By Ahmed Eleiba
It takes only a quarter hour bus ride to reach Cairo from Arab Sharkas where a 14-member terrorist cell set up a workshop to manufacture bombs, explosive belts and other lethal devices. The workshop was originally a carpentry shop. That is what it still looks like from the outside, which helps explain why it took some time for the activities inside the premises since it was leased to come to light.
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis issued a statement five days after the 19 March police raid on the workshop. Analysis of the text gives the impression that it is a genuine Al-Qaeda declaration. It lists the names of the six men who were killed by Interior Ministry forces during the raid: two were called Abu Mousab, the other four were Abu Al-Baraa, Abu Dagana, Abu Omar and Abu Maaz. Of these, two were father and son. The group, of which the remaining eight were arrested, were an arms manufacturing and operations cell that had logistic support supplying it with intelligence. The third paragraph of the statement reads: “They persevered and fought before 40 Special Forces combat groups, armoured vehicles, tanks and heavy weapons, while they were only armed with light weapons and small amounts of ammunition, not exceeding 60 rounds for each mujahed (fighter). But they had a greater weapon, their belief in God Almighty. They placed their faith in Him, strapped on their explosive belts and challenged the enemies of God without fear. They attacked and intensified their fire and weakened the enemy. They killed a colonel and major from the army of treachery and betrayal, a number of officers of the special forces of the police that wages war against the religion of God, and a number of soldiers, and this is apart from the wounds they inflicted. [All this] forced [the security forces], by the grace of God, to retreat, withdraw and take cover, and to ascend to rooftops in order to pound the place from afar for fear of our attacking lions who rushed at them without concern.”
“There is no doubt logistic support exists,” terrorist expert Major Khaled Okasha told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It comes from elements who track and monitor and who have communications and other support mechanisms. I expect these activities are undertaken by Muslim Brotherhood elements residing in the villages and infiltrated among the people. It would have been easy for them to follow what happened during the operation and to transmit their accounts to their counterparts in Al-Qaeda/Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. This not only points to the close alliance between the two but also to how the Muslim Brotherhood functions.”
Interrogations with the eight persons arrested, said the Interior Minister during a press conference, revealed cell members were responsible for many attacks in the capital and its vicinity during the last two weeks, the attack against the military bus that killed two soldiers, the Mostorod attack in which six conscripts were killed, and the assassination attempt against General Mohamed Al-Said among them. They had been planning similar operations to coincide with 19 March, the date of the first constitutional referendum three years ago which some Islamists called “the battle of the ballot boxes”.
Some sources are sceptical about the confessions of the eight arrested cell members. How so few operatives could have carried out so many operations, asks Okasha. “Perhaps they are concealing information in order to cover for other groups. Or maybe they did carry out these operations. More information is needed in order to determine which the case is.” What is certain, says Okasha, is that “we are looking at a new generation of membership bases who are trained in a totally different way than happened in the 1990s. And the logistic support they are likely to receive from the Muslim Brotherhood is another differentiating factor.”
Five tons of explosives were seized during the Arab Sharkas raid in addition to explosive belts. The detonation of one of the belts caused the death of a major in the Army Engineers’ Corps who was trying to defuse it. The quantity of explosives was more than enough to destroy the Qanater barrages which control the flow of the Nile into the Delta.
How was such a huge quantity of explosives transported, and with such ease?
According to a number of sources the primary point of origin is Libya. The weapons that were seized during the second part of the Arab Sharkas operation were also from Libya. A resident from that village revealed a weapons cache in a wastewater control chamber adjacent to the village clinic. Many more weapons were discovered when security forces combed the area.
Several facts point to an “external” thread in the story. Information, not yet confirmed by security sources, indicates that two members of the Arab Sharkas cell — the Sakr (eagle) cell — connected with the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis organisation according to seals, emblems, Al-Qaeda banners and other evidence found at the site, had fought in the ranks of the Nasra Front in Syria and had only recently returned to Egypt. There are suggestions some cell members had undergone six months’ training in terrorist combat camps in Sinai.
In a press conference the interior minister said the training was supervised by Abu Obeida, the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis field commander who was killed in Sinai two weeks ago during a military operation in Al-Mahdiya village. It is believed that the recent escalation in terrorist attacks is the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’ way of retaliating for the death of Abu Obeida.
The “external” thread also points to Libya, as indicated by the weapons unearthed during the second phase of the 19 March operation. Arms from eastern Libya, which is controlled by extremist Islamist militias, make their way into Egypt through several routes. One route leads from a port in north-eastern Libya to Marsa Matrouh. Bedouins then smuggle the weapons through the Western Desert to 6 October City. From there the cargos head northwards into the Delta or southwards into Upper Egypt. Al-Hussein Bin Karim, a Libyan specialist in militant Islamist groups, told the Weekly: “The areas in which the Muslim Brothers are based in Libya are at least 1,400 km away from the borders with Egypt. But there are links between the Muslim Brothers and extremist Salafis. These groups, apart from having militia formations, control the Libyan Defence Ministry. For example, the deputy minister of defence for financial and administrative affairs is the former military commander of the Libyan Islamic Combat group and the supplies officer in the ministry is a member of a Salafist group.”
If the Muslim Brothers in Libya are involved they are not the controlling force in the arms smuggling activities, says Karim. It is the Islamist Combat Regiments that are in charge, though they are reliant on forces from Misrata “without which they would have no weight.”
“They are all part of the extremist fundamentalist trend, connected with their counterparts in Egypt, and they use members of the Awlad Ali tribes active in the arms smuggling business.”
The successful police raid on a terrorist cell in Qalyubia governorate is helping security forces piece together the jigsaw of extremist activity.
The most visible sign of the “external” element are Al-Qaeda banners that have begun to proliferate on Egyptian university campuses, Al-Azhar University in particular.
“The point of raising the Al-Qaeda flag is to provoke security forces and undermine the prestige of the state and to give the impression that there is a Al-Qaeda/jihadist current among the student body,” says Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements.
Equally worrying are the quantities of bombs being discovered on university campuses, some powerful enough to level an entire building. Clearly there are individuals who have been trained in how to smuggle explosive devices onto campuses.
The arms smuggling operations call attention to two important points. According to security agency reports Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and its sister militias have access to large quantities of weaponry, much of it advanced. Yet Egyptian security agencies have been unable to obtain weapons from the US and Europe which refuse to deliver arms shipments. As the interior minister pointed out, Egypt may be forced to turn to Russia for arms.
The second point is that smuggling among some Bedouin tribe members is as prevalent in the eastern part of the country as it is in the Sinai. It also appears as easy to smuggle terrorist combat elements across the borders of the Sinai into the Delta and Upper Egypt as it is to smuggle arms across the borders into Marsa Matrouh and the Nile Valley.