Egypt: Don’t Limit Action to ISIS; Islamists Elsewhere Share its Ideology

Patrick Goodenough | September 14, 2014 | 9:18pm EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo on Saturday, September 13, 2014. (Photo: State Department)

( – During Secretary of State John Kerry’s weekend visit to Cairo, his Egyptian counterpart pushed for the new international focus on countering terrorism to go beyond Syria and Iraq, arguing that the same ideology espoused by the jihadists there is driving other Islamist extremists, including those in Egypt’s neighboring territories.

During his current travels in the Middle East and Europe, Kerry is seeking support for a coalition to tackle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), and he said Sunday he has received offers from some countries to take part in the military element of that campaign.

But while the administration’s focus has been largely centered on ISIS, Cairo sees the problem as a far broader one.

A spokesman for President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi said that in talks with Kerry the president had “stressed that any international coalition against terrorism must be a comprehensive alliance that is not limited to confront a certain organization or to curb a single terrorist hotbed but must expand to include all the terrorist hotbeds across the Middle East and Africa.”

During a joint press appearance with Kerry, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri underlined the point, calling for a fight against Islamist terrorists “wherever they may be.”

“I support the international efforts to fight terrorism and work on supporting these efforts, and support the necessary measures to put an end to this phenomenon, whether in Iraq, Libya, any part of the Arab world, or in Africa,” he said.

In reply to a question about possible links between ISIS and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a terrorist group based in the Sinai peninsula, he said the two organizations were linked through a common ideologically and vision, even if they portray themselves differently.

“We definitely monitor these relationships between the various organizations, and in the end, this – ideologically speaking, this organization is linked and these organizations share that common vision,” Shukri said, speaking through a translator.

“And we don’t believe there’s a different – perhaps just in the tactics used by these organizations and the way they depict themselves to the international community,” he continued.

“We believe that this extremist, exclusionary ideology is common among all terrorist organizations,” Shukri said, adding that Egypt monitors cooperation between such groups and recognizes that they pose threats across borders between national states.

“They want to eliminate these states so that this extremist ideology will prevail.”

Shukri said Egypt believed defeating terrorism was “a collective responsibility.”

“There should be agreement between members of the international community to eliminate these phenomena wherever they may be.”

Differences over Libya, Muslim Brotherhood

The Obama and Sisi administrations have not seen eye-to-eye over the turmoil in Libya, where Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes against Islamist militia last month drew a reprimand from Washington.

Egypt, the UAE and others like Saudi Arabia regard the chaos in Libya, where Islamist militias seized control of Tripoli airport on August 23 and are supporting an alternative government, as a major security challenge.

The United States does as well – a State Department official testified on Capitol Hill last week about concerns that Libyan militias could spread to Egypt, Algeria, and even further afield to Syria and Iraq – but the administration also maintains that the crisis must be resolved politically.

Another jihadist group in Libya, Ansar al-Shariah, has its stronghold in Benghazi. The group is suspected of having played a key role in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya’s second-largest city, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists on trial last May. (AP Photo/Heba Khamis, File)

The U.S. and Egypt have also differed over the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran Islamist organization which the former views as a legitimate political force and the latter as a terrorist group.

Sisi, in his then capacity as military chief, toppled the Islamist organization’s ruling administration in July 2013 and cracked down on its leaders, from former President Mohamed Morsi down.

The view that the coalition Kerry is building should not be limited to ISIS in Syria and Iraq was also aired last week by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. After a conference during which Kerry and representatives from 10 Arab countries pledged to tackle ISIS, Saud spoke of the need for a “comprehensive” approach to the problem that “extends to deal with this terrorism that strikes Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.”

He said those countries had become safe havens for “these organizations and their networks, in particular with regard to the transfer of weapons and ammunition to them and among them.”

Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Sisi’s Egypt and is strongly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.

‘New fault line’

Former U.S. Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed last week that the U.S. should come down on the non-Islamist side of the “new fault line” in the Middle East, siding with the likes of Egypt, Algeria and some Gulf states against Islamists – whether Sunni or Shi’ite – and their supporters such as Turkey and Qatar.

“The Obama administration worries about the consequences of excluding all Islamists,” wrote Ross, who is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It worries, too, about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time.”

“But as Egypt and the U.A.E. showed with the airstrikes on Islamists in Libya, some of America’s traditional partners are ready to act without us, convinced that the administration does not see all Islamists as a threat – and that America sees its interests as different from theirs. That is a problem.”

“These non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region,” Ross said. “They favor stability, the free flow of oil and gas, and they oppose terrorism. The forces that threaten us also threaten them.”

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