Path to jihad: From upscale Cairo to Islamic State beheadings

Path to jihad: From upscale Cairo to Islamic State beheadings
Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.

After leaving his upscale Cairo neighborhood to fight with the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, Younes says he learned how to work as a sniper, fire heavy weaponry and behead prisoners using the proper technique.

One year later he harbors the kind of ambition that could create a security nightmare for Egyptian authorities: to return home and hoist the Islamic State's black flag in Egypt as his comrades have over large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Eventually, says Younes, he and other Egyptian fighters in Islamic State intend to topple Egypt's US-backed government and extend their caliphate to the biggest Arab nation.

"We will not be able to change the situation in Egypt from inside, but Egypt is to be opened from abroad," Younes, who asked that his last name be withheld, told Reuters in an interview conducted by Facebook.

Reuters reached Younes by contacting supporters of Islamic State on social media networks. Another Islamic State fighter identified him as a militant in the group. Location tags on his Facebook messages placed him in Syria.

Egypt is well aware of the risks posed by its citizens going abroad for jihadist causes and then returning. Egyptians who fought Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s eventually took up holy war at home, training their weapons on Egyptian security forces and carrying out bombings.

The chances of Islamic State militants establishing a caliphate in Egypt are slim: the Egyptian state has crushed one militant group after another.

But the return of fighters with experience in Iraq and Syria could certainly bring more violence and complicate efforts to stabilize a country that has suffered from political turmoil, with two presidents toppled since 2011.

Egyptian security sources say they are closely monitoring militants fighting abroad and have lists of their names at airports to arrest them on arrival.


Younes was a 22-year-old student at Cairo's thousand-year-old centre of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University, when he decided to join the world's most dangerous militant group.

Like al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, a former physician, he came from a wealthy family living in Maadi, an upscale, leafy Cairo suburb. He learned about Islam at a young age from his mother but mostly shared the interests of any other Egyptian youth: a love for football and martial arts like Kung Fu.

Younes took part in the street protests which ended 30 years of iron-fisted rule under President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But he also rejected the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that came to power after Mubarak. He calls Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who became president until he was overthrown by the army last year, an apostate for opting for Western concepts like elections rather than radical Islamic rule.

The man who toppled Mursi, then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now Egypt's president, was "even more blasphemous", Younes said. Sisi has promised to crush militants, including those inspired by Islamic State.

State security forces killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets of Cairo after Mursi was toppled last year. But Younes said the bloodshed was not a factor in his decision to embrace Islamic State. His motivation was much deeper - a burning desire to topple Arab "tyrants" like Mubarak, Mursi and Sisi, and create a caliphate.

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