Threat of Islamic Terrorism Egypt

P.B. Sinha, Research Associate, IDSA


In the morning of November 17, 1997, when two busloads of foreign tourists arrived at the famous, more than 3,000-year-old, archaelogical monument, the three-storey temple of Queen Hatshepsut, on the river Nile in the southern Egyptian town of Luxor, the visitors were greeted with indiscriminate gunfire followed by a charge with knives. The fleeting assailants were pursued and challenged by securitymen. The whole incident resulted in 68 persons killed, most of whom were foreign tourists, and 24 seriously wounded.1 Leaflets left by the attackers indicated that they belonged to an extremist Islamic outfit calling itself al-Gamaa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group)2 which, like other fanatic Islamic groupings active in Egypt, has been indulging in terrorist activities since the early 1990s, believing that it would lead to the fall of the non-theocratic, un-Islamic government of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt.

Emergence of Islamic Extremism in Egypt

The origin of Islamic extremism in Egypt can be traced from the year 1928 when an organisation called "Muslim Brotherhood" was founded in that country. Heavily financed by Gulf Arabs, the Muslim Brotherhood continued as a socio-religious organisation, serving people in distress. Its aim was to veer the society towards a "genuine" Islamic way of living as enjoined by the Shariah and to establish an Islamic state by the consent of the people. Though it claimed to be a mild organisation, its exhortation to fight any government that failed to live by the Quran and the Islamic laws contained the seeds of extremism. Inevitably militant tendencies began to emerge in the movement in course of time. In 1954, its members tried to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who then drove the militant elements underground. But his successor Anwar Sadat, changed the earlier anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist policies and adopted a conciliatory attitude towards the West and Israel. He, naturally, considered Nasserites, progressive and secular elements as a political threat to his regime. He either sidelined or detained them. President Sadat entered into a tactical alliance with right-wing elements like the Muslim Brotherhood. All the activists of the Brotherhood were released and they were given freedom to pursue their activities and consolidate their position. As a corollary to a virtual alliance with the rightist Islamists, the government began to take increasingly a pro-Islamic tilt in official policies. The government advocated Islam in all walks of life through television, radio and newspapers, and in mosques. Building of churches was forbidden.3 In the 1970s, Israel, too, began to build up the Brotherhood if only as a counter-balance to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Extremist elements in the Brotherhood received a great fillip towards the end of 1970s in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran. A new generation inspired by the Iranian example revived enthusiasm for using force to grab power. An extremist offshoot emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood which called itself "Islamic Jihad" (IJ). A firebrand blind cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was its leader. The conclusion of a separate peace accord at Camp David by President Sadat with Israel was considered contrary to the anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine posture of ultra-Islamic groups, and some fanatics of the Islamic Jihad assassinated President Sadat in October 1981. It was followed by a fundamentalist uprising centred in the southern city of Asiyut in which 80 people, mostly policemen, were killed. The plotters of the abortive insurrection were demanding the establishment of an Islamic government in Egypt.4

Notwithstanding the stern policy adopted by the successor government against extremists, the growing influence of Islamism was visible in the Egyptian society during the 1980s. Self-consciously Islamic dress became the standard female attire. Under the banner "Islam is the solution," Islamists took over professional and student unions and gained a foothold in Parliament. Even formerly docile Islamic institutions like Cairo's Al Azhar University found a voice as advocates of conservatism.5

President Hosni Mubarak's government adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the Islamic movement. While trying to coopt mainstream Muslim organisations like the Brotherhood, he cracked down on militant groupings like the Islamic Jihad, al-Takfir wa al-Hijra and others. Several IJ members, including their leader Sheik Omar, were arrested and put an trial for the murder of Anwar Sadat. Some accused were found guilty and were executed. But Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman was aquitted and set free in 1984. In 1989, Sheik Omar was again implicated in a case of attempting to kill two policemen and inciting violence during a protest outside a mosque in Faiyoum, south-west of Cairo.6 But he managed to flee the country and, after fraudulently securing a visa from the US Embassy in Khartoun (Sudan), reached America.7

Settled in Brooklyn, New Jersey, since 1990, the blind cleric began to preach to his local followers. Known for his saying that those who not measure upto the idea of Islamic piety of the extremists "have to be killed,"8 Sheik Omar continued to act from far off America as a "guide, friend and philosopher" to his militant adherents in Egypt and elsewhere. Through his fiery and provocative pronouncements,9 dispatched to his followers on audio-cassettes, he continued to exhort them to kill officials, Coptic Christians and foreigners and overthrow the "infidel" rulers of Egypt.10

In the meantime, some local militant Islamic groups had sprung up in Egypt, similar to the banned Islamic Jihad. Deriving inspiration from the same Sheik Omar, two such groups were al-Gamaa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Group) and Talaeh al-Fatah (Vanguard of the Conquest), which was believed to be the military wing of a new Jihad, commonly known as al-Jihad,11 successor to the earlier Islamic Jihad which was banned in the wake of President Sadat's assassination.

Another development that gave a big boost to the militant Islamist movement was the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan and the establishment of an "Islamic" government in Kabul. During the early 1980s, hundreds of young Muslims, fired by enthusiasm to fight the Communist forces of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, converged to Peshawar, the headquarters of the Afghan Mujahideen, from the Middle East and other parts of the world. An international brigade of 5,000 to 10,000 highly motivated youth, financed and armed principally by Saudi Arabia and the US, fought alongside Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet forces. At the peak of the conflict, Egypt's al-Gamaa al-Islamiya was said to have contributed about 300 combat troops training and fighting in Afghanistan.12 After Moscow withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the surviving Muslim fighters, battle-hardened and more militant than ever, began to look for some other areas, like Egypt, where they could fight for the "cause of Islam."13 The wave of terrorist violence that Egypt suffered from since 1992 can be regarded as the natural outcome of those developments. Incidentally, a report14 indicated that some Palestinian extremists belonging to the fundamentalist Hamas movement had also joined their Egyptian counterparts in promoting the Islamic "cause."

Aims, Plans and Methods of Extremists

Terror, obviously, has been the main, almost exclusive, weapon of the Muslim extremists for achieving their goal of overthrowing the West-oriented, non-theocratic government of Hosni Mubarak and to instal in its place a "pure" theocratic Islamic regime. The immediate target of the terrorist activities of the Muslim militants have been Christian Copts, securitymen, politicians, important public figures, government officials, secular-minded intellectuals, journalists, teachers and other professionals with Western leanings, foreign tourists and innocent ordinary people. Important economic institutions, railway tracks, tourist spots like the pyramids, and crowded places were selected for terrorist attacks. In March 1993, militants issued a warning15 to foreign governments to evacuate all their citizens from Egypt and not to invest in Egypt because foreign investments would soon be made targets of their attacks. The militants probably thought that by such tactics they would be able to undermine politically and cripple economically the government which could pave the way for the establishment of an Islamic government in the country.

Initially it was al-Gamaa al-Islamiya which became active with terrorist activities in Egypt, but soon the militants belonging to new the Jihad or al-Jihad came to the surface, and the two apparently began to work in tandem. While both outfits aim at the overthrow of the government of Hosni Mubarak by using violence and terror as their weapons, their mode of functioning is different. Al-Gamaa works in poor villages and city slums, and has attacked policemen and tourists. But for al-Jihad, only the military establishment is capable of changing the status quo and hence it lays emphasis on underground activity to spread its ideology among military officers and intellectuals. Members of its military wing, Talaeh al-Fatah, are said to be "highly trained in using modern weapons and technology."16

Foreign Hand Behind Muslim Militancy

It has been officially alleged that several foreign countries and agencies have been abetting, funding, training and equipping Islamic militants in Egypt. As early as August 1992, Youssef Wali, Deputy Prime Minister and General Secretary of the ruling party, had accused Tehran and Khartoum of smuggling weapons to extremists in Egypt across the common borders with Sudan and Libya.17 The Egyptian, Tunisian and Algerian authorities, who were coordinating their efforts in combatting the menace of Islamic militancy and terrorism, were reportedly convinced that the fundamentalist governments in Iran and Sudan were running training camps for, and supplying weapons to, militants from several Arab countries.18 In December 1992, the then Interior Minister of Egypt, Mohammad Abdel Halim Mousa had charged that more than 2,000 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards were in Sudan imparting military training to extremists in camps set up for the purpose in that country.19 During an interview in April 1993, President Hosni Mubarak alleged that Iran was using Afghan civil war veterans for exporting the Islamic revolution to Egypt.20

According to American experts on counter-terrorism, too, Iran has been "a major underwriter of Islamic terror in Egypt."21 "The Iranians are behind Sheik Rahman,"22 the guiding spirit of militancy and terrorism in Egypt.

An "Intelligence" report23 indicated some of the ways Iran has been promoting militancy and extremism in Arab countries. Arab Islamic militants, using Peshawar as a base for training, and planning violent uprisings in their countries were threatened with expulsion after Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia complained to Pakistan against it. For those Arab militants, said the report,24 the Iranians were providing the visas through their Consulate in Peshawar and offering to arrange travel to and accommodation in, Iran. Also, a member of the Iranian Consulate reportedly visited the Marko area, near Jalalabad (Afghanistan) where Arab and Pakistani militants were receiving training from Afghan Hezb-i-Islami fighters.25

It is not difficult to have an idea about the reasons for Iran's interventionist policy towards Egypt. It is said that during the initial stages of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Egypt had contributed to the efforts to defeat it. Iran might be returning the "compliment" in full measure. Tehran has been opposed to peace between Arabs and Israel which was contrary to the stand of Egypt. While Iran has been vehemently anti-West in general and anti-America in particular, Egypt's relations with those countries have been very close. Moreover, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt stood as the main stumbling block for Iran's ambitions of commanding influence over the Middle East and if the Iranians could "change the Egyptian regime," in the opinion of President Mubarak,26 "they would control the whole area."

Sudan, under an Islamic government almost as unyielding as Iran's, would have naturally wished neighouring Egypt and other countries to turn dark "green". Because of its proximity to the target countries, Sudan and its fundamentalist government might have appeared to Iran as the most suitable medium through which militant Islam could be exported to the Maghreb. Thus, the Shia fundamentalist Iran and the Sunni fundamentalist Sudan, though having very little in common, forged a tactical alliance under which Sudan, aided by Iran, assumed the role of the lynchpin of an "aggressive, Pan-Arab Islamic front."27 A State Department official held that "Sudan is the biggest foreign patron of terrorist activities in Egypt,"28 which, probably, led the United States to add Sudan to its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries.

Said Ashmawi, a former judge in the Supreme Court for State Security in Egypt, who was claimed to be on the hit-list of the militants, opined that Saudi Arabia and Iran were encouraging the militants in Egypt and "extremism will calm down if there is no money and support coming from outside."29

Iraq, out to avenge Cairo's anti-Baghdad stance in the former's conflict with Kuwait and Egypt's alliance with the West during the Gulf War (1991), was also suspected of providing money and arms to extremists in Egypt.30

The involvement of Pakistan and Afghanistan in fanning the fire of militancy and terrorism in, and against, Egypt, though indirect, has been extensive. The chain of military training camps straddling the Pak-Afghan border, set up under the overall control and supervision of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence, to create a force of Mujahideen, was retained even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. While Dr. Najibullah and then Burhanuddin Rabbani were in control in Kabul, these camps continued to train Muslim youth military. Among the trainees were many Arab militants, including Egyptians, who would go back to their homelands to strike for the "cause" of Islam. With the fanatically fundamentalist Sunni Taliban gaining ascendancy in Afghanistan in September 1996, the military training activity received a fresh impetus. Available reports reveal the existence of some training camps specially meant for recruits from Egypt and other Arab countries. One such camp was called Al-Badr II near Khost, close to the Afghan border with Pakistan.31 The Harakatul Jihad Islami "exclusively Arab state-of-the-art guerrilla training facility" in Khost which, along with the Pakistan-run Jamiatul Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Ansar training camps, was targetted by American Tomahawk cruise missiles on August 20, 1998,32 was probably the same training camp referred to above.

Apart from providing ideological and military training to many Egyptian Islamic militants in Pakistan-run or Pak-controlled camps inside Afghanistan, Pakistan has been acting as a recruiting base and transit point for outside operations for many Islamic militants and a safe haven for many terrorist-fugitives. Egyptian extremists have figured prominently among them.33

President Hosni Mubarak has also accused the UK and other Western countries of providing indirect support to the nefarious activities of Islamists in Egypt by giving refuge to several of them and thus providing them opportunities to collect funds and plan attacks in Egypt.34

Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born multi-millionaire, is the most significant financial sponsor of Islamic extremist violence in the world today. No wonder, the extremist-terrorists of Egypt, too, have been beneficiaries of bin Laden's financial help and support. There are indications that the unsuccessful attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa (June 1995) had the financial backing of Osama bin Laden.35 According to Egyptian security officials, bin Laden is the major financier of a camp in Kunar in Afghanistan where recruits from Egypt's al-Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya are trained.36 Further, the US State Department has claimed that Osama bin Laden helps fund three terrorist training camps in northern Sudan, where extremists from Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia receive instructions.37

Wave of Terrorist Incidents

In pursuit of their goal of toppling President Hosni Mubarak's government and installing in its place an Islamic government, extremist-militants, aided and supported from outside, unleashed a wave of violence and terror in the land of pyramids. Since March 1992, when the "crusaders of Islam" stepped up their campaign of terror, upto the end of 1994, about 670 people were estimated to have become its victim in Egypt.38 Less than six months later, the total number of fatal casualties exceeded 780.39 Besides, a large number of people sustained serious injuries in the terrorist violence. Among those who fell victim to Islamic violence were police personnel, militarymen and government officials, who were regarded as pillars of the Hosni Mubarak Administration. The tourism industry in general and foreign tourists in particular, one of the important sources providing economic sustenance to the government, were other targets of the Islamists' ire. Many Christian Copts, school teachers, journalists and other professionals, who opposed the ideological professions and violent activities of Muslim extremists, and innocent bystanders fell prey to terrorist violence. In October 1994, 83-year-old Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate in Literature, who was critical of Muslim extremists, was seriously wounded in a stabbing attack by Islamists at his Cairo residence.40 Of course, a considerable number of militants have also been killed by the security forces, detailed to control extremist violence.

In all the incidents of extremist-related violence, Muslim extremists, belonging chiefly to al-Jihad or al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, either specifically claimed responsibility or they were suspected to be instrumental in perpetrating those crimes. The places most affected by militant activities have been the southern provinces of Asiyut, Qena and El-Minya, besides Cairo and its surrounding areas. While al-Gamaa has been responsible for terrorist activities generally in the southern provinces, it is mainly the al-Jihad group which has been instrumental in perpetrating violence in Cairo and its periphery.

Since the middle of 1995, extremists began to extend their operations in other countries with the aim of hitting Egyptians and Egyptian targets. Towards the end of June 1995, Islamic terrorists hatched a plan to assassinate Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where the Egyptian President was scheduled to attend the Conference of African Unity (OAU). President Mubarak escaped unhurt but in the attack and the retaliatory firing by the Presidential security guards, two or three assailants and two Ethiopian security agents were killed.41 That attempt on President Mubarak was at least the eigth plot since he succeeded Anwar Sadat. The earlier plots in 1991, 1993, 1994 and in May 1995 were hatched by al-Gamaa, al-Jihad and Talaeh al-Fatah.42 The last outfit, after appreciating the Addis Ababa plot, declared: "If Mubarak escaped this time, he won't escape next time. The Vanguard of Conquest will knock the last nail into his coffin."43 Later on, al-Gamaa claimed responsibility for the attack.44

On November 13, 1995, an Egyptian diplomat working in its mission to the UN was shot dead in Geneva.45 A hitherto unknown outfit, the International Justice Group, owned responsibility for the killing.46 In less than a week, on November 19, a car bomb exploded at the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. Sixteen people died and about 60 sustained injuries in the blast. Al Gamaa claimed responsibility for the dastardly act.47 Subsequently, al-Jihad and the International Justice Group, the latter believed to be branch of al-Gamaa, also claimed "credit" for the operation.48

Meanwhile the terrorist campaign continued with unabated fury inside the country. The number of deaths had risen to 850 towards the end of 199549 which went up close to one thousand by the middle of April 1996.50 An attack on foreign tourists on April 18, 1996, was the most tragic operation during that period. Extremists, belonging to al-Gamaa,51 opened automatic gunfire on a group of Greek tourists, killing 18 of them, including 14 elderly women. Twenty others were injured in the incident.52

The immediate fallout of the outburst of terrorist violence was that the people in the country were increasingly coming under the grip of a fear psychosis. An air of uncertainty marked the atmosphere. Since many Copts were killed and several churches and Christian-owned business establishments and shops were burnt by Islamists, religious minorities like Christian Copts were feeling concerned about their future.53 Writing about Cairo, an observer had noted: "Increasingly the mood in the sprawling Egyptian capital is of a state-of-siege."54

The continuing violence in general and attacks on foreigners55 in particular had been scaring off tourists. It had resulted in 50 per cent cuts in hotel, cruise and sightseeing bookings during 199256 and Egyptair--the national airliner--faced a revenue drop of 20 per cent.57 The earning from tourism, which had so far been accounting for about $3 billion a year,58 i.e., 8 per cent of Egypt's foreign exchange earnings,59 had declined by 35 per cent.60 The 1993-94 terror wave caused the annual number of visitors to drop from 3.3 million to 2.5 million.61 The country's plans for economic reform depended heavily on a reduction in the budget deficit. Hence, there was said to be great concern bordering on panic in the government at the Muslim extremists' attacks on tourists and their threats against foreign business.62 Though the situation in the country had not reached chaotic dimensions, remarked an eyewitness, one could not ignore "the symptoms of instability that are surfacing with ever increasing frequency."63 This shows that the Muslim militants were succeeding, to some extent, in achieving their initial objective of causing political and economic destabilisation in Egypt.

Official Response

The Government of Egypt adopted a two-pronged policy of prevention and suppression, running concurrently, to meet the violent challenge of Islamic extremism, which, in Hosni Mubarak's words, had been "threatening all aspects of life in Egypt."64 The policies, naturally, emanated from the premise that Islamic militancy was basically" an external phenomenon visited upon Egypt by malefactors in Iran and Sudan."65 President Mubarak launched a diplomatic campaign to create strong international opinion against state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt. Egypt reinforced a disputed area of its Sudanese border "to stop infiltration."66 Cairo, in conjunction wth Algiers and Tunis, which too had been facing similar problems, planned to make coordinated efforts to combat militant Islamists.67 Also, the Egyptian secret service decided to work together with its Algerian counterpart on ways to control Islamic militancy.68 Having realised that Pakistan had been shielding and nurturing Islamic terrorists posing threats to Egypt, Cairo forced Islamabad "to finally get off the fence and sign an extradition treaty"69 with Egypt. In the middle of October 1995, Egypt entered into an agreement with India to cooperate on the control of international terrorism. This could particularly facilitate Egypt in getting information about the movement of extremist-terrorists transitting through India on their way from Pakistan to Sudan and Egypt.70 Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfi had vowed that the security services would "pursue the terrorists anywhere in the world."71 There did appear reports saying that Egypt had sent a 100-man "hit squad" from State Security Service, 40 of whom were US trained, to London in November 1995 as part of a Europe-wide operation to track down dozens of "Arab Afghan" Islamic fundamentalists, who were well-trained in sabotage and arms handling.72 However, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa denied reports that his country was sending armed squads to confront terrorists abroad.73

Internally, the government began to deal with Islamic militants with what President Mubarak himself described as a "very heavy hand."74 The policy, in the words of a knowledgeable observer,75 represented "clearly an effort in Cairo to cut the legs off the Islamic movement." To begin with, martial law was extended for the twelfth year running.76 The earlier policy of making a distinction between moderate and militant Islamists was done away with.77 The Muslim Brotherhood, so far deemed to be a comparatively mild fundamentalist socio-religious organisation, was suspected to be "secretly in league with the extremists." The Brotherhood as well as the subsequently formed al Wasat (the Centre Party) were not to be spared.78

In July 1992, the government strengthened its hands with new powers of arrest and made membership of a terrorist organisation a capital offence.79 Professional associations, where the Muslim Brotherhood had created its power base during the past couple of years, were subjected to a new electoral law which made it very difficult for Islamists to control those associations.80 In August 1992, the government made a new anti-terrorism law under which anyone having received military training in a foreign country was made liable to the death penalty.81

Steps were taken to tighten security arrangements. An amount worth $30 million was allocated for weapons and communication equipment to combat the terrorists.82 Additional police security was provided to likely targets, including foreign tourists. Armoured personnel carriers and heavily armed para-military forces were posted to keep vigil in Cairo slums and other areas along the banks of the Nile which were regarded as strongholds of fundamentalist-terrorists. Plainclothes policemen and informers were deployed almost everywhere.83

Starting in June 1992, large-scale raids were conducted by the security police in extremist dominated areas to apprehend them. During those raids, apart from arresting a large number of suspected militants, automatic and semi-automatic weapons, explosives, and subversive literature and cassettes were seized.84 In March 1993, about 6,000 such persons were reportedly under detention. Available Press reports upto the end of July 1995 indicate that search-and-arrest operations were being conducted periodically.85 According to Negad el-Barai of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights, detentions continued at the rate of 100 to 150 a day.86 In the beginning of April 1996, police rounded up 200 alleged members of al-Gamaa and al-Jihad groups and 12 prominent "Muslim Brothers", including three "Brothers" who were among the founders of the newly formed al Wasat (Centre Party).87 Towards the end of December 1996, Egyptian authorities arrested upto 200 members of a new outfit, al Kutbiyoun, believed to be a splinter group set up as a secret organisation on the lines of the parent organsiation, viz., the Muslim Brotherhood.88 Many of the detenus were sent to investigation cells to elicit information about extremists' plans and activities. In August and October 1997, in three anti-militant operations, about 150 Muslim extremists were rounded up. Of them, 16 al-Gamaa Islamists were arrested in northern Egypt where they were trying to create a network of cells.89

The cases of Islamic militants, which were earlier tried in civilian courts, were transferred to military tribunals. Military courts disposed off cases quickly. No appeal lay against their judgements. Moreover, it was easier to secure a death penalty from a military court than from any other court.90

The government also took some steps to lessen the appeal and influence of militants among the people. In November 1992, the Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammed Ali Maghoub had announced that all mosques, including more than 80 per cent of those built and controlled privately, would come under official control and that all sermons to be delivered in the mosques would have to be approved by officials appointed for the purpose.91 Under the anti-terrorism publicity campaign, suitable posters appeared in Cairo with appeals to the people, like "Say No to Terrorism" and "This Does not Belong to Islam."92 Also, dependable clergymen were employed who would be denigrating terrorism as basically against Islam. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar mosque began appearing increasingly in the Press denouncing terrorist activities as anti-Islamic.93 The prevalent heresy law, which made secularist-professionals easy targets of bigoted litigants, was changed. Henceforth, a plaintiff trying to sue somebody in supposed "defence of the Muslim community" had to channel his case through the state prosecutor, not directly to the courts.94

While fighting against the extremists, the government did not want to be seen as un-Islamic or indifferent to Islam. Official radio stations and state-owned television allotted considerable time to religious programmes.95

Massive arrests,96 military trials and scores of death sentences97 decapitated militant organisations. Talking about the harsh policy of the government towards Islamic militants, Montasser al-Zayyat, a lawyer who represented several al-Gamaa activists in courts, decried it, saying that the Islamists "are being sent to death or they are being murdered in the streets or they are being tortured inside prisons or harassed and followed."98 As a result of the crackdown, extremists were weakened in Cairo region by the end of 1993. By mid-1994, Asiyut province, the southern stronghold of the militants was brought under control.99

The sweep of arrests of, and stiff sentences awarded to, the activists of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a range of other measures had ended its control over professional syndicates which were no longer platforms for the call for a return to Islamic traditionalism.100

The effective check on external aid affected the operational efficiency of the Islamists. The death of al-Gamaa leaders like Talat Yasin Hammam in encounters with police and the proceedings against Sheik Omar in connection with the New York World Trade Centre bombing had demoralised the militants.

The effectiveness of the counter-terrorist machinery of the government was apply demonstrated when plots to assassinate President Mubarak were uncovered in November 1993, March 1994 and February 1995. In July 1994, six hardcore terrorists coming from Pakistan were nabbed at Cairo airport while they were trying to infiltrate into Egypt to revive terrorist activities.101

Available reports show that after the initial flurry since the spring of 1992, terrorism-related violence in Egypt took a downward trend after April 1994.102 After April 1996, no terrorist incident was reported for four months. Between the end of August 1996 and the end of October 1997, there were eleven reported cases of terrorist attacks and two cases of counter-terrorist operations, almost all of which, except one in Cairo, took place in the southern province of El-Minya. In these cases, 44 civilians, who included seven German tourists, 12 policemen and 16 militants had died. The above facts confirm the downward trend in extremism-related violence both in terms of its frequency and ferocity. Moreover, most of these terrorist incidents were perpetrated as individual terrorist acts, rather than organised operations, limited to small pockets in the southern province of El-Minya.

It was noted that "Egypt's security forces have smashed the militants' organisational structure. They have chased them out of the city mosques, which had been a platform for radical ideas, and have contained their activities to the Al-Minya region."103 The Mubarak government's ruthless campaign of mass arrests, military trials, executions and alleged widespread police torture had pushed terrorist violence out of the country.

In July 1996, the jailed leaders of the Islamic Group, the biggest militant organisation, gave a call to stop military operations "inside and outside the country."104 In 1997, the imprisoned leaders of al-Gamaa and al-Jihad issued a call for ceasefire.105 The exiled militant leaders, however, did not endorse this call.106 Enthused by the success of its anti-terrorist measures, the government ignored these calls.107

The active rather than reactive policy towards extremism and all-out assault of the government of President Mubarak on the Islamic militants might have been a cause of concern to champions of human rights, but it largely succeeded in marginalising Islamic activism and decapitating the extremists. Following the security crackdown, tourism had revived in 1995, with 3.1 million visitors bringing in $2.3 billion.108 A year ago, Islamic litigants got Egypt's highest court to brand a university professor an apostate, forcing him to flee the country. But, in 1997, similar charges against a colleague aroused furious outcry against the accusers.109

President Hosni Mubarak could claim, with considerable degree of justification, that the Egyptian security forces had "managed to contain the danger of the terrorist groups. They have dealt them mortal blows, thwarted their plans, exposed their organisations at home and abroad and paralysed their effectiveness."110

The Luxor Massacre

Since October 1996, there was no report about any incident of terrorist violence in Egypt for more than a year. The official claim, shared by many knowledgeable observers, that Islamic extremism has been eliminated as a serious threat to the country was being proved true. At that time, the massacre in Luxor came as a bolt from the blue. On November 17, 1997, when a large group of foreign tourists arrived outside an ancient pharaonic temple in Luxor, about 500 km south of Cairo, six men in black police uniforms indiscriminately fired on the visitors. It was followed by a three-hour gun-battle between the fleeing assailants and the pursuing policemen.111 It was officially stated that the bloody incident resulted in 68 dead, including 58 foreign tourists, and 24 wounded. Among the six attackers, all of whom were killed in the police counter-attack, the one identified was Afghan-trained Medhat Abdel Rahman. Subsequently al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, while claiming responsibility for the attack, revealed that the gunmen wanted to take the tourists as hostages to pressurise the US to release their incarcerated blind leader Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, but the police provoked them to carry out the massacre.112

The Luxur killings, the most tragic terrorist incident perpetrated by Islamic extremists in Egypt, visibly hurt the conscience of the people who condemned it unequivocally. The magnitude of the brutality shook the govenment. The security set-up was overhauled. General Hassan al-Alfi, Interior Minister, held responsible for the security lapse causing the bloody incident, was sacked. His successor, General Habib al-Adeli, announced that he would "draw up a new security plan" to fight terrorism.113 Forty-five members of al-Gamaa were arrested in the southern Egyptian town of Bedari and nearby villages.114

A group of eminent foreign personalities was invited to go into the working of the security set-up and suggest means and measures to improve it. The three-member committee, consisting of Lord Douglas Hurd, former British Foreign Secretary, Robert Oakley, former US diplomat, and Michele Achilli, Italian Parliamentarian, found the Egyptian security set-up "appropriate and often impressive."115 Their report emphasised the need for "regular testing, frequent force rotation, ever-improving training, up-to-date equipment, strong leadership, tough recruitment policy and first class working conditions."116 The suggested measures included "strategic use of covert security personnel at tourist sites in addition to uniformed guards, state-of-the-art security radio communication networks, close cooperation with foreign embassies and liasion with anti-terrorist agencies worldwide for intelligence gathering."117 All these security measures had to be sustained "at consistently high levels."118


The Luxor massacre took place in November 1997 and since then there has been no report of any violent activity by Islamic militants in Egypt. It can be concluded that by tough administrative and police measures, the resilient and determined government of President Hosni Mubarak has succeeded in smashing Islamic militancy as a movement. The incarcerated leaders of both al-Jihad and al-Gamaa had issued calls for a truce in July 1997.119 President Hosni Mubarak, encouraged by his success against the militant movement, refused any dialogue with Islamists.120 A large number of jailed militants had declared that they had renounced violence. Consequently, the government set free about 1,100 of them in 1995 alone.121 No doubt, some small splinter groups of some factions of the militant organisations did survive in isolated pockets in southern Egypt. They could perpetrate terrorist violence in some remote areas in an uncoordinated manner to press for some minor objective unconnected with the professed politico-religious aim with which militancy unleashed terror in the country in 1992. The Luxor massacre falls into that category of crimes. Its perpetrators came from Asiyut in the south and the massacre was a desperate act committed to "take revenge for our brothers who have died on the gallows...and our brothers and families tortured in their jails."122

Apart from the strong-arm policy of the government, some other factors, too, have contributed to the collapse of the Muslim extremist movement in Egypt. As the government gradually brought militancy under control, comparatively peaceful conditions were restored. It led to the revival of, and increase in, tourism. Egypt's economy, which had been stagnating in the 1980s, registered a growth at more than 5 per cent annually in the 1990s.123 It was expected to grow by 5.3 per cent in 1997.124 The government could now afford to invest more in education and other social services. Could the people expect anything better from militant Islamists?

Intellectuals and liberal-minded Egyptians had never accepted the professed ideological pretensions of Islamic extremists who wanted to impose authoritarianism and regimentation, bigotry and barbarity, intolerance and obscurantism, and anti-feminism and discrimination in the name of Islam. According to one survey conducted in the first half of 1995, less than 10 per cent of the electorate had declared that they would support extremists if an election were to be held that year.125 Their continued resort to naked terror exposed them as bloodthirsty brutes whose only aim was to seize power by terrorising people and the government into submission. Naturally, the number of their followers and supporters must have declined substantially. After the Luxor massacre, it is said, villagers spat on the bodies of the attackers.126 In Cairo, Opposition parties issued a joint statement condemning the dastardly act. The other main extremist group, Islamic Jihad, also condemned the attack on the tourists, while, at the same time, criticising the government policy of repression and suppression. Outside Egypt, Islamist groups ranging from Hizbollah in Lebanon to Hamas in Gaza and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria condemned the Luxor attack. Yasser Arafat and the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also assailed the Luxor massacre. Significantly, Iran, too, officially condemned the attack as a "base, inhuman act." President Hosni Mubarak, talking about the Luxor attackers, remarked: "Such people who kill human beings are not Muslims, Christians or Jews...They are criminals."127 All-round condemnation of the Luxor massacre was proof of dwindling support, and hence a dampener, for the violent activities of Islamic militants in Egypt.

Here one question naturally crops up. Does the long pause in terrorist activity signify the demise of Islamic extremism in Egypt? Has the government won the war against Muslim militancy and terrorism? The government of Egypt has blamed, and rightly too, foreign fundamentalist and other elements and governments of encouraging and funding extremism in Egypt. But it is equally true that foreign assistance alone cannot keep the fire of militancy burning for long. Basically it is the political, social and economic conditions within that provide not only inflammable ground but also sustenance to that fire. Any anti-establishment movement can thrive only on the discontent among large sections of the people with political deprivation, economic impoverishment and social disabilities. In Egypt, those objective conditions did prevail at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s128 of which the Islamists took advantage to increase their following. So long as those problems are not addressed in right earnest, strict administrative and police measures alone cannot provide a lasting solution to the problem of militancy and terrorism.

Egypt's Minister for Tourism, Mamdouh El-Bellagui, was reported129 to have asserted that confrontation with Islamic militant-terrorists should be "comprehensive"--political and economic, social, educational and cultural--so that the "ideological roots of terrorism" could be removed. But that confrontation would have to be on the ground as well so as to eliminate the chances of revival of militancy and terrorism. That can be done by facilitating greater political participation of the people, by measures to spread the fruits of economic development equitably and by widening the scope of social justice. Those efforts have to be parts of a continuing process. It has to be remembered that extremist elements in Egypt, no doubt, appear to have been suppressed and made ineffective, but they have not been rooted but completely. Their leaders in exile and their foreign supporters are still active and are only too eager to take advantage of any condition to revive a violent campaign with the aim of seizing power and then imposing an authoritarian theocracy in Egypt.



1. AP report in The Telegraph, November 19, 1997.

2. Ibid.

3. Sam Seibert and Caro Berger in Newsweek, April 12, 1993, p. 34.

4. Cairo-datelined AP report by Sami Rizhakallah in The Pioneer, March 12, 1993.

5. "The Retreat of Egypt's Islamists," The Economist, July 26, 1997, p. 43.

6. The Statesman, July 7, 1993.

7. Punjab Kesari, July 4, 1993.

8. Cited in "A War Without Mercy," The Economist, March 13, 1993, p. 46.

9. In some of his sermons, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman incited his followers: "Hit hard and kill the enemies of God in every spot to rid it of the descendants of apes and fed at the tables of Zionism, Communism and imperialism." "There is no truce in jihad against the enemies of Allah," preached the blind cleric. Cited in Christopher Dickey, "Wrath of Islam," Newsweek, March 15, 1993, pp. 13-14.

10. For his involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Centre, New York, which left six dead and around 1,000 injured in February 1993, Sheik Omar along with some others was put on trial and awarded life imprisonment in January 1996.

11. Its leader was Ayman al-Zawahri, a medical doctor, who was jailed for three years in connection with Anwar Sadat's assassination. He was reportedly living between Afghanistan and Iran. Cairo-datelined Reuter report, "Egyptian Militants Aim to Infiltrate Armed Forces," in The Jerusalem Post, August 22, 1993.

12. Steve LeVine, "A Cradle of Terror," Newsweek, April 5, 1993, p. 25.

13. Of the Egyptian veterans of the Afghan War, all but 50 or so were believed to have gone back to Egypt to join the militant movement. Ibid. An earlier report corroborated it. It said that "hundreds of Afghan veterans have been arrested in Upper Egypt." Tom Masland, Christopher Dickey, Douglas Waller and Caroline Hawley, "Building an Enemy," Newsweek, February 15, 1993, p. 30.

14. According to Al-Ahram, the Cairo police, while aborting a major sabotage plan, arrested 300 Muslim extremists, of whom two were identified as Palestinians belonging to the Hamas. See The Statesman, April 12, 1993.

15. Interestingly, the warning issued in the name of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya and faxed through BBC in Cairo had originated from a public telephone office in Peshawar, n. 12, p. 24.

16. "Stepping Up the Terror," Newsweek, August 30, 1993, p. 17.

17. Cited in a Tunis-datelined report of New York Times service, reproduced in Times of India, April 11, 1993.

18. Tunis-datelined New York Times, service report, reproduced in Times of India, August 11, 1992.

19. Quoted in Indian Express, December 7, 1992.

20. The New York Times, April 5, 1993, reported in The Pioneer, April 6, 1993.

21. Bill Turque, Douglas Waller, Bob Cohn and Lucille Beachy, "An Iranian Connection," Newsweek, March 22, 1993, p. 29.

22. Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counter-terrorism analyst, quoted in Ibid.

23. Far Eastern Economic Review, June 24, 1993, p. 9.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Interview to Dean Fischer, Time's Cairo bureau chief in the beginning of April 1993, cited in Bruce W. Nelan, "Trouble on the Nile," Time, April 12, 1993, p. 33.

27. n. 13, p. 28.

28. n. 16, p. 16.

29. Cairo-datelined report "Egypt Caught in the Cycle of Terrorism" by Jennifer Wiens, in The Daily Telegraph, reproduced in The Pioneer, February 3, 1995.

30. Cairo-datelined report by Con Coughlin,"Mubarak Faces an Islamic Siege Within" in The Daily Telegraph, reproduced in The Pioneer, May 27, 1993.

31. An eyewitness account of Caroline Rees, correspondent, in The Independent, cited in The Tribune, November 22, 1996.

32. Significantly the angry response to the attack on an exclusively Arab camp called "Zhawar Kili Al-Badr Terrorist Training Camp" was made by the leader of Egypt's extremist grouping al-Jihad stationed in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been described as the Egyptian ally of Osama bin Laden, the financier and organiser of the camp. See The Statesman, The Hindustan Times, August 23, 1998. It was this Ayman al-Zawahiri who was believed to have masterminded or ordered several anti-government attacks. R. Chandran, "Living With the Holy Terror," Times of India, November 28, 1993.

33. Three condemned Egyptian Islamists, belonging to al-Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, were reported living in Pakistan in 1995. Cairo-datelined AFP report in The Asian Age, November 21, 1995. Towards the end of 1995, it was reported that 600 Egyptian Islamists, besides others, were stationed in Pakistan. The Nation, November 23, 1995. Egypt's Ambassador to Pakistan, Numan Galal, told an Arabic weekly, Al Wasat, that 2,000 veterans of the Afghanistan conflict of whom 40 per cent were Egyptians, were living mainly in Peshawar and near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan, Khaleej Times, May 7, 1996. In the middle of 1996, International Herald Tribune, on the basis of "the best intelligence figures," put the number of trained Egyptians at 2,000. John K. Cooley in International Herald Tribune, July 30, 1996.

Most of the terrorists who participated in the unsuccessful murderous attempt on Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995, resided in Pakistan and were recruited there. Times of India, January 20, 1996. The participants in the Luxer massacre (November 17, 1997) were the products of the Pak-run Afghan camps. The Statesman, November 25, 1997.

34. Khaleej Times, November 21, 1997. Al Ahram, official Egyptian paper, on the basis of information given by an Egyptian security official, disclosed the names top Egyptian extremist leaders who had secured shelter in England. See Cairo-datelined AFP report in The Tribune, August 29, 1996.

35. Scott Macleod, "The Paladin of Jihad," Time, May 6, 1996.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Reuter report in Jerusalem Post, January 3, 1995.

39. Reuter report in Khaleej Times, June 27, 1995. According to an AFP report, the number of killed was more than 800. Ibid.

40. Reuter report in The Telegraph, October 16, 1994.

41. Khaleej Times, June 27, 1995.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid. On October 15, 1995, an unknown Islamic extremist group calling itself the "Battalion of Death," in a fax entitled "We defy you, Mubarak," said it aimed to kill President Mubarak for his "crimes" against the Egyptian and Palestinian peoples and his "anti-Islamic" policies. It announced that it would hunt Mubarak everywhere and his men would have no rest until "they would have executed our mission, by using car bombs." AFP report in The Statesman, October 16, 1995.

44. Khaleej Times, July 5, 1995.

45. AP report in Times of India, November 15, 1995.

46. AFP report in The Nation, November 21, 1995.

47. AP report in The Telegraph, November 20, 1995.

48. n. 46.

49. AP report in The Asian Age, December 24, 1995.

50. The Nation, April 19, 1996. Also, an AP report in Khaleej Times, May 7, 1996.

51. AP report in The Telegraph, April 21, 1996.

52. AP report in Times of India, April 19, 1996, and AFP report in The Statesman, April 19, 1996.

53. n. 3.

54. n. 30.

55. Between January 1992 and August 1993, 175 foreigners were killed. "Killings on Nile," Times of India, April 24, 1996.

56. Carel Berger, "Fertile Soil for Fundamentalism," Newsweek, March 15, 1993, p. 20.

57. Jerusalem Post, April 13, 1993.

58. n. 8, p. 45.

59. "When Taming is Inflaming," The Economist, December 19, 1992, p. 39.

60. President Hosni Mubarak's admission, reported in Ibid.

61. Amany Radwan, "Targeting the Tourists, Time, April 29, 1996, p. 25.

62. n. 58.

63. n. 30.

64. Statement made in January 1993, quoted in Valsan Cherian, "Embattled in Egypt," Frontline, April 23, 1993, p. 49.

65. n. 59.

66. Ibid.

67. n. 18.

68. Financial Times, December 3, 1992.

69. Prem Shankar Jha, "The Cairo Connection-India, Egypt and Terrorism," Sunday, November 12-18, 1995, p. 57. In the wake of the conclusion of the extradition treaty, Pakistan had extradited 8 to 10 Egyptians wanted in Egypt on criminal charges. Enraged at this, the Vanguard of the Conquest had warned Pakistan that "it will pay a heavy price if it continues to hand over Islamists living on its territory." Reuter report in The Asian Age, December 15, 1995.

70. Prem Shankar Jha's Cairo-datelined report in The Telegraph, October 17, 1995.

71. Lara Marlowe, "Dying for Change," Time, December 11, 1995, p. 46.

72. London-datelined PTI report, citing The Independent, in The Statesman, December 8, 1995. Also n. 71.

73. The Statesman, December 13, 1995.

74. Interview to The Washington Post, in the beginning of March 1993, cited in n. 56.

75. Robert Satloff, Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, quoted in "Martyrs for the Sheik," Time, July 19, 1993, p. 26.

76. n. 64, p. 51.

77. n. 8, p. 45.

78. "Living with Islam," The Economist, July 27, 1996, p. 36. According to Hassan al-Alfi, Interior Minister, the Muslim Brotherhood's international organisation "is really the base from the cloaks of which have emerged all these (extremist) organisations which betray their religion and their countries and...which claim, falsely, that they carry the banner of Islam." Cited in a Cairo-datelined report in Khaleej Times, January 26, 1996.

79. n. 59.

80. n. 8, p. 45.

81. n. 56, p. 21. Under this law, hundreds of Afghan War veterans were arrested in Upper Egypt. See n. 13.

82. AP report in The Statesman, September 30, 1993.

83. n. 56.

84. n. 59; The Telegraph, July 1, 1993.

85. The available reports inform of the arrest of 50 suspected Islamic extremists in Asiyut and El-Minya provinces in September 1994 (The Statesman, Septmber 29, 1994); 18 in El-Minya, and 11 leading members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in January 1995 (The Asian Age, January 8 and 23, 1995); 53 suspected Islamic militants in Cairo in February 1995 (Ibid., February 20, 1995); 95 al-Jihad extremists north of Cairo in April 1995 (The Pioneer, April 19, 1995); 127 in Asiyut province in the middle of July 1995 (Khaleej Times, July 16, 1995); and 200 Muslim Brotherhood activists at the end of July 1995 (The Pioneer, August 1, 1995).

86. Christopher Dickey, "No Mercy, No Apology," Newsweek, June 19, 1995, p. 16.

87. "Egypt's Gentle Voice, Iron Hand," The Economist, April 13, 1996, p. 41.

88. The new outfit upheld the ideology of Seyyed Kotb, the supreme ideologue of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which "calls for incitement to change the current government and set up an Islamic nation [in Egypt]." AFP report in The Asian Age, December 30, 1996.

89. Khaleej Times, August 11, 1997; The Tribune, August 19, 1997.

90. President Hosni Mubarak, in an interview to the Washington Post, cited in n. 8, p. 45.

91. n. 64; also n. 8, p. 45.

92. Ibid., p. 46.

93. He wrote in Al Ahram: "Who is happening now in Egypt--explosions, murder, property destruction--is forbidden in Islam" and according to the Quran, "killing one person is like killing all mankind." Cited in Ibid.

94. "Islam's New Egyptian Face," The Economist, February 3, 1996, p. 35.

95. See Christopher Dickey and Gameela Ismail,"Nervous on the Nile," Newsweek, April 26, 1993, p. 18; n. 9, p. 14; and n. 56, p. 21.

96. In November 1997, over 10,000 suspects were estimated to be under arrest and detention. See "Bloodbath at Luxor," The Economist, November 22, 1997, p. 53.

97. Since 1992, 91 extremists had been sentenced to death, about two-thirds of them already executed. Ibid.

98. n. 86.

99. P.B. Sinha, "Disenchantment Waxing in Egypt," Sunday Mail, April 9-15, 1995.

100. n. 94.

101. The Statesman, July 3, 1994.

102. See AP report in Jerusalem Post, July 6, 1994.

103. "Messages in Blood," The Economist, October 18, 1997, p. 50.

104. AP report in Times of India, November 19, 1997.

105. n. 96.

106. Reuter report in The Asian Age, October 14, 1997.

107. n. 103.

108. n. 61.

109. n. 5.

110. Speech on Police Day on January 25, 1996, cited in Cairo-datelined report in Khaleej Times, January 26, 1996.

111. AP report in The Telegraph, November 18, 1997.

112. Ibid., November 19, 1997 and AFP and Reuter report in Khaleej Times, November 22, 1997.

113. The Statesman, November 20, 1997.

114. Khaleej Times, November 22, 1997.

115. Committee report, "Egypt: A Security Assessment White Paper," cited in The Hindustan Times, March 26, 1998.

116. Ibid.

117. Ibid.

118. Ibid.

119. Note 106.

120. Ibid.

121. AP report in The Telegraph, October 7, 1995.

122. A hand-written leaflet found on the body of one of the Luxer attackers, cited in n. 96.

123. "The Retreat of Egypt's Islamists," The Economist, July 26, 1997, p. 43.

124. n. 96, p. 54.

125. "Mubarak the Marked Man" (ed.), The Tribune, June 28, 1995.

126. See n. 96; also Khaleej Times, November 19, 1997.

127. Ibid.

128. For a detailed account, see P.B. Sinha, "Muslim Extremists and Militancy in Egypt," Strategic Analysis, September 1993, vol. XVI, no. 6, pp. 814-815.

129. Cited in R. Ramchandran, "Living with Holy Terror," Times of India, November 28, 1993.