Thomas Joscelyn, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Chairman King, Ranking Member Higgins, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss al Qaeda's presence in Egypt. The uprisings throughout the Muslim world that began in late 2010 and early 2011 brought hope to millions of people. Al Qaeda did not instigate these revolts, but in the years since the group has exploited the security vacuums created in their wake.
Al Qaeda's theory of the revolution in Egypt, and the subsequent overthrow of Mohamed Morsi's Islamist regime, is predicated on its deeply anti-American and anti-Semitic worldview. Al Qaeda's senior leaders portrayed Mubarak's fall as a defeat for the US and its interests in the region. For instance, al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri portrayed the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia as comparable to America's military losses and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. America "was defeated in Tunisia and lost its agent there," Zawahiri said in an October 2011 recording, and "it was defeated in Egypt and lost its biggest agent there."
Even though al Qaeda has long disagreed with the Muslim Brotherhood's approach to politics, sometimes vehemently so, the group did not call for jihad against Morsi or his government. Instead, most of post-Mubarak Egypt became a land for proselytization. In "Egypt and Tunisia, the opportunities have opened up for preaching [but] only Allah knows how long they will last," Zawahiri said in an August 2011 message. "Therefore," Zawahiri continued, "the people of Islam and jihad should benefit from them and take advantage of them to report the clear truth and make the Ummah come together around the primary issues that no Muslim can dispute." Accordingly, from early 2011 through the middle of 2013, Zawahiri's henchmen and allied jihadists set up organizations to spread al Qaeda's ideology. They preached in Tahrir Square, appeared on national television, and openly operated in a country where they had once been hunted and harassed by security services.
In some respects, however, the Sinai was different. The jihadists saw it as a new front for confronting Israel and a base for their operations. Various al Qaeda-linked or inspired groups grew. When Egyptian security forces conducted counterterrorism raids, they became viable terrorist targets. Indeed, al Qaeda's leaders repeatedly condemned Egypt's military even prior to Morsi's ouster. When Morsi was deposed in early July 2013, the landscape changed once again. No longer was the Islamist regime, which al Qaeda saw as doomed to fail, in power. Al Qaeda has consistently portrayed the Egyptian military as a servant of an imaginary Zionist-Crusader conspiracy, making the government a legitimate target for jihad.
Egypt continues to pose of a variety of counter-terrorism challenges and threats to American interests. I address several of these areas of concern in my testimony today.
▪ Al Qaeda likely has "core" leaders inside Egypt today. During and after the 2011 uprisings, senior jihadists allied with al Qaeda were freed. Others returned from abroad, including from Iran, which offered Egyptian jihadist leaders a form of safe haven for years. Not all of these jihadists returned to terrorism, but some influential jihadists did. The September 11, 2012, protest in front of the US Embassy in Cairo, which turned into an all-out assault, was instigated by "old school" jihadists who are part of al Qaeda's network and were freed after Mubarak's fall. After President Mohamed Morsi's regime was overthrown, the military and security forces re-arrested a number of senior jihadist figures. However, some likely remain active and may hold leadership roles in new al Qaeda-allied terrorist organizations.
▪ The Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN), which was established in 2011, is an international threat and part of al Qaeda's network. One of the "old school" Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) jihadists released from prison in 2011 is Muhammad Jamal, a longtime subordinate to Ayman al Zawahiri. Despite Jamal's re-imprisonment in late 2012, the MJN remains active today in the Sinai, mainland Egypt and elsewhere. The MJN clearly operates as part of al Qaeda's international network and has ties to terrorists in Europe. Some of its members participated in the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Egyptian authorities have alleged that the MJN was connected to an al Qaeda plot against Western embassies and other interests in Cairo in 2013.
▪ There is strong evidence indicating that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen, is operating in the Sinai. This is an important development because AQAP has repeatedly attempted to attack the US homeland since 2009 and is increasingly managing al Qaeda's assets far from its home base of operations. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, is the general manager of al Qaeda's global network.
▪ The Sinai Peninsula has become home to multiple al Qaeda actors, as well as al Qaeda-inspired groups. Osama bin Laden's former doctor is reportedly a senior al Qaeda leader in the Sinai today. Several groups proclaiming their allegiance to al Qaeda have emerged in the Sinai since 2011.
▪ Ansar Jerusalem (Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), the most prolific Sinai-based jihadist organization, is pursuing al Qaeda's agenda. Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly praised the group's attacks. Ansar Jerusalem shares al Qaeda's ideology, employs al Qaeda's tactics, and routinely refers to and praises al Qaeda's leaders in its statements. There is much we do not know about Ansar Jerusalem's operations, but a growing body of evidence suggests it is tied to al Qaeda's international network.
▪ The Muslim Brotherhood, or at least elements of the organization, may have already turned to violence. The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi's regime was an "I told you so" moment for al Qaeda. The organization's senior ideologues have long argued that an Islamist regime would not be allowed to rule Egypt. Brotherhood members are certainly disillusioned following Morsi's ouster, and al Qaeda may, therefore, be more appealing to them. We know that groups such as Ansar Jerusalem are already poaching from the Brotherhood's ranks. Egyptian officials have leveled a number of allegations against the Brotherhood, saying that it is deeply involved in supporting terrorist activities. These allegations may be false and designed to further delegitimize the Brotherhood at home and abroad. However, some of the allegations are specific and can, therefore, be either verified or rejected. During the Brotherhood's brief reign, Morsi and others did cooperate with jihadists in some ways. This entire subject is murky and requires more analysis.
▪ Finally, it is worth stressing that al Qaeda views the Sinai as a base of operations for fighting an imaginary "Zionist-Crusader" conspiracy. That is, al Qaeda sees the Sinai as a launching pad for attacks against both American and Israeli interests. Today, Israel faces more of a challenge from jihadists allied with al Qaeda than ever before. This threat comes not just from the Sinai, but also from other countries, including Syria.
Below, I have divided the rest of my written testimony into three sections. In the first section, I outline how key al Qaeda leaders (including "core" members) became active in Egypt following the revolution. Some of them are still active to this day. In the second section, I give a brief overview of the leading al Qaeda-linked organizations in the Sinai. In the third and final section, I look at Ansar Jerusalem more closely, demonstrating that the organization is clearly pursuing al Qaeda's agenda.
Post-Revolution: Al Qaeda Leaders Become Active in Egypt
For decades, the main terrorist challenge to the Egyptian government came from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Gamaa Islamiyya (IG), two groups that were allied with al Qaeda and responsible for high-profile attacks on both Egyptian leaders and civilians. The EIJ was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri and merged with Osama bin Laden's venture prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While some IG leaders renounced violence from behind bars in Egypt, others did not and remained loyal to al Qaeda. Longtime IG spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a.k.a. "the Blind Sheikh," remains a popular figure in jihadist circles two decades after his imprisonment in the US.
Under Hosni Mubarak's regime, many EIJ and IG leaders were imprisoned. Some avoided confinement by staying abroad, either in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran or elsewhere. After Mubarak's fall, dozens of EIJ and IG leaders were freed from prison. Still others returned to their home country, where they were suddenly acquitted of longstanding terrorism charges.
One such key al Qaeda leader is Mohammad Islambouli, the brother of Anwar Sadat's assassin. Islambouli lived in Iran for years after 9/11. While living in Iran, he was a part of an IG contingent that formally merged with al Qaeda. In fact, Islambouli's ties to al Qaeda leadership go back decades. His importance can be seen in the limited number of documents released from Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In one document, dated October 20, 2010, bin Laden stresses the importance of protecting Islambouli, who had apparently evacuated northern Pakistan (after leaving Iran) for Kunar, Afghanistan. "He should be informed of the nature of work and he should be consulted on things that are being discussed," bin Laden writes, in reference to some ongoing projects. An earlier document, dated March 28, 2007, is addressed to an individual known as "Adnan Hafiz Sultan," who is also referred to as the "maternal uncle." The latter phrase ("maternal uncle") is al Qaeda's coded reference for Islambouli. If this letter is addressed to Islambouli, and it certainly appears that it is, then its contents show how Islambouli is a part of al Qaeda's senior leadership and he has been involved in managing the group's operations in Iraq and elsewhere.
After returning to Egypt, Islambouli was reportedly freed by an Egyptian military court in 2012 despite having been convicted of terrorism charges in absentia decades earlier. It is not clear where Islambouli is today, or if he has been re-arrested. But Islambouli's re-emergence demonstrates how an Egyptian al Qaeda leader, important enough for bin Laden to protect, suddenly found his home country to be hospitable once again. And Islambouli was not the only IG member turned senior al Qaeda leader to return from abroad in 2011 and 2012.
In addition, a contingent of EIJ leaders loyal to al Qaeda's leader became especially active inside Egypt after their release from prison. They were led by Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of Ayman al Zawahiri. Until he was re-arrested in 2013, Mohammed al Zawahiri used the permissive environment following the fall of Mubarak to proselytize, often under the banner of "Ansar al Sharia Egypt." This group was established by one of his former EIJ comrades, Ahmed Ashush. In interviews, Ashush proclaimed his allegiance to al Qaeda, saying that he was "honored to be an extension of al Qaeda." Although Mohammed al Zawahiri spent much of his trying to win new converts for al Qaeda's ideology, he likely returned to terrorist operations and was in contact with his brother as well.
Mohammed al Zawahiri was one of the chief instigators of the September 11, 2012, protest in front of the US Embassy in Cairo. The protest turned into an all-out assault on the compound, with the stars and stripes being ripped down and replaced by al Qaeda'a black banner. The protest-turned-assault was a pro-al Qaeda event from the first, with protesters openly praising Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. I have identified at least three other senior al Qaeda-linked jihadists who helped spark the protest: Tawfiq Al 'Afani, 'Adel Shehato, and Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa. Al 'Afani and Shehato are longtime EIJ ideologues and leaders. Shehato has since been re-arrested and charged with leading the so-called Nasr City Cell, which had multiple ties to al Qaeda.
Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa once led the IG and was a close confidante of the Blind Sheikh. He was very close to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. He even signed al Qaeda's 1998 fatwa declaring the formation of a "World Islamic Front for Confronting the Jews and Crusaders." The CIA considered Taha Musa to be such an important terrorist that he was tracked down in Syria, where he was detained and deported to Egypt in late 2001.
Dozens of other senior al Qaeda-linked jihadists either returned to Egypt or were freed from prison following the revolution. This raises several concerns going forward.
First, these jihadists were able to build up their operations with only occasional interference from security forces for approximately two years. They likely established terrorist cells and played a role in establishing some of the groups now based in the Sinai.
Second, while some of these leaders have been re-imprisoned, there are unconfirmed reports that top jihadists such as Mohammed al Zawahiri and Muhammad Jamal continue to communicate with the outside world from prison. Others remain free.
Third, al Qaeda's senior leadership is filled with Egyptians (including Saif al Adel, an al Qaeda leader still wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings), who know their home country well and have thick roots in the jihadist scene there. This gives al Qaeda's leaders a clear opportunity to leverage their historical ties with any jihadists who remain free.
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Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of The Long War Journal, a widely read publication dealing with counterterrorism and related issues. Much of his research focuses on how al Qaeda and its affiliates operate around the globe. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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