September 28, 2009 -- Young men with downy beards, caps, kneelength a traditional Arab galabeyas and sandals sat chatting in a McDonalds' restaurant in Nasr City, a large middle class district in the eastern part of Cairo. Women wearing concealing black garments and veils over their faces scurried around the small dusty streets between their apartments and the neighborhood shops. They were not from here and they barely spoke any Arabic. Asking around revealed that every one of them came from Europe and most of them have North African roots.
In the neighborhood Egyptians, the European Salafists - Sunni religious fundamentalists - are outsiders. Ashraf, a 26-year-old Dutchman of Moroccan descent, came to Cairo a year ago. "To learn Arabic," he says, "the language of my religion." He had just visited the mosque, where many kindred spirits go to pray five times a day. A not-so-secret agent of the security service stood outside the mosque. The house of prayer is under surveillance. "We aren't hurting anyone," says Ashraf, whose apartment was recently searched. "We only come to study and pray."
Arabic language schools in Nasr City are doing good business. Young Salafists from Europe come to Egypt in great numbers to learn the language of the Koran, the holy book that Salafists believe can only be understood in the original language in which it was divinely revealed to the prophet Mohammed.
In addition to language lessons, they usually follow courses in Islamic law offered by teachers ranging from the renowned Al-Azhar University to clandestine imams without permits. "Religious fanatics want to be taken seriously," says Walid al-Gohari, founder and director of the Al-Fajr institute, one of the many language schools in Nasr City. "But Salafists who don't even know Arabic are not considered credible."
Al-Fajr is popular among import Salafists and Al-Gohari acknowledges that some come to Egypt with bad intentions. "Most students are mainly centered on themselves and their faith, but some come here with firm opinions about Islam and call anyone who sees it differently an infidel," the director says. "We try to teach them the language so they learn to understand the true message of the Koran, but they often look for trouble. They get in with a bad crowd, visit the wrong mosque and listen to the wrong sheik."
Egyptian Security Cracks Down on Jihadist Intentions
The Egyptian security service is concerned about the situation. It therefore keeps a close eye on fundamentalist visitors with a European passport. Students say their homes are regularly searched and they are randomly taken in for questioning. "They ask stupid questions, like how often do I pray each day," Ashraf describes his brief time in custody. "As if you are an extremist if you do what Allah has ordered."
The fact that the students are a source of concern became clear before US president Barack Obama's visit to Cairo at the beginning of June. As a precaution, the security service picked up hundreds of foreign students in a few days time, among them a few from the Netherlands. Although most were released soon after, dozens were deported. Those who remained have really had a fright. "Some have shaved off their beards so as not to stand out," says Ashraf. Others have left the country out of fear.
The Egyptian authorities claim there are dangerous individuals with jihadist intentions among the European students. A number of students from France, Belgium and the United Kingdom for instance are suspected of involvement in a bomb attack in Cairo in February which killed a French tourist. The chief suspects -- Dodi Hoxha, a French woman of Albanian descent, and Farouk Taher Ibn Abbas, a Belgian of Tunisian origin -- have been subjected to heavy-handed interrogation since April, a diplomatic source reported on condition of remaining anonymous. Both studied at Al-Fajr, director Al-Gohari confirms when asked.
The Belgian chief suspect reportedly confessed that he had been ordered to return to Belgium to prepare a bomb attack in Paris. Questions from this reporter about evidence were not answered. But an informal source in the Egyptian public prosecution department said the suspects had travelled from Egypt to the Gaza strip and became involved with extremist groups there.
It is not the first time the Egyptian security service claimed to have rounded up a cell of jihadist European students. Three years ago, nine French people, two Belgians and a Dutch person, all of North African origin, were picked up. They were allegedly recruiting suicide commandos in Egypt for the war in Iraq. After just over a week of questioning, they were deported. There was no evidence. Back in Europe authorities saw no reason to hold the students.
Current "Solution" Might be Part of the Problem
Al-Gohari is not at all surprised. He says the Egyptian security service often keeps surveillance on specific foreign students at the request of European secret services. "I know it for certain, because an agent himself told me." He sees a paradox in this. "The West often accuses Egypt of being a breeding ground for fanatics, but in actuality we are getting extremists from Europe."
The director does not see it as a problem that language institutes like Al-Fajr are thought to provide intelligence. "We coordinate everything with the security service. It is for a good cause." But he believes the Egyptian security service's hard-line approach makes the problem worse than it actually is. "Agents treat the foreign students who are arrested terribly." He says this has an adverse effect. "This way you create an enemy you might not have had before."