One of the most troubling aspects of the phenomenon of militant Salafist-takfiri groups like ISIS is the appearance of smaller groups across the Arab world that share ISIS’ ideology and methods, and in several cases have sworn allegiance to it.
This is no surprise. In the past 70 years or so we have often seen similar local conditions and grievances in different countries lead to the same kinds of reactions among local populations that often use Islam as a motivating, legitimizing and mobilizing force. This has happened with Muslim Brotherhood-like groups since the 1950s, nationalist military resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, non-violent Salafists in the last decade and now the violent Salafist-takfiris like ISIS.
So today a combination of regional and international countries fight ISIS in Syria-Iraq, while smaller militant groups elsewhere are being fought by individual countries. These include the Salafist-takfiris targeted in Lebanon by the armed forces and Hezbollah, the Yemeni armed forces chasing down Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Egyptian government’s operations against Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and similar situations in Tunisia, Mali, Somalia and other countries.
The situation in Egypt is particularly significant, because of the influence across the region that Egypt has always had. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABEM) came into being in Sinai and started military operations against the government in 2010, after its members broke off from Al-Qaeda. It has repeatedly attacked government and infrastructural facilities, like natural gas export pipelines and military garrisons, and since the military takeover of rule in Egypt last year it has attacked targets in and near Cairo.
Last week it killed 33 Egyptian soldiers and officers in north Sinai. The government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has tried several times to hit and weaken the militants in their home territory in northern Sinai, without much success. The latest operation against ABEM during the past 13 months includes heavy-handed actions against Sinai residents such as many arrests and airstrikes, collective punishment like curfews, and also alleged incidents of kidnapping and torture that have resulted in the deaths of civilians. This week, in response to the killing of the 33 troops, the Sisi government has launched a tougher new strategy that includes creating a buffer zone along the Sinai-Gaza border that aims to reduce assumed links between ABEM and sympathizers in Gaza.
The zone will be 500 meters wide and will run along the entire 13-kilometer-long Gaza border with the northern Sinai. To do this, the Egyptian government a few days ago ordered hundreds of families to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere, so that the homes could be destroyed and the buffer zone established.
Human rights activists and others charge that the Sisi government is abusing its own citizens and denying them their basic rights in forcing them to move without much notice and then blowing up their homes, but a bigger issue also needs to be addressed in this matter. This is whether such strategies and behavior by the Egyptian government will achieve the goal of reducing or eliminating ABEM and its terror attacks, or instead will only make the problem worse.
This is a very localized version of a much wider dilemma that is evident in the multi-national fight against ISIS, and has also always been one of the problematic dimensions of George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” against Al-Qaeda. The Israelis also have tried using buffer zones or even occupying border regions in Gaza and Lebanon to reduce resistance strikes by Lebanese and Palestinians against Israeli occupiers, but usually without success.
The troubling aspect of this phenomenon for Americans, Israelis and now Egyptians also is that a legitimate desire to protect one’s citizens from terror attacks leads to greater anger and resentment among citizens who were never part of the target groups like ABEM or Al-Qaeda. When heavy-handed anti-terror actions demean, kill, injure or ruin the lives of civilians, some of these civilians end up joining the militant groups, simply to exact revenge against those who attacked them.
It is very troubling to see the Egyptian government carry out such policies, for it shows a total lack of understanding about how harsh Egyptian state crackdowns, imprisonment and torture used against mainstream Muslim Brothers in recent decades ended up radicalizing some prisoners and pushing them to join or to create more militant groups like Gamaa Islamiya, Al-Qaeda and now ABEM. The thousands of jailed Muslim Brotherhood members and civilians from northern Sinai are likely to repeat this pattern of militant reactions to aggressive and often excessive state security actions. It is bad news for the entire Arab world that Egypt is copying the American and Israeli strategies that try to quell political violence, but use such harsh tactics that they end up expanding and radicalizing the universe of local groups that use political violence and terrorism.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in The Daily Star and can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri