Quilliam president Noman Benotman discusses the validity of certain news outlets’ recent claims of the existence of a Libya-based “Free Egyptian Army” with Al Ahram Weekly.

Many Egyptian news outlets have carried stories on the so-called “Free Egyptian Army” which they say is based in eastern Libya. According to the reports it is awash with extremist jihadist elements close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Derna, in the Jebel Al-Akhdar region, which has become an international jihadist bastion, is cited as the Free Egyptian Army’s centre for recruitment and training.

Libyan officials and other sources deny the reports which they say have no basis in fact.

“The story is untrue. We have seen no proof to the contrary,” said Libyan Deputy Ministry of Defence Khaled Al-Sherif. “The word army implies large numbers which cannot be easily hidden,” he added, alluding to the hyperbole that characterised the Egyptian press reports.

Al-Sherif said that his government was ready to mount a search in the areas in which the Egyptian media claims the Free Egyptian Army exists. Al-Sherif, himself, is a former Libyan jihadist who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and was a leader of the Libyan Combat Group which fought the Qaddafi regime in the 1990s.

Extremist groups in Libya, including Ansar Al-Sharia, listed by Washington as a terrorist organisation in 2013 for its alleged involvement in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, have been circulating photos and video clips on Facebook and other social networking sites of military exercises performed by their members. One group, which calls itself the Army of Islam, posted a video clip of a military training exercise in Derna. It was immediately picked up by the Egyptian press which reported the exercise as a military parade by the Free Egyptian Army.

Libyan sources close to jihadist forces in Derna deny the existence of the Free Egyptian Army though they admit the presence of Egyptian jihadist figures. Spreading false news about the so-called army, they add, is likely to be detrimental to the Egyptian community in Libya. Resentment at the accusations levelled in the Egyptian press to the effect that Libya supports terrorism could lead to Egyptian workers being scapegoated.

“There is no such thing as the Free Egyptian Army,” says Noman Benotman, president of the Quilliam Foundation, a British-based think tank that works to counter extremism and promote religious freedom, human rights, and democracy. The way the Egyptian media is reporting the story, he sees, has to be seen in the context of the domestic confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Benotman denounced the “huge gap” between reports in the Egyptian press and realities on the ground. Claims by some Egyptian journalists that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri was in Libya are “nothing but lies” he said. The Egyptian media’s exaggeration and sensationalism, he warned, could easily encourage some group to declare responsibility for a terrorist act using the name of the fictitious army.

Benotman also agreed with sources in Libya that no sensible person can take seriously the number of Egyptian jihadists that Egyptian press reports claim are in Libya. Extremist groups would never contemplate assembly in such numbers, especially in Libya where the deteriorating state of security means they are increasingly in the spotlight.

Benotman does not deny some Egyptian jihadists are in Libya but says they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These individuals are qualitatively different from ordinary jihadists: “They are officials whose function is to train and equip, to prepare reports on certain areas, to act as links between various parts of the network or to draw up plans for operations to be carried out.”

Benotman is confident Egyptian security agencies are capable of handling this small number of people who are valuable to extremist groups.

The Quilliam Foundation president dismissed the possibility that Al-Qaeda or other experienced jihadist groups are contemplating sending large numbers of members into Libya.

“These groups do not think in the way the Egyptian media is suggesting. They realise that leadership cadres are very rare and are keen not to expose such valuable assets to security risks. They do not send in large numbers of personnel, and certainly not to areas in which they would be vulnerable to security clampdowns.”

Like Khaled Al-Sherif Noman, Benotman is a former jihadist who fought in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal he helped set up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which was eventually dissolved in the course of reconciliation processes with the Qaddafi regime. Benotman had left the jihadist scene long before this. After taking up residence in the UK he turned to scholarship and research on Islamist affairs, jihadist groups and extremist thought.

Libyan officials’ denials of the Free Egyptian Army story as reported in the Egyptian media appear to be backed up by facts on the ground. Tobruk, the closest Libyan city to the Egyptian border, is the most stable and least violent town in the country. It was at Tobruk airport that a former advisor to Mohamed Morsi was detained last week. He was attempting to board a plane to Turkey after entering Libya illegally.

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