I just was interviewed by journalist Yasser Khalil. The interview will likely be available in Arabic and offered at Sahafy Online (https://sahafyonline.com) for outlets interested in publishing it. A little bit of this discussion is based on my current book draft on Egypt (there is a chapter on the Sinai campaign) .
Sherifa azZuhur Arabi
Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley
August 5, 2015
– What do you think about the Egypt’s strategy in fighting terrorism? Is it sufficient enough to end up the terrorism in the country?
Egypt is using a combination of counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) approaches. It faces terrorism in the northern Sinai peninsula, but also in/near Suez and on Egypt’s mainland as well as acts of sabotage on electricity towers and assassinations of public figures such as the Chief Prosecutor, the late Hisham Barakat. In the Sinai, Egypt’s military had to cease cooperating with the limitations prevailing under the Camp David Accords by which only civil police are to operate in zone C. While these restrictions are lifted now, that insurgency has longstanding roots going back to 2003-2004.
Elsewhere the criminalization of terrorist groups and those engaging or calling for violence is an important aspect of the campaign. So too, are efforts at antiterrorism (terrorism prevention) in which the roots of extremism are to be attacked by al-Azhar, and mainstream Muslim institutions, although there isn’t much agreement about the shape of such reforms.
Both CT and COIN rely on military eradication of terrorists which in turn relies on intelligence and police work. In addition, both approaches also employ the ‘non-military’ tools of war; CT calls for developing antiterrorism programs and COIN requires bolstering of state power and appealing to local populations support the state’s objections. These tools, or methods are informational, economic and political/diplomatic.
– Is this strategy different from the one USA uses?
These are two approaches, not one grand strategy and the US is currently, under Obama, downgrading CT and COIN efforts, but it has not successfully defined a strategy toward terrorism either in the wake of 9/11 nor today.
Egypt’s efforts reflect those of national militaries to contain terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but there are some differences, for example, the above-mentioned problem of an insurgency in a hinterland where the military were initially constrained. Also, the Sinai extremists used the fall of president Morsi, who they also considered an apostate (and they condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for participating in Egypt’s political system) as a rallying cause and the combination of their violence and that of other groups, some allied to them on the mainland somewhat magnifies the impact of attempted violence. Egypt’s tourism sector has been hurt by this violence along with the perception of volatility in the post-revolutionary environment, although there has been some recovery of late. Also the jihadist movements are international, the Wilayat Sinai breakaway from the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis allied with the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria, i.e. ISiS) because of the propaganda (or informational) value and it has links with groups in Libya — which are therefore another threat to Egypt. The presence of the MFO (Multinational Force of Observers) in the Sinai means that there could be a threat to that body. The alienation of the bedouin in the Sinai from the central government is another special factor to consider; this is the result of land ownership policies as well as the counterterrorist response to violence in the Sinai from 2004 – 2011.
– Both countries couldn’t end up terrorism till now, in spite of the long war against it. Why?
Terrorism is not a phenomenon that will be soon ended, nor is it sui generis. Egypt and the United States continue to face terrorism, so too, all humans are hurt by it since it was used by the Zealots and others in ancient history. Terrorism is a tactic, and the perpetrators have political and religiopolitical aims. They can be discouraged from using this tactic, by the use military force and repression, and simultaneous anti-terrorism or anti-insurgency programs and actions of the state.
The previous U.S. Department of Defense name for this – the Long War – is probably an accurate name. Al-Qa’ida as well as the ISIS, ABM, Wilayat Sinai AQAP, AQIM, Shabab etc. have a long-term grand strategy. Nonetheless, Egypt’s battle in the Sinai with such groups is winnable — and it is not facing a popular insurgency in the mainland, as for example existed in Vietnam.
If the Egyptian government had fought as ruthlessly as possible, then it’s possible the conflict might be a shorter one, but as Pres. Sisi himself noted, the public concern for human rights limits the use of tactics which might eradicate such groups And admittedly, the security forces have not undergone reforms in that regard, and they are facing an enemy using extremely brutal tactics towards them and civilians who are thought to be cooperating with the Egyptian military and police.
– There are violations for human rights in both countries’ experiences in this field, is it necessary to violate human rights while fighting terrorism? How we can avoid that if it’s possible?
Yes, there are violations of human rights by both militaries and also by police in the U.S. – use of body cameras (introduced in San Francisco & to be used in Egypt), education, enforcement of proper standards in prisoner treatment are all requisites. It’s up to the leadership to insist on such standards in all militaries and police forces.
Some believe that human rights are violated by the use of emergency laws and military courts.
**Under Presidents Mubarak and Sadat, the use of emergency laws tended to constrain the development of democracy, however, today, nearly all countries have crafted specific terrorism laws which tend to diverge from civil procedures. In Egypt, a big debate still exists over the “protest law” which is intended to control spontaneous and potentially violent demonstrations. I think it is entirely reasonable to oppose extrajudicial rendition, torture, and unjust procedures as we saw in Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib, and also to support harsh legal consequences for acts of terrorism. The Egyptian system of criminal law differs from that in the U.S., but as far as I can see both aim to deter as well as punish offenders. The application of emergency law within the buffer area in the Sinai, which has, for example, utilized curfews certainly seemed to be a necessity in that campaign.
– What about the privacy issues? This war made the people’s privacy is nearly zero. Is that justified and acceptable in your opinion? **I need more clarification of this question in order to answer it
– In 1970s to 1990s Egypt was using the security solutions in fighting terrorism, it could defeat some terrorists but not terrorism. Will Egypt need more 2 decades to reach the same result?
**There is no division between “security solutions” and other solutions – let us say, “development or aid solutions.” One cannot develop an area like the Sinai or upper Egypt if armed terrorist groups operate freely, moving to assassinate local police or officials in their homes or their vehicles, importing weapons and obtaining cash from outside of Egypt.
As stated above, “security” has to be seen holistically – it also concerns preserving the safety and security of citizens and their government. Terrorists attack civilians and symbols of the state to try to sway other citizens into treating them as a pseudo-state (thus, the very name, Islamic State). The Egyptian government has much to overcome, but the employment of many Sinai residents in the new Suez Canal project is a boost to security, as is the awarding of reparations to those forced to leave Rafah during the buffer operation. Security and trust must be constructed on all fronts at the same time – through forums or meetings with the public, assurance that economic needs will be met and controls over the known security gaps – for ex. the hundreds of tunnels into Gaza or the communications between Sinai and Libyan militants.
– The terrorism is getting more brutality if we compared between the old militants (such as Al-Qaeda) and the new ones such as ISIS. What is the reason in your opinion?
In my opinion, the al-Qa’ida mother-ship group (the original group) under bin Ladin and Zawahiri learned that the use of extremely brutal tactics and sectarian attacks caused the public to hate and fear it and thus damage the long-term aims of such groups. Bin Ladin was said to oppose attacks on the Shi`a, either because of this counter-productive response or because his neosalafist mentors coming from the Muslim Brotherhood exiles in Saudi Arabia and those they impacted did so. al-Zawahiri opposed the attacks on Shi`a in Iraq by al-Qa’ida affiliate groups as well.
The Islamic State and Nusra in Syria and Iraq used both carrot and stick approaches, but the media tends to cover their brutal actions and focus less on other factors such as family relationships, actions of revenge and propaganda (public executions). Like the ABM or WS in the Sinai, they count on the insecurity of the local population and the fact that it is gauging the dangers of cooperating with the state versus themselves.
– How the security sciences and the applications of those sciences developed since 1990s (especially regarding the war on terrorism)?
We should speak of philosophy, theory and practical approaches rather than “sciences.” The study of war and conflict tends to draw on those maxims or precepts which seem to apply over time. However, the means of war and technology have altered the applicability of such concepts.
We now possess technologically superior gaming facilities, but the best tool remains the imagination and through red-teaming to consider the most likely set of threats or scenarios and second effects resulting from actions taken.
There are therefore, some new takes on terrorism which arise from older concepts, so for example, material concerning 4th generation warfare; or the Clausewitzian notion of center(s) of gravity which, in today’s terrorist environment are diffused. The psychological aspects of terrorism have also been studied with the aim of constructing better antiterrorist responses, or to use specific language, preventing the “slippery slope” to violence. We now must be concerned with so-called lone wolf or sleeper attacks and the coordination of many terrorist groups outside controllable channels.
The relationship between foreign policy goals and aims to control or eradicate terrorism is also being scrutinized by those who are interested in grand strategy.
– Some opinions say that the security solutions is not enough to end up the terrorism, there is a need for intellectuals to play a rule in fighting terrorist ideas, it’s also war of thoughts.. do you agree with that?
**Yes, I agree but there is no point in constructing or insisting on one form of propaganda simply to counter another. The intellectual war on terrorism has also faltered because we cannot promote freedom – freedom of thought and civil responsibility by accepting a vision of an Islamic society which is not free, but which merely eschews (rejects) violence against the state.
For example, the large Salafiyya Jihad movement in the Sinai are not all involved in terrorism, but they promote a conservative social vision which is unfair to some members of society (for ex. women). In the United States, many of our Muslim organizations which claim to oppose terrorism “from a Muslim perspective” have a similar vision and therefore do not represent a true reform of the type needed.
– If you are writing a “prescription” to the world leaders to cure the earth planet from terrorism (even, to some extent), what will you write in it?
**I would say that seeing terrorism as an illness for which there is a cure is a mistake. Remember that terrorism is merely a tactic of war.
Understanding and vigorously countering the aims and claims of terrorists with regard to the use of jihad, takfir, wala wa-l-bara, and their overall conception of a world in which Muslims should battle all others is key.
Supporting intelligence to discover the sources of arms and funding is also key.
Building confidence in a world and local communities where equal opportunities exist is most certainly key to convincing local populations to accept the authority of their own governments.
And the use of force – what you called in this interview, the security solution – is also very much a key and is going to require regional cooperation, not only between Egypt and Saudi Arabia as in this summer’s Cairo Declarations, but beyond. Many political circumstances have led to the growth and expansion of terrorist groups – in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, the GCC, Iraq, Jordan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond as well as their funders and supporters elsewhere. De facto arrangements allowing them to remain in certain locations is no solution at all.