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Egypt's state of security in focus after plane hijacking

Egypt has been hit by an aircraft hijacking less than six months after a militant group downed a plane over Sinai. DW speaks to Tomas Olivier, executive of an intelligence consultancy, about Egypt's security situation.

Since the accession of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to power following a 2013 military coup on the back of popular protests against Egypt's first democratically elected president, the security situation has deteriorated.

While it is not yet established what the hijacker intended in Egypt's latest aviation crisis, the incident gives cause to re-examine the nation's security situation amid an increase in terror attacks across the globe. While el-Sissi's presidency has thus far been marked by the repression of activists, forced disappearances and waning press freedom, an insurgency in Sinai continues to erode his pledge to restore stability.

DW asked CEO Tomas Olivier of the Netherlands-based intelligence consultancy Lowlands Solutions for his appraisal of Egypt's current security situation.

DW: Less than six months after an "Islamic State"-affiliated militant group claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, what does the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181 say about Egypt's ability to secure civilian flights?

Tomas Olivier: Hijacking in itself is an extremely rare method of terrorism in modern times. During the "Golden Age" of hijacking - between the 1960s and 1990s - it was, however, a method which was commonly used for ideological purposes. The hijacking scenario in Cyprus, apparently executed by Egyptian national Seifedeen Mustafa, appears to be driven by personal motivation. However, the fact that the hijacker released all Egyptian nationals while numerous foreigners and the crew were still on board could indicate a more ideological motivation as well. It is, however, too early to draw conclusions based on the information available to us at the moment.

After the bombing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis - also known as the "Islamic State in the Sinai Province" (IS-IP) - above Northern Sinai in October 2015, airport and aviation security increased in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities even decided to hire a foreign consultancy company - Control Risks - to examine airport security throughout the country. This step was announced by the Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou with the primary objective of demonstrating the "fact" that Egyptian airports are secure. By that time - December 2015 - Egyptian tourism was already suffering a $280-million (250-million-euro) loss a month.

Have the measures undertaken by the government effectively improved Egypt's security?

Experts still have realistic doubts about the current security situation at numerous Egyptian airports. Close affiliation between airport staff, aircraft technicians and, for instance, supporters of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are not uncommon and remain a serious threat with regard to so-called "insider jobs," whether related to terrorism or, as reporting indicates to be most likely, personally driven, like the hijacking situation in Cyprus. The fact that it appears to be possible to smuggle in explosive devices and/or any kind of weaponry is worrying and will, once more, be an enormous blow to the already dubious reputation of general airport security in Egypt.

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Following ex-President Mohammed Morsi's ouster, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi campaigned for the presidency on a platform of security and stability. Has he delivered on his promises?

After the military removal of Morsi in 2013, el-Sissi promised to suppress all Islamic extremist movements in Egypt with a primary focus on the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian Army battalions and specialized counterterrorist units are involved in an ongoing counterinsurgency campaign in an effort to minimize the violent presence of IS-IP. The name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was changed after the organization pledged alliance to the "Islamic State" in November 2014. Technically, el-Sissi indeed delivered on his promises and focused with "all guns blazing" on one of the most notorious militant groups in Egypt. However, this campaign did not have the results anticipated by the Egyptian government.

Did Morsi's removal from power pave the way for a wider insurgency across the country?

The security situation in Egypt didn't improve, at any rate. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis previously engaged in the execution of terrorist attacks against Israel in 2012, as well as against infrastructure projects, including a pipeline for the export of gas between Jordan and Israel. After Morsi's removal, the militant group completely focused its attacks on Egyptian security forces in retaliation for the suppression of their operational groups in Sinai. This resulted in numerous successful attacks on both Egyptian army and police units, including sophisticated and well-organized attacks on military camps and the South Sinai Security Directorate. Additionally, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis managed to carry out a high-profile assassination attempt against the interior minister in 2013.

In August 2013, security forces cracked down on pro-Morsi supporters on one of modern Egypt's bloodiest days

In August 2013, security forces cracked down on pro-Morsi supporters in one of modern Egypt's bloodiest days

Are there differences between the "Islamic State" and its Sinai-based affiliate? What does their relationship look like?

Since November 2014, after pledging alliance, the "Islamic State" and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis have established a more structural relationship in which it is believed that both organizations support each other with the delivery of weapons, natural resources, finances and manpower, predominantly for technical expertise. The main difference, in my opinion, is the way both organizations target their opponents. The "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria is currently involved in "full-scale warfare" in which it fights its opponents with heavy artillery, small-arms fire and suicide attacks in direct contact on the battlefield. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis does not have the capabilities to take on the modern and better-equipped Egyptian army, and therefore decided to engage the Egyptian security apparatus with remote targeting and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This campaign has proved to be very successful and resulted in many casualties amongst the Egyptian security forces.

Is Egypt waging a successful "war on terrorism" in North Sinai? How does this reflect on President el-Sissi?

Although the counterinsurgency campaign initiated by el-Sissi resulted in initial successes, and the Egyptian regime evacuated more than 1,000 families in the areas near the Egyptian-Israeli border to counter logistical terrorist networks between the Sinai and Gaza, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is more dominant than ever. It has stepped up its "remote targeting" against Egypt forces and was responsible for the Metrojet bombing in October 2015. It is also believed that the organization still receives abundant weapons and equipment from Gaza, and financing from the Levant and, most likely, also from Libya.

The interview was conducted by Lewis Sanders IV.

Tomas Olivier is the chief executive of Lowlands Solutions Netherlands, a private Dutch organization based in The Hague that provides a range of advisory and investigative services to public and private clients, including governments, agencies and corporate businesses.

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