Islam’s Leading Muftis Condemn the “Islamic State”

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Egypt’s Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist), Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam, has opened a new campaign to combat Islamist militancy of the type promoted by the Islamic State through electronic means such as internet sites, videos and Twitter accounts. The campaign, which will involve Islamic scholars from across the world, aims to: “correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spread hate between people” (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], August 31; September 1; AP, August 25). There were 37 million internet users in Egypt as of September 2013 (Ahram Online, September 1).

Grand Mufti EgyptGrand Mufti Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam

Egypt’s Grand Mufti has also been pulled into the controversial death sentences issued against leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers in connection with a series of violent incidents that followed last year’s popular rising/military coup that toppled the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood). The specific case in which the Grand Mufti was invited to give his opinion involved death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’e and seven other Brotherhood leaders in June (six others were sentenced to death in absentia, but have the right to new trials if they return) in connection with murder charges related to the clashes at the Istiqama mosque in Giza on July 23, 2013 that left nine people dead.

Egyptian legal procedure calls for all death sentences to be confirmed by a non-binding decision of the Grand Mufti, though in practice such decisions are nearly always followed. Unusually, in this case, the Mufti’s original decision to commute the June death sentences to life imprisonment was returned by the court for reconsideration (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 30; al-Jazeera, August 8). Shawqi Allam declined to take the hint and instead reaffirmed his position that the death penalties were inappropriate given that the evidence consisted solely of unsupported testimony from a police operative (Deutsche Welle, August 30). The Grand Mufti’s actions have been interpreted as a rebuke to the judicial process that has delivered hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters this year following the group’s official designation as a “terrorist” organization. Muhammad al-Badi’e still faces another death sentence in relation to a separate case regarding the Brothers’ alleged armed response to a July 2014 demonstration at their al-Muqattam headquarters in eastern Cairo.

The decisions of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta (House of Religious Edicts) are typically closely aligned to official government policy, leading many observers to consider it a quasi-governmental agency. Nonetheless, the office and Egypt’s Grand Mufti remain important sources of spiritual direction throughout the Sunni Islamic world, with thousands of fatwa-s being issued every month in response to questions of faith and practice from around the Islamic world. Compared to institutions such as Cairo’s 10th century al-Azhar Islamic University (also brought under government control in 1961), Dar al-Ifta is a comparatively modern institution, having been created at the order of Khedive Abbas al-Hilmi in 1895.

Grand Mufti Saudi ArabiaGrand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh

In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, chairman of the Council of Senior Ulema and the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (the Kingdom’s fatwa-issuing office), used an August 28 radio interview to respond to the arrest of eight men charged with recruiting fighters for the Islamic State by urging young Saudis to resist calls for jihad “under unknown banners and perverted principles” (Nida al-Islam Radio [Mecca], August 28).

The interview followed a statement entitled “Foresight and Remembrance” made several days earlier in which the Saudi Grand Mufti described members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as “Kharijites, the first group that deviated from the religion because they accused Muslims of disbelief due to their sins and allowed killing them and taking their money,” a reference to an early and traditionally much despised early Islamic movement whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic (similar to the takfiri pose adopted by the modern Islamist extremists) led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are rather Islam’s number one enemy, and Muslims are their first victims…” (Saudi Press Agency, August 19).

The Grand Mufti’s comments reflect a growing concern in Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom will inevitably be targeted by the so-called Islamic State, a development that could shatter the partnership between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Sa’ud royal family that dominates the Kingdom both politically and spiritually. Thousands of Saudis are believed to have left to join Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months (Reuters, August 25). The Islamic State poses a direct challenge to the religious legitimacy of the al-Sa’ud monarchy and their rule of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah by presenting the creation of a caliphate as the true fulfillment the Wahhabist “project” while simultaneously undercutting the authority of Wahhabist clerics such as Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, whom the movement views as having been co-opted by their partnership with a “corrupt and un-Islamic” royal family.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Domestic Security Threat: Ajnad Misr and the “Retribution for LIfe” Campaign

Andrew McGregor 

July 10, 2014

A Cairo-based extremist group using the name Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) has intensified its bombing campaign in the Egyptian capital with a surprising attack on the Ittihadiya Palace in Heliopolis, the home of Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. The bombing was part of the movement’s “Retribution for Life” campaign, apparently mounted in support of pro-Muhammad Mursi/Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations in the capital met with ruthless responses by Egyptian security forces that have left hundreds dead. Ajnad Misr refers to Egypt’s police as “criminals” who carry out “massacres” and has made them the main target of their bombing campaign so far (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 3).

Moments after a Bomb Blast at Cairo’s Ittihadiya Palace

The movement announced itself via Twitter on January 23, following the announcement the next day with the release of its “Retribution for Life” manifesto. [1]  The manifesto deployed the usual references to the Salafists’ preferred religious authority, Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), but also spoke in sympathy with the Brotherhood, suggesting it was only their failure to eradicate corruption that allowed the old military regime to “re-emerge in an even uglier and more criminal form” (Al-Monitor, July 3).  [2]

The movement professes a reluctance to incur civilian casualties in its bombing campaign, claiming it had canceled many operations out of fears “shrapnel” could inflict damage on civilian bystanders (al-Arabiya, April 2). In its manifesto, the group appeared to have reached a conclusion in the ongoing jihadi debate over the legitimacy of killing innocent Muslims in pursuit of an Islamic state,  declaring that those fighting the Egyptian regime “must remain extremely vigilant and careful not to inflict damage upon the innocents among us, even if they oppose us” (Al-Monitor, July 3).  [3]

Ajnad Misr issued a video in April that claimed responsibility for eight bombing attacks in Egypt, including a series of bombings on April 2 that killed a senior police officer and wounded five policemen outside Cairo University (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 17). Within days of the video’s release, Ajnad Misr deployed a car bomb to kill police Brigadier General Ahmad Zaki outside his home in Sixth October City, later issuing a statement saying the time and place of the blast had been carefully chosen to avoid civilian casualties (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 24).

In the April 2 attack, two bombs were detonated in quick succession on the Giza campus of Cairo University, killing police Brigadier General Tariq al-Margawi and wounding several other officers. A third blast of a smaller device occurred as police responded to the earlier blasts, wounding the Giza deputy chief of police, Major General Abd al-Raouf al-Sirafy (al-Arabiya, April 2; Youm 7 [Cairo], April 2). In its statement of claim, Ajnad Misr said the last explosion was delayed to avoid harming civilians, though it may also have been intended to strike first responders (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 3). Police had been deployed on the campus that day in anticipation of a demonstration by pro-Mursi students.

The movement was declared a terrorist organization by Egypt’s Court for Urgent Matters in May as the death toll from extremist attacks since the anti-Mursi coup approached 500 people (Ahram Online [Cairo], May 22). Most alarming were the bombs detonated in several stations of Cairo’s busy underground metro system on June 25 (al-Arabiya, June 25; Daily News Egypt, July 3). The bombs were fortunately small in size and inflicted a limited number of casualties, but served as a warning that mass-casualty terrorist attacks could lie in Cairo’s future. The attacks were not claimed by Ajnad Misr and may be the work of one of several other terrorist cells that appear to be mobilizing against the new government.

Another bomb planted outside a court in Heliopolis the same day as the metro bombings killed two policemen (including a senior officer) and wounded Major General Ala’a Abd al-Zaher, the head of Cairo’s bomb disposal unit. Al-Zaher was attempting to defuse the bomb after Ajnad Misr tweeted their location in an apparent change of heart regarding their detonation (al-Arabiya, June 25; Egypt State Information Service, July 1). [4]

Ajnad Misr stepped up its campaign significantly with a dramatic June 30 bombing attack on the presidential palace in Heliopolis (an integrated suburb of Cairo).  Two policemen were killed and 13 others wounded as they struggled to defuse the two bombs planted just outside the palace. Most disturbing from a security point of view was the fact that the movement had issued a warning via social media on June 27 indicating it was about to plant explosives on the palace grounds, yet security services were unable to secure the area and prevent the blasts (Daily News Egypt, July 1).

Ajnad Misr’s membership, leadership and exact connections to the Muslim Brotherhood remain largely unknown, though it is possible the group has been created to enable the imprisoned Brotherhood leadership to apply pressure on President al-Sisi’s government, which appears set on the physical extermination of the Brothers and their ability to challenge the state. The group’s focus on police targets and stated reluctance to inflict civilian casualties is obviously designed to enable the group to attract wider public support, something the casual destructiveness of most jihadi groups has prevented in the past. Whether this approach will have resonance with the large number of Egyptians unhappy with the manner of the replacement of Mursi’s Islamist government by yet another pseudo-military regime is worth watching.

Notes

1. The movement’s Twitter account can be found at: https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr

2. https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr_am/status/457501373458694144/photo/1

3. https://twitter.com/ajnad_misr_am/status/457501373458694144/photo/1

4. EuroNews, “Twin Blasts Kill Policemen in Egypt,” June 30, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_KlAOfKygs

This article first appeared in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Plan to Ship Israeli Gas to Egypt Raises Political and Security Concerns

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2014

Only two years after public opposition and attacks by militants brought an end to Egyptian gas shipments to Israel, there is a new proposal to begin shipping Israeli natural gas to Egypt.  Texas-based Noble Energy signed a non-binding letter of intent with Unión Fenosa Gas (UFG – a Spanish-Italian joint venture) on May 5 calling for the shipment of 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from Israel’s offshore Tamar gas field over 15 years. The gas would be liquefied for export at Unión Fenosa’s Damietta liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant (20 percent owned by Egypt) before shipment to foreign markets by tanker, though the Egyptian government announced two days later that it had not yet issued the necessary authorization required for any imports of gas from Israel. Egypt’s Oil Ministry has said that any such deal would need to “serve the national interest of the country” (Wall Street Journal, May 6; Haaretz/Reuters, May 7).

The Tamar gas field is located 50 miles off the Israeli coast in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and began production in March 2013. The largest partner in developing the gas field is Noble Energy, with a 36 percent share. Other partners include Israel’s Isramco Negev 2, two subsidiaries of Israel’s Delek Group and a subsidiary of Israel’s Dor Alon Group. The Tamar partners have already signed smaller deals to supply gas to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan’s Arab Potash Company and Jordan Bromine Company but have otherwise failed to find international markets for Tamar’s production. Turkey remains a potential customer for Tamar gas, but any deal with Turkish energy firms would come with its own political baggage, given the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

Leviathan, a second Israeli offshore gas field, is owned by the same partners as the Tamar field. With twice as much gas reserves as Tamar, Leviathan is expected to go online in 2017 though financing has yet to be arranged due to the absence of large, long-term contracts with buyers. The Leviathan partners are expected to announce an export deal with foreign partners within three months. Tamar and Leviathan are expected to meet Israel’s domestic energy needs for at least the next 25 years.

The last natural gas deal between Egypt and Israel ended badly, with both parties entering arbitration before the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) this year to resolve outstanding financial claims. In this earlier case, natural gas exports from Egypt to Israel were repeatedly interrupted by attacks by militants on the al-Arish to Ashkelon pipeline. The attacks began shortly after the January, 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and continued even after the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) and the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) terminated their agreement with Israel’s East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) over a payment dispute following an Egyptian declaration of force majeure they claimed would excuse them from meeting their supply obligations.[1] By this time, there was massive popular opposition to continuing a deal to supply Israel with gas at below market prices that many Egyptians viewed as a prime example of the corruption that permeated the Mubarak regime.

There has been some discussion of using the existing pipeline to carry Israeli gas to Egypt until a proposed undersea Tamar to Damietta pipeline has been completed, though it seems likely the pipeline would again be the target of Bedouin and Islamist militants operating in the Sinai (al-Jazeera, May 8). Residual anger over this earlier contract is likely to help generate opposition to any new Egyptian gas project involving Israel. However, if the deal goes through, militants will have much greater difficulty interrupting the submarine pipeline than the exposed pipeline running through the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt is trying to deal with severe energy shortages during a politically sensitive time. Natural gas is used to generate most of the nation’s electricity and blackouts have become common since the 2011 revolution. With steadily diminishing production and an inability to attract sufficient investment to develop remaining reserves, Egypt is finding it impossible to meet both heavily subsidized domestic demand and its export commitments (Reuters, May 6; al-Bawaba, May 7). Several gas-producing Gulf nations supporting Egypt’s political transition have supplied Egypt with $6 billion in free fuel to ward off potential popular unrest created by energy shortages this summer (Reuters, May 6).

With Egyptian natural gas now being diverted to the domestic market, UFG’s Damietta plant has been offline since December 2012 (al-Jazeera, May 8). A second Egyptian LNG plant located at the Mediterranean port of Idko is operated by the British-owned BG Group, the losing bidder on the Tamar gas deal. Like the Damietta plant, the Idko plant is also running well below capacity due to supply shortages and was unable to export any gas during the first quarter of 2014. The Egyptian government’s decision to divert natural gas supplies to the domestic market is estimated to have cost Unión Fenosa and the BG Group billions of dollars in lost revenue and has prevented both firms from meeting their commitments to customers in Europe and Asia.

Following the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Russia, European countries dependent on Russian gas imports are now seeking alternative supplies, mainly from nearby Algeria. After Egyptian negotiations with Algeria’s government-owned Sonatrach were halted when European markets began expressing interest in Algerian gas following the Crimea crisis, Egypt turned to Russia’s Gazprom Company for supply, reaching an agreement to import Russian liquefied natural gas beginning this summer (Daily News Egypt, May 13). The favorable payment terms offered by Russia may be viewed as part of its effort to re-establish influence in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

It remains uncertain whether any of the Israeli gas exported to Egypt would find its way to gas-hungry Egyptian markets or what the reaction of the Egyptian public might be to such a development. In the meantime, Unión Fenosa has brought its own complaint before the ICC over the Egyptian failure to maintain contracted payments as per its agreement and it is possible the BG Group will follow suit with reference to Egypt’s failure to supply its Idko LNG facility with natural gas. The BG Group has already declared force majeure for its Egyptian operations because of the government’s gas diversions and a $4 billion debt owed by the Egyptian government. Egypt has already faced 19 arbitration cases from international energy firms since the 2011 revolution, with most of these remaining unsettled. In the meantime, factories, businesses and retailers are all forced to reduce their hours of operation, damaging an already struggling economy. Alternatives to gas are being sought to supply Egypt’s energy needs as the high consumption summer months approach, including the use of coal and low-grade polluting petroleum products (Zawya [Dubai], April 15).

Note

1. Force Majeure refers to a party to a contract being relieved of their obligation to fulfill terms of a contract due an event or circumstance beyond the control of the party concerned that has resulted in the party failing or delaying its contractual obligations in circumstances that could not be prevented or overcome by the standard of a reasonable or prudent person or party. It excludes such relief (normally intended to be only temporary) in cases of negligence or malfeasance.

This article was published in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egyptian Military Offensive in the Sinai Follows Tourist Massacre

Andrew McGregor

March 6, 2014

Egyptian security forces have responded to the latest terrorist blow to Egypt’s vital tourism industry with a series of raids that have killed dozens of militants and resulted in the detention of many others.

Jama’at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis

On February 16, a bomb on a tourist bus carrying South Koreans making the trip from St. Catherine’s monastery to the resort town of Taba killed three tourists and their Egyptian driver, while a further 13 tourists were wounded (al-Jazeera, February 16). The attack was claimed by militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), who claimed the strike was “part of our economic war against this regime of traitors” (AFP, February 19). Tourism accounts for over 11 percent of Egyptian GDP and is an important source of foreign currency. The Sinai was the last part of the politically volatile nation to maintain a healthy tourist trade, but this has now been put in jeopardy. The bombing was denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, a militant Islamist group responsible for the murder of 58 tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor in 1997 (Ahram Online, February 17).

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) is the Egyptian branch of a Gaza-based Islamist organization. Since its first appearance in the Sinai in the days after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on oil pipelines, a strike on Israeli troops in 2012, the attempted assassination of Egypt’s interior minister in 2013 and the successful assassination of an important National Security Agency investigator the same year (see Terrorism Monitor, November 28, 2013).

The tourist bus bombing led to a number of operations as part of the ongoing Egyptian military response to radicalism in the Sinai Peninsula:

  • During the night of February 19, Egyptian Army helicopter gunships used missiles to attack houses suspected to harbor militants in the Shaykh Zuwayad area, killing at least ten people (AP, February 20).
  • On February 28, the Egyptian Second Field Army (responsible for the Sinai) reported killing six militants (including an alleged member of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) and the arrest of 14 others (Egypt State Information Service, February 28).
  • On March 1, the armed forces reported ten extremists killed and ten others wounded in the Northern Sinai communities of al-Arish, Shaykh Zuwaya and Rafah (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], March 1).

The military also continues to demolish tunnels to Gaza in the border town of Rafah

Militants in the Sinai also continue to attack another sector of the Egyptian economy – gas exports to Jordan. The gas pipeline running through northern Sinai was blown up south of al-Arish for the fourth time this year on February 25 (al-Arabiya, February 26). Most of the bombings of the pipeline (which brought an end to gas exports to Israel in 2012) have been claimed by Ansar al-Maqdis.

This article first appeared in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Salafist al-Nur Party Stuggles to Keep Political Islam Alive in Egypt

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2014

With former president Muhammad Mursi in prison and the Muslim Brotherhood declared a terrorist organization, political Islam is struggling to survive in Egypt today. With the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) expelled from the political scene, the Islamist torch has passed to the Salafist Nur Party, led by Younes Makhioun. The party, established in 2011 by Egypt’s Dawa al-Salafiya (Salafist Call) movement (a Salafist rival to the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1970s), took nearly a quarter of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections after forming a coalition with three smaller Salafist parties, making it the second-most powerful Islamist party in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP. The party endured a bitter split in December 2012 over the role of al-Dawa al-Salafiya clerics in daily decision-making in the Nur Party (see Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013).