'Two targets, one enemy'
examines the links between Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamist movements
Relations between Egypt's two main militant Islamist organisations, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Jihad, have been clear since at least 1984. Never better than lukewarm, they became bellicose following Al-Gamaa's suspension of all violent activity in 1997. In contrast, Al-Gamaa's relations with Al-Qaeda remain speculative. Understanding relations between the two necessitates an examination of the nature of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and its intellectual and organisational orientation.
Established in the late 1970s, Al-Gamaa evolved as a local jihadist organisation operating solely within Egypt. The violent attacks between 1981-1997 focussed solely on the Egyptian regime, and the organisation refrained from targeting regimes, organisations or individuals outside Egypt. Al-Gamaa's literature never indicated it had any regional, let alone international, aspirations.
The group remained true to its Egyptian point of reference following the announcement of its decision to halt violent activity in 1997 and 1999. This was made evident in the Al-Gamaa's seven-volume Rectification of Concepts series, and in statements made by its leaders to Egyptian and foreign media.
In the period prior to the ceasefire initiative, many members of Al-Gamaa's leadership had left to other countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and various European states. Yet Al-Gamaa remained distanced from international activities. Even the failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in May 1995 was undertaken by Egyptian Al-Gamaa members against an Egyptian target.
The failure of American terrorism lists to cite relations between Egyptian Islamists and Al-Qaeda or include the names of any leaders or members of Al-Gamaa except for Rifai Ahmed Taha and Mustafa Hamza - both listed for reasons particular to their persons rather than to their organisational affiliation -- confirms Al-Gamaa's domestic agenda. American authorities do not include Al-Gamaa among organisations believed to have links with Al-Qaeda, though it is listed independently as a terrorist organisation.
In addition, Al-Gamaa's leadership and members have been intent, in Egypt and abroad, to distance themselves from international activities undertaken by Al-Qaeda. Their stand has been compromised only once when Taha, who assumed the leadership of Al-Gamaa in keeping with its statutes in 1997 and again, under exceptional circumstances, in 1998, signed the announcement of the establishment of the Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, headed by Osama Bin Laden, in 1998. The front was the initial organisational structure for what later became Al-Qaeda. Later events made it clear that Taha had not signed the statement on behalf of the Al-Gamaa leadership, but through personal convictions and a belief that it was merely a political media statement and not an announcement of the formation of a new international organisation of which Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya was an affiliate.
In late July 1998 Al-Gamaa's leadership forced Taha to retract any involvement by Al-Gamaa's in the Global Islamic Front during a discussion held on Al-Gamaa's website. Taha was unequivocal in his response to a query about Al-Gamaa's relationship to the Front and its agenda: "The fact of the matter is that we, as an organisation, have not had any proposals brought to us related to such a front... On this basis we are not a party to any front of this kind."
Bin Laden himself confirmed this in an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite channel in late 1998: "We have been tied to our brothers in Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya by strong relations, thanks to God Almighty, since the days of the jihad. We fought in the same trenches against the Soviet Union, and they had an honourable position and were supportive in signing fatwas sanctioning the shedding of the blood of Americans and Jews. And so they signed the fatwa, but there was confusion concerning an administrative matter when the fatwa was issued, for it was issued on the same date as the establishment of the front. People were thus confused as to whether Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya was a part of the Global Islamic Front, and thus Al-Gamaa was forced to clarify its position - it had signed the fatwa but was not part of the Global Islamic Front."
Statements and books issued by either Taha or members and leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya confirm that Al-Gamaa remains intent on distancing itself from any alliance with Bin Laden.
When Taha was arrested in Syria, two months after 11 September attacks, commentators were quick to point out that, after years of living in Pakistan and Afghanistan he had left the countries at precisely the moment the real war between Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda was beginning.
The differences between Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Al-Qaeda, particularly after Al-Gamaa renounced the use of violence, are confirmed in the three books - Stream of Memories: A Jurisprudential Review of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, September 2003, The Riyadh Bombings: Legal Consequences and Prophetic Tradition, September 2003, and The Strategy and Bombings of Al-Qaeda: The Mistakes and Risks, January 2004 - Al-Gamaa has published on the thought of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. These books are critical, attacking Al-Qaeda on the basis that it transgresses Islamic law.
Nor has any direct relationship between Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda's leader, and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the spiritual leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, been proved despite the mention of Abdel-Rahman's name in several Bin Laden speeches. For Bin Laden, as for other radical Islamists across the globe, Sheikh Omar is an experienced Azharite Islamic scholar who is blind and detained by the state that Bin Laden and other radical Islamists consider their greatest enemy. As a consequence demands for the release of Sheikh Omar occasionally appeared in statements by Bin Laden and other radical Islamists expressing their appreciation of Sheikh Omar as a capable religious scholar and their rejection of the policies of the United States in general.
Mention of Sheikh Omar in Bin Laden's does not differ from the mention of other Islamic scholars imprisoned and detained in other countries. Bin Laden has never mentioned Sheikh Omar as a partner in thought or activity, or even as an authority able to issue fatwas.
Jihad, on the other hand, maintained a locally-based jihadist vision -- based on Mohamed Abdel-Salam Farag's insistence that "fighting the near enemy is a priority over fighting the far enemy" -- only until February 1998.
Up until that date the organisation had identified the Egyptian government as the "near enemy" and sole target of its violent attacks. Jihad worked on the assumption that it must first assume power in Egypt, and then engineer the re-Islamicising of Egyptian society, before turning its sights on more distant enemies.
When Ayman Al-Zawahri, the then emir of the Jihad organisation, signed the declaration establishing the Global Islamic Front, he effectively inverted Jihad's strategy. Zawahri resigned as emir in late 1999 as he and several members close to him embraced Bin Laden's vision of a foreign-based jihad.
No estimate of the number of Egyptians close to Al-Qaeda exceeds 500 and the most realistic tend to place the number somewhere between 100 and 150. The overwhelming majority of these once belonged to Jihad and had been previously detained in Egypt, which means they are known to Egyptian security forces. All information gathered on this group over the last decade suggests that they have failed to recruit new Egyptian members to their ranks, either in Egypt or abroad. Their numbers have remained relatively stable, though some have been killed and others arrested.
So what are the primary characteristics of this group? What are the organisational affiliations of those residing in regions outside Egypt? Of those affiliated to the foreign-based Jihad organisation led by Al-Zawahri, a small group became close to Bin Laden when they arrived in Afghanistan and worked directly under his leadership and in close contact with him.
Others passed through three stages in their relationship with Bin Laden. Arriving in Afghanistan in the late 1980s they initially cooperated from afar. The relationship changed when, in February 1998, Al-Zawahri signed up with Bin Laden and the Global Islamist Front. This forced a split in Jihad and the exit of Al-Zawahri to form a foreign-based jihad organisation. Those remaining in Egypt and Europe joined Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya in renouncing violence.
After years of cooperation under the banner of the front, by late 2001 foreign-based Jihad had merged with the groups led by Bin Laden to form Qaedat Al-Jihad, which was first publicised in November 2001. It is likely that the merger took place in order to face the new circumstances created by the 11 September attacks and the beginning of the American war on "terrorism". This period marked the third stage of their developing relationship and is ongoing.
The second characteristic of Egyptians within Al-Qaeda relates to the roles they have played in the alliance with Bin Laden and then the merger. Members of the group that joined Bin Laden from the beginning -- such as Sobhi Abu Sitta, known as Abu Hafs the Egyptian -- became very close to him and were made responsible for important files. The others were forced by circumstance into tightening their links and eventually into merging.
It is important to note that the Egyptians at Bin Laden's side, whether from the first or second group, never numerically replaced other nationalities, and certainly not those from the Arabian Peninsula. What continues to distinguish the Egyptians from others is their many years of experience in violent and organised Islamist activities gained on the domestic Egyptian front.
Analysis of Al-Qaeda's recent operations suggests that East Africa has been the primary focus of Egyptians. Operations in other regions have been undertaken by other nationalities. This fact indicates the limited scope of Egyptian influence on Al-Qaeda's operations, though it might also be explained by the early presence of Egyptian Jihad members in East Africa.
The final development to take place in relations between Jihad and Al-Qaeda began following the American-British occupation of Iraq. It became clear, in speeches by Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri, that a new theory of violence was being formulated. According to this new vision "fighting the far enemy" and "fighting the near enemy" must be undertaken simultaneously.
This means that an intellectual and organisational reconciliation has taken place between the original visions of Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri. In practical terms Al-Qaeda, as an organisation and network of allies and sympathisers, is now directing its operations at ruling regimes in Arab and Muslim states at the same time that it is attacking American and Western interests. The two targets have become a single enemy.
* The writer is head of the political systems unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and editor of the centre's Global Guide to Islamist Movements.