The Hizbullah in Egypt plot

I still don’t know what to think about yesterday’s revelation that Egyptian State Security believes, or is pretending to believe, that Hizbullah tried to set up an Egyptian cell:

CAIRO, April 8 (Reuters) – Egyptian authorities accused the Lebanese group Hezbollah on Wednesday of planning attacks inside Egypt, a development that could plunge Cairo’s relations with the Shi’ite group’s backer, Iran, to new lows.

The office of Egypt’s public prosecutor said it was investigating accusations that Hezbollah had recruited a 49-member cell with the aim of striking inside Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Hezbollah angered Egypt earlier this year by accusing Cairo of complicity with Israel in its siege of the Gaza Strip.

“The public prosecutor received a note from state security about information confirmed by questioning about Hezbollah leaders sending some elements to the country to attract members to work with the organisation … with the aim of carrying out acts of aggression inside the country,” a statement by the public prosecutor said.

The statement said the group had been trying to monitor Egypt’s Suez Canal, its border with the Gaza Strip, and tourist installations in the Sinai Peninsula and sending information back to Hezbollah.

It also said the group had been establishing links with criminal elements to forge passports and setting up businesses to cover for spying activities.

It gave no details of any attacks being planned, but accused Hezbollah of trying to spread Shi’ite ideology in Egypt.

Culled from various sources, a list of what the “Hizbullah cell” was trying to achieve:

– Carry out terrorist attacks on the Shia holiday Ashura
– Rent housing near the Suez Canal to monitor the passage of ships
– Surveillance of tourist resorts in Sinai
– Procurement of explosives to manufacture bombs
– Renting housing in luxury areas to serve as safe houses
– Recruitment of Egyptians to their cause, with the aim of sending them abroad for paramilitary training
– Using businesses to fund and provide cover for their activities
– Spread Shiism in Egypt

All that seems like a tall order… While I won’t dismiss it entirely as many who have heard Egyptian security cry wolf too many times — after all there is a rich history of Arab states and non-state actors operating in each other’s turf, even if it died down in the post-Cold War world — the idea of Hizbullah suddenly deciding to implant itself in Egypt, where it has no natural constituency, is rather weird. Spying, information-gathering, destabilization — maybe. But this whole affair, like Morocco’s paranoia about Shia infiltration, reflects the deep apprehension many Western-allied Sunni regimes have about Iran, its allies like Hizbullah, and the challenge to the dominant regional order under US hegemony that has taken place since the invasion of Iraq. This, not Shiism, is what they are afraid of.

The rise of the “Awakenings” model

Is this really a good idea:

Pakistan plans to arm tens of thousands of anti-Taliban tribal fighters in its western border region in hopes — shared by the U.S. military — that the nascent militias can replicate the tribal “Awakening” movement that proved decisive in the battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The militias, called lashkars, will receive Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms, a purchase arranged during a visit to Beijing this month by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistani officials said.

Do you really want to pump in tons of small arms into an area of great lawlessness and tribal rivalry?

New ARB site, Tammam on recanted jihadis

Be sure to check out the revamped website of the Arab Reform Bulletin, which now aims to be a continuously updated site with news as well as the monthly analysis we’ve come to know and love.

Of particular interest in the current issue is an article by Hossam Tammam, a leading Egyptian analyst of Islamist movements (once close to the Muslim Brothers, he wrote a trenchant book-length critique of the stagnation of the movement in 2004). In this article Tammam discusses the trend in the past decade, for imprisoned Islamists from the Gamaa Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad to abandon their old belief in the use of violence. While of course the long experience of prison was a determining factor in getting this result, Tammam argues that these ex-prisoners just want to get on with their lives and in many cases regret their youthful activism.

For the 20,000 to 30,000 Islamists who were released over the past decade (there are no clear numbers, it might be less if you consider that a good part of that number could be people who were never involved in any violent incidents or even espoused violence ideologically, since the methods of state security tend to cast a wide net), a return to what remains of their lives is the priority. Some, notably from the Gamaa Islamiya, have revamped their organization’s ideology and are trying to “mainstream” it, making a tentative return to politics and a u-turn on previous political attitudes, notably embracing Nasser and Sadat. But it’s unlikely they will return to violence, despite their lack of opportunities and wasted lives:

Despite the political, economic, and social frustrations they face, Jihadists have not rescinded their repentance or returned to violence. Skeptics question their sincerity and argue that the despair brought on by current political conditions in Egypt will drive jihadists back to violence, but this is extremely unlikely. Most penitent jihadists are over the age of 50. Having spent twenty years or more in prison, they lack the ability to communicate with members of the young generation who would take up arms in any confrontations with the regime.

I am reminded of an anecdote Saad Eddin Ibrahim told me a few years ago. Ibrahim shared a ward of Tora prison with some of these Islamists when he was imprisoned between 2000 and 2002. He said each Islamist group had taken up a profession in the prison — cooking, washing clothes, etc. — through which they earned money from other prisoners, especially from the VIP section where wealthier convicts (such as former officials caught on corruption charges) serve their time. One former Gamaa Islamiya member he knew ran a lucrative fried fish business, using various prisoners’ right to have food delivered by their families to secure daily supply of fresh fish. He earned enough money to take care of several of his fellow prisoners and send money home to his family.

When that prisoner came to repent and was about to be released, around 2004, Ibrahim had already left the prison. One day he received a visit from that prisoner’s mother. She had a dilemma on her hand. She wanted her son to come home, but was worried that outside of jail he would not find the same money-making opportunities. Tacitly, she was asking Ibrahim (who kept in touch with these prisoners) to convince him to stay a little bit longer, at least until some younger siblings of his were married and had a stable job. In the end, the prisoner did as his mother wished (although I recall he later got out and set up his own food cart in Alexandria).

The anecdote is not unlike the experience Morgan Freeman’s character has after being released from prison after several decades in “The Shawshank Redemption”. These prisoners are returning to an Egypt with few opportunities, but also a radically different Islamist environment. They are out of sync in more than one ways, and discredited (in the eyes on younger potential jihadis) because of their very public recantation. Since it’s quite plausible some of them are sincere about their involvement in violent acts, it’s a shame they are not put to good use to dissuade younger Islamists from going down that path.

One important difference Tammam highlights is the lack of large-scale organization among contemporary radical Islamist groups in Egypt:

Beyond the question of violence, the changing nature of religiosity in Egypt also diminishes the jihadists’ current relevance. Until the mid-1990s, belonging to a particular organization was a cornerstone of Islamist activism. Now, religiosity has taken on a remarkably individualized form. This model is based on a sort of free-market of religious ideas, which offers a broader array of choices, none of which is necessarily binding. Unlike the religious commitment (peaceful or violent) of the past, which required organizational affiliation, today’s religious commitment does not require any direct connection with Islamist organizations or a particular ideological framework.

Understanding these dynamics makes clear why there is no reason to fear that released jihadists will reorganize and return to violence. Individual disgruntled activists might resort to violence in response to a certain feeling of despair—despair about social conditions in Egypt and U.S. policies that push religious and nationalist sentiments to the limit. But any such violence would be diffused and limited to small cells linked by social or occupational interests, unlike the organized jihadi violence of the past. That sort of violence also is more likely to be fueled by the desperate social conditions that Egypt is witnessing than by an Islamist ideology.

I’ve long been pretty skeptical on the poverty-breeds-violence explanation of jihadist terrorism. While it certainly makes recruitment easier (as does the current general disgust with the state one hears everywhere in Egypt), the decisive factor is going to be the ability of even loose extremist movements like al-Qaeda to recruit, train and fund. We’ve heard little about this in Egypt, but the experience of other countries suggests that just because we haven’t heard about it does not mean it’s not there.

Egypt cuts off unregisted mobiles Egypt asks mobile firms to bar anonymous users | Technology | Reuters

Egypt is now moving in the direction of much more repressive regimes, wanting to control all communications:

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt has asked mobile phone companies to block service to anonymous subscribers as a public security measure, and at least two firms have begun efforts to comply, Egyptian officials and mobile firms said on Monday.

The move comes as Egypt tries to combat a wave of public discontent over rising prices and low wages that have sparked a series of labor and anti-government strikes, organized largely by mobile phone and over the Internet.

The move is expected to affect several hundred thousand customers who did not register their names and addresses when they acquired phone lines — still a small portion of overall subscribers in the most populous Arab country.

“Everyone who uses the telephone must be known,” Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid told a news conference, adding that the move was needed for “public security.”

[From Egypt asks mobile firms to bar anonymous users]

Bin Laden and Palestine

The latest Times Literary Supplement has a review piece on several books about al-Qaeda, notably its ideology. Here’s a passage worth highlighting from Jihadi studies:

“Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era.”

Read the rest of the review — that passage was about Bruce Lawrence’s Bin Laden reader, Messages to the World. Also mentioned are Omar Nasiri’s Inside Jihad and an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Globalization and the Radical Loser.

Adam Shatz: Laptop Jihadi

21HZb%2B8aYSL.jpgAdam Shatz reviews a new biography of Abu Musab al-Suri, one of al-Qaeda’s most important theoreticians – Laptop Jihadi:

Al-Suri’s world-view isn’t original, although it is no less chilling for that: a Qutbian brew of political grievances (Israeli atrocities in Palestine, the US sanctions against Iraq), toxic prejudice (non-Muslims, but especially Jews and crusaders) and sexual anxiety (he recommends killing tourists, ‘ambassadors of depravity, corruption, immorality and decadence’). He writes scornfully of moderate Islamists who talk with ‘the other’ and says there is no point in pursuing dialogue with ‘bacteria, epidemics and locusts’: ‘Only insecticides and medicines to kill bacteria’ were required. (Like the Professor in The Secret Agent, al-Suri’s ‘thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction’.) At the same time, he advises jihadis to avoid attacking ‘places of worship for any religion or faith’, including churches and synagogues, and, if possible, to spare women and children. How he reconciles this with his call for ‘inflicting as many human and material losses as possible on the interests of America and her allies’ – or with his regret that the planes on 11 September weren’t armed with weapons of mass destruction – is not something he explains.

But what’s most eerie about al-Suri’s book is not so much its content as its form. The Call is a military manual written in a strikingly secular – at times even avant-garde – idiom. His aim in writing is no different from what it was when he trained mujahedin at camps in Afghanistan: to produce better, smarter fighters, and to defeat the enemy. Most of his arguments, he emphasises, are not drawn from religious ‘doctrines or the laws about what is forbidden (haram) and permitted (halal)’ in Islam, but from ‘individual judgments based on lessons drawn from experience’: ‘Reality,’ not God, ‘is the greatest witness.’ Though he embroiders his arguments with the occasional quote from the Koran, he clearly prefers to discuss the modern literature of guerrilla warfare. Jihadis who fail to learn from Western sources are ridiculed for their inability to ‘think outside the box’. Just as weirdly familiar is al-Suri’s celebration of nomadic fighters, mobile armies, autonomous cells, individual actions and decentralisation, which recalls not only Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, but the idiom of ‘flexible’ capitalism in the age of Google and call centres. His vision of jihadis training themselves in mobile camps and houses, presumably from their laptops, is not so far removed from our own off-site work world. Guerrilla life has rarely seemed so sterile, so anomic, so unlikely to promote esprit de corps. The constraints of the New World Order make jihad a rather grim, lonely crusade, a form of private combat cut off from the movement’s – mostly imagined – following. Al-Suri seems to acknowledge this when he says that the best kind of training occurs on the battlefield, which ‘has a particular fragrance’. On 31 October 2005, after breaking the Ramadan fast with a group of bearded men, he smelled that fragrance for the last time during a gunfight in Quetta with his former allies in Pakistan intelligence. At least one of al-Suri’s dinner companions was killed but he was unharmed. There had been strict orders from above: the Americans wanted to talk to him. He hasn’t been heard from since, and in spite of the objections of prosecutors like the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who was on to al-Suri long before the Americans had heard of him, the CIA refuses to say where he’s being held.

Read the full review which has some great bits about how al-Suri’s ideology was borne out of contempt for the Syrian Muslim Brothers, who negotiated with the Assad regime after their takeover of Hama in 1982 before being crushed.

Also see this 2006 profile of al-Suri by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker.

The Myth of the Surge

From Nir Rosen’s The Myth of the Surge in Rolling Stone, on the co-optation of former insurgents that had caused a decline in violence over the past year in Iraq :

But loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle. Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers. These are men the Americans described as terrorists, Saddam loyalists, dead-enders, evildoers, Baathists, insurgents. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.

“We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority,” says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. “Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future.”

Maj. Pat Garrett, who works with the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is already having trouble figuring out what to do with all the new militiamen in his district. There are too few openings in the Iraqi security forces to absorb them all, even if the Shiite-dominated government agreed to integrate them. Garrett is placing his hopes on vocational-training centers that offer instruction in auto repair, carpentry, blacksmithing and English. “At the end of the day, they want a legitimate living,” Garrett says. “That’s why they’re joining the ISVs.”

But men who have taken up arms to defend themselves against both the Shiites and the Americans won’t be easily persuaded to abandon their weapons in return for a socket wrench. After meeting recently in Baghdad, U.S. officials concluded in an internal report, “Most young Concerned Local Citizens would probably not agree to transition from armed defenders of their communities to the local garbage men or rubble cleanup crew working under the gaze of U.S. soldiers and their own families.” The new militias have given members of the Awakening their first official foothold in occupied Iraq. They are not likely to surrender that position without a fight. The Shiite government is doing little to find jobs for them, because it doesn’t want them back, and violence in Iraq is already starting to escalate. By funding the ISVs and rearming the Sunnis who were stripped of their weapons at the start of the occupation, America has created a vast, uncoordinated security establishment. If the Shiite government of Iraq does not allow Sunnis in the new militias to join the country’s security forces, warns one leader of the Awakening, “It will be worse than before.”

An interesting piece with a lot of surprisingly negative commentary by US forces and officials — read it all.

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