Blowback in Cairo

The Syrian civil war has now reached the heart of Egypt.

On Sept. 5, a car bomb ripped through the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City, narrowly missing its target: Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group, took responsibility for the attack, which injured more than 20 people.

Almost two months later, the jihadist group released a video that detailed the attack and identified the suicide car bomber as Walid Badr. Most of the media reporting on the video focused on the fact that Badr was a former Egyptian Army officer, which missed an important detail: He had recently returned to Egypt after fighting in Syria alongside jihadists looking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. "Allah destined him to return to Egypt to fulfill his wish [of] carrying out a martyrdom-seeking operation," said the video about Badr, who also purportedly fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Badr's video included a lengthy scolding of the current Egyptian government for, in his view, violently waging war against Islam. It also included a call to Egyptian Muslims to sacrifice themselves and fight Egypt's security forces: "We must kill from them just as they are killing from us," he proclaimed.

The raging conflict in Syria may be providing Egyptian Islamist militants with the skills to launch deadlier attacks against the military-backed government in Cairo when they return home. According to a recent study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a minimum of 119 Egyptians have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria. The number may be as high as 358, if not higher, the report noted. In fact, one recent press report claimed that "thousands of Egyptians" have gone to Syria to fight among the opposition since 2011. And while many of these fighters are slain on the battlefield, there will be others who return home.

Badr isn't the only figure who used the training and connections he gained in Syria to advance the jihad in Egypt. Saeed al-Shahat is another: The Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis fighter was wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer, and died after detonating an explosive vest as Egyptian security forces raided his home. According to the communiqué issued by the jihadist group to confirm his death, Shahat returned to Egypt from Syria to join his "mujahideen brothers," and partake "in their jihad and preparation." 

It's no surprise that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is an attractive option for Egyptian veterans of the Syrian revolt who are looking to bring the jihad home. The group has become the most significant terrorist threat in Egypt today: In recent months, it has killed dozens and wounded hundreds in its attacks in North Sinai, Cairo, and the Nile Delta. The group's recent attacks, such as its devastating Dec. 24 suicide car bombing in Mansoura, show that its capabilities are growing -- perhaps due to the experience of those joining its ranks from Syria.

Egypt has faced the threat of blowback as a result of its citizens fighting in foreign jihadi theaters before. In the 1980s, hundreds of Egyptians joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Many of those Egyptians returned home and contributed to the terror campaign led by two al Qaeda-affiliated groups -- al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad -- that ravaged Egypt throughout much of the 1990s. 

Jihadists are trying to leverage the recent political crises in Cairo to build support among Egyptian Islamists. They have argued that the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, vindicates their claim that the ammunition box -- not the ballot box -- is the only way to achieve their goals. Calls for violence against the Egyptian state, in particular against the security services, have accordingly seen a notable increase in recent months.

In November, jihadist ideologue Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti called on Egyptians to wage war against Egypt's security forces. It "is a religious duty and divine obligation," he proclaimed. "Whoever is able to travel to them, fight with them, and increase their ranks, it is a duty to do so."

Senior al Qaeda officials, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Somalia-based al-Shabab, and global jihadi media outlets have issued similar calls for violence in Egypt. "We and you are one," a sharia court judge based in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo told Sinai-based jihadists in one recent ISIS video. "[W]ith whatever we can support you with, we will cooperate with you to establish the religion of Allah." 

If even a few of the hundreds of Egyptians fighting today in Syria return home, it could have grave consequences for stability in Egypt. The same, of course, holds for the West, where the number of Western Sunni jihadists joining the fight in Syria is historically unprecedented.

In contrast to the West, which has not yet experienced a direct case of blowback from the Syrian war, the nascent jihad underway in Egypt has already begun to be effected by the full-blown war in Syria. While the world is accustomed to thinking of the situations in Egypt and Syria as separate political crises, they could become more linked than we could have ever imagined.



A New Anbar Awakening

Do tribal warriors in Fallujah and Ramadi have what it takes to rout al Qaeda?

On the brink of a catastrophic new battle for the besieged city of Fallujah, the Iraqi government has paused its threatened assault on al Qaeda's positions in the city amid confusion over which fighters it can count on among its allies.

Over the past several weeks, simmering Sunni discontent with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule has escalated, causing the Iraqi government to lose control of Fallujah and the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi. Gunmen affiliated with al Qaeda emerged last week to seize large parts of Fallujah after Maliki's government dismantled a protest camp in Ramadi and arrested a prominent member of parliament.

The Iraqi government has launched airstrikes and shelled what it says are al Qaeda positions in preparation for sending the Iraqi Army, which is so unpopular in predominantly Sunni Anbar province that it was forced to withdraw its forces from Ramadi and Fallujah last year.

In Iraq, Anbar is known as a fiercely tribal, conservative region that even Saddam Hussein had trouble subduing. In the United States, it's a metaphor for the bitterness of a bewildering war, where almost 4,500 Americans died fighting an enemy they didn't understand. The province's troubled history holds out little hope for the Iraqi government's ability to quell the violence through military means.

To make matters worse, the battle lines for the coming conflict are far from clear. A former U.S. military official in touch with tribal leaders in Anbar said tribesmen battling fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al Qaeda affiliate, found themselves under attack on Monday, Jan. 6, by Iraqi special forces. Tribal security forces were instrumental in helping the United States beat back al Qaeda during the military surge in 2007, and they could potentially be a bulwark against the return of jihadi groups today -- unless the Iraqi government continues to alienate them.

Richard Welch, a retired U.S. Army colonel who headed the American effort to reconcile Iraqi tribes with the central government for more than five years and who still maintains contact with tribal leaders, said that he was told by his sources that an Iraqi SWAT team and special forces unit opened fire on the Iraqi tribesmen -- but not the al Qaeda gunmen -- in a fierce battle near the town of Abul Obai wa Bayali between Fallujah and Ramadi.

Presumably, the Iraqi forces were unable to differentiate the ISIS gunmen from the tribal fighters. On Monday, their mistake turned a possible ally into an enemy.

"During the fight, ISIS sent a message to the tribes that they were learning their lesson about how bad the ISF [Iraqi security forces] were and that they should join ISIS in fighting the government," said Welch.

For the tribal forces, it was a compelling argument. Welch said he was told the tribal fighters and the al Qaeda gunmen joined forces to turn on the SWAT team attacking them, burning more than a dozen armored vehicles in the process. After the Iraqi security forces retreated, tribal reinforcements arrived and drove out the ISIS fighters, he said, warning them to leave Ramadi.

If the Iraqi government does attack Fallujah, the number of casualties could be enormous -- a calculation not lost on Iraqi officials. In November 2004, U.S. and Iraqi forces drove al Qaeda out of the city in the fiercest battle of the Iraq war. But al Qaeda and its affiliates didn't die; they just went elsewhere. Now, the increasingly sectarian conflict in neighboring Syria and the Maliki government's marginalization of Iraq's Sunni population has allowed al Qaeda and its latest incarnation, ISIS, to regroup.

For Americans with even the faintest memory of the war, Fallujah is almost instantly recognizable. For the tens of thousands of Americans who served in Anbar, it's much more.

"Symbolically, Fallujah was always going to be at the top of the list as to [answering the question]: 'How did the war end?'" said J. Kael Weston, a former State Department official based in Fallujah who is now writing a book about the conflict. "Fallujah is a report card. We wanted it to be better."

Unlike the first two battles for Fallujah, when U.S. soldiers engaged in the fiercest urban fighting since the Vietnam War, the coming battle will be fought with the United States looking to stay as far away from the conflict as possible. "This is their fight," Secretary of State John Kerry said on Jan. 5, declaring that the United States will intervene only to speed up delivery of surface-to-air missiles and surveillance drones.

Iran's deputy chief of staff told Iranian state media on Jan. 5 that his country is also prepared to offer arms to the Iraqi government -- reinforcing a view of many in Anbar and other Sunni areas that Iraq's Shiite-led government is an arm of Tehran. These deep suspicions of sectarian motives would mean that airstrikes on Fallujah (without any of the political concessions demanded by Sunni protesters) will only fuel the conflict, many former officials with experience in Iraq believe.

"When people talk about what's going on in Fallujah and al Qaeda -- well, the al Qaeda guys are probably largely the homeboys revolting against a government that they view as totally dominated by Iran," said Weston, who spent three years in Fallujah. "So while our instinct is to give [the Iraqi government] technology and drones, my view is: Do you really think that more weaponry is going to solve what is fundamentally a political problem?"

Maliki, who thinks his government is genuinely under threat from al Qaeda and other groups funded by hostile Sunni Arab states, has so far been unwilling to offer the sweeping political reform demanded by the protesters.

Welch said that many of the tribal leaders with whom he speaks believe the weapons the United States is now supplying to Baghdad will be turned against the Iraqi people.

"If it's an Iraqi fight, why are we giving them weapons?" he said. "By not taking sides we are taking sides.… There is no neutrality for us anymore in the region."

Photo: Sadam el-Mehmedy/AFP/Getty Images