Jihadist groups are emerging as a major threat in Egypt because of three developments: the permissive atmosphere for Islamist mobilization in general since Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s tolerance toward its fellow Islamists, and the weakness of the Egyptian state. To help inhibit violence by such groups, Washington should approach Cairo with a mix of economic inducements, diplomatic pressure, and intelligence sharing.


Following the 2011 revolution, the military junta that replaced Mubarak granted amnesty to many Islamists, including individuals with blood on their hands. Many of these figures renounced violence, and some established political parties, but others remain completely unreformed. These latter jihadists are radicalizing Egypt’s domestic political scene and threatening U.S. interests.

Two Egyptian “Ansar al-Sharia” groups, whose names echo those of other regional jihadist organizations, are particularly worth noting. Gamaat Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt (ASE), which was founded in mid-October 2012, focuses on internal “reform,” including application of sharia, compensation for the martyrs of the revolution, purging the judiciary and media, allowing bearded officers, and not relying on riba (usury) in financial transactions. Similar to the Ansar outfits in Tunisia and Benghazi, Libya, ASE runs local community services such as distributing sheep for ritual slaughter during the Eid al-Adha holiday and providing food for the needy.

By contrast, al-Taliah al-Salafiyah al-Mujahediyah Ansar al-Sharia (TSM), which was formed this month but officially declared in mid-November, is more internationally focused. Run by former members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who post their press releases to al-Qaeda-affiliated online forums, it emphasizes liberating foreign-occupied Muslim lands, supporting foreign mujahedin, resisting the foreign ideologies of liberalism and communism, repelling the implementation of secular laws from Europe, and stopping the “Christianization” of Egyptian education. Unlike ASE, TSM does not publicize any social services that it provides; much of its public profile since Mubarak’s ouster has been in the form of articles, books, and fatwas regarding the Egyptian transition.

Meanwhile, the emergence of former EIJ figure Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman, has given these groups a public face. Zawahiri was released from prison in March 2012 and has since promoted the global jihadist worldview through local and international press interviews. While he denies being an al-Qaeda member, he agrees with its ideological outlook and, through Twitter, instigated last year’s September 11 protests outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo that culminated with the breaching of the compound’s walls and desecration of the U.S. flag. He also cooperated with TSM’s Ahmed Ashoush to plan Salafi jihadist participation in an early November demonstration in support of sharia. And in December, he catalyzed a boycott of the constitutional referendum, criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s “sharia sins” and arguing that the new charter was insufficiently Islamist.

While these groups and figures have only small followings — as evidenced by the unimpressive turnout at their occasional Tahrir Square sharia protests — there is substantial risk that they will gain followers in the coming months. The relative openness of post-Mubarak Egypt has afforded them unprecedented opportunities for proselytizing. Moreover, they will likely draw followers away from Salafist political parties, whose members may become disillusioned with a political process that they already view as a “necessary evil.”

Egypt’s declining internal security will give jihadists ample recruitment opportunities as well. Instability in the Sinai could also provide them with new training grounds, allowing them to return to their Nile Valley communities with newly developed skills for attacking civilians or the state. In addition, instability in northern Sinai and attacks against Israel could jeopardize the bilateral peace treaty.

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The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –h as begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.

This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.

Many commentators have remarked that the jihadist movement has shown increased vigor recently, including al Qaeda’s North African affiliate and the various Ansar al Sharia groups that emerged in multiple countries, but the prison releases have been an important part of this story that analysts have generally ignored.

Prisoners have gone free for a variety of reasons. Muammar Qaddafi’s government used these releases as an offensive tactic early after the uprisings, setting prisoners free in rebellious areas in order to create strife there. As the rebellion continued, some prison governors decided for their own reasons (perhaps as a way of defecting) to empty prisons they were charged with guarding. Chaos allowed some escapes, as guards afraid of reprisals fled their posts; in other cases gunmen attacked prisons in order to release the inmates. And regimes that experienced less chaotic transitions, including Tunisia but especially Egypt, have been hesitant to continue imprisoning virtually anybody jailed by the old regime, including violent Islamists with blood on their hands.

The potential for danger was actually apparent very early in the events of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, even before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, it was widely reported that thousands of prisoners had escaped from Egyptian jails, including militants. A lengthy hagiographical account of how “the mujahedin” had escaped from the Abu Za’bal prison soon appeared on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network, a jihadist web forum.

After Mubarak’s fall, many people imprisoned by the old regime were let back on the streets. Hani al Saba’i, a figure with deep ties to the jihadist movement who runs the London- based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, published several lists of names of militant figures who had been released, beginning in February 2011. As he wrote on February 27, “This release is one of the positive outcomes of this popular Egyptian revolution that we hope to conclude with the application of the Islamic sharia.”

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There is a new trend sweeping the world of jihadism. Instead of adopting unique names, groups increasingly prefer to call themselves ansar, Arabic for “supporters.” In many cases, they style themselves Ansar al-Sharia – supporters of Islamic law — emphasizing their desire to establish Islamic states. Yet despite the fact that these groups share a name and an ideology, they lack a unified command structure or even a bandleader like the central al Qaeda command (or what’s left of it), thought to be based in Pakistan. They are fighting in different lands using different means, but all for the same end, an approach better suited for the vagaries born of the Arab uprisings.

The name Ansar al-Sharia shot into the news last week in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when the local organization Katibat Ansar al-Sharia was accused of perpetrating it — charges the group denied. Many reports seem to have confused Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia with another Libyan group, based in Derna.

The naming trend actually started in Yemen, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful and ambitious local al Qaeda branch, established the front group Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen in April 2011. It is possible this was born out of Osama bin Laden’s musings over whether to rebrand al Qaeda. None of the names in the documents captured from the late al Qaeda leader’s compound mentioned Ansar al-Sharia as a potential example, however. More recently, one of the preeminent global jihadi ideologues, Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, put his stamp of approval on the new wave of Ansar al-Sharia groups.

Shinqiti, who is of Mauritanian origin, published an article in mid-June titled “We Are Ansar al-Sharia,” calling Muslims to establish their own dawa (missionary) Ansar al-Sharia groups in their respective countries and then to unite into one conglomerate. It should be noted that most of the Ansar al-Sharia groups were already created beforehand. The most prominent of these organizations are the ones in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, along with newer versions in Egypt and Morocco to a lesser extent.

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature. Here’s a guide to the major groups going by this name.

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Statements and a video released on an al-Qaeda website are disturbing evidence of the growing lawlessness in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The revelation that an Egyptian and a Saudi national infiltrated southern Israel from Sinai on June 18 and killed an Israeli worker is the first credible sign of the emerging global jihadist threat in the peninsula. Previously, groups using the names “al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” and “Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula” had released statements announcing themselves and pledging fealty to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri in August and December 2011 and January 2012; members of different jihadist factions had also been arrested in al-Arish. Until now, however, it was difficult to assess the legitimacy and true capabilities of these groups.

Yesterday, a new group called Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin Fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, or MSC) announced itself, issuing two statements and a video martyrdom message from the attackers, Abu Salah al-Masri and Abu Hadhifa al-Hidhali. Both men were killed by Israeli security forces following the attack, and a senior MSC member was killed by an Israeli airstrike near Rafah today.

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During the first round of Egypt’s presidential election in May, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the candidate chosen by the Salafi parties’ leadership, was defeated. The loss was a disappointment for the Salafis who, with 123 of 454 seats of parliament, had higher expectations. Nevertheless, the three-party Salafi political coalition, led by “al Nur” remains a formidable force in Egyptian politics, the second largest bloc in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls 47 percent of the seats. Whether post-Mubarak Egypt remains a presidential or changes to a parliamentary system of government, within the People’s Assembly, the Salafi coalition is poised to become a key power broker either as a spoiler or swing vote in the legislature. What are the Salafis’ priorities and what kinds of policies do they advocate?


Al-Nur is the political arm of its al-Da’wah al-Salafiyyah (DS), an Islamic propagation group that first began organizing in the 1970s, and after clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, institutionalized by establishing itself as an association at Alexandria University. While an ongoing presence in Egypt, the Salafis are newcomers to politics, long believing democracy to be in contravention of Islam. Indeed, DS Vice President Sheikh Yasser Burhami issued his edict permitting participating in democracy in 2010, and Al-Nur was only founded in June 2011. Emad Abdel Ghaffour, who originally joined DS in 1977, currently leads the party. During the uprising that deposed former president Hosni Mubarak, DS was against the street protests putting them outside the revolutionary moment, but gaining from it at the same time. This was likely due to their previously apolitical nature, which as a result allowed them not to be harassed by security like the more radical al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (GI), one of the other Salafi parties, which remains a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, and a member al-Nur’s political coalition.

Political Program

Al-Nur lays out its main pillars of its project on its website,  The top goal is ending the endemic corruption of the Mubarak regime, but the list of priorities is long. Like any political platform it should not all be taken completely at face value, but instead as an idealistic view.

Islam, the State, and Reform

Al-Nur not surprisingly believes that shari’ah should be “the source of legislation.”  At the same time, however, Al-Nur calls for a separation of powers, fundamental rights of free speech, assembly, press, and association. It’s unclear how Al Nur would intend to implement these seemingly contradictory goals. The party also calls for equal rights for Coptic Christians. As al-Nur spokesman, Mohammed Nour stated last December, “touching one hair on a Copt’s head violates our program.” Yet their understanding of equal rights differs from that of a Western conception. In December 2011, stated that Copts did not have the right to hold office. Further, with regard to Baha’is, they would not be allowed to celebrate their festivals or be marked as Muslim on ones national ID card.

On women’s rights one also has to look deeper than what they state on its views of violence. On the one hand, al Nur says there is equality between man and women (while still understanding their differences). It also speaks out against violence upon women and discriminating against them in the workforce. Yet on the other hand, during the parliamentary campaign, Burhami lamented that because of quotas, fielding women candidates was a necessary evil. Al-Nur likewise came in for criticism from liberals when they held a women’s rally featuring only male speakers. It also called in the constituent assembly to lower the age of marriage for women from 18 to 16.

Economically, al Nur has a platform that conforms with religious prescriptions, including the imposition of Islamic banking which abjures from usury, and levying a mandatory zakat or charity payment, one of the five pillars of Islam, which is usually at least 2.5% of ones’ salary.  The party’s educational ideas are also decidedly sectarian. For example, Al Nur says wants to further Islamicize public education by introducing “true” Islamic education into the curriculum. It also hopes to infuse the security sector with religion, by retraining police officers “professionally, intellectually, and religiously.”

Still, although al-Nur is focused on Islamicizing Egyptian society, it states it is against theocracy. Notwithstanding its support for the imposition of the hudud – the cutting of the hands of thieves – al-Nur is proposing, for example, that al-Azhar University be delinked from the political process, returning it to its original non-politicized role. Al-Azhar, according to al-Nur, should be allowed to independently determine the Shaykh al-Azhar and have its financial independence restored via waqf or religious endowment funding.

Foreign Policy

Al Nur is narrowly focused on domestic policy. Its foreign policy platform is both insubstantial and vague. In broad terms, the document discusses reestablishing Egypt as a regional player in Africa and in the Middle East.

Notably, al-Nur does not mention Israel in its program. This past January, however, Ghaffour dodged questions from al-Jazeera about whether he believed the peace treaty should be nullified. To wit, the closest he came to answering was referencing certain clauses he said did not respect Egypt and suggested the treaty should stand for popular referendum. The United States is likewise not a central or peripheral part of al-Nur’s agenda or public statements. Al Nur officials have not expressed overt hostility toward Washington, in contrast to GI, which explicitly condemns the United States. The GI, but not Al Nur, also has rallied for the release of Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman, the blind cleric convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks.

Other Issues

Although religion plays an important frame of reference for al-Nur, its program also covers more day-to-day issues related to helping better Egypt’s society. Al-Nur explains it wants to spread whatever wealth it attains to help build up less developed regions, which would then spur greater opportunities. As part of this, they see healthcare a human right for all Egyptians.

Al-Nur would like to retrofit older hospitals and build new ones as well as investing in new equipment and research institutes. It wants to also build new schools throughout Egypt so that students have better ratios with their teachers. Further, it would incentivize the educational system by rewarding top students with scholarships. Students would also receive jobs based on merit and al-Nur explains it would criminalize nepotism. It hopes to run public awareness campaigns at early ages to prevent drug use.

Al-Nur highlights the importance of the environment hoping to preserve the ecological integrity of Egypt while also improving its quality. It also would like to implement safety standards for commuting. In terms of prison, al-Nur will review the penal code along with reconsidering the conditions that prisoners live in. With regard to what al-Nur describes as “street children,” it hopes to channel them in a more positive path by attempting to form associations that can help train them to be a part of the work force. Lastly, al-Nur wants to foster NGOs by allowing openness to create new organizations.


Although al-Nur discusses more mundane issues in its platform, its bread and butter is religion. If Futouh had won, al-Nur would have attempted to control cabinet positions such as waqfs, culture, education, and religion. Indeed, while many have suggested that al-Nur’s leaders were pragmatic for backing Futouh, many of its grassroot shaykhs and supporters did not fall in line and either voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Muhammad Morsi or boycotted. It is debatable that backing another Islamist that had a falling out with the Brotherhood and was an independent candidate is nothing more than an obvious choice.

Due to the clout that al-Nur has in the parliament by securing a quarter of the vote; the United States would be remiss to ignore the party. While that might be the case, Washington should be under no illusions that it will have an easy time trying to negotiate with them on social issues important to the United States. Although controversial, Washington ought to pursue dialogue on issues such as separation of powers, free speech, corruption, and anti-trust laws, among others that are of alleged common interest. Washington must not only latch onto the Islamists, though, as it had done in the past with the authoritarian Mubarak regime. Instead, Washington should also be vigorously working with and helping the liberal forces within Egypt. The long-term interests of the United States will not be met through Islamists.