Since Egypt’s largest Islamist extremist network Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to ISIS’s self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November 2014, the terrorism environment in the country has increasingly become associated with ISIS’ transnational network. However, while the Islamist group, which now calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Sinai Province (ISIL-SP), has become the prominent perpetrator of terrorism in Egypt, the operations of a shadowy militant organisation have largely gone unnoticed outside the North African country.
This changed in October 2017, when 16 police officers were killed during a security operation in the country’s New Valley governorate, some 135 kilometres (84 miles) from the capital, Cairo. According to security forces, responsibility for the attack was attributed to the Hasm movement.
Roughly translated as “decisiveness,” Hasm announced its creation and raison d’être in a video entitled “Fight Them” in January 2017. The production recapped the group’s main operations since its formation a year earlier. These included the 8 October 2016 assassination of Gamal al-Deeb, a serviceman in Egypt’s Aman al Watani security agency who was shot in the Beheira governorate, northwest of Cairo.
The group referenced other notable acts of violence committed by its members, including the 9 December bomb attack in the Haram district of Giza, which killed six security personnel and wounded three others. The video also reinforced the group’s identification as an armed movement that seeks to forcibly defend Egypt’s civilian population from what it sees as the oppressive regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
While substantiating its existence and modus operandi with verses of the Quran, the Hasm movement initially seemed to lack a distinct Islamist identity more readily associated with Salafi-jihadi groups such as ISIL-SP. Highlighting this, the Hasm group issued a communiqué following the 11 December bombing of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo’s Abbasiya area strongly condemning the attack, which was later claimed by ISIS.
However, Hasm demonstrated that the perceived persecution of Muslim communities could motivate it into violence when it claimed responsibility for a crude bomb attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Cairo on 1 October. The group cited the act of violence as a reprisal for the country’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim population.
Apart from having an explicit Islamist extremist mandate, the Hasm movement’s operations to date remain much more discriminate than those of its extremist counterparts. For example, the group claimed to be behind an August 2016 plot to kill Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa but stated that it purposely botched the assassination attempt amid concerns that civilians could be casualties in the violence. Although its claims have not been verified, consideration for civilian casualties stands in stark contrast to Islamist extremists, who exhibit less discern in their acts of mass violence.
The Gomaa assassination plot also delineated another aspect of the Hasm movement. The planned attack was set to take place on 14 August 2016, the third anniversary of the deaths of over 800 people when security forces attempted to forcibly remove anti-Sisi protesters from Cairo’s Nahda and Rabaa al-Adawiya squares. Because many of the victims were supporters of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, the timing of the assassination plot heightened speculation that Hasm could be affiliated to the banned political movement. Further evidence of a possible connection between the two groups was offered by the Egyptian government’s attribution of the December 2016 bombing in Giza to affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The future trajectory of the Hasm insurgency against the Egyptian state is difficult to predict. While the group’s operations in 2016 allowed its members to circumvent the country’s primed security services, 2017 has been less fortunate for the fledgling movement. In recent months, hundreds of suspected Hasm members have been referred for prosecution under the country’s antiterrorism law. The judicial process against the accused also uncovered the group’s transnational links to Muslim Brotherhood sponsors in Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey.
Arrests and prosecutions of Hasm members will undoubtedly yield a significant operational blow to the group. However, with the movement posturing as the armed resistance of the Egyptian people in a political climate where antigovernment sentiment is increasing, Hasm may not lack willing recruits.