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Meet the New Militant Groups Attacking Corporations and Killing Civilians in Egypt

Members of a new generation of militants coming of age in Egypt are more likely to kill civilians than the country’s traditional jihadists — and they also target KFC restaurants and Vodafone stores.
April 20, 2015, 11:38am
Photo via Reuters

It's nighttime and there are three young men on a street that is otherwise deserted. They have something in their hands, but the video is grainy and shaky so it's hard to make out what it is. A flash and a blast make it clear — a shotgun fired into the window of a building.

More shots are fired, rocks are thrown, and then one of the men pulls a Molotov cocktail from a plastic shopping bag. As it explodes in the stairwell, there's a brief yelp that might be someone choking back a scream. As the men back away, one of them is briefly silhouetted against a building — he's brandishing a pistol.

A new generation of militants is coming of age in Egypt. They are younger, less experienced, more numerous, and more likely to kill civilians than Egypt's traditional jihadists. They are motivated not only by mainstream militant ideas, but also modern critiques of corporate power, which has led them to strike not only the police, but also KFC restaurants and Vodafone stores.

They are becoming bolder and better armed. In the first two days of April, a group that calls itself Revolutionary Punishment claimed the assassination of two police officers. On April 14, they brought down two electricity towers supplying a complex used by Egypt's pro-state media.

"Revolutionary Punishment in Mansoura attacked a checkpoint on the Mansoura agriculture road, tied up officers there, and confiscated their weapons," the group tweeted in late March. A photograph appeared to show a man on his back cuffed with cable ties and two young men making away with Kalashnikovs.

Related: Egyptian court sentences American citizen journalist to life in prison 

The next tweet featured a map of Egypt[](<blockquote class=) with the group's logo dotted atop urban centers. "What is to come will keep getting worse," the caption read.

Alongside the Popular Resistance Movement — which produced the video above — Revolutionary Punishment is part of an upsurge of militancy that followed the military coup that brought down Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July 2013.

Related: Egypt marks anniversary of 2011 uprising with deadly clashes between protesters and police. Read more here. 

For months after the coup, Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president, took to the streets and university campuses in a series of sit-ins and demonstrations that were met with overwhelming lethal force. More than 1,000 people were killed. Many survivors lost several friends, and they abandoned not only the ballot box but also mass protests.

Frustrated with the tactics of their old leaders, they turned to social media to find both new ideas and each other. New groups appeared on Facebook with names like Execution, Molotov, and Burn, reflecting their origins in street protests and the desire for revenge. They began to claim low-level attacks, including arsons on police cars. Then, suddenly, many of these groups disappeared.

By summer 2014, Revolutionary Punishment and the Popular Resistance Movement had emerged. Seemingly more serious and more dangerous than their predecessors, they have eclipsed the traditional jihadist threat in mainland Egypt.

The jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Partisans of Jerusalem), once one of the most threatening in the country, now barely operates outside its base in North Sinai. The group formerly ran a cell in the Delta, northern Egypt, that carried out high-profile bombings until it was smashed in a series of raids last year.

On March 5, Egypt's Interior Ministry announced that the founder of the greater Cairo-based Ajnad Misr (Egypt Soldiers), a jihadi group that has targeted police and soldiers in a campaign of assassinations, was killed in a raid. Hours later, a bombing by the group killed a policeman.

But there has been a transition from a relatively small number of skilled militants — such as the members of Ajnad Misr — to a larger number of angry but inexperienced Islamist youth willing to take armed action.

Killing by Numbers
The shift is reflected in statistics collected by Verisk Maplecroft, a risk analysis consultancy, which show that Revolutionary Punishment and similar bands of disaffected youth have displaced traditional jihadists since autumn 2014. Other sources have tallied greater numbers of attacks and fatalities, but Verisk's consistent and detailed statistics reveal patterns.

The frequency of attacks has skyrocketed since October 2014, rising from an average of around 11 per month to just over 38. The average monthly death toll shrunk slightly, from around 11 deaths to nine. The frequency of bombings more than doubled, but armed attacks such as shootings fell by over 40 percent. The attacks also spread, with the city of Alexandria seeing an increase from three attacks to 35 over the same period.

Civilians and civilian installations have also become more frequent targets. Although al-Maqdis has since pledged allegiance to Islamic State and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), the group previously issued statements claiming that they took great care to avoid killing Egyptian civilians.

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In the 15 months leading up to October 1, 2014, civilian targets were hit 47 times, killing 23 people. But 83 attacks in the six months since then have killed 14 civilians — meaning the rate at which civilians were killed rose since October, even though the average monthly death toll fell.

"We are seeing a shift from targeting the interests of the security apparatus towards commercial targets with a greater risk of civilian casualties," Anthony Hall, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Verisk Maplecroft, told VICE News.

Anti-Corporate Islamism
Although police and the military are still more likely to be targets, the new attention given to attacking corporations is unprecedented in Islamist militancy.

A March 9 statement from Revolutionary Punishment delivered a warning to "Egyptian businessman and international companies."

"We have warned you before to side with the people and their revolution against the military occupation but you ignored us and even went further supporting the [government] with your financial projects and participation in the conference of selling the homeland," the statement said, referring to a major investment conference held in March.

"Because we have warned you and you ignored us," the statement added, "you are now in the range of Revolutionary Punishment all over the country."

The statement claimed Revolutionary Punishment had targeted the offices of two mobile phone networks, two Emirati banks, a KFC, and dozens of other businesses in 47 attacks in the preceding days.

The unlikely inspiration behind the attacks is Shahid Bolsen, an American convert to Islam who lives in Istanbul and preaches a form of Islamism influenced by the tactics and ideas of the Western anti-globalization movement.

"When corporations choose to become involved in crafting state policy, they become valid targets for anyone who opposes those policies," Bolsen wrote recently.

"I can honestly say that I think if I had not been writing, no one from the opposition would have even noticed the Economic Summit," Bolsen told VICE News. "There is some awakening of awareness about economics, about neoliberalism. This was something totally missing from Islamist discourse."

Bolsen is a controversial character. He has been denounced as "bordering on insane" by analysts, and accused of inciting attacks that have left civilians dead and injured.

Living in the United Arab Emirates in 2006, he accidentally killed a man with an overdose of chloroform. In an account posted online, he admits that he lured the man to his house intending to admonish him for soliciting sex over social media. Bolsen claimed the man was drunk and became violent with his maid. Bolsen said he panicked, stuffed the man's body in a suitcase, and tried to use his credit card to flee the country. He was arrested and spent the next seven years in jail.

Related: Egypt calls for pan-Arab military force to tackle terror groups

His ideas, which already combined Islamism with a critique of corporate power, crystallized in prison. He claims he scrunched up tin foil into a point and used it to write on the walls after he was denied access to a pen and paper.

Freed in October 2013, he made his way to Istanbul, where he begun disseminating his ideas over Facebook. He has accumulated 63,000 followers.

In person, Bolsen's genial manner is at odds with his reputation. Although he has repeatedly decried violence, civilians have been killed during attacks on corporate targets. The same groups that attack banks and mobile phone companies also kill policemen. It frustrates him.

"I have personal experience with the consequences when your actions lead to someone's death, so I am actually very sensitive about this issue," he said. "The loss of life is too profound."

The young militants also receive encouragement from several television channels based in Istanbul that broadcast messages supportive of what they call the "resistance," according to Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at the Washington DC-based Center for American Progress who has studied the movement extensively.

"One guest made a special request to Revolutionary Punishment, a group whose first act was a drive-by-shooting yet, which he called 'beautiful,' to kill pro-regime media figures," Awad told VICE News. "The operations of these groups and their statements are covered on the channels in a positive light. And sometimes [the Muslim] Brotherhood sheikhs give Islamic justifications for the militancy and acts of vigilantism."

The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly controls and funds at least one of those channels, and Awad says that two top Brotherhood leaders have told him the same. Responding to a VICE News inquiry, a Brotherhood spokesperson denied that the group funds the channels, which are still freely available in Egypt, but embraced them, calling them "real revolutionary media."

Egypt's new militants have no prospect of overwhelming the state, according to Verisk Maplecroft's Hall. But the continued use of torture and repression, as well as the proscription of more moderate groups, were likely to stoke resentment and lead to further deadly attacks on civilians.

"The very tactics they are using are basically fuelling militancy," Hall said.

Follow Tom Dale on Twitter: @tom_d_