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Line Between Islamist Militants And ISIS Blurs In Egypt
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Line Between Islamist Militants And ISIS Blurs In Egypt

Middle East

Line Between Islamist Militants And ISIS Blurs In Egypt

Line Between Islamist Militants And ISIS Blurs In Egypt
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Among more extreme Islamists, sympathies for the so-called Islamic State are growing — especially in Egypt, where some Islamists are being arrested and accused of terrorism by the police.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Egypt yesterday, at least 30 security forces were killed in the single deadliest attack on the Egyptian Army in decades. And today, Egypt's president vowed to go after the militants responsible. Officials worry that lines are blurring between Islamist insurgents in the Peninsula of Sinai and the so-called Islamic State or ISIS operating in Syria and Iraq. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hany Dabah is a young Egyptian man who, according to his Facebook page, is now fighting in Syria with ISIS. He writes that it's because of torture in Egypt's prisons and the plight of fathers losing their son to detention and police brutality. He writes every day, my certainty increases that the only thing that will stop putting fathers in this situation is Islam and a rifle. He's one of hundreds of Egyptians now fighting in Syria and Iraq, many with ISIS, which has taken control of swaths of both of those countries. And in Egypt, analysts say sympathy with the group is growing as the crackdown on Islamists, regardless of whether they're violent or not, widens.

ALI HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: We meet two lawyers from a group called Al Gamaa al Islamiya in their Cairo offices. The organization was part of a violent insurgency against the state in the '80s and '90s, but its leadership renounced violence in 2003.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: One of the lawyers, Ali Hussein, says that anyone with a beard - a sign of deep religiosity - is targeted by the Egyptian State.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: And when it comes to the so-called Islamic State, Ali Hussein doesn't condemn the group despite the brutality of the extremists. He says it's the media who gives them a bad name.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: He says I'm over 50 now, and when I see children being killed in Gaza and the many Iraqis who were killed from 2003 to 2011, it makes me think maybe I should join ISIS. He says the purpose of ISIS is to protect Islam. And analysts say in Egypt, the draw for young men who join ISIS comes from the lack of opportunities in their own country.

Maher Farghaly is an expert on Islamist movements in Egypt and a former member of Gamaa al Islamiya. He speaks to us at a street cafe in central Cairo.

MAHER FARGHALY: (Through translator) Thousands in Egypt support the ideologies of ISIS.

FADEL: Right now, ISIS is the richest and most powerful jihadist group on the block. And so he says group who operate inside the rest of Sinai Peninsula, for example, may declair allegiance at any time.

FARGHALY: (Through translator) A dictatorship exists here, and there's a lack of social and economic opportunities. There are two reasons behind the existence of extremism - the youth are frustrated and looking for a solution which ISIS claims they can provide.

FADEL: Farghaly is quick to point out, though, that most Egyptians are horrified by the brutality of ISIS and sympathy doesn't always translate into action. Major General Hani Abdel Latif, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees police, says ISIS as an organization doesn't exist in Egypt. But in the state's eyes, all Islamist movements are seen through the same lens.

MAJOR GENERAL HANI ABDEL LATIF: (Through translator) Terrorists are terrorists, and dealing with them by name is naive. If there is a real will for a war against terrorism and the elimination of terrorism, they have to deal with terrorism as a whole, not in pieces.

FADEL: He says some 600 Egyptians are fighting in Syria and Iraq, and they have intercepted communication between groups in Egypt and ISIS.

LATIF: (Through translator) The international action is late, and the international community should move with real will against terrorism regardless of their names.

FADEL: And here, analysts say, is where the problem lies. By painting all Islamist groups with a broad brush of terrorism, the state is pushing more people to extremism and creating fertile ground for ISIS recruitment. But Abdel Latif says that's not true. In Egypt, people are arrested and convicted based on the law.

LATIF: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: To prove his point, Abdel Latif whips out Egypt's Penal Code and begins to read what terrorism is in the eyes of Egypt. The definition is broad. To be a terrorist, it doesn't take much. It's as easy as disturbing public order. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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