EL-ARISH, Egypt — A fringe group so extreme that it worries even Egypt's Muslim fundamentalists is secretly reviving itself with greater firepower and followers in the country's volatile Sinai Peninsula.
Disciples of the group known as Takfir wil-Hijra, dubbed "Takfiris," lead secretive, isolated lives where anything and anyone that does not adhere to their limited interpretation of the Koran is deemed heretical. They dream of a puritanical Islamic state in the Sinai.
Although not all Takfiris are militants fighting jihad, or holy war, their ideology creates a deep pool from which to draw for the armed groups thought to be behind attacks against Israel and Egypt's military in the desert peninsula.
Takfir wil-Hijra has swelled in numbers in recent months, multiplying from a few hundred faithful in the Sinai before last year's popular anti-government uprising to at least 4,500, living in the impoverished small towns of northern Sinai, according to security officials and local Bedouin tribal leaders.
The long-festering woes in the Sinai have come to the forefront as the Egyptian military wages a week-old expanded operation in the peninsula aimed at uprooting Islamic militants. The operation was sparked by a surprise attack earlier this month in which gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a checkpoint near the border, then attempted an attack into Israel.
The Bedouin tribes that dominate the area always have been religiously pious and traditional. But stricter Islamic doctrines have been gaining influence. In particular, the ultraconservative Salafi movement has grown more overt in Sinai, advocating an austere, literal interpretation of Islam similar to Saudi Arabia's strict segregation of the sexes and a return to what it sees as the way of life of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Takfiris go much further, however, ready to shun even their own families who are not part of the movement, say other Bedouin. Takfiris contacted through intermediaries refused to be interviewed for this article.
"They don't see people. They don't even attend their own parents' funerals and say their parents are infidels," said Sheik Ouda Abolmalhous, a tribal elder in northern Sinai.
Even tribal allegiances, which reign supreme in northern Sinai, come second to their loyalty to the group, he said.
If meat is not slaughtered at the hands of a Takfiri, the group's followers won't eat it, even if it's at their parents' table. Their children do not attend schools, where teachings are seen as seditious.
The men do not attend traditional Friday prayers in mosques, whose preachers are seen as heretical. They do not support the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis, whose participation in politics is seen as blasphemous.
The group's name underlines its isolationist ideology. In Arabic, Takfir means to declare someone an infidel. Its original name was Jamaat al-Muslimeen, or "Society of the Muslims," with the implication that they were the true Muslims.
Sheik Ouda said what most worries him about the Takfiris is that their isolation makes their capabilities hard to gauge.
"It is like preparing an army to be on standby, ready for attack," he said.
The Takfiri ideology was born in dark prison cells under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. Among the Muslim Brotherhood members detained at the time was Shukri Mustafa, who witnessed Islamic activists executed and tortured to death at the hands of police.
After his release from prison, Mustafa broke off from the Brotherhood and spread his radical ideas, gathering followers mainly in Assiut and other cities of southern Egypt.
The Takfiris kidnapped and executed a former Egyptian minister who was also a Muslim cleric when their demands were not met by the government in 1977. The following year, the group's leader Mustafa was executed in prison under President Anwar Sadat.