Egyptian authorities have arrested an Egyptian security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, claiming he is a senior figure in an Islamist terrorist organization. U.S. officials are scrambling to get information from Egyptian authorities, who did not alert them beforehand.
An embassy official confirmed to The Daily Beast that 42-year-old Ahmed Ali, accused by the Egyptians of helping to plan or taking part in more than a dozen attacks on security forces, was an employee in the security service at the mission in downtown Cairo. Egyptian authorities are claiming he is a commander in the militant Helwan Brigades.
Both the lack of any forewarning by the Egyptian authorities and the apparent security failure by the U.S. State Department, which failed to unearth Ali’s membership in the brigades, is likely to prompt outrage on Capitol Hill.
Security for all of the U.S. embassies in the Middle East is meant to have been tightened since the 2012 militant assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi in eastern Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The disclosure of the arrest by Egyptian authorities on Wednesday came just hours before a suicide bomber blew himself up outside Luxor’s ancient Karnak temple in southern Egypt in an attack that left four people, including two police officers, wounded. Police said they also killed two of the bomber’s accomplices.
No group has as yet claimed responsibility for the attack at the spectacular temple, with its dozens of sphinxes and beautiful bas reliefs of ancient gods, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Nile River. But some analysts speculated that the attack may have been organized by the so-called Islamic State, which has been courting local jihadis, seeking to persuade them to affiliate with the terror group based in Syria and Iraq.
Firas Abi Ali and Ludovico Carlino of IHS, a global risk consultancy, argue the bombing is unlikely to be the work of an al Qaeda-affiliated Egyptian group such as Ajnad Misr, or the Soldiers of Egypt, which recently announced it is trying to avoid Muslim casualties. “It is likely to be the work of the Islamic State, which sees Ancient Egyptian temples as idolatrous,” the analysts say. They believe the attack may herald the announcement by ISIS of an affiliate in Egypt.
It is the second time this month that suspected Islamic extremists have attacked a major Egyptian tourist attraction or launched a raid nearby. On June 3, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire outside the Giza Pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo, killing two policemen.
The Helwan Brigades are not the most dangerous of militant groups organizing attacks in Egypt but members are thought to be behind the killing of a policeman, setting fire to police cars, staging Molotov cocktail attacks and bombing a university in southern Cairo, in the district the group takes its name from, Helwan. Egyptian authorities accuse the group of being affiliated to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. A former member of the Helwan Brigades, 22-year-old Waleed Saad, recently confessed to responsibility for the murder of a policeman and the bombing of the university.
According to Egyptian authorities, Saad told interrogators that two senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood provided the group with weapons that were later used in attacks against security forces, including on a police station in the district of Zilzal. Some analysts are treating his confession with caution, since Egyptian interrogators are known to employ torture.
In August last year the Helwan Brigades posted a video online threatening security forces and “the Interior Ministry in South Cairo” with violence, saying they were “fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood’s peacefulness.” On the video one man insisted they were not members of the Muslim Brotherhood and warned the Egyptian Interior Ministry that it “would be targeted for what you have done to us.”
He added: “You have shown no consideration for the fact that we are your brothers. You have shown no consideration for anything. You have shed blood and stepped on us. You have raped the women. You have impregnated the Muslim women.” More than 200 alleged members of the group were arrested last summer and charged with “plotting against the police and the army, and against official facilities.”
Egyptian State prosecutors have alleged that the Muslim Brotherhood, after an army-led coup backed by large street protests ousted the government of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, assigned members to form militant groups including the Helwan Brigades, the Ultras, and the Anti Coup Alliance.
Muslim Brotherhood officials vehemently deny the allegation.
Rights groups accuse the Egyptian authorities of erroneously painting the Muslim Brotherhood as linked to militant Islamists, jihadis, and terrorists without distinguishing among them. But following the ouster of Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, and the mass arrests of senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, younger members have drifted toward more violent action.
In a statement issued to the Egyptian press Wednesday a U.S. embassy spokesman said: “We understand an embassy employee, who is an Egyptian citizen, has been arrested by Egyptian security. We are in touch with Egyptian authorities regarding the charges and the next steps in the legal process.”