EGYPT: IN SHADOW OF FITNA
January 16, 2011
Analysts Revisit Israeli Spy Chief’s Boasts By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
CAIRO, Jan. 14, 2011 (Veterans Today) — The New Year’s Eve church bombing in Alexandria, in which 23 Coptic Christians were killed, has reignited fears of sectarian conflict in majority-Muslim Egypt. But while mainstream news media has been quick to pin the crime on “Al-Qaeda,” some Egyptian observers point the finger at Israel, citing recent statements by an outgoing Israeli military-intelligence chief in which he explicitly boasts of Israeli prowess in sowing sectarian discord in Egypt.
“Recent statements by high-ranking Israeli intelligence officials confirm that Israel has a role in promoting sectarian unrest in Egypt,” Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at Cairo University and head of the Israel desk at the Cairo-based National Center for Middle East Studies, told Veterans Today.
Half past midnight on New Year’s Day, a powerful explosion ripped through Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr district. More than 20 people were killed instantly and several more have since succumbed to their injuries. Scores more were wounded, many critically.
Initial accounts attributed the blast to a car bomb. On January 1, an eyewitness told Egyptian satellite channel ON TV that he saw a car park outside the church shortly after midnight and two men get out. The explosion, he added, occurred almost immediately afterwards.
Authorities, however, quickly ruled out this theory. “The bomb was most likely carried by a suicide bomber who died among the crowd,” the Egyptian Interior Ministry declared in an initial statement.
No individual or group has claimed responsibility. But both the English- and Arabic-language news media have hastened to cast blame on the ever-elusive “Al-Qaeda” — alleged 9/11 perpetrator and convenient bête noir of the western world. Without further elaboration, Egyptian government officials have cryptically described the attack as the “work of foreign hands.”
The bombing comes only two months after the “Islamic State of Iraq” — a purported “Al-Qaeda affiliate” — was said to have claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a Baghdad church that killed dozens of worshipers. The shadowy group also reportedly vowed to target Christians in Egypt, in ostensible retaliation for the alleged detention by Coptic Church authorities of two Coptic women said to have converted to Islam.
But many local observers have come to question Al-Qaeda’s very existence, with some even suggesting that the 9/11 attacks in 2001 were the work not of Al-Qaeda but of US and Israeli intelligence agencies.
“Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Al-Qaeda has had no organizational existence whatsoever, with the exception perhaps of a few small self-directed groups that might sympathize with Al-Qaeda’s purported ideology,” Gamal Mazloum, retired Egyptian Army brigadier-general and expert on geo-strategy and defense issues, told Veterans Today.
.”[Israeli spy agency] Mossad, by contrast — widely known to have carried out major operations in Syria, Dubai and Iran — has vast operational capabilities and resources at its disposal and is heavily supported by western intelligence agencies,” he added.
The Alexandria attack was immediately followed by contradictory statements from the relevant authorities, suggesting that initial investigations of the crime scene had yielded few solid leads. “Nobody had a clue about how the explosion had happened or the person behind it,” read a January 6 statement from the Alexandria prosecutor’s office.
“Up until this point, there has been nothing but speculation; details of the bombing remain unclear,” said Mazloum. “What we can be sure of is that the operation was extremely well planned and carried out without leaving a trace of the perpetrators.”
The church bombing was followed by five days of Coptic demonstrations, in which angry protestors — blaming the government for failing to protect the nation’s Christians — frequently clashed with security forces. Security measures in and around churches, meanwhile, have been stepped up countrywide.
While there have been moving displays of national unity, with Egyptian Muslims turning out en masse to show solidarity with their Christian compatriots, there have also been less pleasant scenes. On January 2, a crowd of Copts vented their anger by surrounding and pounding on a car carrying Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, a prominent Muslim official, as he left a Cairo Cathedral.
Only days later in Alexandria, a Salafi Muslim man who had been arrested in the wake of the church attack died abruptly while in police custody, leading to charges by his family — and several human rights groups — that he had been tortured to death while under interrogation. The incident served to anger large swathes of the Muslim population, further enflaming the already charged sectarian atmosphere.
“The situation’s getting really serious now,” said Fahmi. “Mounting sectarian animosity has reached the point where it now threatens the country’s very stability.”
The largest concentration of Christians in the Middle East, Egypt’s Coptic community is thought to account for some ten percent of the country’s 80-million-strong population. While Egypt’s Christian minority has traditionally coexisted peacefully amid the Muslim majority, the frequency — and intensity — of sectarian confrontation has picked up markedly in recent years.
“Over the last decade, Egypt’s sectarian situation has worsened,” Khaled Fouad, vice-president of the opposition Democratic People’s Party and organizer of a January 6 conference at the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate devoted to the Alexandria bombing, told Veterans Today. “Before 2000, there might have been one or two serious sectarian incidents every decade; since 2000, hardly a year goes by without a major — and often bloody — sectarian incident.”
On January 6 of last year, the eve of Coptic Christmas, six Coptic Christians and a Muslim security guard were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hammadi, prompting a wave of Coptic outrage nationwide. Three Muslim men, all of whom deny the charges, are currently on trial for the crime.
And in late November, authorities halted renovation work on a church in Cairo’s Omraniya district, triggering violent clashes between Coptic demonstrators and security forces that left one Coptic protestor dead. Along with under-representation in the top echelons of government, Egypt’s Copts have long complained of stringent government restrictions on church building.
Most recently, on January 11, one Coptic Christian was killed and five others injured when an off-duty Muslim policeman opened fire on passengers on board a train in Upper Egypt. While initial news reports portrayed the incident as one more example of sectarian bloodletting, subsequent reports suggest that the shooting may not have been religiously motivated.
A Spymaster Boasts
Those who suspect an Israeli hand in the deteriorating sectarian atmosphere — and in the Alexandria church attack in particular — point to recent statements by Major-General Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military-intelligence directorate, or AMAN. In Arabic-language press reports in early November, Yadlin openly bragged about Israel’s successes in “infiltrating” and “promoting sectarian tension” in Egypt.
“We have infiltrated Egypt in many areas, including the political, security, economic and military spheres,” Yadlin was quoted as saying in independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on November 2. He went on to note that this activity had progressed “according to plan since 1979,” the year in which Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David peace accord.
Yadlin, whose statements were attributed to a report in Israeli-Palestinian Arabic-language weekly Kul al-Arab, was reportedly speaking on the occasion of his official handover to his appointed successor, General Aviv Kochavi.
Notably, Yadlin goes on to brag about Israeli success in sowing sectarian strife — fitna in Arabic — in Egypt. “We have succeeded in promoting sectarian and social tension there so as to create a permanent atmosphere of turmoil,” he is quoted as saying.
According to Fahmi, Yadlin’s was not the first such admission by a high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer. “One year ago, Avi Dichter [former head of Israeli domestic spy service Shin Bet] stated explicitly that Israel stood behind sectarian unrest in Egypt,” he said.
Yadlin’s frank assertions have inevitably led some local observers to raise the possibility of an Israeli role in the New Year’s Eve church bombing.
Speaking on state television in the immediate wake of the attack, Nabil Luqa Babawi, a prominent member of the ruling National Democratic Party, referred explicitly to recent statements by Yadlin. “Israel devotes millions of dollars to instigating Christian-Muslim conflict,” said Babawi, himself a Coptic Christian.
Shortly afterward, also on state television, Gamal Asaad, a Coptic member of parliament, warned of a “Zionist plot aimed at destabilizing the country and wrecking national cohesion.” He went on to refer to “Israeli attempts to exploit the tense sectarian atmosphere in certain parts of the Middle East.”
“Whoever committed the Alexandria crime wants to instigate fitna between Egypt’s Christians and Muslims in hopes of destabilizing the country and, perhaps, damaging its vital tourism industry,” said Mazloum. “And Israel stands at the top of the list of those who would benefit from such a scenario.”
Fahmi agreed, asserting that Israel “has more to gain from the Alexandria attack than anyone.”
According to Yadlin, Egypt isn’t the only country to be subject to Israeli intrigue. In his statements in early November, he spoke of additional “infiltrations” in a handful of other states in the region — including Lebanon, Sudan and Iran — during his five-year term as military-intelligence chief.
“We have reformulated a number of espionage networks in Lebanon and formed dozens of new ones,” he is quoted as saying. “The result is that we now have complete control over the country’s telecommunications sector.”
Within the last two years, Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah has uncovered more than 100 suspected Israeli spies operating in Lebanon (one of whom, remarkably, is a first cousin of alleged 9/11 hijacker Ziad al-Jarrah). Hezbollah also claims Israel was behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri — which brought the country perilously close to civil war between Sunni and Shiite — and, last August, presented credible evidence in support of its assertions.
Notably, in late October, Yadlin was quoted as saying by Iranian Press TV that Israel had benefited from Hariri’s death, after which it had managed to launch “more than one operation” inside Lebanon.
On Israeli intelligence activity in Sudan, Yadlin, in his November statements, also confessed to having played a major role in assisting south Sudanese “separatist movements” in an effort to foment civil strife in that country.
“We provided the southern separatists with weapons, trained many of them, and assisted them with logistics,” he is quoted as saying. “We have built networks in southern Sudan and in Darfur capable of continuing this work indefinitely.”
Early this month, Sudanese Ambassador to Iran Suleiman Abdel Towab accused both the US and Israel of fueling unrest in southern Sudan, where a weeklong referendum on secession from the northern Khartoum government is now wrapping up. “The Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, is likely to be escalating the conflict,” Abdel Towab was quoted as saying on January 2.
Southern Sudan’s referendum, which ends on Saturday (January 15), has been accompanied by considerable violence, with scores killed in clashes between rival tribes in the country’s disputed Abyei region.
“Israel is known to have provided southern Sudan with weapons and military training to help in its conflict with the north,” said Mazloum. “The unfolding breakup of Sudan, which will pose an immediate challenge to Egypt’s national security, is being planned and directed by the US and Israel.”
South Sudanese leaders, for their part, have already hinted at a willingness to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv — still a taboo in much of the Arab world — in the event of secession.
“There is a longstanding Zionist strategy, referred to in the writings of many Zionist pioneers, aimed at ensuring Israel’s regional hegemony by breaking major Arab countries into small and ineffective, ethnically-distinct statelets,” said Fahmi. “Just as Sudan will be divided between the Muslim north and Christian south, so Iraq will likely be broken up into three distinct Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions.”
Interestingly, deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, while on trial for war crimes in 2006, stated, “The Zionists are the only ones who will benefit from the differences among Iraqis,” in reference to the rapidly deteriorating sectarian situation at the time between the country’s Sunnis and Shiites.
Yadlin also reportedly admitted that Israeli intelligence activity extended into Iran. “We have assassinated several Iranian nuclear scientists and political leaders,” he is quoted as having said in November.
On January 10, Iran announced the arrest of several suspected Israeli spies who they said were responsible for the assassination last year of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. “The main elements behind this terrorist crime were arrested and a network of spies and terrorists linked to the Zionist regime was dismantled,” according to an Iranian Intelligence Ministry statement cited by Agence France-Presse.
Payback for Spy Bust?
Notably, on December 19, less than two weeks before the church bombing, Egyptian authorities announced the discovery and arrest of an alleged Israeli spy network said to have included an Egyptian and two Israeli nationals. The Egyptian, 37-year-old Tarek Abdel Razzek, is expected to stand trial on espionage charges, while the two Israelis have been charged in absentia.
Confessions by Abdel Razzek have reportedly led to the discovery of additional Israeli spy networks in both Syria and Lebanon.
In light of the close timing, some observers posit that the Alexandria church attack may have come as payback for Egypt’s successful discovery/disruption of Israeli intelligence activity.
“Revelations gleaned from the spy’s confession allowed Egyptian counter-intelligence to expose additional Israeli spy networks in Syria and Lebanon, as well as further intelligence activity in a handful of Asian countries,” said Fahmi. “It was an enormous intelligence blow to Israel. It’s not out of the question that the Alexandria bombing constituted some kind of retaliation for this.”
“The church attack could have been an Israeli reply to Egypt’s detection of Israeli spy rings operating in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon,” agreed Mazloum.
Regardless of the possible motivations, said Fouad, many Egyptians remain convinced that Israel had a hand in the bombing. “Mainly because no Muslim, or Muslim organization, in Egypt could possibly benefit — in any way — from what happened,” he said.
Fouad bolstered the assertion by citing the following factors: “Yadlin’s frank admissions about fomenting sectarian strife in Egypt; that Israel has a major interest in keeping Egypt’s attention focused on internal problems while major Arab states of the region are broken up; and that the church attack immediately followed Egypt’s exposure of Mossad activity in several countries.”
Theories to this effect are hardly confined to political analysts.
“We all know Israel committed the massacre at the church,” said 27-year-old Cairo taxi driver Ezzedine Ahmed. “No believing Muslim would ever slaughter innocent Christians because, according to Islam, the murder of innocent people — of whatever faith — is absolutely haram (forbidden).’”
The above article can be found here: EGYPT: IN SHADOW OF FITNA