Al-Qaeda Recruits in Egypt

The first in our series of anniversary guest posts comes from the great Praktike, who normally writes for American Footprints.

The number two man in al-Qaeda, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, made waves when he announced on August 5th via a taped statement that five members of the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG) had joined al-Qaeda. Ominously, he implied that they were just the tip of the iceberg. The revelation seemed to confirm what many terrorism analysts have been saying for some time: that the American response to September 11th has radicalized the region and made recruiting an easy task for al-Qaeda. Excerpts of the video, in which Al-Zawahiri appeared with the little-known Mohamed Khalil al-Hekayema, originally aired on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

Al-Hekayema, whose nom de guerre is “Abu Jihad al-Masry,” was among those arrested after the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, when he was a young man. After leaving prison participated in founding the Islamic Group
of Aswan, and was one of the members of its Shura (consultative) council. He was re-arrested several times, until he left Egypt in 1988. He eventually found his way to Afghanistan, where he fought against the Soviets. As for al-Zawahiri, he has a history of criticizing fellow Islamists over tactics and strategy, which he equates to cowardice and even to collaboration with the American and Zionist enemies. He wrote a book in 1991 called The Bitter Harvest, in which he denounced the Muslim Brotherhood for its failure to uphold the banner of jihad. Later, according to the biography of him by Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat, The Road to Al-Qaeda, Al-Zawahiri was staunchly opposed to the EIG’s historic 1997 renunciation of violence, which it calls simply “the initiative.”

EIG leaders were quick to deny al-Zawahiri’s news. The group’s current head, former student radical and al-Sadat assassination co-conspirator Karam Zuhdi, appeared on the al-Arabiya satellite channel three days later to call the announcement “a lie.” Zuhdi noted that of the prominent names listed by al-Zawahiri—among them the famous “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman—two are in prison, one lives in Germany and has publicly denied joining al-Qaeda, and another is located in London—and none had actually joined al-Qaeda. He added that, in any case, al-Hekayema was never really an EIG leader, since he was merely a “small child” when he left Egypt.

The damage control continued when the pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat ran an interview on August 14th with Dr. Nageh Ibrahim, another former student leader who was imprisoned after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat. He is currently the “chief theorist” of the group. Ibrahim accused al-Zawahiri of seeking publicity at a time when Hezbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas, embroiled in fierce fighting with Israel, were occupying the bulk of public attention. Affirming his group’s commitment to peaceful political activities and to the “revisionist” books that it issued after September 11th, 2001, Ibrahim drew a distinction between his own group and al-Qaeda, saying that “their aim is jihad, and our aim is Islam.”

Among the revisions, which were covered extensively in al-Sharq al-Awsat, is al-Qaeda’s Strategy: Mistakes and Dangers by Sheikh Mohamed Essam Eddin Derbala. Derbala’s book is remarkable in that he rejects the idea that the United States is engaged in a war against Islam, arguing instead that, like any other nation, the U.S. seeks to promote its interests abroad. In a painstaking effort that runs to 365 pages, Derbala credits the United States with coming to the aid of Muslims in Bosnia and Somalia during the 1990s. Moreover, he asserts that while U.S. policies are certainly biased towards Israel, al-Qaeda’s bombings of civilians have actually fostered more enmity
towards Islam.

Al-Zayyat makes similar arguments in The Road to al-Qaeda, saying: “We all agree that standing up to the United States is an Islamic duty. The point of disagreement among Islamists, and especially between al-Zawahiri and me, is how best to deal with the world’s superpower.” Islamic movements that had nothing to do with September 11th, he adds, have paid the price for al-Qaeda’s folly.

As Ibrahim admitted to al-Sharq al-Awsat, there is a great deal of skepticism in Egypt about the revisions, to which this latest tape is likely to add. EIG has certainly had its flirtations with al-Qaeda, and the lines between EIG and other groups such as Islamic Jihad are often blurry. Former head of EIG’s Shura Council Rifa’i Ahmed Taha, whom al-Zawahiri mentioned in his tape, originally agreed in 1998 that EIG would join the “International Front Against the Jews and Crusaders” (al-Qaeda). Taha was well known to be opposed to the “initiative.” But the vast majority of EIG members remained committed to it, and Taha has since claimed that he had agreed over the telephone and consequently did not fully understand al-Qaeda’s fatwa. According to Ibrahim, EIG asked that its name be removed from the Front immediately because his organization “does not believe in the creed of killing by nationality,” and because al-Qaeda tends to generalize about its enemies in a way that distorts Islamic law.

Both EIG and Islamic Jihad gave up on fighting the Egyptian state, but al-Zawahiri merely shifted his focus toward “the far enemy,” i.e. the United States, whereas EIG devoted itself to peaceful organizing and preaching. Its leaders are eager to distance themselves from al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, and they have rushed to condemn various terrorist attacks in Egypt over the past two years. In recognition of or more likely in exchange for this good behavior, the Egyptian government has been periodically releasing EIG members over the past several years, around 1,000 in 2003, over 700 in 2004, and another 900 in 2006.

Some members of al-Zawahiri’s former group, Islamic Jihad, typically the more hardline and secretive of the two major Egyptian jihadi factions, have reportedly completed their own intellectual revisions from prison in the hopes of being released. Many members of Islamic Jihad were subsumed into al-Qaeda in 1998 when the former went bankrupt, while the rest abandoned the fight or cooled their heels in jail. Now, this last faction is ready to make a change. It may seem paradoxical that both EIG and the remnants of Islamic Jihad would seek reconciliation even as the region is growing more radical. But one potential explanation is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which renounced violence during the seventies, has demonstrated a better way forward, and now has eighty-eight seats in Parliament to show for its efforts.

While we should by no means blithely dismiss al-Zawahiri’s announcement as mere propaganda, neither should we assume that escalating anger at America necessarily means increased material support for al-Qaeda. It is not a foregone conclusion that as the region becomes more Islamist, the recruiting pool for violent extremist organizations like al-Qaeda grows in concert. But it is certainly a risk. EIG’s renunciation of violence appears genuine, but the historical pattern suggests that it is not groups per se that moderate, but rather generations of Islamists within those groups. Having spent almost a quarter century in Egyptian prisons, their families suffering in poverty, the formerly radical generation of Nageh Ibrahim and Karam Zuhdi has calculated that it gained little by the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat or by violence against Christians or the state. Younger generations, however, may choose to reject the path of nonviolence and form splinter groups of their own, which is how Islamic Jihad first came into being (as an offshoot of EIG), as did Takfir wal Hijra before them (as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). While incarceration may seem a logical means of containing the problem, the abuse, torture and mutual indoctrination that accompany it have sometimes been a radicalizing force rather than a moderating one. After all, Sayyid Qutb, Shukri Mustafa of Takfir wal Hijra, and Ayman al-Zawahiri developed their most extreme views while in prison. It remains to be seen whether this is already transforming a new era of Islamists into terrorists.

6 thoughts on “Al-Qaeda Recruits in Egypt

  1. At the end of the day, why is this even important?

    Believing that the threats faced by the US/Europe/Israel /regimes in the region is increased by a merger of Al Qaeda and some other group (and thus, by implication reduced by having a smaller Al Qaeda while said other group goes its own way) seems an obvious form of believing something without the slightest bit of thought being put into it.
    Yes, a larger Al Q presumably then has a few more human resources and a few more material resources, but was that what was limiting them in the first place?
    Yes, a larger Al Q could, conceivably, now have more intelligence sources and thus a non-linear effect could kick in, but is there any evidence that sympathetic groups are not already sharing intelligence?

    Meanwhile, since we’re all supposed to think like economists these days, whatever happened to the idea that competition is better? How about the possibility that a separate Al Q and other, in competition for hearts and minds, is spurned to be more aggressive and more innovative? Sure, one could talk about Coassian co-ordination difficulties, but such difficulties only occur when co-ordination exists. Al Q and other are not buying and selling from each other, or much interacting in any other way (apart from, as I said, probably ocassionally sharing intelligence) so that argument for size strikes me as a non-starter.

    The above argument may strike you as flip, but in what sense is it actually wrong? People like Rodney Stark are treated as serious scholars for claiming that the strength of religion in the US is due to the competitive market in religions in the US as opposed to most other countries.

  2. Maynard, to answer your question: it’s certainly bad news if a group that had renounced violence starts going in the opposite direction, and it may be an indicator of a broader trend in favor of Al Qaeda. The Egytpian Islamic Group has thousands of members and an extensive network throughout the country and beyond. We don’t want them joining the global jihad.

  3. Fair enough. I guess there are two distinct issues here:
    * former moderate group gives up moderation and
    * some group joins Al Q.

    The first point I would see as significant, the second I would see as meh.

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