President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi recently inaugurated the Red Sea-based southern navy leadership, which consists of a special navy forces brigade. The step was viewed as a measure that would foster military efficiency between the Egyptian Armed Forces and navy based in the Red Sea.
The establishment of the southern navy leadership is considered a “quantum leap” for the Egyptian navy armament and formulation as it grants the army full control of operations carried out in the Red Sea at a time when many threats surround Egypt’s borders, especially from the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliated group “Sinai Province”, which has conducted numerous terrorist operations in North Sinai against the army and on police checkpoints.
The reasons behind the sudden rise in the number of those militants who allege that Islam is the main impetus of their actions remains vague and propagated by variations of analysis. These actions include violent attacks against army, police conscripts, and recently such acts have targeted civilians.
Local and international media outlets have questioned the motivations behind the appearance of such groups, which use killing as a means to achieve what they deem as “Islamic rule” on earth.
Despite the intensive security campaigns carried out by army and police forces inside the tumultuous governorate of North Sinai, the IS-affiliated group “Sinai Province” is still active and is launching attacks against both civilians and security members. The security campaigns have not contributed effectively to decreasing the group’s membership or the recruitment process, which attempts to allure young men from North Sinai and outside the peninsula to join its ranks.
Several local intellectuals and experts echoed that the crisis inside North Sinai will not only reach an end through the dependence on military campaigns and called for the activation of education and health services in the peninsula; moreover, they asked that the needs of youth be met in order to avoid their being attracted to the forces of extremism.
To better understand the situation in North Sinai and the way militant groups think, Daily News Egypt sat down with international terrorism expert and former Unit 777 chief-of-staff Hatem Saber, who was known by the name “Unknown Leader” during the 25 January Revolution.
First of all, can you explain to us the reason behind the title “Unknown Leader”?
The name “Unknown Leader” dates back to the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution when I was serving as a high-ranking officer in Unit 777. At that time, Unit 777 received orders to deploy a number of our members in the streets of Cairo’s suburb of Nasr City following the riots that erupted during the days of the revolution,.
With state of the art weaponry and special forces uniforms that Egyptians had never seen before, Unit 777 stood in the streets of Nasr City in front of bystanders who thought at first glance that we were US forces that had been deployed to Egypt.
When they knew we were Egyptians, they started to take photos from afar, as it is forbidden for members of the unit to appear in photos. These photos of the masked officers, including me as an officer who led the unit, were circulated through social media outlets. One of the photos that was taken of me, in which I appear in a full special forces uniform, including a facemask, was entitled “Unknown Leader”. This was the source of that nickname, which followed me even into retirement.
What are the reasons behind your retirement?
I retired from military service due to multiple injuries that I had endured through trainings, these injuries resulted in me not being100% fit and this violates the requirements of the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Currently, I’m working as a visiting professor at the Egyptian Military Academy and as an expert in international terrorism movements.
In your opinion, what is the classification of Unit 777 on the international scale?
Frankly speaking, the Egyptian Special Forces Unit 777 does not have a independent classification as it is part of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The international ranking system is being conducted on the armies as a whole, not its special forces.
Unfortunately, several local military experts disseminate false information to the public and exaggerate the ranking of Unit 777. Therefore, I would like to note that any special forces that occupies a place in any international ranking should have precedent in combating international terrorism.
However, we all should agree that the Egyptian special forces maintain a privilege that is not present in any other counterpart forces, which is the physical efficiency of its personnel, unlike other forces that highly depend on technology instead of improving their physical abilities.
Do you think that the recently signed arms deals by the Egyptian government are vital to improving the efficiency of the armed forces?
It is important for Egyptians to be aware that the recent signed army deals are necessary and Egypt was in dire need of them. This is the case even if they will negatively affect the Egyptian economy.
Egypt is surrounded by numerous enemies, who are working actively to destroy the only powerful army inside the Middle East, which is the Egyptian Armed Forces. For those who oppose these deals, I would like to say that if your home is surrounded by thugs you would give priority to having arms for the sake of foiling any invasion instigated by them. This is the situation in Egypt.
Egypt bought the Mistral warship, which only carries helicopters, and not fighter jets. This has made clear that Egypt does not have any plans for invasion, but rather it is only preparing to curb any assault against it. Also, the recently purchased Rafale fighter jets are an important step to achieving the superiority of the Egyptian Air Forces.
Israel, which is the first and only enemy to Egypt, owns the latest-made F35 fighters, which are provided to it by the US. Thus, Egypt should guarantee its fighting efficiency to face any potential assaults.
Let’s move to a different point, which is the Islamic movements and the ongoing terrorism operations across the country. What is your opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Since the establishment of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, its actions have been based on how things were settled during the beginning of Islam.
Under these views propagated by Muslim scholars, any ruler who receives orders from an occupier or applies their special version of Sharia law should not receive atonement. Through these viewpoints, many extremist groups, such as “Sinai Province” are, are carrying out their operations. This also includes previous groups that committed terrorist actions in Egypt during the 1990s, as they consider the current regimes apostates due to the absence of the application of Sharia law.
I consider the Brotherhood the source of all current extremist militant groups.
Regarding the conditions inside North Sinai, what do you believe are the reasons behind the appearance of such militant groups and who finances them?
The appearance of the IS-affiliated group “Sinai Province” in North Sinai is not haply as rumored. This group receives finances from intelligence apparatuses from different countries that seek the destruction of the Egyptian army.
Regarding how to deal with terrorists and their ways of thinking, you will find that the US government has divided these groups’ ways of thinking into six stages. This includes the establishment of small militant groups to carry out limited operations, then the groups grow into larger operations, then the groups unite under one brigade to carry out large-scale operations, after which it will then occupy a space, which will be followed by the declaration of a state.
All of these steps were applied in Iraq and Syria, and all of them took place in North Sinai, except for the last stage, which has been foiled by the Egyptian Armed Forces. The US administration during the era of Barack Obama should be labelled as responsible for these steps and there was an apparent confession from former US secretary of state Hilary Clinton about financing extremist militant groups in Afghanistan.
Do you agree with what is being circulated by some media outlets regarding unfair treatment by security forces and marginalisation as being reasons behind the emergence of such militant group in North Sinai?
The discourse being circulated, whether by local or foreign media outlets, regarding marginalization and the unfair treatment of North Sinai residents is not true and should be labeled as foreign propaganda.
The evidence that this discourse is not true is that residents inside North Sinai are effectively co-operating with army and police during current ongoing operations. To those foreigners who promote this discourse, I say: please have a look at human rights conditions inside European countries and the way Europe treats terrorists following any terrorist attack carried out on European soil.
On that point, I would like to say that western countries have innovated new torture techniques and committed numerous violations against human rights, particularly inside the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Do you think the only way to end the crisis in North Sinai is through military and security operations?
It will be difficult to settle the situation in North Sinai only through the military confrontation; however, the state is currently only dealing with people who oppose it through violence, and I disagree with those who consider poverty, illiteracy, and illness as central reasons behind extremism and terrorism. This is evidenced through the young man who detonated himself as a suicide bomber at the Coptic church in Cairo in December. He was an educated man who studies at the faculty of science. Not to mention, the founder of Al-Qaeda is Osama Bin Laden, who was a very rich man. The case here is not related to poverty or wealth.
From my point of view, the case is mainly due to an information war and this is apparent in the video releases by IS that are prepared according to the plans of external intelligence apparatuses in order to directly deliver messages through these videos and social media outlets.
Consequently, Egypt must carry out prompt changes in religious discourse and initiate social media campaigns to eradicate religious preachers in Egypt that disseminate a negative discourse of Islam. The basics of the true Islam should be disseminated to combat such ideas, such as focusing on the subtle issues, such as love.
What will happen to terrorist groups once president-elect Donald Trump assumes power in the US?
President-elect Trump said it frankly that the US will stop playing the role of world’s police, so the upcoming US policy will depend on lifting the support provided to the militant groups. The suspension of this support will lead to these groups returning to the countries where such groups were established.
Also, the absence of US as the world’s police will push the Gulf countries to consider the UK as an alternative [the UK will thus be the new protector of Gulf countries].
In your opinion, what would Egypt look like if the Brotherhood were still in power?
Inevitably, in the case that former president Mohamed Morsi was still in power, Egypt would play an important role in supporting terrorism and militant groups. Morsi supported this idea, which was supported when he clearly stated that Egyptians and the Egyptian army support the Syrian revolution, which was and is still based out of takfirist groups. He intended to engage the Egyptian army in a conflict with the Syrian army, which is currently facing numerous extremist groups.
Finally, I would like to say that Egypt will remain unified and that current economic decisions are considered a bitter medicine that will lead to the speedy recovery of the Egyptian economy.