EGYPT: Muslim students from Europe – Scholars or Terrorists?

Many deeply religious students from Europe come to Egypt to learn Arabic. The question is: are these European Salafists coming to study the language of the Qur’an or to prepare terrorist attacks?

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.

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.”

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 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 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. SPIEGEL via Counter Jihad

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