Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 January 2005
Issue No. 725
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Hamza connection

Whether or not Iran handed Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Mustafa Hamza over to Egypt, the suspected terrorist's retrial should result in some interesting revelations, writes Galal Nassar

Click to view caption
El-Adli (left) meets Khatami in Tehran last month

This week, Interior Minister Habib El-Adli confirmed that Mustafa Hamza, the leader of the outlawed Al-Gamaa Al- Islamiya group, was in Egyptian custody. Egypt believes Hamza -- also known as Abu Hazem -- was the mastermind behind the assassination attempt against President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. He is also charged with involvement in the assassinations of late president Anwar El-Sadat and speaker of parliament Rifaat El- Mahgoub, and with involvement in an assassination attempt on Shura Council Speaker Safwat El-Sherif when El-Sherif was still information minister.

El-Adli made the announcement in Tunis, where he was attending an Arab interior ministers' conference. He said Hamza, who will be brought to trial at the soonest opportunity, "would be re-tried before a military court because he is one of the most dangerous terrorists to have remained at large. His handover marks a success for Egypt's security agencies, and our bilateral relations with other countries."

El-Adli also announced that Jihad leaders who are currently in Egyptian prisons had declared that they have renounced violence and extremist ideas, "in an initiative similar to the one taken by leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which represents an important ideological breakthrough because the Jihad group espouses more violence and destruction than any other terrorist organisation."

At the same time, the Interior Minister warned that the explosive situations in Iraq and Palestine only served to fuel terrorism, predicting that hundreds of young Iraqis would be driven to join the ranks of terrorists and would thus have access to the latest and most lethal weaponry available.

The one thing Adli did not mention was the name of the country that had extradited Hamza to Egypt. Most analysts regard Iran as the most likely candidate since it was the last country Hamza was known to have fled to. Several weeks ago, El-Adli visited Tehran, where he met senior Iranian officials, including President Mohamed Khatami. At the time, some observers suggested that Egypt was seeking the extradition of persons wanted for their connection with Al- Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Jihad, and who had been either arrested in Iran or been given asylum there.

Hani El-Sibaai, director of the London-based Al-Maqrizi Centre for Historical Studies, first revealed the news of Hamza's extradition on 4 December 2004. Citing reliable sources in Al- Gamaa Al-Islamiya, he said that Iran had decided to hand over the 48-year-old Hamza, who is married with children, as part of a deal struck with Cairo. In exchange for Hamza's extradition, Tehran would be permitted to set up cultural centres in Egypt and receive intelligence on the Iranian opposition group, Mujhadi Khalq, members of which reside in Egypt. Egypt also promised to use its diplomatic channels with the US to improve Tehran's image in Washington. However, both Cairo and Tehran persisted in denying this report, the release of which coincided with news of an espionage scandal in which an Egyptian citizen and an Iranian diplomat were alleged to have been spying in Egypt on behalf of Tehran.

Hamza has long been on Egyptian security's most wanted list because of his record of militant activity as well as his standing among radical Islamist groups. He and Jihad leader Ahmed Salama Mabrouk graduated from the same Cairo University class. Mabrouk later became a reserve officer in the Egyptian army. It was later rumoured that the CIA intercepted Mabrouk in Azerbaijan and handed him over to Egypt, where he was prosecuted in the so-called "returnees from Albania" case in April 1999.

Hamza was arrested following the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981; in prison, he was indoctrinated into the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's radical ideology. After his release, he went to Afghanistan, from where he paid frequent visits to other countries such as Pakistan, Sudan and Iran. He headed Al-Gamaa's paramilitary branch, which mounted major terrorist strikes against Egypt between the mid-1980s and 1997. Following the terror attack against tourists in Luxor in November 1997, Hamza fell out with former Al-Gamaa Al--Islamiya leader Rifaai Taha, who, according to Al-Gamaa Al- Islamiya sources, was kidnapped from Syria and handed over to Egypt in 2001. Hamza is said to have repeatedly stated that Al-Gamaa was not responsible for the Luxor attack. Apparently, Taha's wife and children lived with Hamza's family in Mashhad, Iran, following Taha's abduction, and until they were eventually permitted by the Egyptian authorities to return to Egypt. Egyptian authorities have neither confirmed nor denied that Taha was handed over to them by Syria.

In 1998, following Taha's resignation, Hamza took over as head of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. He has remained in this position ever since, and continued to enjoy the support of the group's historical leadership in Egypt when he agreed to their recent renunciation of violence. Hamza faces three death sentences issued by special military tribunals for his terrorist activities, which included the assassination attempt against Mubarak in 1995.

According to Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups at Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the most striking revelation in El-Adli's announcement was that the military tribunal would be reconvened in order to try Hamza again. Under Egyptian law, the state has the right to execute the death penalty, even if issued in absentia, since verdicts pronounced by military courts are considered final and not subject to appeal. Rashwan believes that the retrial may be an expression of leniency on the government's part, in recognition of the role Hamza played in promoting and sustaining the pledge issued by Al-Gamaa Al- Islamiya leadership to renounce violence.

Rashwan also suggested several reasons for the government's sudden acknowledgement -- after repeated denials -- of Hamza's handover. The Interior Ministry, he said, was eager to prove itself after the recent Taba bombings had called its efficacy into question. The government also wanted to convey the message that it has not let the terrorist issue slide, and that it is still relentlessly pursuing terrorists both at home and abroad.

On the other hand, the Rashwan did not believe that Hamza's arrest would severely debilitate Al-Gamaa Al- Islamiya. Hamza belonged to the second generation of the group's leadership, while several members of the old guard had been released from prison within the framework of a truce with the Interior Ministry after having renounced violence.

Since Sudan was strongly implicated in the 1995 assassination attempt against President Mubarak in Addis Ababa, questions about the impact of Hamza's arrest on Egyptian-Sudanese relations have also emerged. Investigations and intelligence leaks from neighbouring countries, Washington, and the UN Security Council all indicate that the operation in its entirety was planned and supervised by Sudanese First Vice- President Ali Othman Mohamed Taha and his aides: Salah Qosh, current Security Department director and former special operations chief; Awwad Ahmed Al-Jaz, minister of energy and technical director of special security; former chief of security Nafie Ali Nafie; Osama Abdullah, who was in charge of financing the operation; Mohamed Abdul-Aziz Ahmed, manager of the Jiyad automobile firm, who supervised and coordinated the operation; Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Matraf Sadiq; and Hassabullah, formerly Qosh's deputy.

According to security sources, Hamza served as the link between this so-called "Sudanese first vice-president's group" and the Egyptian Al- Gamaa Al-Islamiya. He is thus a valuable repository of information on terrorist activities during the mid-1990s and, specifically, on the alleged Sudan connection. It remains to be seen whether Egypt will re-open this file with Sudanese officials and use it as leverage in its relations with Khartoum, or whether it will merely be satisfied with learning the facts about what really happened in Addis Ababa and the workings of this terrorist network in general.

If, meanwhile, it proves true that Iran handed Hamza over, a rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran may be on the cards, even as the revelations in Hamza's retrial precipitate tensions with Khartoum. It thus appears that the long- wanted terrorist will become a catalyst in the thawing or freezing of relations between the region's capitals.

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