Jihadists on the Nile

By Aaron Zelin
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To date, very few arrests have been made with regard to jihadist weapons smuggling through Egypt to Sinai. Government operations in the peninsula proper have not made an appreciable difference, with some claiming that many of the individuals killed or arrested have actually been Bedouin tribesmen, not jihadists. Further, if reports are true that Egypt's Jamal Network has connections to last year's attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, nothing has been done to verify the claim or help Washington prosecute these individuals. Cairo has also failed to investigate the nature of the relationship between Muhammad al-Zawahiri and his brother. Such inquiries could go a long way toward better understanding the intentions and transnational connections of Egypt's jihadists.

Policy Recommendations

To address the emerging jihadist problem in Egypt, Washington should use different tools for different actors -- namely, demobilization, intelligence sharing, and economic opportunity. First, working through the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States must encourage a demobilization program to co-opt jihadists and bring them into the political process. To be sure, Egypt does not have sufficient funds to fully copy the Saudis, who have been able to "reprogram" extremists through provision of money, housing, and wives, among other things. Yet it could adopt one aspect of the Saudi program: using mainstream clerics from al-Azhar to convince jihadists that their interpretations of certain Islamic sources are faulty. High-ranking members of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah (GI) who demobilized in the late 1990s should also be part of such discussions, as should former EIJ members who accepted GI's revisions.

This policy would not necessarily show results immediately, but it could stem further growth in jihadism as well as peel away individuals whose ideological commitment is soft. Demobilized jihadists could then be given a legitimate means of airing their grievances. The goal would be to replicate the case of GI and ex-EIJ actors who have established or joined political parties. Jihadists who accept this path would be given a clean slate, while those who reject it would be made to understand the consequences: that they would be tracked by intelligence and arrested if they gave any sign of planning violence in or outside Egypt.

Second, Washington should coordinate with Israel on providing intelligence to Egyptian authorities in order to help them identify and monitor jihadists. Although many jihadists have not engaged in violence since being freed from prison, the ability to quickly shut down their networks is imperative given the likelihood that they will return to such activities down the road. Mapping their networks would also help determine the extent to which Nile Valley-based jihadists are contributing to Sinai's instability. If Cairo does arrest such suspects, it must try them based on the rule of law. Egypt currently co-chairs the Global Counterterrorism Forum's Committee on the Rule of Law, so its partners in that body should provide guidance, led by the United States.

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Third, as a long-term approach, Washington should work with Cairo to provide economic opportunities for underdeveloped areas. This would sap the narrative that any non-jihadist regime is "unjust," as well as co-opt individuals whose support for Salafi jihadism is soft. This is especially important in Sinai, since it could drain potential recruitment of individuals involved in smuggling networks. Specific measures could include building roads to neglected areas, constructing mobile and telecommunications networks, establishing new industrial zones, opening new educational and healthcare facilities, and giving locals an opportunity to participate in the tourism industry instead of providing land and contracts to mainland Egyptians with government connections.

For this three-part approach to work, Washington must persuade Cairo that it is in Egypt's best interests. The United States should also provide economic and diplomatic inducements and disincentives. For example, if Cairo does not cooperate, President Muhammad Morsi should not be allowed to visit the White House; if, however, the government takes consistent actions over time, President Obama should consider a state visit to Egypt. Additionally, if the Muslim Brotherhood or military is unwilling to work with Washington on these issues, or if Morsi continues to call for the release of convicted terrorist Omar Abdul Rahman, the United States should hold, withdraw, or change the amount of aid it provides. Given how important the jihadist problem is to both Egyptian and U.S. interests, it should be a central component of bilateral relations.

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Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute.

This article was originally published as PolicyWatch 2016 and is republished with permission.

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