Egypt Confronts Terrorism

Egypt Confronts Terrorism

Coordinating military and civilian efforts requires adoption of a national counterterrorism strategy


Countering terrorism is a national priority for the Egyptian government. In his speech on January 23, 2019, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called terrorism the “most significant threat” to national security. 

Since 2014, Egypt has been encountering a wave of domestic terrorism not only in North Sinai but also in the Nile Valley. That wave is led by diverse terrorist entities; some are affiliated with the Salafi/jihadist doctrine and the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Hasm and Liwaa al Thawra. Others are linked to al-Qaida, such as Ansar al-Islam, and the third group is partly inspired by Daesh’s ideology, such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and a small Daesh cell active in upper Egypt. 

This article argues that the counterterrorism policies adopted by Egypt since 2014 have developed by building on lessons learned from confrontations with the terrorists. It is becoming obvious that the government is not relying on military measures alone, because these measures can defeat the terrorists for a while but do not prevent them from reconstituting themselves. Instead, Egypt desires to counter terrorism through a comprehensive approach that combines military and nonmilitary measures. 

The first goal is to defeat and weaken existing terrorists. The government adopted counterterrorism and terrorist entities laws in 2015 that serve as main reference points to charge and prosecute terrorists in courts.

Egyptian Sailors board a U.S. naval ship during training on the Mediterranean Sea, part of the multinational Bright Star 2018 exercise. SENIOR AIRMAN DAWN M. WEBER/U.S. AIR FORCE

At the operational level, the Armed Forces and the police are the law enforcement organizations tasked with combating the terrorists by tracking, monitoring and dismantling their transnational networks. The Armed Forces apply various techniques to accurately locate terrorists in heavily populated areas and engage them militarily after taking measures to protect civilians. 

After launching the counterterrorism operation Sinai 2018 in February 2018, the government inaugurated a new counterterrorism command on the eastern side of the Suez Canal. The government is responsible for coordinating and following up the military and security measures implemented to defeat the terrorists within the framework of Sinai 2018. 

The second goal of Egypt’s counterterrorism approach is to prevent victims of terrorism from being recruited as new members of terrorist organizations. The government is keen on helping victims and those suffering from the counterterrorism measures adopted especially in the confrontation areas.

Providing them economic and financial compensation is important to inoculate Egyptian citizens — especially young people and women — against terrorists who tend to use economic and financial enticements to recruit new members. Such compensation also builds cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

The government is also implementing mega-development projects in North Sinai and in other areas menaced by terrorists to enhance living conditions. 

It is worth mentioning that government agencies offer compensation on a case-by-case basis. For example, after the attack on Al-Rawda Mosque in Bir el-Abd in November 2017, President el-Sissi ordered payment of 200,000 Egyptian pounds to the families of each of those killed and 50,000 Egyptian pounds to each injured victim. 

The Ministry of Education also waived fees at government schools for the children of those killed, and offspring of martyrs receive hiring priority in government offices. Nongovernmental agencies are playing a limited role in this area. 

Egypt’s counterterrorism approach includes a third goal: tackling the religious radical ideas leading to terrorism. 

The country’s three religious institutions — Al-Azhar, Dar Al-Ifta’a and the Ministry of Awqaf (or Endowment) — have developed many programs aimed at refuting the radical religious discourse of terrorist organizations through face-to-face communication inside mosques and through online interactions. These institutions are also cooperating with civil-society organizations to reach out to the masses in villages in Upper Egypt in particular. 

Egyptian and Jordanian special operations forces complete security checks during field training. SENIOR AIRMAN DAWN M. WEBER/U.S. AIR FORCE

It is important to mention that overemphasizing radical religious ideas as the main driver for terrorism overlooks in many cases the personal, economic and social dimensions that drive terrorism. Also, efforts in this domain remain dispersed among the three religious institutions without a coordinating body. 

Even though these counterterrorism policies are well underway, five main challenges could influence their effectiveness.

The first challenge is the continued armed conflict in Libya, a country that shares a border with Egypt. Every so often, the western border of the country is infiltrated by terrorists, criminals and smugglers originating in Libya.

For instance, a Libyan terrorist, along with a cell of four others, managed to sneak into Egypt in the middle of 2016 to create an al-Qaida-inspired cell called Ansar al-Islam. In October 2017, this cell ambushed a Soldier and kidnapped a police officer. 

The second challenge is related to how to institutionalize the help provided for the victims of terrorism. The 2015 counterterrorism law does not define who is a victim and who has a right to compensation. A draft law on victims of terrorism has not yet been ratified by the Egyptian Parliament. 

The third challenge is how to build genuine and effective partnerships with citizens and civil society to combat terrorism and radicalism. This partnership is crucial because the terrorists are active in heavily populated areas in the Nile Valley and rely on improvised explosive devices that are best neutralized through genuine partnerships with citizens. 

The fourth challenge is the limited role played by the councils responsible, according to the Egyptian Constitution, for outlining national security strategies and counterterrorism policies. 

Activating these councils is important and can be done by appointing expert researchers and academics in the field to their boards and general secretariats.

The final challenge is the absence of a national strategy for countering terrorism and radicalism that can guide the policies implemented on the ground, especially by the civilian stakeholders.

The Armed Forces and the police have their own military and security strategies that guide their operations. But civilian stakeholders are adopting many measures without coordinating with each other or with the security forces, especially while trying to help victims of terrorism and counter radical ideas.

The development of such a national strategy will help coordinate all efforts — both military and civilian — and lead to efficient and effective counterterrorism policies.  

An Interview with Dr. Eman Ragab


Dr. Eman Ragab is one of Egypt’s top experts in matters of domestic and regional security. She was honored by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in 2018 as the first place winner of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization‘s “Arab Youth Award.” She was the first female Egyptian researcher under 35 years old to receive that award. After receiving a Ph.D in political science from Cairo University, she graduated from the National Defense College at Nasser Academy for Military Sciences as a fellow in national security and strategic studies. She was honored by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the Minister of Defense and Military Production and has received a distinguished civilian’s certificate in recognition of her excellence and dedication.She serves as the head of security and military research at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. In her role at the venerable think tank, she contributes to security policy making on issues such as counterterrorism, conflict prevention, crisis management and international security. She recently completed a fellowship at the NATO Defense College in Italy, where she researched how North African countries cooperate with NATO in the area of countering terrorism. Reached in Cairo in January 2019, Dr. Eman discussed Egypt’s role in regional security for the benefit of Unipath readers:

Unipath: How does Egypt cooperate not only with NATO but also with Arab partners to ensure regional security?

Dr. Eman: Egypt is very active in strengthening regional and international security, not only in counterterrorism but in other security threats. One of the platforms on which this cooperation is done is the Arab coalition established by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Egypt joined that coalition in 2015 and has also taken part in every military maneuver and training that has taken place under the umbrella of the Islamic Coalition. Some of these focused on strengthening capacity and capabilities in the area of counterterrorism. Egypt also tries to help other African counties to counter terrorism effectively by offering them training courses and building capacity, especially in the Sahel and Saharan countries such as Chad, Mali and Nigeria. Egypt also established the Regional Center for Countering Terrorism in the Sahel/Sahara Region and its headquarters was officially opened in the second half of 2018. Also, Egypt took part in many training courses organized by the NATO Centre of Excellence in Madrid in the area of countering improvised explosive devices and the Centre of Excellence for countering terrorism in Ankara. Egyptian cooperation with NATO is more customized to the needs of Egypt. Also, Egypt is very keen on increasing relationships with countries, including the United States, Italy, Germany and France. Bilateral relationships usually come with more opportunities for cooperation, not only in counterterrorism and intelligence sharing, but also in military weapons procurement and other specific areas.

Unipath: Tell us about your work at Al-Ahram and the NATO Defense College.

Dr. Eman: My title at Al-Ahram is senior associate and head of the military and security research unit. My focus is on security developments in the region, particularly the Middle East and North Africa. Regarding the NATO Defense College, I had been there as a resident research fellow since September 2018, and I returned to Egypt in December 2018. One of the requirements of the fellowship was to work on a research paper, and I have submitted my paper titled “Counterterrorism with Partners?: Aspects and prospects of Cooperation between NATO , Egypt and Tunisia.” I have interviewed more than 20 officials from the ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs in Egypt and Tunisia, as well officials from NATO Headquarters in order to get an accurate assessment of the development and scope of cooperation in the area of counterterrorism between the Alliance and Tunisia and Egypt. Also, one of the goals of the fellowship is to understand the political environment and be able to develop applicable policy recommendations for NATO and the partner countries as well as other countries.

Unipath: How does the Al-Ahram Center support Egyptian government?

Dr. Eman: It is one of the oldest research centers in Egypt and the Arab region. It was established in 1968. It’s been acting as a think tank for the government and different institutions including the Armed Forces on issues relevant to national security and Egypt’s relations with the world. Acting as a think tank, its activities depends on what is being requested by the government. The center works on issues of democratization, civil-military relationships, fighting corruption and centralization, counterterrorism and counter radicalization, and sustainable development. The center itself maintains constructive relationships with the government circles in Egypt, and at the same time it has its own state of academic freedom to research different topics.

Unipath: What key factors draw youths to extremism?

Dr. Eman: It’s very difficult to say that economic factors are the only drivers for youth radicalization. I have been conducting interviews with Egyptians who are considered to be radicalized or practicing violence. I concluded that there’s a combination of religious, economic, social and personal reasons that motivate them to be more radical. This combination needs to be countered by different policies, not only by the government but civil society. Focusing only on the economic side is not useful in explaining why there are a number of young people not only in Egypt but all around the world who belong to wealthy families and are employed, some with decent high quality jobs, but at the same time adopt radical ideas. The current wave of radicalization requires a new approach that can map the complex matrix of motivations that push them toward joining a radical organization. 

Unipath: How have Egyptian security forces evolved to meet threat of terrorist groups such as Ansar Bait el Maqdis or Wilayat Sinai?

Dr. Eman: The Ministry of Defense has adopted a number of new policies since 2014. The first was the announcement of a national policy for countering terrorists. It defines the use of military force and police institutions in countering terrorist both in north Sinai and the Nile Valley. These policies have developed to take the form of the Sinai 2018 military operation. Besides that, the Ministry of Defense announced the establishment of a joint command for countering terrorism. It is located on the western side of the Suez Canal, and it plans and supervises operations in Northern Sinai and the Nile Valley. The Armed Forces have striven to reach a balance between respecting the law and honoring international commitments of Egypt while at the same time weakening and defeating terrorists. The Law Enforcement Forces have adopted measures since 2014 to handle the social and economic conditions leading to terrorism along with reforming the religious discourse. 

Unipath: What is the role of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in helping young people avoid radicalization?

Dr. Eman: It is only a university, but the institutions playing the most important role in countering radicalization among youth are three religious institutions: Al-Azhar institution, Dar Al-Ifta’a, and the Ministry of Awqaf. Each has its own programs. For example Al-Azhar has online watchdogs to counter radical ideology, in foreign languages as well as Arabic, and also online training programs and capacity-building campaigns to build awareness among youth about religious concepts used by radical organizations. Dar Al-Ifta’a focuses more on research and manages to publish many manuals and handbooks to help the parents to track radical ideas being adopted by their own children. The Ministry of Awqaf is responsible for monitoring and supervising mosques in Egypt. It also tries to ensure that imams in these mosques are not adopting radical ideas and not recruiting youth.

Unipath: How has Egypt tried to sever the connection between regional and domestic terrorists? 

Dr. Eman: I may highlight three approaches adopted by Egypt in this regard. First, the Regional Center for Countering Terrorism in the Sahel/Sahara Region tries to develop security cooperation agreements with those countries to counter the terrorists crossing the borders of Libya into Sudan and Egypt. Second, Egypt is negotiating with the European Union and NATO about how to receive training for controlling borders through using advanced technology. There is an understanding in Egypt that controlling borders is an important step toward weakening the transnational logistic network the terrorists are relying on. Third, Egypt is keen in its high-level meetings with NATO to discuss the importance of launching a program to monitor and sever the maritime networks used by terrorists not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Red Sea.