MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

March 15, 2016
Who killed Egypt’s Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat? That’s perhaps one of the most contentious questions in Egypt today. In nearly nine months, no credible claim of responsibility has surfaced, and we will probably never know for sure unless the group responsible publishes video evidence. The Tahrir Brigades, a heretofore unknown group claiming to be made up of military officers, issued a statement of responsibility two months after the attack, but offered no evidence. Another group purporting to be the Popular Resistance Movement denied a claim posted in its name on social media, after the man allegedly behind the online post was arrested. With no major successful attacks gone unclaimed since the 2013 coup, and this being the highest profile political assassination in decades, the silence of the perpetrators is unusual.

The Ministry of Interior (MOI), notorious for its lack of credibility, had been throwing around the charge against Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and jihadists it has killed in raids. Almost immediately following the assassination last June, a number of MB leaders were gunned down in an apartment and the MOI alleged they had a hand in planning the assassination and other attacks. More recently, the MOI claimed that a group of jihadists it killed in a Cairo shootout had a hand in the assassination.

But a recent charge drew attention since Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar personally delivered the investigation’s results during a press conference and offered a level of detail that went beyond previous assertions. A month earlier, when directly asked about the case, he said he had information but no results on the investigation, which suggests that despite what has been reported and conventionally believed, the MOI had not taken a definitive position on who was behind the assassination prior to last week’s press conference. 

The Minister spoke of a conspiracy that involved young Muslim Brotherhood operatives from the countryside, a Brotherhood financier in Turkey, and Hamas military operatives providing training in Gaza. These are understandably all trigger words for “conspiracy theory” or “fabrication” as it conveniently piles together all the regime’s enemies. Naturally, the Brotherhood and its apologists have fiercely rejected even the remotest possibility of the group being implicated, while the regime’s supporters accepted the MOI narrative as gospel truth.

The unique nature of the attack should mean that every claim or charge has to be objectively considered for accuracy. The MOI is known to fabricate and throw around politically motivated charges, but it is, at the end of the day, the official security body and a source of information. The most amateur observer of Egypt recognizes that it is a country full of contradictions. The security apparatus is no different. It has incompetent and professional officers. It produces many times faulty investigations and sometimes sound ones.

The controversy over the claim highlights the challenges often faced by observers trying to decipher Cairo’s disinformation and gain an understanding of the security situation that doesn’t just rely on the jihadists’ obviously biased narrative. It also reveals the often heavily politicized nature of debate over security in Egypt. To regime supporters, the Brotherhood’s tentacles are behind everything. To the Brotherhood and its apologists, it is all one giant regime conspiracy and Barakat’s assassination is a false-flag. They see any claim implicating Brotherhood members or supporters as patently absurd and politically motivated.

So, who speaks the truth? The answer is, as it usually is, somewhere in between.

While it may be difficult to grapple with the idea of considering the investigations of a notoriously unreliable MOI, some of their investigations into terror attacks have been accurate in the past. For instance, as early as May 2014, the MOI claimed that the leader of the Ajnad Misr group, then a new jihadist group, was a man by the name of Hamam Attiya. This was confirmed when the group eulogized him after he was killed the following year. The source of that information was one of those usually non-credible confession videos, often times, extracted under coercion. Another high profile positive identification was of the last known Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM, now ISIS affiliate Sinai State) leader, Tawfik Mohamed Ferrij, in January 2014, before the group confirmed his identity in his obituary a few months later.

Another example is when the MOI correctly identified the ABM suicide bomber and cell that targeted the Daqahlia security directorate in December 2013. The government had immediately blamed the Muslim Brotherhood of being behind the attack, without evidence, to justify designating it as a terror group. But when it came time to present the actual investigation’s results in a press conference the following month, the MOI accused a Jihadist identified as Imam Mari’ of being the suicide bomber and outlined the facts of ABM’s involvement.

One of the cell’s alleged members happened to be the son of a local Brotherhood leader, a fact the then Minister of Interior exploited to make the government’s political argument that all Islamists were cut from the same cloth and that somehow the larger organization of the Brotherhood was implicated. To deflect accusations, the Brotherhood at the time wasn’t content with simply denying involvement but instead alleging the terrorist incidents were inside jobs. To raise doubts about this particular incident, the local Brotherhood chapter’s website dismissed the accusations and claimed that Mari’ was detained some months prior. The MOI claim would have probably been dismissed to this day had Mari’ not appeared posthumously in an ABM video delivering a pre-recorded suicide note. This set some precedent, albeit admittedly convoluted, for when to distinguish between unsubstantiated political accusations and actual alleged facts in investigation results presented in official press conferences like last week’s.

When it comes to the Brotherhood, the group has often been falsely accused of the most egregious jihadist attacks in the Sinai and the mainland for political purposes. But that doesn’t mean that some of its members and supporters have nothing to do with violence; on the contrary, they have been waging a low-intensity proto-insurgency since the 2013 coup. A number of non-Jihadist shadowy groups that include Islamist supporters of the Brotherhood and some of its members who embrace violence have engaged in acts of sabotage and taken up arms under different names. Some Brotherhood leaders have supported this turn to violence and others have been directly implicated in it in strongholds like the Fayoum governorate. In fact, nearly 30 percent of all police and army fatalities over the past 32 months took place outside Sinai in the Egyptian mainland where these non-Jihadist violent groups operate.  

There is also an attempt by some non-Salafi Jihadists—i.e. Brothers and their supporters—to come up with a sharia-grounded justification for violence that can be reconciled with the Brotherhood creed. This means that although it remains true that the Brotherhood is largely a non-violent movement in its tactics, some are trying to change that. The Brotherhood is also facing unprecedented fracturing and some wings may be carrying out rogue operations, perhaps even in connection with other rogue Hamas operatives, of which other Brotherhood leaders have no knowledge of or connection to. Perhaps just like the Hamas political leaders who recently visited Cairo, keen on mending relations.

With that in mind, the idea that two years after the coup, one of those new violent actors may have been involved in the assassination of Barakat is not something to be instantly dismissed. When it comes to motive, if Islamists were to come up with a hit list, Barakat would have always been near the top and would have fulfilled their criteria for religiously justified retribution. He authorized the Raba’a dispersal and his prosecutors helped build cases that destroyed the lives of thousands of Islamists.

The central question of whether or not Brotherhood members or supporters in Egypt may be involved in terrorism has long been settled. The only valid question here is if those alleged Brothers were involved and if they had the capacity to do it all by themselves. There is still a likelihood that some enterprising Jihadi actor may have had a hand in overseeing the sophisticated operation, which would explain the capacity gap. The only prior political assassination attempt took place in September 2013 and targeted the Minister of Interior was hatched and executed by a former special forces officer and now leader of an Al Qaeda linked group by the name of Hisham Ashmawy along with some fellow ex-officers. According to investigations, Ashmawy reached out to ABM which was to provide the financing and logistical support in exchange for taking credit. Following ABM’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, some of its members, including Ashmawy, refused to follow suit and other Jihadists were alienated. It wouldn’t be unthinkable that such banner less Jihadists, or others wishing to operate in secret, may have attempted to cooperate on common goals like assassinations.

So it is likely that the four young Al-Azhar students paraded on TV by the MOI as the alleged assassins were following others orders, in other words, younger looking recruits used to not arouse suspicion. The MOI itself claims that 14 people were involved in the plot who belonged to a 48-member cell. Three of the young men are from Sharqiya province, Morsi’s home province and the scene of many security incidents and also, perhaps coincidently, where ABM had used a farm to store weapons and explosives that happened to be used in the assassination attempt on the Minister of Interior. Al-Azhar students have also long been involved in the new militant scene in Egypt. Finally, the MOI claims that the suspects were arrested for being members of a cell that tried to attack police with vehicle-borne IEDs. Allegedly, after arresting them the police learned they were involved with the assassination. Not some random people off the street.

This could all still be a tall tale, but a tale that can be checked for accuracy, which is again why the claim can’t be instantly tossed out without information confidently refuting it. Before, Barakat’s assassination charge was often pinned on dead suspects, piled on to a litany of charges. Now the government is actually building a legal case and there will be an opportunity to look at the evidence the prosecution brings forward. In the meantime, facts alleged by the MOI can be checked. For instance, the MOI said one suspect, who was a student, allegedly travelled to Gaza for three months. His test or attendance records can be checked to see if there was ever an absence for that long, and so on.

What is clear is that when it comes to the highest profile political assassination in recent times it is of little utility to analyze through a biased political lens, and to either dismiss or confidently believe the Egyptian government without first investigating.

Mokhtar Awad is a Research Fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. 

RELATED CONTENT