Writing for Carnegie, Mukhtar Awad writes a long but thorough history of Islamist radicalization since the movement to oust Morsi as president. Towards the end he issues a warning that might not be on everyone’s radar:
The eventual return of Egypt’s many itinerant jihadists—probably several thousand—is another factor that will likely increase jihadists’ recruitment of Islamist youth and the possibility that nonjihadi violent groups embedded in the Egyptian mainland will turn into active cells of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. There is a precedent for this. When Egyptian fighters returned from jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, their actions precipitated the bloodiest years of the previous insurgency.
The brutal and successful Islamic State has inspired many young Islamists to wage jihad, particularly after its conquests in Iraq and Syria and its infliction of significant casualties on the ranks of the Egyptian military. An increasing number of Islamists have joined its ranks, and others have fought under the banner of jihadi groups in Libya. Al-Qaeda also remains a popular touchstone among those who reject the Islamic State’s claim to the caliphate and its gross barbarity. Its branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, is another successful model in the view of young Islamists, and some Egyptians have traveled to join its ranks.
Many Egyptian jihadists who left in the 1980s stayed overseas to fight in regions like the Arab Maghreb—one estimate by a pro-government center run by a retired senior officer puts the number at anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 Egyptians, though these numbers could not be independently verified.47 Egyptian authorities claim that at least 3,000 Egyptians have traveled to join the Syrian jihad since 2012, a number that peaked during Morsi’s presidency.48 This number is also impossible to verify, but an Egyptian Islamic State fighter based in Syria interviewed for this paper confirmed that the number is likely close to several thousand.
As escalating as Russia’s intervention in Syria has been, having them at the table could ironically serve as a basis for an eventual political solution. Far too much blood has been shed to offer even the faintest praise to anyone, but at least there is coordination among the major powers, including efforts to involve Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well.
If peace can eventually take hold, where will all the foreign fighters go? As Awad states, Egypt has dealt with this scenario already. But in the ongoing effort to regain stability, it would be the oddest of consequences that peace in Syria might throw Egypt off kilter again.