that al-Qaeda has any operational capability in Egypt, there has been intense Muslim protest against the church in certain quarters of the country, especially in Alexandria. This city is known as a stronghold of Salafism, which is a conservative, traditional interpretation of Islam calling for imitation of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions, as well as reconstruction of society based on the order they created. While not inherently violent, many Salafis recognize Christians as Ahl al-Dhimma, a protected minority which accepts Islamic societal predominance. This was the arrangement for much of Egyptian history, though the modern secular state has disrupted their understanding and crafted equality on the basis of citizenship. Many Christians complain this concept is unevenly applied, but many Salafis see the church’s ‘comeuppance’ as defiance of God’s order. Certainly when Muslim women are prevented from living their faith freely, as they see in the cases of Wafa and Camilia, society has gone wrong.

Certain eyewitnesses in Alexandria have claimed that they heard the cry ‘Haya al-Jihad’ coming from the nearby mosque Sharq al-Madina. The typical closing call from the early morning minaret microphones is ‘Haya al-Salat’, or ‘Come to Prayer’. There is no similar call during the remaining prayer times, making this call to jihad, if accurate, especially chilling.

Rev. Radi Atallah, pastor of the Attarine Evangelical Church in Alexandria, knows nothing about this call, whether it was issued or not. He does report, however, that several non-government affiliated area mosques had preached recently that Muslims should not associate with Christians, a very conservative interpretation of verse 5:51 in the Qur’an:

O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.

This, however, has rarely been the practice in Egypt, where Muslims and Christians have maintained strong bonds for centuries. Sayyid al-Qimni and Muhammad Sacīd al-cAshmāwī, are among the prominent Egyptian intellectuals who declare this verse is taken out of context, and that other verses in the Qur’an establish the basis of respect, cooperation, and friendship between Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, it is clear that al-Qaeda figures such as Ayman al-Zawahiri utilize such verses in defense of their ideology. Again, though not equivalent with violence, such Salafi thought is noted to be on in the increase in Egypt.

Coptic Orthodox ideology is rarely understood to conjoin with violence, but recent events have demonstrated that the ideals of faith can run up against the tensions and frustrations of reality. Following the massacre in Alexandria Christians rioted in the street outside the church, near the hospital where many victims were taken, and outside the Sharq al-Madina mosque, with some pelting it with stones. Several policemen were also hit with stones. These demonstrations were broken up by security with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The emphasis on rubber bullets is necessary in light of the recent riots in Giza, only one month earlier.  Christians, protesting security interference in their building of a church service center rumored to be converted into a place of worship, exited church grounds en masse and blocked traffic in a major thoroughfare of the area. They also damaged government buildings and vehicles, and sources claim they also threw Molotov cocktails at security forces which had come to subdue the protest. In their efforts live ammunition was used, resulting in the death of two Christian young men and the injury of dozens more. This incident sparked deep Christian resentment against the government, and even Pope Shenouda expressed his discontent by voting for an opposition party candidate in the recent parliamentary elections.

While in the Giza incident Christians were the aggressors against understood government discrimination, a better parallel is found in the Christian reaction to the Nag Hamadi killings which took place at Coptic Christmas on January 6 of this current year. Three Muslim gunmen randomly fired at worshippers exiting mass, killing six and a Muslim policeman stationed outside the church. In response the Christians there took the street and vandalized the local hospital where they believed the bodies of the victims were being mistreated.

Claims of mistreatment are also associated with the massacre in Alexandria. Some sources quoted the hospital public relations director stating that the Red Crescent refused to give blood bags to the victims. Other sources, however, quoted a hospital physician stating that the hospital ran out of blood bags.

The scene is said to be one of sectarian tensions. Christian protestors are quoted as chanting religious slogans, such as “With our body and blood we will defend the cross!” Meanwhile, Muslim groups are quoted as chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great), which is an historic Islamic battle cry. Christians are also said to have attempted to burn down the local mosque. Christians claim that security beat them with batons in response to their chanting.

Christian testimonies of suffering and injury set the stage for this violence. A YouTube video captured inside the church at the time of the blast also shows the chaos that erupted. It is chilling, but noteworthy, to notice the cries of the priests. “Don’t fear, it’s nothing!” was repeated over and over. Finally, at the end, they respond by spontaneously breaking out into religious psalmody.

The priest is understandably trying to calm the crowd, but the refuge in religious worship is symbolic of an earlier age in Coptic negotiation with state and society. During periods of difficulty Copts were encouraged to respond in prayer and quietism. Thoughts turned to God, and perhaps also to the dangers of taking on a majority culture. In recent years many Copts have imitated an overall, though still marginal, Egyptian trend toward activism. The freedom, and perhaps excesses, of Coptic communities abroad have also encouraged Christians to voice their complaints and strive for their political rights. Within this rubric, confrontation has emerged as a viable Christian option. While usually attempted through legitimate channels, the attitude has opened an avenue for frustrations to boil over into violence.

President Mubarak has noted that both Muslims and Christians died in the massacre, and that this gives evidence that terrorism knows no religion. He vows that the perpetrators of this crime will be found and prosecuted, also alluding to the fact that the origin of the crime comes from outside Egypt. Many Copts will likely receive his words as an empty paean asserting national unity in the middle of obvious sectarian tensions. Yet Copts would do well to not give up the cause, and the overall reality, of national unity. After al-Qaeda issued its warning to the Egyptian Church and the government responded quickly to denounce the threat, Pope Shenouda praised God that the effect of the terrorists was to rally all Egyptians together as one people. Though the government failed in its promise despite measures to bolster security should not result in the wholesale dismissal of the social contract.

The universal human constitution is to cry for justice. This is an unassailable pillar of civilization, that law is respected and lawbreakers punished. Yet at times like this, people of faith must supersede the desire for justice with the cry for love. Justice must not be neglected, and Christians have worthy fears they may once again be disappointed. The mob attacks in al-Koshh in 2000 resulted in 21 deaths, but only the lightest of sentences were meted when individual culprits could not be adequately identified. Furthermore, the trial of the three accused in the Nag Hamadi killings are still awaiting trial one year later, after multiple postponements. Will justice come in Alexandria? If so, who will receive it?

The cry for love demands pause. If this is the work of a foreign infiltrator then there is no direct comment on Egypt’s sectarian issues. If it was a sole Egyptian influenced by al-Qaeda rhetoric then the larger community is to be excused. Regardless, many in the Muslim community have immediately expressed their condolences, with Nagwa Raouf, professor at Cairo University, even apologizing on behalf of her co-religionists. A Muslim, in all likelihood, is guilty. Some Muslims may have been accomplices. Many Muslims may hold an ideology which contributed to the atmosphere of tension in Alexandria. But most Muslims decry violence in the name of their religion, and more generally in the name of humanity. A cry for love must include justice, but it must carefully differentiate.

A cry for love must also seek reconciliation and unity. A fine example of this is demonstrated by Rev. Atallah, who in addition to his pastoral work is a member of the Alexandria Intercultural Dialogue Committee, and the local parliamentary committee on conflict resolution and crisis. In response to the attacks he met with his dialogue group and issued a statement condemning the massacre, urging reconciliation, and petitioning for a clear law against religious discrimination. Furthermore, the group announced the following six steps it would take in light of the incident:

1.       All imams and Muslim leaders in the city are invited to attend the funeral.

2.       A group has been formed to visit the injured in the hospital

3.       The families of those killed or injured will be consulted for any financial support needed in the wake of their suffering and the losses incurred

4.       University leaders will be asked to lead blood donation campaigns

5.       The governor will be asked to designate a citywide moment of silence to honor the slain

6.       On January 26 the first of monthly meetings will be held to unite Muslims and Christians in changing the sectarian climate of Alexandria. Currently, 35 people, including journalists, religious leaders, and young people are committed to attend.

Steps like these are necessary, and provide opportunity for moderate, peace loving people of both faiths to use this tragedy for good and knit relationships of cooperation that will marginalize extremism. May it be that the monthly meetings will create further good ideas to promote understanding and national unity.

Yet the cry for love must not stop there. While many Salafis can likely participate with full sincerity in condemning the massacre and binding together with Christians in dialogue, others will not. The imams, for example, who were recently preaching non-friendship with Christians will likely remain venomous. Average Muslims under their tutelage may condemn the violence but harbor animosity against Christians or Christianity, or even the secular developments of the nation. Somehow, these must be engaged. They will not come to meetings; people of faith must go to them. And when they go, they must go in full commitment to love, to understand, to bless, and to do good. Efforts to change their mindset must be wholly secondary. Perhaps the dialogue groups can consider how.

Yet these Muslims are not the only ones harboring resentment. Christians, too, must be engaged with this cry for love. Many of them have chosen the path of violence in response to their victimization. Those they have harmed, including moderate leaders of their own faith, must treat them with the same patience and commitment necessary for hard-line Salafis. They must walk with them through the difficulties of forgiveness.

This is a monumental, perhaps superhuman task. But in times of crisis the choices are clear. Members of both faiths will shrink back into their own communities and assumptions about the other, or, less negatively but equally futilely curse the darkness that is encompassing them as they band together with interreligious friends. Or else they may find the only meaning possible in suffering, which is the hope of redemption. It is the cry for love that can prevent a heart-hardening emphasis on justice and seek the freedom of those enslaved by violence and its various ideologies. Justice is necessary; interreligious friendship is vital. But love expressed tangibly to the least deserving is transformational.

May Alexandria receive this hope.