Caption: An Egyptian military vehicle is seen on the highway in northern Sinai, Egypt, in this May 25, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih/Files
CAIRO – 17 January 2018: In February 2015, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) called on its supporters in Upper Egypt in an attempt to recruit people who would contribute to establishing a so-called “Islamic state” affiliate in Upper Egypt. It was an attempt to create new crime hotspots inside the country.
Abu-Eyad al-Masry, an ISIL member, called on people to head to Upper Egypt; he specifically called on “lone wolves” asking them to gather and form organized cells affiliated to the group there.
Consequently, the National Security Agency did in fact discover a terrorist cell composed of individuals who formed a terrorist cluster. They had pledged allegiance to ISIL and had decided to establish the “Upper Egypt State”, which was to dominate all Upper Egyptian governorates.
Investigations into the case revealed that ISIL-affiliated leaders in Libya smuggled some of their personnel to Upper Egypt, with the goal of forming clusters and training camps to pave the way for the eventual declaration of the “Upper Egypt State”. Yet even though this group attempted to carry out a few terrorist attacks, and could recruit some people, it failed at establishing real presence in Upper Egypt.
First, why is ISIL targeting Upper Egypt?
ISIL views Upper Egypt as the most appropriate place to further its activities, especially with the restrictions imposed on them thanks to the successful preemptive security and military efforts to track people who pledged allegiance to ISIL in North Sinai.
Support has been cut to ISIL since the central organization was defeated in Syria and Iraq, and they had to find alternative strongholds for returning personnel. In addition, improved relations between Egypt and Hamas further contributed to speeding up the expected defeat of the organization. This led people to speculate that Upper Egypt would become the organization’s next target for the following reasons:
• Historical background: Jihadist organizations’ activities in Upper Egypt have been on the rise, especially al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya’s activities in Minya, which was able to instill its concepts in many Upper Egyptian governorates and villages during the nineties. That has led ISIL to think of Upper Egypt as a more fertile soil for its expansion.
In addition, there are remnants of Jihadist organizations and Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers who were influenced by the heinous discourse of the Rabaa al-Adaweyya and al-Nahda platforms in 2013. These people are considered the segments of society most prone to accepting the organization’s message and principles.
• Mitigating the restrictions imposed on ISIL’s personnel in Sinai: ISIL is doubtlessly becoming weaker, thanks to the constant blows it has been receiving and the security siege imposed on it by the Egyptian Armed Forces with the help of security forces.
These strikes began with the Haqq al-Shaheed Operation (The Martyr’s Right Operation), which took a preemptive strategy in dealing with ISIL-affiliated personnel in Sinai, leading the group to look for another stronghold in order to mitigate the restrictions and siege imposed on its personnel in Sinai.
• The environment: Upper Egyptian governorates’ geographical nature renders them as having the right conditions for terrorist and outlawed activities, especially with their vast desert. This could be a relatively safe environment for these groups to remain discreet and establish their training camps, away from securities’ pursuits. In addition, there are vast unpopulated areas among the governments, which also makes for a suitable environment for the group’s activities.
• Conservatism: Upper Egypt maintains a conservative culture, which holds on to the habits and customs derived from religions strongly. ISIL or other terrorist groups may think that this conservatism could make the process of recruiting personnel to their groups easier, as they could make use of people’s instinctive religiosity. However, they seem to forget how dominant tribalism and familial ties are over there. They even play a role complementary to that of the police. In addition, Sufism has been spreading there lately, which is a powerful factor that works against misusing this environment.
• Social problems: ISIL could have possibly wrongly believed that the long distance between Upper Egypt and the Egyptian capital alongside the high rates of poverty and unemployment between young people in many villages and hamlets could help it recruit more members. This is especially true given how its defeat, collapse and forced withdrawal from its strongholds could push it to find a new popular “incubator”, where they can make use of the difficulties of living, lack of resources, weak infrastructure and social and financial problems that many villages in Upper Egypt suffer from.
Second, what would disallow ISIL from expanding in Upper Egypt?
All the above-mentioned factors could be in favor of extremists in general and ISIL in particular, in terms of using Upper Egypt as an alternative stronghold after their defeat in Sinai thanks to the consecutive blows they received from the security forces and the Egyptian Armed Forces. However, it would be unlikely for the organization to expand in Upper Egypt due to the following reasons:
• Social structure: Despite Upper Egyptian people’s conservatism, which some could think provides fertile soil for the group to spread its ideology, a closer look at this Upper Egyptian social structure shows that it is more conservative than it is religious. It is a conservative environment that highly regards habits and customs, which makes it unlikely to let an organized group tamper with it. It shuns strangers, and refuses to let them violate its coherent nature.
• The character of the Upper Egyptian: which leans more towards supporting the regime not opposing it. Perhaps their relatively stable life, which led them to have a “hardline mentality”, makes them even less likely to accept foreign fighters in their community, or even Egyptian fighters that are outside their conventional structure. Their social structure pays a lot of respect to habits, customs and “shame”. They differ in this regard from the character of citizens living in Sinai, as Sinai's geographical location and history paved the way for it to deal with different nationalities.
• The strong relations between security forces and major families and local governors: This would make it difficult to establish a popular “incubator” for the group in Upper Egypt, especially in light of the two parties’ ties, which leads to cooperation between them in tracking the group’s members, and eradicating their presence. This is also a difficult challenge to the establishment of strongholds in villages, mountains or deserts nearby. Therefore, ISIL would only undertake terrorist attacks on easy targets or recruit a limited number of members, but it is unlikely that it would be able to establish strongholds in Upper Egypt.
Azza Mohammed is a political science researcher.