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Aug 10, 2006 | 02:26 GMT

Al Qaeda's Egyptian Bet

By Fred Burton Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in yet another new videotape Aug. 5, announcing that Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah (GAI) has joined forces with al Qaeda. The 20-minute video — a professionally produced tape from al Qaeda's as-Sahab media arm that aired on Al Jazeera — included a lengthy interview with Mohammed al-Hakayma, who was identified as a leader of GAI. Al-Hakayma, who also is known as Abu Jihad al-Masri, said GAI's move is designed to help spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman — who is serving a life term in prison in the United States — and to "repel the attacking enemy which is occupying the countries of the Muslims." He also indicated that a "large number" of GAI members, including "Mujahid Sheikh" Mohammed al-Islambouli, have again decided to take up arms — meaning a return to GAI's violent roots, which were repudiated years ago by many GAI members and leaders. The timing of al Qaeda's announcement is interesting. With Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, waging a fierce battle against the Israelis, al-Zawahiri's announcement apparently was made with the goal of raising Sunni al Qaeda's profile. (News of the video, however, was quickly drowned out by coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah war.) The announcement also seems to have been intended to signal that al Qaeda has an operational cell in Egypt, and to thrust a new regional commander into the spotlight — in hopes of offsetting losses the organization has suffered in Iraq and other realms. If that is the case, however, al Qaeda would seem to be making a public bet. Its credibility and sought-after image as the "vanguard" of revolutionary Islam is under threat. If the video is not followed by attacks of some significance in Egypt — demonstrating al Qaeda's ability to expand in a strategically crucial and emotionally symbolic region — the organization's relevance on the world stage likely will be even further diminished. Gamaah al-Islamiyah GAI is one of two main militant Islamist groups that emerged in Egypt in the 1970s; the other was al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The groups allegedly conspired together to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Despite the many arrests that followed al-Sadat's killing, the groups were not entirely crushed; together, they provided a foundation to which today's jihadist movement can be linked. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, GAI carried out dozens of bombings and armed attacks against tourists, the Egyptian government, Coptic Christians and businesses in Egypt. Notable among these were the attempts to kill Egypt's prime minister and the ministers of information and the interior in 1993, the thwarted plot to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in 1995, and the Luxor attack in 1997, where dozens of tourists were killed. The group also claimed credit for strikes abroad, such as an attempt on Mubarak's life in Addis Ababa in June 1995 and the bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad in November 1995. Cairo thumped down on both GAI and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad during the 1990s, arresting thousands of suspected terrorists and executing or killing others during raids. The crackdown was most effective, however, in prompting some influential militants to reconsider their strategy and tactics — some of them, including GAI leaders, renouncing violence. (In 2005, a former GAI member made an unsuccessful run for a seat in parliament.) In 1997, when the GAI leadership declared a cease-fire, the group split into two factions: The larger, moderate one, led by Mustafa Hamza, supported the cease-fire; the smaller, more radical faction, led by Rifai Ahmad Taha, called for a return to armed operations. This split is critical in understanding the significance of al-Zawahiri's recent announcement. It is only this second branch that has joined forces with al Qaeda — the moderate faction has denounced al-Zawahiri's declaration and publicly renewed its commitment to nonviolent tactics. The Radical Link Connections between GAI's radical faction and al Qaeda are strong and, in fact, well-established — to the point that al-Zawahiri's recent announcement hardly qualifies as news. Perceptions that the groups were linked have existed for quite some time, even though a formal alliance may not have been in place. GAI members and leaders were active in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, where they trained and fought alongside al-Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other "Afghan Arabs" such as Osama bin Laden. Following the Soviet withdrawal, these Egyptian jihadists moved on to fighting in Bosnia, where they were implicated in numerous plots targeting American diplomatic and military targets in the Balkans and other parts of Europe. Their activities were not lost on U.S. intelligence and Balkan security services. Several GAI members were killed in Bosnia; others were detained with the assistance of the U.S. government and returned to Egypt. During the 1990s, GAI members also were trained at al Qaeda facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan, and some — like Mustafa Hamza — worked for businesses bin Laden owned in Sudan. Given these ties, it is widely believed that bin Laden and al Qaeda helped organize and fund the attempt on Mubarak's life in Addis Ababa in 1995. Ties between GAI radical Taha and al Qaeda leaders are even more firmly established, however. In 1998, when bin Laden formed the "World Islamic Front," Taha was one of the signatories to the fatwa calling for "jihad against Jews and crusaders." He also was shown in a video, released in September 2000, alongside bin Laden and al-Zawahiri as they called for the U.S. government to free GAI's spiritual leader from prison. Also, in a statement released shortly after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, Taha called for strikes against U.S. and Israeli ships passing through the Suez Canal and for attacks against U.S. military, diplomatic and civilian interests in Egypt. The Egyptian government convicted Taha of planning and sanctioning past terrorist attacks and, in 1992, sentenced him to death. It is believed he was captured in Syria and "rendered" to Egypt shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Reviewing the Tape According to al-Zawahiri's Aug. 5 announcement, the militant GAI faction that joined al Qaeda is led by Mohammed al-Islambouli — a younger brother of Khaled al-Islambouli, an Egyptian militant (and lieutenant in the Egyptian army) who played a leading role in al-Sadat's assassination. Mohammed al-Islambouli has been associated with bin Laden since the 1980s, when he — like al-Zawahiri and many other Egyptian militants — reportedly worked with bin Laden's Maktab al-Khadamat (also known as the Afghan Services Bureau) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. GAI spiritual leader Abd al-Rahman also worked with the Maktab al-Khadamat; later, while living in Brooklyn, he headed the al-Kifah Refugee Center or “Brooklyn Jihad Office,” which funneled recruits and funds to bin Laden's organization. Al-Islambouli is believed to have lived in Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion in October 2001, and long has been thought to be part of the group of key Egyptian advisers surrounding bin Laden. The very mention of al-Islambouli — the brother of "the man who killed Pharaoh" — in this recent video seems purposeful. The family name alone carries considerable significance among jihadists; for example, Chechen militants calling themselves the "Islambouli Brigades" have claimed credit for attacks against Russia. However, it is worth noting that it was al-Hakayma — not radical GAI's topmost leader al-Islambouli — who was featured in al Qaeda's video. This also was done deliberately, with a specific message in mind. Al-Hakayma was shown carrying a gun — denoting him as al Qaeda's military point man for the region — whereas, intriguingly, al-Zawahiri was shown in the earlier portion of the video without his trademark weapon leaning against the wall. Because al-Hakayma was interviewed in a grove of palm trees, it is plausible that he was filmed in Egypt rather than the rugged mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan. Not only would this demonstrate that as-Sahab has a great deal of freedom in its movements, but also that GAI has boots on the ground in Egypt and an operational leader who is in the country and ready to conduct attacks. The very length of the interview with al-Hakayma signals his importance in al Qaeda's eyes. The leadership clearly is attempting to establish him as a regional commander — much like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in Iraq, or a string of other (less notable) commanders have been in Saudi Arabia. Implications To date, al Qaeda has not had a presence in Egypt proper, despite the large number of senior Egyptian cadres who have been with the organization since its inception. A number of attacks in Sinai have been carried out by an al Qaeda-inspired grassroots group called Tawhid wa al-Jihad, but this group (believed to be composed of Bedouins) is very different from the GAI faction now claiming allegiance to al Qaeda. On the whole, the network has not had an Egyptian equivalent to the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al Qaeda in Iraq nodes. Though it is not known how many veteran GAI members have joined with al-Islambouli and al-Hakayma in the return to militant tactics (something that al-Hakayma referred to in the video as "adhering to the original line of approach"), the group has a number of battle-tested cadres who have proven to be effective and deadly in the past. These seasoned militants could be called upon to share their experience and skills with a new generation of recruits. That said, it must be noted that the political and social environment in Egypt has changed considerably since GIA's heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. There are now a number of Islamist groups vying for the affections of young recruits. Some of these groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to operate within the bounds of the political system; others, like GAI's moderate faction, are not quite sure of the strategy they want to pursue but have renounced violence as "misguided" — a powerful condemnation in the Islamic context. Thus, it is not at all certain that the radical faction will be able to recapture the strength and ability it displayed in the 1980s and 1990s. It also should be noted that, despite Taha's calls for strikes against American and Israeli targets in Egypt in 2000, an actual campaign against such targets never materialized. (Moreover, assuming Taha was indeed rendered to Egyptian authorities in 2001, he would have been subjected to vigorous interrogation, and any networks his factions may have had in place in Egypt prior to the arrest were, in all probability, compromised and disrupted.) We have noted before that al Qaeda has been engaged in quite a media blitz this year — which, with 18 recordings featuring bin Laden and al-Zawahiri alone, already is its most prolific ever for public statements. However, the downside to all of this media activity is that the repeated calls for Muslims to mobilize and conduct attacks worldwide, and in specific locations, seem to have been largely ignored. Indeed, over the past year al Qaeda has taken significant losses in Iraq (with the death of al-Zarqawi), in Pakistan (where al-Zawahiri was nearly killed), and elsewhere. On the whole, al Qaeda has proven far more successful at issuing statements since 9/11 than in actually carrying out spectacular attacks. Now, given the symbolism and emphasis attached to the GAI announcement, al Qaeda appears to be raising the stakes for itself — and to be doing so in public. It well might be that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are playing a strong card, from a jihadist perspective — but if they are not, and a campaign of some significance does not materialize in Egypt, al Qaeda and as-Sahab could find themselves losing this round.
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