Operation Deep Punch II: Can a Change of Command Help Nigeria’s War on Boko Haram?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, January 28, 2018

In recent weeks, the Nigerian military has liberated thousands of civilians from the rule of the Islamic State-allied Boko Haram movement, a divided insurgent group now in its eighth year of a callous and merciless effort to impose an extreme form of Islamic rule on northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Hundreds of former Boko Haram militants were released this month after passing through a controversial de-radicalization and rehabilitation program, but both factions of the movement continue assaults on civilians and security personnel in northeast Nigeria and the neighboring states of Niger and Cameroon. Some of the alleged success of the Nigerian military campaign in recent weeks has been attributed to a change in command of Operation Lafiya Dole (Hausa – “Peace by all means”), the codename for Nigerian military efforts to destroy the insurgents.

A Change of Command

The AIS Special Report of July 29, 2017 reported how Major General Ibrahim Attahiru, the commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, had been given a 40-day deadline to take Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau, dead or alive. [1]

Major General Ibrahim Attahiru (BBC)

On December 3, 2017, General Attahiru was relieved of command of Operation Lafiya Dole and redeployed to Nigerian Army HQ as deputy chief of policy and plans. The Nigerian press cited Defense Ministry sources that the change in command was related to poor performance in the field and the inability to catch Shekau (Daily Post [Lagos], December 6, 2017; Punch [Lagos], December 7, 2017).

In the two weeks prior to Attahiru’s transfer, Boko Haram killed 13 people and injured 50 in twin suicide bombings in Biu (Borno State), killed 50 people in a suicide bombing on a mosque in Mubi (Adamawa State) and attacked a forward operating base (FOB) in Magumeri (Borno State), killing three members of the 5th Brigade garrison (8th Division) (Vanguard [Lagos], December 7, 2017; Daily Post [Lagos], November 21, 2017).

Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas (Daily Nigerian)

Replacing Attahiru as commander of theater operations was Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the former chief of logistics at Army HQ. Major General Leo Lucky Irabor, who commanded Operation Lafiya Dole prior to General Attahiru, continues as Force Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) combating Boko Haram. The MNJTF, with headquarters in N’Djamena, includes troops from Benin and the four nations bordering Lake Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

MNJTF Commander Major General Leo Lucky Irabor

Born in 1962, General Nicholas is an Igbo Christian from southeastern Imo State.  Nicholas has experience in the Lake Chad Basin, where he was stationed as a young officer. He has also served in the Nigerian contribution to the joint UN/African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur (UNAMID) and is the former commander of Operation Safe Haven in Plateau State. Well educated, Nicholas speaks Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, English and French, has two Master’s degrees, a post-graduate degree in public administration (all obtained in Nigeria) and is a chartered public accountant (Daily Nigerian, December 11, 2017).

Two weeks after his appointment, General Nicholas warned his officers that they would be punished if they did not take their tasks seriously, adding: “We have been losing our equipment and men to Boko Haram. I cannot tolerate this. We must go out to this people once and for all and show them the might of the Nigerian military. We must make sure we defend this nation with the last drop of our blood. We must not lose anything to these insurgents again. We have no other country but Nigeria and we must fight for it” (Punch [Lagos], December 17, 2017).

General Nicholas also emphasized that Operation Lafiya Dole could not succeed if it was solely a military operation, noting that success required cooperation with police, immigration and customs authorities as well as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF, a local vigilante militia) in order to restore civil authority in liberated regions (This Day [Lagos], January 4, 2018).

Nigerian Army operations in the northeast have been complicated by the split in Boko Haram that occurred in August 2016 when the Islamic State leadership moved to replace the erratic Abu Bakr Shekau with the young Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in April 2015. Shekau ignored the order to step down and the movement split into two groups; one commanded by Shekau in the Sambisi Forest and the other under al-Barnawi and his lieutenant Mamman Nur in the Lake Chad area. [2]

A Defeated Insurgency?

The New Year ushered in a wave of optimism to Nigeria’s military and political leaders. On January 6, the Nigerian military announced Boko Haram operational commander Mamman Nur had been “fatally injured” by a Nigerian bombardment in the Lake Chad region, though it did not explain the term “fatally injured” nor how it had identified Nur as a casualty. One of Nur’s wives was said to have been killed in the action while hundreds of militants surrendered to take advantage of Operation Safe Corridor, a de-radicalization and reintegration programme. Others were said to be fleeing to Niger to accept a government amnesty offered there (Premium Times [Abuja], January 6, 2018; Punch [Lagos], January 6, 2018; This Day [Lagos], January 7, 2018).

Following the bombardment, chief of army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai declared: “I want to assure you without mincing words that the Boko Haram terrorists have been defeated, all we are fighting for now is the peace in the northeast” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018). Buratai told troops of the Nigerian 8th Task Force Division based in Borno State that the division would soon be redeployed to Sokoto State in northwest Nigeria (Guardian [Lagos], January 8, 2018). The movement to Sokoto was first announced in November 2016, conditional on the completion of 8th Division anti-Boko Haram operations in Borno (Premium Times [Abuja], November 27, 2016).

On the same day Buratai addressed the 8th Division, Nigerian Army spokesman Brigadier Sami Usman suggested the Boko Haram leadership was in a rapid state of decline: “There is no doubt that the main Boko Haram terrorists’ group factional leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, is in a terrible state of health and not much a threat as he is now a spent horse, waiting for his Waterloo. However, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi… will soon be captured” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 8, 2018).

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari declared as early as December 2015 that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated.” The president used his 2018 New Year’s Day address to again declare Boko Haram “defeated,” though he acknowledged “isolated attacks still occur” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 1, 2018). On the same day, al-Barnawi’s faction of Boko Haram claimed to have killed nine Nigeria soldiers in an assault on the Kanama barracks in Borno State (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, January 1, 2018).

Lake Chad (WFP/Giulio D’Adamo)

As if to mock the president, Abu Bakr Shekau appeared in a 31-minute Hausa language video the following day to report “We are in good health and nothing has happened to us.” Shekau went on to claim credit for a series of grisly attacks on villagers and loggers in northeastern Borno State (The Guardian [Lagos], January 2, 2018; Vanguard [Lagos], January 2, 2018). Another video released on January 15 showed Shekau firing weapons as well as school girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 and weeping female police officers who were abducted in June 2017 to be the insurgents’ “slaves” (Sahara Reporters, January 15, 2018).

The AIS report of July 29, 2017 noted that members of the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram were relocating from the Sambisi Forest to the Nigerian city of Kano (capital of Kano State in northwest Nigeria). This was confirmed by a January 6, 2018 Nigerian Army statement reporting that junior and senior al-Barnawi faction commanders were fleeing to Kano after the latest Nigerian government offensive (PR Nigeria, January 6, 2018). Shekau’s faction is still operating in the Sambisi Forest region but is under pressure from the Nigerian Army.

Nigeria’s federal government announced in December that it intended to withdraw $1 billion from the controversial Excess Crude Account (ECA, currently standing at $2.32 billion) to combat Boko Haram. Media and opposition parties questioned why such an enormous sum was needed to fight a movement that, according to government leaders, was already vanquished. Amidst opposition fears the funds would be used for political purposes, the government has since suggested the money will not be used solely against Boko Haram and would in any case not be released without the approval of the National Assembly (Vanguard [Lagos], December 30, 2017; January 18, 2018).

Operation Deep Punch II

Nigerian Troops in Operation Deep Punch II (Saynaija)

Nigerian authorities claimed success in mid-December 2017 with coordinated ground-air attacks on Boko Haram hideouts in the Lake Chad islands as part of “Operation Deep Punch II,” [3] arresting 407 suspected militants and their family members (Premium Times [Abuja], December 16, 2017). Large stocks of food, fuel, ammunition, explosives and motorcycles were seized and destroyed, but not without resistance; Boko Haram suicide bombers struck an 8th Division MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored personnel vehicle with a car filled with explosives, killing three soldiers and a member of the CJTF as well as wounding nine others (The Nigerian Voice, December 9, 2017; Nigerian Army official website, December 20, 2017). Saying the deployment of the 8th Division in Borno was a “major strategic decision,” General Buratai declared the unit had “lived up to expectations” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018).

One tactical innovation used by Operation Safe Haven is the deployment of counter-terrorist troops on motorcycles in remote areas (Vanguard [Lagos], December 1, 2017). Boko Haram has long used motorcycles to carry out terrorist attacks.

On a more technologically advanced level, Nigeria will soon take possession of 12 Embraer Super Tucano A-29 turboprop aircraft and munitions from Brazilian Embraer’s US partner, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The nearly $600 million sale was initially blocked by the Obama administration over human rights concerns but has since been approved by the Trump administration. The highly maneuverable counterinsurgency warplanes were designed in Brazil for work in the Amazon Basin and are specially adapted for conditions of high temperatures, humidity and precipitation, conditions more likely to be encountered in the restive Nigerian south rather than arid Borno province. Nonetheless, the aircraft will be useful, particularly if military ground-air coordination can be improved.

Conclusion

Boko Haram is still far from a spent force and remains a regional threat, with recent attacks on troops and civilians in Niger (seven soldiers killed on January 20), Cameroon (four civilians killed on January 11) and Nigeria’s Adamawa State (five civilians killed on January 19) (News24, January 20, 2018; AFP, January 11, 2018). The Nigerians have made significant progress in the Lake Chad region, though clearing the Sambisi Forest of Boko Haram militants has proved frustratingly elusive despite all the claims of victory.

The recent arrest of a suspected Boko Haram terrorist in Germany raises concerns that the successful elimination of Boko Haram as a regional threat might be the beginning of Boko Haram as an international phenomenon as surviving members disperse and take advantage of easy entry into Europe and North America.  At the moment, the greatest impediment to Boko Haram’s out-migration from the region is the relative impoverishment of many of its members, though leading figures will certainly have the means and resources to escape Nigeria’s security forces and initiate new operations in Africa and possibly abroad.

Notes

  1. “General with a Deadline: Ibrahim Attahiru’s 40 Days to Seize Boko Haram Leader Abu Bakr Shekau Dead or Alive,” AIS Special Report, July 29, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3984
  2. See “Choosing a Figurehead over a Fanatic: A Profile of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the New Leader of the Islamic State in West Africa,” Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3712
  3. Deep Punch I was a mid-2017 operation to clear Boko Haram bases in the Sambisi Forest.

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Brotherhood Fox: A Profile of Fugitive Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Leader Mahmud Ezzat

Andrew McGregor

January 12, 2018

Dr. Mahmud Ezzat (al-Jazeera)

How does a leader of an outlawed religious-political movement apply pressure on an inflexible regime at a moment of organizational weakness and internal division? This is the dilemma facing Dr. Mahmud Ezzat, the deputy supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  The Brothers (Ikhwan) are struggling to maintain a foothold in Egypt’s political process four years after its members were slaughtered in the streets of Cairo by security forces following the 2013 overthrow of democratically elected president and Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi by General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military. With much of the movement’s leadership now serving long prison sentences or awaiting execution, the work of keeping the Brotherhood alive has fallen into the hands of fugitive leaders such as Mahmud Ezzat.

Ezzat is wanted by Egyptian authorities in connection with the death of anti-MB protesters outside the movement’s headquarters in the Muquttam district of Cairo on June 30, 2013 (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). His current location is unknown, though speculation has placed him in Gaza, Turkey or even inside Egypt.

Ezzat was among five Egyptians added last November to the terrorist list of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017). Known as a “hardliner,” Ezzat’s long membership at senior levels of the MB has given him an insider’s knowledge of the movement’s organization and finances, much of which is directed by him. Narrow, sharp features and a reputation for organizational skills have led Ezzat to be known as “the Brotherhood Fox” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Early Career

Ezzat was born August 13, 1944 in the eastern Nile Delta city of Zaqaziq. He joined the Brotherhood in 1962 as an 18-year-old medical student. [1]

Formed in in Isma’iliya by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the MB is a religious organization intended to advance political Islamism through social work and political agitation. Much disrupted by events since the 2013 coup, the MB’s leadership structure includes a majlis al-shura (consultative council) below a powerful 15-member Guidance Bureau (maktab al-irshad) with a Supreme Guide (murshid al-‘amm) and his deputies at its head.

The movement has had a difficult relationship with the state since a young MB member tried to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. Thousands were jailed and al-Banna himself assassinated by unknown assailants shortly afterward. The movement was banned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1954. When another Brother tried to kill Nasser in October 1954, a massive crackdown followed that put thousands of Ikhwan behind bars, including revolutionary ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whose works deeply influenced the young Ezzat.

Imprisonment

Ezzzat was arrested in 1965 and imprisoned alongside Sayyid Qutb and Dr. Muhammed Badi’e, who later became the movement’s Supreme Guide (2010 to present). Qutb had already endured torture during nine years in prison; his re-arrest would lead to his execution the next year on charges of conspiring to assassinate the president and overthrow the government. Qutb believed that an Islamic administration could only be imposed by a vanguard of believers (tali’a mu’mina) who would lead the masses to Islam through revolutionary activity.

Dr. Muhammad Badi’e (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Ezzat became a pupil of fellow prisoner Shukri Mustafa, who took Qutbism to extremes after his release in 1971 with the formation of Jama’at al-Muslimin, better known as Takfir wa’l-Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). Mustafa was also an adherent of the works of extremist icon Shaykh ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), but rejected most other Islamic scholarship, pulling his followers out of Egyptian society to live in caves (after the Prophet’s model, the concept of withdrawal from non-Islamic communities is known as hijra).  Mustafa’s jihad ended with his capture and execution in 1978.

Qutbist ideology was influential among the movement’s leaders serving long prison terms, a group that included Ezzat and Badi’e. Nonetheless, the efficiency of Mubarak’s security machine forced Ezzat and other Qutbists to acknowledge the temporary futility of a direct challenge to the state, and the movement shifted back to emphasizing religious education and social assistance as the means of expanding the MB’s influence. Ezzat explained the movement’s outreach efforts by saying Islam provided “a religion for Muslims and a civilization for non-Muslims.” [2]

After nine years in notorious prisons like Liman al-Turra and Abu Za’bal, Ezzat was released in 1974. Ezzat has noted that the cycle of arrests, torture and imprisonment of MB leaders in pre-revolution Egypt always increased membership and public support: “Regime repression is the glue that binds us together and reflects that we are on the right path.” [3]

After his return, Ezzat became a member of the all-important MB Guidance Bureau in 1981 before fleeing President Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on the MB in 1981. Ezzat traveled to Yemen, where he taught at the University of Sana’a, before moving on to England for several years of post-graduate studies (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). [4]

By the mid-1980s, a conservative trend within the movement led by Ezzat and other figures who had emerged from prison or returned from exile drove many leading reformers from roles of influence. The ascendancy of the conservatives continued until the early 2000s, by which time Ezzat and conservative businessman Khayrat al-Shater dominated the ideological direction of the movement. [5] Ezzat was responsible for student recruitment and organizing movement cells across Egypt while working as a professor at the University of Zaqaziq’s faculty of medicine.

In 1992 Ezzat was arrested in connection with the “Salsabil Case,” in which security services claimed to have discovered documents detailing plans to overthrow the Mubarak regime in the offices of the Salsabil software company established by Khayrat al-Shater with Ezzat’s assistance. Two years later Ezzat was detained again alongside 153 other Ikhwan charged with plotting to depose the regime.

The Revolution

Ezzat served as MB secretary general from 2001 to 2010. During that time he became a prominent supporter of Khayrat al-Shater. Ezzat and other conservatives skilfully squeezed out or tamed the movement’s leading reformers in 2009-2010 and elected Muhammad Badi’e as the new supreme guide, replacing Mahdi ‘Akif, who was persuaded to step down. [6] Also forced out was ‘Akif’s first deputy, Muhammad Habib, who accused Ezzat of mounting a coup against him. [7]

By the time of the 2011 revolution, the movement was firmly in the hands of a conservative trend embodied by Ezzzat, al-Shater and MB spokesman Mahmud Ghuzlan.  Reformers began to flow out of the movement, a process accelerated by the events of the revolution and the uncertain response of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

Khayrat al-Shater (al-Arabiya)

Mubarak’s overthrow allowed the MB to form a political party for the first time in June 2011, the Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-’Adala (Freedom and Justice Party – FJP). Ezzat’s ally Khayrat al-Shater became the FJP’s post-revolution candidate for president until his disqualification and replacement by Muhammad al-Mursi, who won the presidential election.

As al-Mursi was not the head of the Brotherhood, it remained unclear whether the Egyptian president was still answerable to the movement’s supreme guide. Despite efforts to portray the FJP as an autonomous political party, the Guidance Bureau’s importance became clear when Mursi and two other FJP leaders began to meet weekly with MB deputy supreme guides Ezzat, al-Shater, Ghuzlan and secretary general Mahmud al-Hussein to “coordinate” political activities. [8]

One consequence of the 2011 revolution was that the MB’s shura council was able to meet for the first time since 1995 without fear of arrest. During that time the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau (including Ezzat) made all the movement’s major decisions without input from the broader leadership. Yet even as the Brotherhood’s new political wing tried to convince Egyptians of their commitment to democracy and tolerance of different perspectives, Ezzat shocked many Egkyptians by making remarks endorsing the implementation of hudud punishments such as stoning, amputation and crucifixion for certain offenses under Shari’a. [9]

The Military Targets the Brotherhood

Following days of public protest, the July 3, 2013 military coup d’état brought an end to Mursi’s administration and yet another wave of anti-Ikhwan repression.  The Brothers’ insistence that the FJP was the legitimate and democratically elected government of Egypt was largely ignored by the international community.

Attempts by the Brotherhood to apply pressure on the military through public protests and sit-ins were met with a savage response by government security forces who killed hundreds and arrested thousands to make it clear to the movement and its supporters that it was no longer part of Egypt’s political process.

With supreme guide Muhammad Badi’e and deputy guides al-Shater and Rashad al-Bayumi in prison, Ezzat became the movement’s acting supreme guide in August 2013 (al-Arabiya, August 20, 2013). Kamal Helbawy, a former MB guidance bureau member who resigned in 2012 over the movement’s decision to run a presidential candidate, noted Ezzat’s affinity for “radical Qutbism” and questioned Ezzat’s appointment as the movement’s supreme guide: “Ezzat is a well-mannered, decent man; he is not a great public speaker and prefers to work in secret more than in public. … Given these characteristics, I don’t think that he is a suitable leader for the Muslim Brotherhood at this stage” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Leadership in Exile

Ezzat evaded arrest unlike his comrades Badi’e, Mursi and al-Shater, all of whom are serving a variety of life sentences bestowed in trials on an assortment of charges, mostly involving terrorism, armed opposition to the state and espionage on behalf of foreign countries (Arab News, November 15, 2017; Daily News Egypt, September 16, 2017; Ahram Online, December 30, 2017).

Egyptian media reports in August 2015 maintained that Ezzat had been replaced as the MB’s acting supreme guide by his UK-based 80-year-old Guidance Bureau colleague, Ibrahim Munir Mustafa. Munir denied the report and insisted “Dr. Mahmud Ezzat is still the deputy supreme guide and acting supreme guide” (Middle East Monitor, August 10, 2015). Citing Ezzat’s alleged ill health, the claim resurfaced a year later (Youm7 [Cairo], September 22, 2016). However, there was no formal announcement, and Ezzat appears to remain the temporary supreme guide. [10]

A new generation of MB leaders suggest the conservative old-guard bears responsibility for the movement’s loss of power and post-coup persecution. Those conservatives still operating freely, such as Ezzat and secretary general Mahmud Hussein, maintain their influence with difficulty as new leaders seek methods of furthering MB aims in al-Sisi’s Egypt. [11]

Still insisting on the legitimacy of Mursi’s FJP government, Ezzat released a public letter from his place of concealment in August 2017 urging an escalation of violence against the al-Sisi regime. Admitting that the organization was “in pain,” Ezzat called for “victory and sovereignty or death and joy” (Egypt Today, August 14, 2017). The letter may have been designed to undercut the appeal to Ikhwan youth of the more militant Kamal faction of the Brotherhood that emerged after the military coup.

Muhammad Kamal (Middle East Monitor)

Muhammad Kamal, a member of the Guidance Bureau, led “special operations committees” engaged in violence intended to force out the new Egyptian regime. Kamal and another MB leader were both killed by shots to the head during a police raid in northern Cairo in October 2016 (Reuters, October 3, 2016). Nonetheless, Kamal’s followers (sometimes termed “the new guard”) attempted to take over the movement in December 2016 when they “dismissed” the existing guidance bureau and established their own “revolutionary” version, creating competing administrations within the movement (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In early 2017 the Kamal faction announced that it would begin publishing internal assessments of the mistakes made by the movement’s leadership. Though this initiative of the MB’s youth wing was supported by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the movement’s Qatari-based spiritual leader, the Brotherhood’s “old guard” was alarmed by the announcement.  Ibrahim Munir reminded members that documents lacking the approval of Mahmud Ezzat did not represent the movement’s opinion (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 27, 2017).

The Kamal faction followed up with a report in March 2017 that was highly critical of the reaction of Ezzat and the movement’s “old guard” to the 2011 revolution, accusing the Brotherhood’s senior leaders of adopting a cautious and conservative stance rather than adhering to the revolutionary principles of MB founder Hassan al-Banna (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In May 2017, the Kamal faction published a document they claim revealed that the Munir/Ezzat faction of the Brotherhood was recommending a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the movement’s political isolation, both in Egypt and internationally. It was an apparent recognition that continued insistence on the legitimacy of the FJP government and the return of Mursi as president was preventing political re-integration. The Munir/Ezzat faction was urging ideological flexibility at a time of weakness in order to allow the movement to survive and avoid international condemnation as a terrorist organization (al-Arabiya, May 8, 2017).

The Egyptian government has rejected all Ikhwan attempts to restore the group, even in a diminished fashion. In August 2017, a Cairo court placed 296 Ikhwan on the national terrorist list and claimed Ezzat was forming a military wing for the movement that would focus on toppling the state and working alongside other extremists to target Coptic Christians (al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). The charges are at odds with Ezzat’s protestations of MB peacefulness, in which Ezzat has quoted Dr. Badi’e: “Our motto remains ‘Our non-violence is more powerful than bullets’” (Ikhwanweb.com, September 13, 2016).

Conclusion

Ezzat insists that there is still a future for the MB, which has survived 90 years of confrontation with Egypt’s governments. The MB’s temporary leader declared last year that the movement is still working to “break the coup and restore legitimacy [i.e. the Mursi/FJP government]” (al-Jazeera, February 24, 2017).

The disaster ushered in by the Brotherhood’s full-scale entry into national politics was met with confusion and dissension within the movement. The detention or dispersal of many Ikhwan prevents the movement from gathering to develop strategies to move forward. In the meantime Ezzat and an aging and fugitive leadership spend much of their time fending off internal challenges from younger members urging defiance rather than the gradualism of the old guard leadership, which still cherishes values like discipline and obedience.

Notes

  1. Hesham al-Adawi, “Islamists in Power: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” in Khair El-Din Haseeb (ed.): State and Religion in the Arab World, Routledge, 2017, pp. 193-94.
  2. Eric Trager, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Georgetown University Press, 2016, p. 94.
  3. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 142-43.
  4. Ibid, p. 151.
  5. Ezzat knew al-Shater from his days in al-Sana’a and London. For al-Shater, see: Andrew McGregor, “The Entrepreneur at the Heart of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: A Profile of Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor, July 31, 2013.
  6. Hazem Kandil: Inside the Brotherhood, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 136-37; Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 139-40.
  7. Khalil al-Anani, op cit, pp. 153-54.
  8. Eric Trager, op cit, p. 111.
  9. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.186.
  10. Nearly a year after this last alleged transfer of authority, Munir signed a statement regarding the Manchester terrorist attack as “Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood” (Middle East Monitor, May 23, 2017).
  11. 11. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 158.

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.