An old battle is playing out once again in Egypt. On one side is the Egyptian military, with vast political strength and wealth, and on the other is the Muslim Brotherhood. The war between the two groups has, over decades, featured successive periods of repression, uneasy alliance, and terrorism.In the 1950s the relationship was characterized by repression as the army, which had recently taken over the reins of government, grew distrustful of the Brotherhood and locked many of its members in prison, and tortured them. In the early 1980s an uneasy peace was shattered by a jihadi cell that orchestrated the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. The repression of the Brotherhood that took place in both these periods drove thousands of Muslim Brothers abroad and radicalized many others. Today, Egypt’s military rulers seem to be repeating the mistakes of the past.The military leaders currently running Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and imprisoned many of its leaders and members. It killed thousands in the early days after the overthrow of the Brotherhood government headed by Mohamed Morsi. The suppression hasn’t yet resulted in the spectacular terrorist attacks of the past, like the assassination of Sadat or the massacre of tourists at Luxor in 1998, though there have been some remarkable incidents. “Egypt is again an open front for jihad,” a counterterrorism analyst at the New America Foundation told the New York Times.Writing in the upcoming issue of this magazine, the former director the CIA John McLaughlin argues that the dynamics of international jihadism have changed, and not for the better. These days, Islamic terrorists find safe havens from the lawless regions of Mali to Sinai to Syria and Iraq. They may not have a central leadership to direct their activities but they don’t need one. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda veteran, pulled off a spectacular attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria. African and international jihadis exploit established smuggling routes and a vast stretch of ungoverned territory that extends from Mali all the way to Somalia. Al Shabaab is still capable of attacks like the one on the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Terrorists in Sinai used a portable surface-to-air missile to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter in Sinai last month. And in Syria and Iraq, entire cities have fallen to jihadi organizations that command tens of thousands of fighters. Importantly, all of this is happening at the same time.
Today, McLaughlin argues, despite the death of bin Laden, international jihadis remain a serious threat to the US homeland and its interests and allies abroad. Al Qaeda “may be weakened, but its wounds are far from fatal. It is at a moment of transition both in terms of its internal deliberations and its external opportunities. Some of those opportunities hold the potential to energize the movement and give it new momentum. And should it gain in those ways, it will not be the al-Qaeda we knew in the past. It is likely to be a more variegated and less hierarchical adversary that would still hold the potential to do significant harm to American and allied interests. It would be an adversary more difficult to categorize, detect or contain.”