Last week, three suicide bombings within an hour left at least 34 people dead and hundreds wounded at resorts frequented by Israeli tourists in the Taba region of the Sinai Peninsula. In the aftermath, counter-terrorism experts are searching for an explanation. One place they may want to look is a courtroom in New York City, where emerging evidence underscores that a new Egyptian front may have opened in militant Islam’s terror war.
Predictably, Taba has the Arab world’s ubiquitous conspiracy theorists crawling out of the woodwork. These include Egypt’s “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood, which has very helpfully suggested that perhaps the Israeli government had its own citizens killed to distract the world’s attention from the suffering of Palestinians. Somewhat more plausible is the notion that the attacks were executed by Palestinians in Gaza, where violence has recently flared–and where, only a few days ago, Israeli intelligence filmed a van belonging to one of the U.N.’s purported human-rights subsidiaries–the United Nations Relief and Works Agency–transporting Qassam rockets on behalf Palestinian guerrillas.
Nonetheless, this theory is dubious given the locations, sophistication, and near simultaneity of the attacks. Far more likely is the danger that al Qaeda, through one or both of two vicious affiliates–Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and the Islamic Group (IG)–has launched a new initiative to revitalize itself by tapping into the region’s pandemic anti-Semitism while concurrently taking aim at Egypt, the precarious American ally perched on Israel’s doorstep.
Militant Islam has tried periodically, and mightily, to decapitate the secular Egyptian regime for over a quarter century–ever since President Anwar Sadat committed the ultimate betrayal by making peace with Israel in 1979, after Egypt had failed to annihilate the nascent Jewish state by launching wars of aggression in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Sadat was murdered in 1981, and his lone successor since has been Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who has maintained an alliance with the U.S. that is often tenuous but always lucrative (to the tune of about $2 billion per annum in American aid). Mubarak has managed the menace of Islamic militancy by a mix of ruthless repression and occasional dialogue. Egypt has thus long swayed between uneasy peace and the brink of civil war, while Mubarak and his ministers have been targeted repeatedly for assassination.
The militants may adroitly perceive a real opportunity to act in Egypt. Mubarak is aging and rumors persist that his health is troubled. He is transparently lining up a monarchal succession for his son. Such a move would be extremely unpopular in a nation whose educated and talented citizenry may make it the best suited in the Near East for democratic reform. It would also raise at least the possibility of an ebb in the U.S. support on which the regime so depends, consistent with President Bush’s pronounced policy shift toward open encouragement of democracy and away from a realpolitik that tolerates despots and their uncertain promises of stability.
Besides these apparent chinks in the Mubarak’s armor, terrorists may also hope to capitalize on popular unrest in Egypt over the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The treaty with Israel, a cornerstone for Egypt’s friendly relations with the United States, has never garnered approval in large swaths of the Arab world’s most populous country. Any violence in the territories, particularly in Gaza (which Israel seized from Egypt in the six-day war of June 1967), reverberates ominously throughout Egypt.
Against that backdrop, any consideration of last week’s Taba attacks must account for recent developments and revelations about the inner workings of Egyptian terror organizations. The first and most obvious concerns EIJ, the group that was principally responsible for the Sadat assassination in 1981.
EIJ’s current leader is none other than Ayman Zawahiri, a trained medical doctor long considered to be Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant. Zawahiri merged EIJ into al Qaeda in 1998, and has since been the network’s dominant intellectual force. Only a week before the Taba bombings, a widely circulated Internet statement attributed to Zawahiri cited the fighting in Gaza as grounds for militants to lash out anew at Israel and the United States. The sudden focus on Israel is alarming. Since the early 1990s, bin Laden has homed in on America–the so-called “head of the snake.” Although al Qaeda is supportive of Hamas and other Islamic terror groups operating in the territories, it has never previously been preoccupied with Israel.
As for IG (also known as Gamaat al Islamia), its “emir” is the notorious “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman. Though not a defendant, Abdel Rahman is currently the pivotal character in a noteworthy trial winding down in Manhattan–a case powerfully illustrating that terrorists have been given every encouragement to target not only Israel and the United States but the Mubarak government as well.
Abdel Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in the United States after being convicted in 1995 of conspiring to wage against the U.S. a war of urban terrorism that included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and an unsuccessful conspiracy to bomb other New York City landmarks. He was also found guilty of conspiring for years to murder Mubarak. The ongoing New York trial involves three defendants (including the sheik’s former attorney) who stand accused, among other things, of helping Abdel Rahman run IG from his American prison cell.
Abdel Rahman’s suasion over not only IG but EIJ and, later, al Qaeda, has been palpable for years. Although the Sadat murder is generally thought of as an EIJ operation, that group did not act alone. Rather, as Abdel Rahman explained in a recording played at his 1995 trial, IG also considered the “killing” of “the atheist, the oppressor and the profligate…Anwar al-Sadat” to be the “most famous” of the “many jihad operations” it had executed. Abdel Rahman, in fact, was among those arrested, and, though he was acquitted at his Egyptian trial, he later bragged about having had the power to issue “fatwas” calling for the slaying of Sadat’s ilk.
Since the sheik’s imprisonment, militant Islam has worked feverishly to secure his release. In May 1997, a little over a year after Abdel Rahman was sentenced, his organization issued a public warning that, should “any harm come to the Sheik,” IG would “target…all of those Americans who participated in subjecting his life to danger”–meaning, as IG put it, “every American official, starting with the American president [down] to the despicable jailer.” IG, moreover, vowed to do “everything in its power” to free its leader.
Six months later, 58 tourists were massacred in Luxor, and militants left behind leaflets (including one inserted into the severed torso of one victim) lauding IG and demanding Abdel Rahman’s release. IG subsequently issued a statement warning that its forcible struggle against the Egyptian regime would proceed unless Mubarak met its demands, which included “the establishment of God’s law, cutting relations with the Zionist entity…and the return of our Sheik and emir to his land.” Three years later, in March 2000, terrorists associated with the Abu Sayyaf group kidnapped a number of tourists in the Philippines and threatened to behead them if Abdel Rahman and two other convicted terrorists were not freed. The authorities later recovered two decapitated bodies (four other hostages were never accounted for).
On September 21, 2000, only three weeks before al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, al-Jazeera broadcast a “Convention to Support the Honorable Omar Abdel Rahman.” Bin Laden and Zawahiri personally appeared, together with IG leader Rifai Ahmad Taha. The trio promised that jihad against the United States would continue unless the sheik was freed. In addition, Abdel Rahman’s own son, Mohammed, exhorted the crowd to “avenge your Sheik” and “go to the spilling of blood.”
In the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, bin Laden explained to the media that his war on America had been justified by a fatwa issued from prison by the Blind Sheik. Upon being jailed, Abdel Rahman had indeed issued a decree urging Muslims to fight for his release and declaring of Americans that “Muslims everywhere [should] dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships,…shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.”
There is no industry more crucial to Egypt’s financial health than tourism. It should thus come as no surprise that Mubarak reacted to the aforementioned Luxor atrocity by brutalizing the militants. So decimated was IG by casualties and imprisonments that it agreed to a ceasefire. Plainly, IG hoped that concessions might be won through negotiations coupled with the ever-present threat of a return to violence–the same strategy used so effectively by the PLO and the IRA during the 1980s and 90s.
In the late spring of 2000, however, Abdel Rahman publicly withdrew his support for the ceasefire, effectively flashing a green light for more jihad against the regime. Further, six months later, the Sheik’s lieutenants used the Internet to promulgate in his name a command that “brother scholars everywhere in the Muslim world to do their part and issue a unanimous fatwa that urges the Muslim nation to fight the Jews and to kill them wherever they are.” The statement elaborated that “the Muslim nation” must “fight the Jews by all possible means of jihad, either by killing them as individuals or by targeting their interests, and the interests of those who support them, as much as they can.”
In dispute at the New York trial is the role played by the three defendants in communicating the sheik’s sentiments to his deadly followers. More relevant for our present purposes, however, is the indisputable fact that Abdel Rahman has signaled the call for renewed attacks against Jews and the Mubarak government. The only question since then has been the militant Islam’s wherewithal to move on Egypt and Israel in light of the depleted strength of both IG (due to Mubarak’s efforts) and al Qaeda (thanks to American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq). But given Abdel Rahman’s authoritative pronouncements, Zawahiri’s recent focus on retaliating against Israel for the situation in Gaza, and now the Taba bombings, there is abundant reason to surmise that Egypt looms as the next battleground in the global war against militant Islam.
There has for many years, and particularly since 9/11, been a tendency in the American media, the European press, and the Muslim world to distinguish militant Islam’s anti-American terrorism from its assiduous efforts to annihilate Israel–as if Hamas suicide bombers were somehow rationally severable from al Qaeda suicide bombers even though they all draw from the same well. It was inevitable that the dynamic of this war would make a mockery of this delusion. Egypt is a logical place for that light to dawn.
–Andrew C. McCarthy led the 1995 prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.