An Islamist Fugitive in Post-Mursi Egypt – A Profile of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Aboud al-Zomor

Andrew McGregor

September 30, 2013

Like many of the former and current Egyptian leaders of jihadi organizations, Aboud al-Zomor is a well-educated professional and, in this case, the product of a wealthy family in Egypt’s Giza governorate.  Al-Zomor’s career has followed a trajectory that has taken him from senior army officer to radical jihadist to reformed militant. Despite the apparent sincerity of his renunciation of political violence following a three-decade stretch in prison, there are those in Egypt who fear who has secretly retained his earlier dedication to political violence, including the Egyptian military, which is currently seeking al-Zomor to face charges of inciting Islamist violence following the overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Zomor 1Aboud al-Zomor

Background

Al-Zomor was a colonel in Egypt’s military intelligence, a useful background for clandestine work in Egypt’s militant Islamist underground. The young intelligence officer was already a member of the radical Islamic Jihad and later the Gama’a al-Islamiya militant group and was in touch with the disaffected Islamist Egyptian Army officers and militants involved in the plot against Anwar al-Sadat following the latter’s signing of the Camp David Accords establishing a long-term peace with Israel. After the Muslim Brotherhood abandoned attempts at a violent overthrow of the Egyptian government following the failure of Sayyid Qutb to seize power in 1954, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI) filled the militant void, offering an aggressive alternative to the Brotherhood’s new emphasis on social activism.

Assassination of Sadat

Al-Zomor was deeply implicated in the investigation into the radical Islamist plot that resulted in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Ultimately, Sadat’s killing proved calamitous for the Islamist movement in Egypt, with as many as 30,000 suspected militants thrown into Egyptian jails and prisons. In the comprehensive sweeps that followed the assassination, beards (often interpreted by security services as an indicator of Salafist sympathies) disappeared from Cairo streets. Reflecting on these events, al-Zomor says the decision to kill Sadat seemed to be right at the time:

Since circumstances have changed, we can now try to judge whether the decision was right or wrong. But at that time, without knowing the results, it seemed that what happened was the right thing. But I have to admit I did not support the assassination of Sadat. I thought that we should wait until everything was ready in 1984, according to our plan. We were planning for a change of regime and were able to attract numerous supporters at the time. But after Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel, and after the arrest campaign in September 1981 which saw politicians from across the political spectrum rounded up, eliminating the man [Sadat] seemed the only way out to many members of the group (Ahram Online, October 6).

Al-Zomor believes the mistake lay not in killing Sadat, but in killing only Sadat only rather than taking out the entire Egyptian leadership as planned in 1984. Though he went along with the majority sentiment, al-Zomor’s fears were played out in the repercussions that followed Sadat’s murder. Worst of all was the succession as president of Hosni Mubarak, another military man whose efforts to eliminate the Islamist movement made Sadat’s efforts pale in comparison, a development that drew a late apology by al-Zomor on behalf of the GI: “I’m only sorry that getting rid of Sadat brought an even worse ruler to power, and that the people had to suffer under his tyrannical rule for an additional 30 years” (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 6, 2011; Shorouk News [Cairo], October 8, 2011).

Thirty Years in Prison

Three decades of confinement in some of Egypt’s hardest prisons gave al-Zomor the opportunity to study law and to reflect on the causes of his incarceration and the validity of the political approach that brought him there.

The most important product of al-Zomor’s long imprisonment was a document he produced with his cousin Tariq entitled Al-Badil al-Thalith bayna al-Istibad wa’l-Istislam (The Third Alternative between Tyranny and Submission). This work formed a contribution to a type of prison-generated Islamist literature known as muraja‘at, or “revisions,” these basically consisting of re-examinations of the political and sectarian violence that landed their authors behind bars with lengthy sentences. Produced in several Muslim countries, these works were always subject to legitimate questions regarding their true purpose, given that these works could also be produced as the result of corruption or a desire to please authorities in order to obtain a release from prison. Compared to similar but more compliant works by Dr. Fadl (a.k.a. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif), an imprisoned colleague of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the document produced by Aboud and Tariq al-Zomor gained little attention, likely because it did not meet the approval of the government through its insistence on opening up the regime to peaceful political change and its refusal to issue an absolute condemnation of the activities of al-Qaeda. [1]

During his time in prison, al-Zomor says the Mubarak regime made three offers of release with conditions beginning in the 1980s. The first offer was conditional on acceptance of the National Democratic Party (dissolved since the revolution); the second was made on the condition that Aboud al-Zomor and his cousin Tariq refrain from talking about politics; the last offer, made only weeks before the revolution, was conditional on the two cousins accepting a dynastic succession in which the presidency would be passed from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal. All three offers were refused, with Aboud telling his jailers in the last case that accepting the allegedly corrupt Gamal Mubarak as ruler would make them “traitors to God, his prophet and the Muslim people.” Al-Zomor insists that his eventual release was made “without any negotiations or conditions” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 28, 2012).

Release from Prison

The revolution that consumed Egypt in January 2011 was of enormous benefit to the GI despite the fact its membership played virtually no role in these momentous events. Aboud and Tariq were both freed in March 2011 by order of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took power after Hosni Mubarak was deposed as president. The two were part of a larger release of some 60 Islamist prisoners who had already served at least 15 years of their term. Technically, both Aboud and Tariq had already finished their sentences and were eligible for release, but continued to be detained by the former regime’s practice of allowing the Interior Ministry to continue to hold prisoners for an additional five years on security grounds. Many more GI members were later freed with pardons by President Muhammad Mursi after years in high security institutions like Tora Prison in what the movement described as “a miracle” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], July 30).

Shortly after his release, al-Zomor was viewed by some Islamists as a possible presidential candidate, but declared he would not run: “There are many others better than me” (Egypt Independent, March 13). Though many Islamists were vocal in their opposition to military rule by SCAF, al-Zomor suggested that the military council was taking “corrective steps” and at least were not acting “in bad faith, unlike Mubarak” (Shorouk News [Cairo], October 8, 2011). Al-Zomor eventually supported the brief candidacy of Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Khayrat al-Shater for president in early 2012 before al-Shater’s disqualification, describing him as “a patriotic capitalist” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 5, 2012; for al-Shater, see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2013).

Al-Zomor on Relations with Israel

Egypt’s relations with Israel have been an irritant for many years for many in Egypt’s Islamist community, which still feels strongly about the Palestinian cause and Islamic solidarity. Al-Zomor does not urge an end to the peace treaty with Israel, but takes issue with the cooperation between the two nations called for in the Camp David Accords. In al-Zomor’s view, relations between Egypt and Israel should be peaceful, but minimal in all other regards:

There’s a difference between the peace treaty and the Camp David accords. The treaty stipulates that we will not go to war with Israel, and this is something that must be respected and approved, whether or not we – or any other political party – come to power. This has to do with respecting the international community, which is considered a part of the treaty. Camp David, on the other hand, includes measures aimed at normalizing Egyptian relations with Israel through economic and other fields of cooperation. This should be reviewed.

Al-Zomor opposes the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, a main point of contention for Sinai-based militants who have repeatedly blown the lines carrying gas to Israel.

On the Use of Political Violence

Unlike a number of Libyan Islamist militants who renounced political violence while in prison only to take command of armed militias during the Libyan Revolution, al-Zomor has insisted that times have changed and the political opposition has unprecedented tools available to it as effective alternatives to violence, including the ability to stage mass demonstrations, new means of mobilizing such as social media and the presence of international media coverage, which helps serve as a shield to mass movements from regime oppression:

In light of this, it’s not possible for a new dictator to come to power, and, if he does, the people can get rid of him using peaceful means. When you have all this, you don’t need to use violence – even if this violence is simply a reaction to regime oppression. Violence now cannot be justified. This door is closed (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011).

Al-Zomor also fails to reject democracy as “un-Islamic” as many of his Salafist contemporaries do:

In the 1980s, when we refused to participate in parliamentary elections, it wasn’t a religious stand against democracy. We just thought that, under the former regime, the whole thing was a waste of time and effort. But now, like I said, it’s a totally different situation… [We seek] a modern democratic [rule] that respects the rights of minorities and freedom of trade. We want an Islamic state that would be respected – not feared – by the whole world” (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011).

Though Gama’a al-Islamiya has officially left the field of armed jihad, al-Zomor has indicated that he would have “no problem” with Egyptian al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri “returning to his country in safety and with honor. We would welcome his return with our heads held high, after the end of the battle with the Mubarak regime; there is one problem which is that the U.S. will not accept this [al-Zawahiri’s return] and will exert pressure on Egypt not to accept his return.” (al-Sharq al-Aswat, January 28, 2012).

Zomor 2Mahmud Sha’aban

When a Salafist television preacher named Mahmud Sha’aban issued a fatwa (religious ruling) that said secular political leaders of the National Salvation Front (including Muhammad al-Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa) “must be killed according to the law of God” for their political opposition to the Muslim Brothers, al-Zomor reacted quickly despite believing the NSF was “a destructive force” in Egypt, saying “It is not acceptable to deal with political opponents with arms… Whoever resorts to assassination is using a weak pretense” (As-Safir [Beirut], February 8). Al-Zomor added that the 2011 revolution had made it possible for all factions to engage in peaceful political activity, noting that the cost of more forceful means of political expression had to be borne by the Egyptian people (Aswat Masriya [Cairo], February 7).

Al-Zomor and Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman

Aboud attended a protest by hundreds of GI members outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on April 21, 2011 to demand the release of former GI spiritual leader Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman from an American prison (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], April 21, 2011). The so-called “Blind Shaykh” was handed a life sentence in 1995 for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

During a press conference held by the shaykh’s family in late July at which the shaykh’s son, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman, threatened to organize an occupation of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, al-Zomor described the shaykh as “a wronged man whose case has been fabricated, and he should be retried because some witnesses retracted their statements, which they made because of pressure from the former [Mubarak] regime” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], July 27).

Al-Zomor once described the release of Shaykh Omar as the second priority for GI parliamentarians after obtaining the release of political prisoners imprisoned during the Mubarak era (Shorouk [Cairo], October 8, 2011). Shaykh Omar’s case was eventually taken up by President Mursi, who was in negotiations with the United States regarding the shaykh’s transfer to an Egyptian prison before his overthrow.

Al-Zomor on the Coptic Christian Community

Egypt’s Coptic Christian community has suffered a great deal from the turmoil of recent years, with many of its churches being attacked by mobs led by Salafist preachers and organizers seeking to drive “infidels” from Egypt, regardless of their historical legitimacy as the pre-Muslim indigenous population of Egypt. Al-Zomor has taken a public stand on the issue that differs greatly from some of his Salafist contemporaries: “I have been firm in this position even in the times that I have been in prison, without anyone asking me. I made a statement saying it is against Islamic law to attack houses of prayer, and it is also against the keeping of peace and harmony in society” (Ahram Online, August 24).

Elsewhere, al-Zomor claims he has no problems with Copts in government up and including the ministerial level, but suggests that discussion of whether Copts could have higher positions than that are largely moot as Coptic politicians would never have that kind of success “in a Muslim country” (Shorouk [Cairo], October 8, 2011).

The Pursuit

On the eve of the popular demonstrations that led to the Army’s expulsion of President Mursi and his Muslim Brother colleagues from government, GI spokesmen were insisting that Egyptians must abandon their protests and wait for a peaceful, constitutional and democratic handover of power in the scheduled three years’ time (Daily News Egypt, June 28).

The overthrow of President Mursi and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood was at least as momentous a change for the GI movement as the January 25 Egyptian Revolution. Despite political and ideological differences between the GI and the Brotherhood, Mursi has basically acted as a patron to the GI, which often figured prominently when presidential appointments were announced. An association which had benefited the movement suddenly threatened it, and the GI was quick to disassociate itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The GI’s position on the coup that overthrew President Mursi has been misunderstood, according to al-Zomor, who claims that the movement’s presence at the pro-Mursi demonstrations in Raba’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Square was solely intended to support democratic legitimacy (al-Nahar TV [Cairo], September 4). Al-Zomor insists that Mursi’s return was never an objective of the GI, only the Muslim Brotherhood.

Until recently, al-Zomor made significant public efforts to stay on the right side of Egypt’s new and powerful military ruler, General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, who he praised for his patriotism and his “correct decision” to depose ex-president Mursi, who al-Zomor described as “not the right man for the stage” and a man who had failed to listen to the opposition or take into account the majority that opposed his rule (al-Nahar TV [Cairo], September 4). Nonetheless, al-Zomor said earlier that he opposes the “Turkish model” that gives the army a “perpetual role in governance” as protectors of the constitution (Ahram Online, October 6, 2011). The GI and its political wing, Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmiya (HBT – Building and Development Party) continued to try to separate themselves from the ongoing violence by announcing their “great concern” over attacks on Egyptian military personnel in the Nile Delta and the Sinai, saying such assaults were merely an effort to provoke confrontations between the military and Egypt’s Islamists (Ahram Online [Cairo], September 18).

Other GI leaders, including Tariq al-Zomor and Assam Abd al-Majid, are being sought by security forces after they did not turn up during security operations in the Giza villages of Kerdasa and Nahia, though the operations did yield roughly 170 Islamist detainees (Daily News Egypt, September 22).  The entry of security forces into the densely populated villages was at times stiffly opposed by Islamist gunmen. Ala’a Abu al-Nasr, the former secretary general of the HBT, has criticized the army’s “criminal” operations in Kerdasa, saying they would only “add to the intensity of the situation.” HBT spokesman Muhammad Hassan, added that fugitive party leaders Tariq al-Zomor and Assam Abd al-Majid had taken no part in the recent attack on the local police department that ended with 11 officers being killed and mutilated, an action that built immediate support for further security operations against the Islamists (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 19).

Conclusion

For all his advocacy of non-violent political action, Aboud al-Zomor is (at the time of writing) a fugitive sought on charges of inciting violence by Egypt’s military-led interim government.  Gama’a al-Islamiya’s support for the military and general opposition to the political program of former president Mursi has likewise meant little when the advocacy of political legitimacy is instantly equated as being aligned with the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood. In this highly polarized atmosphere it is entirely possible that al-Zomor and his cousin may soon be returned to the prisons that were their home for three decades unless they succeed in escaping the country.

Note

  1. The full document is available here: http://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/abbud-al-zumur-the-third-alternative.pdf

This article first appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of the Militant Leadership Monitor.

Islamist Militias Take to the Streets as Egyptians Look for Solutions to Internal Security Crisis

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

Though it lacks the compelling and convenient images produced in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Egypt’s dramatic January, 2011 revolution, Egypt has been plunged into what has been variously described as a counter-revolution, a continuation of the 2011 revolution or an attempt by Islamist forces to consolidate power by taking advantage of Egypt’s internal security crisis. With police walking away from their duties across the country, Egyptians are seeking solutions to a security collapse that has given free rein to criminals, vandals and political extremists. Solutions such as massive reforms in the Interior Ministry or even privatization of the police have been floated, but Egypt’s Islamist movements have come up with their own solution – the creation and deployment of Islamist militias known as “popular committees.” The inability of the government to deal with the ongoing security crisis and the growing divide between Egypt’s religious and secular communities has many Egyptian politicians and commentators raising the possibility of a civil war.

Islamist MilitiasPublic protests have been fueled by economic turmoil, fuel shortages and controversial court decisions such as the acquittal of seven police officers tried for their role in the soccer-related violence that claimed 74 lives in Port Said in February, 2012 (21 civilians have been sentenced to death for their involvement in the violence) (al-Arabiya, March 11). Ongoing strikes in the industrial sector have paralyzed economic development.

Some demonstrations have involved shutting down public transportation and assaulting railway passengers, behavior that was unthinkable in pre-revolution Egypt (Ahram Online, February 11). Even the Mugamma building, Egypt’s monument to labyrinthine bureaucracy in Tahrir Square, has been subject to assault by demonstrators as security forces stood by (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 24). Cairo’s “Ultra” soccer hooligans have also engaged in vandalism and public violence in their deadly feud with Egypt’s security forces. A Muslim Brotherhood website has claimed that former leading officials of the now dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP – the ruling party of the former regime) are instigating the Ultras to attack the Muslim Brothers (Egyptwindow.net, March 15). Several days later, the same website claimed that former NDP members were alternately bribing citizens to go on strike or forcing them to strike at gunpoint (Egyptwindow.net, March 18).

In a troubling development, weapons appear to be pouring into the traditionally unarmed civilian population of Egypt since the revolution and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in neighboring Libya. A recent sweep by Egyptian police seized 423 weapons, including machine guns and rifles (Middle Eastern News Agency [MENA – Cairo], March 17).

In what could be an embarrassing challenge to Egypt’s pretensions of leading the Arab world, reports have emerged that the Arab League is considering moving its headquarters out of Cairo due to continued violence that has forced the group to relocate many of its meetings (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], March 18). Foreign investment is in steep decline and Egypt’s tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency, is floundering as Western tourists look for more secure places to vacation. For Egypt’s Islamists, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as they seek to replace Western tourists with Muslim tourists from the Gulf States, though the latter seem to be avoiding Egypt as well.

Citizen’s Arrests or Privatization?

Egypt’s prosecutor-general Talat Abdullah (an appointee of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi) created a storm of controversy by urging “all citizens” to combat the destruction of private and public property and the creation of roadblocks by exercising “the right afforded to them by Article 37 of Egypt’s criminal procedure law to arrest anyone found committing a crime and refer them to official personnel” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 10; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). A later statement from Abdullah’s office tried to back away from advocating citizen arrests, but had little impact.

Article 37 is an existing but little-used piece of legislation that allows citizens to arrest defendants for offenses that can be punished by no less than one year in prison – making an arrest on lesser offences could result in a charge of illegal arrest. These provisions are clearly designed to limit the use of Article 37, but these details are likely to be overlooked in the current heated environment. According to a military source cited by a major Cairo daily, “The statements of the prosecutor-general regarding granting citizens arrest powers are a clear attempt to legalize the militias of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists on the streets and to give them the right to arrest citizens, which puts Egypt on the verge of a civil war and ends the state of law” (Ahram Online, March 11).

While secular opposition parties denounced the prosecutor-general’s statement as an attempt to legitimize Islamist militias and a violation of the constitution, the secretary general of the Islamist Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party) Ala’a Abu al-Nasr, hailed the announcement, saying “The decision of the prosecutor-general to grant citizens the right to arrest vandals is a correct decision based on the law… The decision comes as a first step to confront systematic violence in Egypt” (Ahram Online, March 11).

The dismissal of prosecutor-general Abdullah and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil are among the demands an opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, has said must be met before they will participate in forthcoming parliamentary elections (Ahram Online, March 14). Talat Abdullah has submitted his resignation once already since his November 2012 appointment after hundreds of public prosecutors staged a sit-in outside his office (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). The largest of Egypt’s Salafist parties, the Nur Party, is also backing calls for the replacement of the Qandil government.

On March 9, Sabir Abu al-Futuh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-Adala (FJP – Freedom and Justice Party), announced that the party was considering legislation that would give private security firms the right to bear arms, make arrests and be engaged by the state to provide domestic policing functions. Abu al-Futuh also recommended the establishment of armed “popular committees “in the event that police continue their strike action.” Ahmad Fawzi of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party called Abu al-Futuh’s proposal “a continuation of the Islamist group’s ongoing endeavors to monopolize power in all of its forms, whether it be police, army or judiciary” (Ahram Online, March 10).  Some Egyptians warn that privatization of the domestic security services would open the way for U.S. security firms to set up shop in Egypt with the approval of their “friends” in the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 16).

The Interior Ministry

Striking police oppose what they describe as the “Brotherhoodization” of the Interior Ministry and call for the dismissal of another Mursi appointee, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim (Ahram Online, March 15). Scores of police stations and Central Security Force (CSF) camps across Egypt (including those in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria) have joined the strike that began March 7 when security forces in the Suez town of Ismailiya refused to deploy to Port Said, where several police officers have been killed in ongoing unrest. Egypt’s security services are still reeling from the public contempt that followed their brutal response to the anti-Mubarak revolution and fear that association with the ruling party will only further alienate the security forces from the public. According to one striking policeman, “We don’t want to be hated and feared by the people; we don’t want to be treated as the enemies of the people and the servants of the regime” (Daily News Egypt, March 9). The striking policemen are also calling for better arms to tackle the wave of lawlessness sweeping Egypt.

Islamist Militias 2Many policemen have been suspended after growing beards to express their affiliation with Islamist movements. Though an Administrative Court ruled in favor of the “bearded policemen” on the grounds of religious freedom, the Interior Ministry has refused to follow the court’s ruling, leading to further demonstrations and the creation of an official Facebook page: “I am a bearded policeman” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 14). There are now also demands from some members of the army that they be allowed to grow beards, demands that have been interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to turn the army into an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Watan [Cairo], March 17).

One of the early victims of the police strikes was the CSF commander, Magid Nouh, who was replaced on March 8 by CSF veteran Ashraf Abdullah after he failed to persuade the security services to allow him to return to work (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8; al-Jazeera, March 8). The Egyptian president followed this move by making a personal visit to the Cairo headquarters of the CSF where he returned to the familiar language of “external threats” by warning the officers: “Beware, our outside enemy is seeking to create division among us, and we must not allow it” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 15).

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

Leading the effort to form “popular committees” is al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI), a Salafist group that turned to non-violence after a long record of terrorist attacks through the 1980s and 1990s. Many leading members of the GI and BDP are former militants released from prison during the 2011 revolution.

According to a spokesman for the BDP, the GI’s political wing, “community police groups would step in under the supervision of the Interior Ministry,” while claiming that “this system is applied in other countries” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 12). Another BDP spokesman has complained the police are forcing the people to choose between torture or a lack of security: “We call on the police to meet their duty in protecting state institutions and not to give up the country’s security and stability in such critical times” (Ahram Online, March 9).

Asim Abd al-Magid, a senior GI member, has been given the job of organizing the GI’s “popular committees.” Besides calling on Egyptians to gather at mosques to form militias, Abd al-Magid has shown only slight respect for the security services: “Any policeman who wants to leave his position can do so, but he will not be allowed to come back… We want to purge the ministry of such elements anyway” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12).

Satellite television has carried footage of the “Gama’a al-Islamiya police” parading in the streets of Asyut in cars and motorcycles despite warnings from the police that their activities are illegal (al-Hayat TV, March 12). In the city of Minya, the BDP has joined with the Salafist Nur Party to form “popular committees” to restore order in the streets (Ahram Online, March 9). 

The Muslim Brotherhood

The vice-president of the FJP (the Brothers’ political wing), Dr. Rafiq Habib (a Coptic Christian), believes that the chaos in Egypt’s streets is the work of secular forces and representatives of the old regime who see the violence as a means of preventing the Islamists from governing the country effectively, thus opening an opportunity for the restoration of the old regime (sans Mubarak) (Egyptwindow.net, March 15).

The Brotherhood has been unnerved by a series of arson attacks on its offices throughout Egypt that began last December. At times, these attacks have resulted in pitched street battles between anti-Brotherhood protestors and Brotherhood self-defense groups (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], March 19). In an effort to come to grips with the spiraling violence, the leader of the Muslim Brothers, Dr. Muhammad Badi, launched an initiative on March 16 that calls for all the various political factions to remove their supporters from the streets for a specific period of time so that maximum efforts can be made to re-build the country (Egyptwindow.net, March 17).

The possibility of Islamist militias taking to the streets reminded many Egyptians of the shocking photos published in 2006 that showed a military display at Cairo’s Islamic al-Azhar University put on by a Muslim Brotherhood student group known as “the Hawks,” though the event was later dismissed by the Brotherhood as nothing more than “a theatrical display” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 13, 2006). More recently, Cairo’s al-Dustur daily reported on March 20 that Muslim Brotherhood members had received military training at CSF camps in preparation for fielding militias, though the Interior Ministry has denied these claims.

The Army

Demonstrations in Alexandria have called for the resignation of President Mursi, the trial of Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on charges of killing demonstrators in the Suez region and the return of the army to run the country until new elections can be held (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8). A recent poll by Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies showed a surprising 82 percent of Egyptians want the army to take control of the country on a temporary basis (al-Masri al-Youm [Cairo], March 18). The poll results were released days after residents of al-Nasr City took to the streets on March 15 to demand a return to military rule (MENA, March 15). Calls for the return of the army are also beginning to appear with frequency in the non-Islamist Egyptian press.

Defense Minister General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi maintains that the “Brotherhoodization” of the military is a near impossibility, but has warned recruits to abandon sectarian or political allegiances when they enter the military (al-Ahram [Cairo], March 15). Whether they form the government or not, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot easily transform the leadership of an institution that has spent decades purging all officers suspected of being sympathetic to the Brothers. While the situation could be changed very gradually through loosening restrictions on officer-candidates, command of the military cannot be simply handed over to a group of inexperienced Islamist subalterns. The Islamization of the military could more realistically take one or two decades – any sudden attempt to transform the military would inevitably result in yet another coup d’état and a return to military rule. The military’s surprising cooperation with the Brotherhood so far has raised the possibility that the command has simply given the Islamists enough rope to hang themselves in trying to transform a deeply entrenched social and political system. When popular opinion cries out for a return to the stability of military rule and foreign governments begin to give indications they are ready to look the other way, the military will be in a prime position to return to government or install a more pliant regime. The Army still controls a large but undefined section of the national economy, making it a necessary partner in any shift in political direction.

Conclusion 

Before his death last year, former Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Sulayman warned of the creation of Islamist militias in Egypt and the consequent threat of a civil war: “The Muslim Brotherhood group is not foolish, and hence it is preparing itself militarily, and within two to three years it will have a revolutionary guard to fight the army, and Egypt will face a civil war, like Iraq (al-Hayat, May 22, 2012; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 1, 2012).

The Egyptian Army has indicated that the creation of private militias is a “red-line” for the military that could bring on military intervention to restore state control (Ahram Online, March 11). Interior Minister Ibrahim has insisted there is no role for vigilantes or militias in Egypt: “From the minister to the youngest recruit in the force, we will not accept having militias in Egypt. That will be only when we are totally dead, finished” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). For Egypt, however, the greatest challenges to internal security may be yet to come, as Egyptian jihadists return from the battlefields of Syria and exiled Egyptian members of core al-Qaeda take advantage of the security collapse to re-infiltrate the country and resume the type of bloody operations that marked the struggle between Islamist terrorists and security forces in the 1990s.

This article first appeared in the March 21, 2013 issue of the Terrorism Monitor’s Terrorism Monitor

The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell

Andrew McGregor

November 20, 2012

A raid by Egyptian security forces in a suburb of Cairo on October 24 revealed an unexpected intersection of several important threads in the evolving security situation in the Middle East, including a possible revival of domestic terrorism in Egypt, the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi and Cairo, the cross-border shipment of Libyan arms, the growing Islamist role in the Syrian insurgency, the growth of Islamist militancy in the Sinai, the return to arms by political prisoners freed during the Egyptian Revolution, a possible reversal in the declining fortunes of Egypt’s internal security services and a new direction for a beleaguered al-Qaeda leadership.

Egyptian PoliceThe initial raid on a first-floor gymnasium converted into an armory in the crowded Cairo suburb of Madinat Nasr (Nasr City) has now blossomed into a nation-wide sweep of militants and hidden caches of arms and explosives. With Egypt in the midst of a difficult democratic transition made harder by a deteriorating security situation in the Middle East, details of the terrorist campaign outlined in the charges against members of the Madinat Nasr cell are especially disturbing. The Islamist suspects have been accused of accumulating weapons, planning the assassination of a wide swathe of Egyptian political figures, including newly elected president Muhammad al-Mursi, and of seeking to overthrow Egypt’s elected government.

The Raid

The investigation into the alleged terrorist cell began with the search of a car belonging to suspected jihadis Bassam al-Sayyid Ibrahim, an escapee from Wadi al-Natrun prison, and his brother Haytham. After a hand grenade, explosives and fuses were seized from the vehicle, interrogations led to the raid in Madinat Nasr (al-Hayat, October 31, 2012). The raided property in a 15-storey residential building was allegedly rented by Karim Isam Ahmad Azzazi, who carried out various work at the property, including the installation of an iron door (al-Wafd [Cairo], October 28, 2012). Karim Isam detonated an explosive device during the raid, killing himself and causing enough structural damage there are fears the building may collapse. Witnesses described seeing a number of men fleeing from the building, one of whom was killed by police (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012). Those detained in the raid insist they were only smuggling arms from Libya to Syria and had no intention of carrying out terrorist operations in Egypt. Police believe that some of the suspects fled from Libya after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi (al-Tahrir [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Karim Ahmad is alleged to be the author of a handwritten document found in the raid entitled “The Conquest of Egypt.” The work is reported to provide a detailed plan for the establishment of an Egyptian Caliphate through a campaign involving the assassination of leading Egyptians, including the president and the newly appointed Coptic pope, a wave of bombings (especially in places where Coptic Christians are known to gather), attacks on military posts in Cairo and the Sinai and the takeover of communications networks (al-Arabiya, November 13, 2012). Other materials found in the raid include blueprints of important buildings, records of the movements of significant individuals and plans to strike the U.S. and Israeli embassies (al-Tahrir [Cairo], October 29, 2012; al-Shuruq al-Jadid [Cairo], October 31, 2012; al-Wafd [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Various reports of the contents of the weapons cache uncovered in Madinat Nasr are so inconsistent as to be useless in determining the threat level posed by the group. These accounts report the seizure of quantities of surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank rockests, bags of TNT, explosive belts, Katyusha rockets, hand grenades, rifles and detonators, often in wildly varying quantities (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012; November 14; al-Arabiya, November 2, 2012); Some Islamists have suggested there were no weapons at all in the raided building, but journalists with a state-controlled Egyptian daily said they witnessed a “large number of heavy and light weapons” being removed from the building (al-Akhbar [Cairo], October 26, 2012).

On October 27, security forces in Alexandria raided a shop in the Burj al-Arab district, seizing 20 sacks of TNT they believed had been stored there by members of the Madinat Nasr cell (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], October 28, 2012; al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). Other explosives were reportedly found in a warehouse in the Cairo suburb of al-Sayyida Zaynab and in a car driven by accused members of the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). Four Sinai Bedouin were arrested on October 29 in Giza Governorate in possession of automatic weapons and a large amount of explosives they confessed to obtaining for use against institutions in Cairo and Gaza. Police claimed the four were tied to the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Ahram [Cairo], October 30, 2012; al-Hayat, October 31, 2012).

Many of the Islamist militants now active in Egypt are said by security sources to have fled the Sinai following the intensification of the counter-terrorist “Operation Sinai” in September. They have since spread to a number of Egyptian governorates, including the densely populated capital region (Egypt Independent, October 27). Police also suspect that Sinai militants recently arrested while preparing to carry out terrorist attacks on the Red Sea tourist resorts of Sharm al-Shaykh and Dahab may have ties to the Madinat Nasr cell (al-Hayat, October 31, 2012).

The al-Qaeda Connection

With al-Qaeda relegated to the sidelines during the momentous events of the Egyptian Revolution, al-Qaeda leader and veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri has attempted to keep his movement relevant and his name familiar to Egyptians by releasing a long series of video statements entitled “A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt.” In the eleventh and latest release in this series, al-Zawahiri described al-Mursi as a president without authority who was cooperating with the United States in the “War on Terror” while failing to commit to a nation-wide jihad to liberate Palestine. The solution to this problem, according to the al-Qaeda leader, is the initiation of a new revolution that will bring the people of Egypt to Islam. Al-Zawahiri’s chosen instrument for this new phase of revolution is Shaykh Hazim Abu Isma’il, a leading Egyptian Salafist and colleague of the al-Qaeda leader’s brother, Muhammad al-Zawahiri and Aboud al-Zomor, an Islamist leader released during the revolution after nearly three decades of imprisonment for his role in the Sadat assassination:

Shaykh Hazim, his followers, and all loyal people in Egypt should launch a popular campaign of incitement and preaching so as to complete the revolution that has been aborted and the gains of which have been compromised. We urge them to apply the rules of Shari’a and ensure pride, justice, freedom, and dignity for the steadfast mujahideen and Muslim people of Egypt. [1]

Shaykh Hazim, Aboud and Muhammad al-Zawahiri were all observed at the September 12 storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, an event for which the Islamists later claimed responsibility. Muhammad al-Zawahiri has also expressed his opinion that the democratic process is un-Islamic as it gives rule to people rather Allah and has stated that he and his Salafist colleagues do not recognize al-Mursi’s authority (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 12, 2012; Capital Broadcasting Center TV [Cairo], October 4, 2012). Shaykh Hazim was a would-be candidate in the presidential elections earlier this year but his candidacy was eventually rejected by the Electoral Commission on the grounds that his mother had American citizenship, a violation of the rules contained in the Egyptian constitution. The shaykh is a vocal opponent of the Egyptian military’s political influence, though some Egyptian Salafists have withheld their full support of Shaykh Hazim because the shaykh’s father was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a scholar at Cairo’s al-Azhar Islamic university, the center of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy (Egypt Independent, March 8, 2012).

The Brotherhood’s spokesman, Dr. Mahmud Ghuzlan, said that al-Qaeda’s criticism of al-Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact an honor “because it proves the Muslim Brothers’ moderation and [the effectiveness of] its middle-of-the-road approach in confronting extremists” (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], September 29, 2012). A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Azab Mustafa, suggested that al-Zawahiri’s arguments were irrational because al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology “does not exist in Egypt” (al-Shorfa [Cairo], October 31, 2012).

Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founder and former leader of the Salafist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya [GI], has warned of a recent and explosive growth in the takfiri tendency in Egypt: “Suddenly I woke up to the fact that the takfiri ideology has spread in an amazing way after the revolution; it has not stopped at considering the liberals, the socialists, and their ilk as infidels, but it has extended to judging as infidel anyone they considered to be so in the past, as if we have not elected a religious president.” The former GI leader further claims that dozens of jihadist cells have been established across Egypt and are awaiting instructions from abroad before carrying out operations in Egypt (al-Hayat, October 27, 2012).

Tarik al-Zomor, a current co-leader of GI who was freed from three decades of imprisonment along with his aforementioned cousin Aboud al-Zomor during the Revolution, has said that he thinks it unlikely jihadi groups will make a comeback in Egypt because the revolution created new political conditions that exclude Islamist violence and that it is now necessary for the GI to help the president in working towards the implementation of Shari’a (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, November 2, 2012; al-Hayat, October 28, 2012). More recently, however, a statement from GI’s political wing has called for the dissolution of the cabinet and the creation of a parallel “revolutionary government” in opposition to the ruling political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the movement accuses of “hijacking the revolution and denying the people its profits” (al-Masry al-Youm, November 19, 2012).

Tarik al-Zomor also insists Interior Ministry claims that the suspects were preparing terrorist strikes within Egypt are fabrications designed to help state security forces regain their hold over Egyptian society and suggests that the men may have been transporting Libyan arms to Syria (DPA, November 2, 2012). Other Egyptian Islamists have echoed these sentiments (Ahram Online, November 1, 2012). However, Interior Minister General Ahmad Jamal al-Din angrily rejected suggestions the case was another police fabrication in the style of the Mubarak-era: “Did [they] expect us to wait until some important locations were bombed? Did they not see the fire which erupted after the explosion inside the apartment of Madinat Nasr while it was being raided?” (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012).

The Interior Ministry

According to police, one of the targets of the Madinat Nasr cell was the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo (al-Masry al-Youm, October 30, 2012). The Ministry, for decades the arch-enemy of Egypt’s Islamists in a dirty war fought out in the backstreets of urban housing projects and in blood-spattered interrogation rooms, continues to be viewed by the Islamists as a force working against Egypt’s interests despite its near collapse in the wake of the revolution (see Terrorism Monitor, April 7, 2011). Muhammad al-Zawahiri has gone so far as to accuse the Interior Ministry and other security bodies of “adopting the Israeli agenda to separate Sinai from Egypt” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 12, 2012).

Following reports that jihadis fleeing Egyptian operations in the Sinai had prepared an assassination list of 300 political figures, there were demands from some quarters that the Ministry restore ex-members of the pre-revolutionary security apparatus who specialized in the investigation of jihadi and takfiri elements (al-Dustur [Cairo], October 29, 2012).

Changes in the structure of the Interior Ministry and its operations made at the behest of the Muslim Brothers are said to have angered a large number of mid-level officers (al-Shuruq al-Jadid [Cairo], November 13, 2012). Police methods are proving resistant to change in post-revolutionary Egypt, with the familiar abuses of the Mubarak-era still prevailing. A recent report from the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture documented 88 cases of police torture in the first 100 days of al-Mursi’s presidency and 34 incidents of death at the hands of police. [2] The Minister of the Interior, meanwhile, has warned civil society organizations to beware of false claims of torture and other excesses by policemen (al-Akhbar [Cairo], November 8, 2012). A lawyer for the original eight accused in the Madinat Nasr case maintains that they have all suffered torture during their interrogations and several of the suspects told prosecutors they had been tortured after their arrest (al-Shorouk [Cairo], November 3, 2012; al-Hayat, November 4, 2012).

Conclusion

It is a fact borne out by history that revolutions rarely finish where and when they are expected to finish. In Egypt’s case, it could hardly have been foreseen that in such a short time into their rule the most dangerous opposition to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would come from other Egyptian Islamists. In the world of the takfiri extremists, even President al-Mursi can assume the role of an apostate tyrant on the level of Mubarak and Sadat. Of similar importance is the establishment of transnational networks connecting Salafi-Jihadists from Libya to Syria that were unthinkable only two years ago under the combined rule of Qaddafi, Mubarak and Assad.

Have Egyptian police uncovered an Egyptian terrorist cell determined to carry out a wave of violence designed to overthrow the Mursi government? Or have they uncovered a pipeline of arms and fighters running between jihadi groups in Libya and jihadi insurgents in Syria? The Interior Ministry would have reason to prefer the former; establishing an internal danger to the state and its president would go a long way towards preserving the latitude of action and culture of immunity the Ministry’s agents have traditionally enjoyed. With the Ministry in tight control of the information flow concerning the case and key evidence yet to be made public, it is hard to say at the moment which scenario is accurate. What is certain, however, is that whether the Madinat Nasr cell intended to operate within Egypt or not, Islamist militants are organizing within Egypt, many of them at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood government and entirely capable of translating that opposition into violent attacks by exploiting the new free flow of Libyan arms across northeast Africa.

The question of the purpose of the Madinat Nasr group and other armed cells disrupted later is central to determining whether Ayman al-Zawahiri’s calls for a new, armed phase of the Egyptian Revolution to implement the organization’s version of Shari’a and focus Egypt’s military on defeat of the Zionist enemy have a receptive audience among the roughly 1,200 Islamist militants who escaped prison, were released during the revolution or have returned from exile after the fall of Mubarak (al-Hayat, October 27, 2012). There is little question the al-Qaeda leader would like to reinsert himself into the political equation in Egypt, a land where an all-pervasive security regime eventually squashed al-Zawahiri’s EIJ in the 1990s and prevented al-Qaeda infiltration before the Egyptian Revolution brought the collapse of the internal security apparatus and effective border controls. An al-Qaeda inspired or controlled terrorist campaign at this most critical time in Egypt’s difficult political transition would quickly threaten to derail Egypt’s already erratic progress towards democracy and unleash new and unpredictable forces throughout the Middle East.

Notes

1. “As-Sahab media presents a new video of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” October 24, 2012.

2.  “100 days of Morsi Rule: 100 days of detentions, torture, violent crash on protests and killing outside the law,” El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Cairo, November 13, 2012, https://alnadeem.org/files/100%20days%20of%20Morsi%20rule.pdf

This article first appeared as a Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue”

Former Militants of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya Struggle for Political Success

Andrew McGregor

September 27, 2012

For decades one of Egypt’s most violent extremist groups, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI) is currently engaged in a struggle to establish itself as an Islamist political party in post-revolutionary Egypt. Though traditionally a Salafist-Jihadi movement, GI has not established close relations with al-Nur, the largest of Egypt’s Salafist political parties. Nor is it close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently ignored the movement in the distribution of senior government posts.

Assem Abd al-MajedAl-Gama’a al-Islamiya Spokesman Assem Abd al-Maged

On September 17, a GI spokesman announced that the movement had formed “al-Ansar,” a new movement drawing on young people of various Islamist trends to protect the reputation of the Prophet Muhammad by producing films about Christianity and Judaism and starting a publishing house and satellite channel to support this effort (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 17).

While the movement continues to work on its conversion to a political party, it appears not to have abandoned its commitment to jihad, at least beyond Egypt’s borders. GI spokesman Assem Abd al-Maged has stated that GI members were travelling to Syria to join the anti-Assad revolt and that three Egyptians affiliated to the movement were recently killed in battle in Syria. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed the participation of Egyptians in the armed opposition but noted that these fighters had not revealed their political affiliations (Anadolu Ajansi [Ankara], September 8; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 26; September 9). The GI has also attempted to insert itself into the security crisis in the Sinai by sending a delegation to meet with tribal and religious leaders in the region in early September (Al-Ahram Weekly, August 30 – September 5).

The GI is taking a hard stand on Egyptian-American relations, having urged Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi to cancel his September 23 visit to the United States to address the United Nations. Suggesting that the anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims was made under “American auspices,” GI spokesman Assem Abd al-Maged argued that Egypt did not need to worry about U.S. cuts in aid to Egypt as such cuts were “not in [the United States’] interest, as they know we are the superpower in the region” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 16).

According to an official with the GI’s political wing, the Building and Development Party, the movement is prepared to sever its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party following President Mursi’s failure to include GI members as presidential advisors, regional governors or members of the National Human Rights Council. The group was especially disturbed by its omission from the latter body, noting that the GI was “the faction persecuted most by the former regime, with 30,000 members having been arrested and 20 of them having died in prison due to torture and diseases” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 9; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 9). There has been some speculation in Egypt that the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy had less to do with anger over the anti-Muslim film than with an opportunity to embarrass the Mursi government after it failed to include the GI in the new government.

Though the Brothers may not be offering much in the way of political appointments, some veteran members of the GI are enjoying a bit of revisionary justice under the new regime. President Mursi pardoned 26 members of GI and its Islamic Jihad offshoot in July. Four members of GI who were sentenced to death in 1999 during Mubarak’s rule were released on September 5 pending a ruling in early November on their case. The four were among 43 Egyptians returned to Egypt through the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program after being sentenced to death in absentia in the “Albanian Returnees” case of 1999 (Ahram Online, September 5; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 7). The GI members had been charged with attempting to overthrow the government, killing civilians and targeting Christians and the tourism industry.

One of those released, Ahmad Refa’i Taha (indicted in the United States for his role in the 1999 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa) has demanded an immediate pardon rather than wait for the November ruling, describing the case as “a huge insult to the revolution and revolutionaries…We are considered the first to fight the former regime, which nobody revolted against like us… We would like people to have shown some appreciation for those who opposed Mubarak and his regime” (al-Hayat, September 7).

Demands by the GI and other Islamist groups in Egypt and Libya for the release of former GI leader Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman from an American prison (where he is serving a life-term for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) have been supported by President Mursi, who has asked for the shaykh’s release on humanitarian grounds.
In the coming parliamentary elections, GI may seek to capitalize on growing rifts within al-Nur, the largest of the Salafist political parties (Ahram Online, September 25). According to GI leader Aboud al-Zomor, the movement will seek to form new alliances prior to the elections and is determined to increase the handful of seats won in last year’s contest (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 30). Aboud and his brother Tarek, both prominent GI leaders, were released from prison in March, 2011 after having been convicted in 1984 for their admitted roles in planning the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. Aboud has since apologized, not for killing Sadat, but for creating the conditions that led to Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian 30-year rule.

This article first appeared in the September 27, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiya and the War in South Sudan

Andrew McGregor

December 9, 2011

In a surprising statement, a leading member of Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI) has revealed members of the militant group had been sent to fight alongside government forces against South Sudanese rebels during the 1983-2005 Sudanese Civil War. The revelation was made by Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a founding member of the movement (al-Rai [Kuwait], November 16).

PDF KhartoumPopular Defense Forces Rally in Khartoum

In the 1990s, Khartoum’s civil war with rebel forces in the South Sudan was given a religious character when the regime declared it a jihad, partly as a means of inspiring, and later enforcing, recruitment to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) or the lightly-armed Popular Defense Forces (PDF), which was armed with rifles and Qurans in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the most powerful rebel movement in the South Sudan. It was likely during Khartoum’s jihad against what it described as the “communist, tribal and atheist/Christian” SPLA that GI fighters joined the conflict, most probably in the ranks of the PDF, which suffered enormous losses fighting the veteran guerrilla forces of the SPLA on their own turf. Lately, however, there are fears that Khartoum is reviving the rhetoric of jihad to support its offensives against rebels in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile Province (Sudan Tribune, November 1).

The Alexandria-based Islamist ideologue said that GI’s “participation [in the civil war] was a huge mistake that led to what is Sudan’s fate now… The Sudanese regime focused its efforts on Islamizing the south and the Egyptian Islamists considered their participation in the war [was for the cause of] safeguarding Islam.”

From 1992 to 1997, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya waged a pitched war against the Egyptian state, its institutions and its financial underpinnings.  Some 1,200 people died as the group unleashed a wave of assassinations, mass murders of tourists and back-street battles with security forces.  However, the movement went too far in November 1997 when it massacred 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians in a brutal attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor. With popular support fizzling away and security forces successful in imprisoning many of the movement’s members, most of the members of the GI agreed to renounce violence, leading to the later release of some 2,000 Islamists from prison. However, some members, including Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, denounced the deal, and fled to Yemen and Afghanistan. Further renunciations of violence by those group members left in prison eventually led to the release of Najih Ibrahim in 2006 after serving 24 years.

The GI’s newly-formed political wing, Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party), ran a slate of candidates in the Egyptian parliamentary election after a court overturned a ban on the formation of a political party by the GI (Ahram Online, June 20; al-Masry al-Youm, September 20; MENA, October 10).

A member of GI’s Shura Council, Najih Ibrahim resigned from the council in March, along with Karam Zohid, reportedly as a result of differences that arose within the movement after the release of Colonel Abboud al-Zumar and his cousin Tarek al-Zumar, the GI founder who was imprisoned for three decades for his role in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat (Ahram Online, March 29).

Both before and after his release from prison, Ibrahim has been a major proponent of the “Revisions” produced by GI and other Islamist militant groups in Egypt. According to Ibrahim, these reassessments of the political use of violence “have revealed the major Islamic jurisprudential errors that al-Qaeda has made, especially with regard to the rulings and the pre-conditions of jihad” (al-Shorfa [Cairo], August 2). Though he regrets the slow pace with which the “Revisions” are penetrating extremist youth circles in Egypt, Ibrahim maintains that there is a major difference between GI and al-Qaeda: “Their aim is jihad, and our aim is Islam” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 14).

This article first appeared in the December 9, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Gama’a al-Islamiya Leader Says Egyptian Revolution Belongs “Only to Those Who Ignited It”

Andrew McGregor

February 17, 2011

An ideological leader of former Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – The Islamic Group) recently told a pan-Arab daily that the revolution in Egypt belonged not to the Islamists, but to the “youths of Facebook” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 11). Based in Alexandria, Dr. Najih Ibrahim describes himself as “an Islamic thinker or a preacher calling for Islam,” adding that he is not a politician, nor does he wish to be. Shaykh Ibrahim spent two decades in Egyptian prisons on charges related to the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

TahrirIbrahim insisted that the Islamist movement’s role in the revolution had been small and movements such as his own could take little credit for the events that brought down President Mubarak:  “This revolution belongs only to those that ignited it. These are the “youths of Facebook”. They called for it, sacrificed for it, and achieved victory. All the others without exception came to al-Tahrir Square after the police had left.” In the past, Shaykh Ibrahim has warned of the dangers of the internet, noting the presence of “scattered individuals” who do not take religious instruction from shaykhs, mosques or reputable Islamic groups, finding inspiration instead on the internet, which is now “not only a source of extremist ideology, but also information on how to implement such ideology, providing information on how to manufacture a car bomb or turn normal chemicals into explosives…” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 15).

According to Ibrahim, the Islamic Group’s involvement was limited largely to helping provide security at Tahrir Square and guarding public and private property. “We do not wish to take credit for a victory that we did not achieve or to hijack the efforts of others.” On the question of reneging on the 2003 peace initiative that ended his movement’s violence against the state, Ibrahim replied that such a suggestion was “absolutely out of the question. We are committed to the initiative to stop violence regardless of what the coming regime will be.”

In his assessment of how the revolution succeeded in rapidly creating conditions in which the resignation of the president became inevitable, Ibrahim noted how demonstrators remained focused on a single message that had broad appeal across a spectrum of political opinions and religious beliefs:

As soon as it erupted, [the revolution] did not raise a religious slogan in order not to be aborted and not to be rejected by many forces in society. It did also did not raise any political slogan in order not to cause differences among the political forces participating in it. It also did not discuss foreign policy. It did not chant against the United States and Israel and did not ask for the abrogation of the Camp David Accords. All this neutralized the foreign forces [that might have supported Mubarak].

Ibrahim’s assessment of the revolution contrasted his earlier remarks made on February 3, when the shaykh insisted protests should end as President Mubarak had granted 90% of the demonstrators’ demands: “What do we want after that? Do we need chaos or to humiliate the president? This man fought for Egypt for 30 years. I am saying this though I was jailed under his rule with the brothers in the Gama’a Islamiya for more than two decades” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 3).

In viewing Mubarak’s rule, Ibrahim credits the ex-president with keeping Egypt out of any major conflicts during his term, particularly avoiding U.S. pressure to participate in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mubarak had also agreed to the 2003 sulh (truce) that resulted in the release of 12,000 Islamist detainees, many of whom had spent more than a decade in prison without trial.
On the other hand, the GI ideologue pointed to the more than 100 Islamists executed by Mubarak’s regime, claiming their dispute with the government could have been solved in a simpler way:  “Despite this, we do not absolve some Islamic movements that adopted violence against him of some responsibility.”

Ibrahim went on to remark that Mubarak’s tenure was “characterized by stagnation and inflexibility in the political, economic, social and religious domains. Mubarak excluded everyone; that is, all the political current… There was a kind of marriage between the regime and the wealth that generated corruption and bribery… Mubarak’s regime adopted the policy of suppression and oppression, particularly of the Islamists, for long periods of time. The only exception is the initiative to renounce violence that was a smart model in solving the problems between the state and the Islamists.”

This article first appeared in the February 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Egyptian Islamic Group Ideologist Dr. Najih Ibrahim Says Time Is Not Right for Islamists to Seize Power

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2010

Dr. Najih Ibrahim, the principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group), has outlined a new future for the GI, Egypt’s most notorious terrorist group in the 1990s and the domestic movement of many Egyptian extremists who went on to form the core leadership of al-Qaeda.

Najih IbrahimDr. Najih Ibrahim

A founding member of the movement, Najih Ibrahim, was released from prison in 2006 in a mass release of 1200 GI members from Egyptian jails. His release followed a 2003 decision by the movement to renounce political violence and the initiation of the “Revisions project”, led by imprisoned GI leader Sayed Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), once a close associate of al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Revisions project has now spread to other parts of the Arab world, as imprisoned Islamists re-examine their advocacy of political violence and terrorism. Najih Ibrahim discussed the implications of the recent death of Egyptian state security officer, Major General Ahmad Ra’fat al-Tayyib, the sponsor of the Revisions project. The GI ideologue insists that this event will have little impact on the Revisions, as General al-Tayyib’s individual approach to the project has now become state policy. The Revisions initiative is now “a deep-rooted ideology.”

Najih Ibrahim pointed to the recent release of the eldest son of former GI leader, Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman (imprisoned in the United States since 1996), as proof of the success of ongoing reconciliation efforts. Shaykh Omar’s son, Muhammad, spent seven years in prison after his arrest in Afghanistan as part of the exiled group of GI hardliners that dominated al-Qaeda’s leadership (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 5). Muhammad is married to the daughter of the late Shaykh Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, another Egyptian Islamist who acted as al-Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan until his death by U.S. missile strike earlier this year (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 2).

Referring to the aborted Koran burning in Florida and American perceptions of Islam in general, Najih Ibrahim maintains that Americans should learn about Islam “from its sources, and not from the Zionist media or from the behavior of al-Qaeda… The fact is that Bin Laden is not Islam; Islam is greater than Bin Laden, greater than all the Islamist movements, and greater than the behavior of all Muslims.”

Instead of the direct pursuit of power, Najih Ibrahim advocates a policy of “participation, not replacement”:

The Islamist movement started with the concept of replacement, namely that the Islamists replace the regime. No, let us abandon this concept, and support the concept of participation and cooperation in what is good. Let us leave for the state the sovereignty issues, and we handle Islamic call, education, and the development of society, its progress, educating its ethics and preserving its identity… Whoever the ruler might be, we will not clash with him. We will cooperate with him in what is good. What we can change in a kind way, and by good word, we will change, and what we cannot will be beyond our ability.

Najih Ibrahim says the GI believes Islamists should abandon the idea of seizing power, as the goal is unrealistic. “If they achieve power, they will be forced to relinquish it by the regional and international powers,” Ibrahim said. He warns Islamists that they will be put under siege and subjected to negative portrayals in the media and economic blockades that will make payment of government salaries or alleviation of poverty impossible. Najih Ibrahim even considers participation in the People’s Assembly elections undesirable, saying the funds used for election campaigns could be better used to support the 4,000 orphaned children of deceased GI members and the 12 GI members still under sentence of death in Egyptian prisons. He holds little hope for change at the executive level, saying presidential elections will be “only a formality” that will lead to the re-election of President Hosni Mubarak or his son, Jamal Mubarak. “It will not be anyone other than one of these two,” Ibrahim believes. Najih Ibrahim warns of the danger posed to the Islamist movement by secularists who are eager to push the Islamists into confrontation with the ruling power. After doing so, the secularists then turn “into the followers and entourage of the ruler; they climb over our skulls and wounds, they take control of media, culture and everything and leave us to go to prisons and detention camps as usual.”

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

 

Egyptian Islamists Urge al-Qaeda to Declare a Truce

Andrew McGregor

February 19, 2009

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – The Islamic Group), once one of Egypt’s most feared Islamist terrorist organizations, has issued a statement urging al-Qaeda to observe a ceasefire to better assess the intentions of the new Obama administration in Washington (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 24).

Najih Ibrahim 2

Shaykh Najih Ibrahim (Al-Ahram)

GI has observed its own ceasefire agreement with the Egyptian government since March 1999. The agreement followed a number of spectacular terrorist attacks by the group, such as the 1997 Luxor attack that killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians. These attacks, however, only succeeded in alienating the movement from public support. The targeting of tourists and the tourism infrastructure proved highly unpopular in a nation that relies heavily on revenues from these sources (up to $4 billion per year in much-needed foreign currency). The group’s often pointless attacks on Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community inflamed sectarian divisions within the country while doing little to further the Islamist cause. In August 2006, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Egyptian national Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the merger of GI with al-Qaeda, but this development was immediately denied by JI leaders within Egypt (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 14, 2006).

The GI’s chief theorist, Shaykh Najih Ibrahim, was released in 2004 after spending 24 years behind bars following his conviction as a ringleader in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. Since then he has adopted a more conciliatory role in Egypt while rejecting the violence of al-Qaeda: “Their aim is jihad and our aim is Islam.”

Shaykh Najih rejected a call from al-Qaeda strategist Abu Yahya al-Libi for immediate attacks on Britain and other Western nations as retaliation for the Israeli assault on Gaza: “We fear that the al-Qaeda organization might carry out operations that will turn Obama into another George Bush and turn the good [in President Obama’s stated intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and close Guantanamo Bay], albeit small, into evil from which only Israel will benefit” (Al-Arabiya TV [Dubai], January 23; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 24).

Isam al-Din Darbalah, a long-time GI leader, also issued a statement addressed to all levels of al-Qaeda’s leadership and membership. Noting that President Obama appears ready to abandon “Bush’s dead-end and crazy path,” Isam al-Din urged a four-month ceasefire designed to test American intentions: “Say [to the Western states] without fear: ‘We will not start fighting you in the next four months, unless in self-defense, awaiting fair and practical stands on the part of Obama. We welcome a peace based on respect for the Islamic identity and our peoples’ right to live independently under their creed and shari’a and on the basis of common interests with America and the world for the good of humanity, away from the conflict of cultures.'” While still in prison, Isam al-Din collaborated with Najih Ibrahim and several other imprisoned JI leaders in a reassessment of religious extremism entitled “Correcting Concepts.” He later contributed to a book-length study of al-Qaeda’s strategy that criticized the group for a flawed understanding of reality and the capabilities of the Muslim nation.

This article first appeared in the February 19 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah Accuses Copts of Establishing a Parallel State

Andrew McGregor

June 18, 2008

A recent round of violence between Egyptian Muslims and Egypt’s ancient Coptic Christian community has raised fears of a return to sectarian violence. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah, formerly one of Egypt’s most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups, has weighed in on Coptic claims of persecution, claiming in a June 10 statement that the Copts were using the incidents to create “a parallel state,” suggesting that “many men of the Coptic Church have become, together with their churches, enmeshed to the marrow in political activism.”

Deir Abu FanahDeir Abu Fanah – Attacked in May 2008 (Photo – Andreas Paul)

The statement went on to claim that Church leaders were “seeking protection behind its walls to proclaim from behind them their mutiny against the state and rebellion against it” (al-Hayat, June 11). Even some Copts have suggested that the flow of funds from the successful Coptic diaspora has enabled the church to assume responsibility for aspects of their community that were once the sole domain of the state (al-Araby, January 6, 2005). The Egyptian Copts, led by 84-year-old Pope Shenouda III, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East and comprise an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

Once best known for its involvement in a number of spectacular incidents of terrorism, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the massacre of 58 foreign tourists and three Egyptians at Luxor in 1997, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah has not only accepted the legitimacy of the Egyptian state, but has now emerged as one of its most vocal defenders. After the movement renounced violence in 2003, 1,000 leaders and members of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah were released from Egyptian prisons. Nearly 1,000 more were set free in 2006 as prominent leaders of the group apologized for their violent activities.

There were concerns in August 2006 that al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah had reverted to its former militancy when al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video claiming that al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah had decided to join al-Qaeda. One of the movement’s leaders, Muhammad al-Hukaymah, appeared in the video to confirm the claim. In response to al-Zawahiri’s statement, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah leaders in Egypt issued a complete denial of the al-Qaeda leader’s claims, stating that they “contradicted reality.”

On May 31, 60 to 70 Muslim villagers attacked a prominent Coptic monastery in Middle Egypt, home to a substantial number of Egyptian Christians. Police took three hours to arrive from the local police station two kilometers (one mile) away. A foreign-based Coptic website has accused police of “complacency or even complicity” in the attack (unitedcopts.org, June 4). Although the violence at the fourth century monastery of Deir Abu-Fana (St Epiphanius) was supposedly a result of monks building a government-approved fence through fields claimed by local Muslims, aspects of the attack suggested more sectarian motives. The attackers targeted the Church of Pope Kyrillos, destroying icons, bibles and the altar before setting the building on fire. Three monks were abducted, tortured, forced to spit on a representation of the cross and pronounce the Muslim profession of faith. One attacker was killed in what the police described as “an exchange of fire,” thought the monks do not carry arms (al-Jazeera, June 1; Watani News, June 8).

In previous attacks on Copts, the police have routinely claimed the perpetrators were either mentally deficient or acting from purely criminal rather than sectarian motives. The governor of Minya Province described the attack as “a fight between two neighbors and nothing else” (AFP, May 31). In the protests that followed, Copts took to the streets chanting: “With our blood and soul, we will defend the cross” (Middle East Times, June 2; The Peninsula [Qatar], June 2).

In another incident two masked men on a motorcycle killed four Copts in a Cairo jewelry shop (al-Arabiya, May 28). The murders were at first described as part of a robbery, but it later turned out that nothing had been stolen from the shop (Middle East Times, June 2). This incident was followed by another in southern Egypt, in which a Copt was stabbed to death by his Muslim neighbor. Though it appeared the murder was the result of a long-standing dispute, Copts again took to the streets in protest, throwing rocks at police cars and injuring three policeman (AFP, June 6).

Egyptian writer Ahmad al-Aswani suggests that the latest round of violence “is an attempt to terrorize Egypt’s Copts, and to force them either to emigrate from the homeland once and for all, or to convert to Islam to protect themselves and their families” (Aafaq.org, June 7). Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah reminds fellow Egyptians that “Egypt is a state indivisible by two … it is the throbbing heart of Islam and Arabism, and no one has managed to change this fact … so let no one come today and tempt you to try to tamper with this fact and seek to change Egypt’s Islamic, Arab face” (al-Hayat, June 10).

This article first appeared in the June 18, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus