CAIRO: This week Egyptian police revealed that they are on the tail of two Sudanese men believed to be in possession of a quantity of explosives and planning attacks against government installations and tourist sites in Sinai. Media reports say that security forces have set up road blocks and ambushes in Sinai with the aim of apprehending the men, and have engaged the assistance of local Bedouin tribesmen.According to Italian political analyst Riccardo Fabiani, currently in Cairo, there is an increasing likelihood that terrorist groups will choose targets in North Africa, including Egypt, in the coming years, in preference over European targets.”A new kind of terrorist organization is emerging in North Africa and they are becoming increasingly international nowadays, says Fabiani, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, England, and an employee at Exclusive Analysis, a British strategic intelligence company. Fabiani’s area of expertise is North Africa and has published several reports concerning the risk of terrorism in Algeria and Morocco and is currently focusing on Egypt. Daily News Egypt talked to him about developments in Islamist terrorism in North Africa and the prospects for new attacks.
Daily News Egypt: What do you think Egypt should be more afraid of, the internal or the external threat? Riccardo Fabiani: In the past, Egypt has experienced a series of attacks planned and carried out by local terrorist cells, although many of them claimed to have connections with Al-Qaeda. Actually, there is no external threat to Egypt, as long as we distinguish between local cells claiming a link with Osama bin Laden’s organization and foreign terrorist groups preparing attacks against Egypt. While the latter do not constitute a serious risk to Egypt, the former seem to be quite common. Any dispossessed or disaffected group of people can carry out a terrorist attack and declare that it was the local Al-Qaeda branch that did it. Nobody is able to challenge such statements, because this is roughly how global terrorism works today. But to say that there is an external threat to Egypt seems incorrect, as these cells mostly consist of Egyptians. As for the two Sudanese bombers, it is still too early to say something about them. However, their nationality is an interesting detail, because Bedouins were allegedly involved in the latest attacks in Egypt and are said to be particularly vulnerable to terrorist propaganda. It would be interesting to see whether a similar process is taking place within the Sudanese community in Egypt. However, as I have already said, it is impossible to draw such conclusions at this stage.
Do you think that rising inflation and growing discontent with the government’s policies are boosting the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Egypt?Worsening social and economic conditions in Egypt could fuel a reprisal of terrorist attacks on a large scale. Indeed, this is a common problem in Morocco and Algeria as well, where the disaffected young population is a breeding ground for terrorism. However, we must consider that Egypt is somewhat different from these countries, because of its relative tolerance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of legal outlet for social discontent. The unconditional alternative between accepting the government’s policies and becoming a terrorist to express one’s dissatisfaction is mitigated by Egypt’s limited acceptance of a semi-legal peaceful Islamist opposition.
In your recent research you talk about a process of regionalization of the terrorist phenomenon in North Africa, but Western intelligence agencies fear today that the new emerging cells will target Europe.To understand the mentality of these terrorist groups, we must adopt a historical perspective on the region. Historically, the turning point for North African countries can be traced back to 1988, when the first war in Afghanistan, which had been waged against the Soviet Union, ended and many mujahedine returned to their home countries. They had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and came back with a complete military and ideological training. Their main goal was now to establish an Islamic state in their own country, as in the case of Algeria, which quickly became a hotbed for radical Islamists in the region – although extremist groups were active in Morocco, Lybia and Egypt as well at that time.
What kind of support do terrorist cells in Alegeria receive from Al-Qaeda?It is important to underline that so far there is no evidence of logistical and financial support from Al-Qaeda to its North African “branch. Indeed, this alliance is mostly rhetorical, tactical and ideological, despite the fact that many analysts tend to overestimate and misunderstand the nature of global terrorism. Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb has aligned itself to bin Laden’s anti-Western rhetoric and strategy, choosing to target not only national objectives, but American and European as well.
If they adopted Al-Qaeda’s main tactics, as you said, and are targeting Western objectives, where do you think they will strike first?Despite the process of globalization, most North African terrorist groups still think and operate in national and not global terms. This is why I think that North African countries are more likely to be targeted than Europe – also because European security forces seem to be more effective in preventing possible attacks, at least so far. Just think about the numerous crackdowns in the United Kingdom or in Italy after 2001. Anyway, you should also remember that North African terrorist groups are actively recruiting and sending local Jihadists to those big “international training fields that are Iraq and Afghanistan.
Can we say that every step towards stability in Iraq and Afghanistan increases the risk of an attack against pro-Western North African country, for example?It is still too early to say what will be the consequences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in countries like Morocco and Algeria, which have sent hundreds of fighters to these places. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that an American victory in these countries, namely the stabilization of the shaky pro-American governments, will only move the problem back to North Africa or the Middle East, putting even more pressure on local governments. In any case, it is impossible to make such a long-term forecast, as many factors could easily change in the next years.
When Islamist insurgents and terrorists realize that they are losing a particular war, they move to another country. So we can say that Iraq and Afghanistan are playing the same role as Afghanistan did in the 1980s?
Is it possible that this will happen to Iraq and Afghanistan’s insurgents as well?In a way this is already happening. Iraq and Afghanistan are magnets for terrorists. Not only do they fight Western troops, but they receive a full ideological and military training as well. Therefore it is not unlikely that these fighters will soon be back to their home countries, ready to pick up the fight again against their governments. This situation could be regarded as the paradox of the current American strategy: even if they obtain improvements on the ground, the battle is likely to move somewhere else because a plain military solution seems to be insufficient to eradicate the problem of terrorism.
What do trained terrorists think about more liberal Middle Eastern countries like Egypt?Their first and most natural targets are the more or less secular governments that rule countries like Egypt or Tunisia. In particular, Egypt may be a sensitive target for two main reasons. First, its government is widely seen among the population as a “puppet in the hands of Washington and Tel Aviv. Second, Egypt is one of the most popular choices for European, American and Israeli tourists. In the past we have been witnesses to bombings in places like Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh. Tourist resorts can be considered easy targets for terrorists, despite the heavy efforts of the Egyptian government to protect these places. And we know how Egypt is dependent on revenues
from tourism for its economy.