August 2013 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 8

Dr. Ramzi Mowafi (right) Bin Laden's former physician leads al Qaeda forces in Sinai (Source Debka)

MILITARY OPERATIONS AGAINST SALAFIST INSURGENTS IN THE SINAI DRAW ATTENTION TO THE ROLE OF TOP BIN LADEN AIDE 

Nicholas A. Heras 

The Egyptian military has recently re-engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign against militant Salafist organizations that have been operating in the Sinai Peninsula since the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in January 2011 (for more information on Sinai militant groups and the Egyptian military response see Terrorism Monitor, August 17, 2011; September 27, 2012; February 22, 2013). The counter-insurgency campaign follows several weeks of near-daily attacks in the North Sinai governorate—since President Muhammad Mursi’s ouster—against Egypt’s security forces in the region of North Sinai (Daily News Egypt [Cairo], August 5). According to foreign jihadists captured by Egyptian Special Forces on July 18 in the Sinai, Ramzi Mahmud al-Muwafi (a.k.a. The Chemist, Doctor Bin Laden) “is playing a major role in the insurgency” (al-Monitor, July 22). 

Al-Muwafi is an explosives expert and bomb-maker who is believed to have been a top aide to Osama bin Laden (al-Monitor, July 22; al-Arabiya, August 25, 2011). He escaped from Egyptian prison on January 28, 2011 in the general confusion that followed the revolution against President Mubarak and his removal from power. Al-Muwafi had been serving a life sentence for charges of terrorism and is considered one of the most wanted men in Egypt (al-Arabiya, August 25, 2011). 

According to the jihadists captured on July 18, al-Muwafi has been present in the Sinai where he organized a Free Egyptian Army, inspired by the Free Syrian Army, to establish an Islamic state in Egypt (al-Mashhad [Giza], July 17). He is allegedly recruiting foreign jihadists, especially from Yemen and Palestinian territories, for fighting near al-Arish and to build relations with militant Salafist organizations in the Sinai such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus) (al-Wafd [Giza], July 20). 

Born in Egypt in 1952, al-Muwafi is an Egyptian anesthesiologist and dentist (al-Wafd [Giza], July 20). He spent several years working outside of Egypt in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where he is believed to have met with organizers for al-Qaeda while on hajj (pilgrimage). He subsequently moved to Pakistan during the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and worked for high pay at a hospital owned by the Taliban (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 26, 2008). He is believed during this time period to have traveled to Afghanistan to serve as an explosives expert and to have treated Bin Laden for injuries, leading to his role as Bin Laden’s doctor (al-Monitor, July 22). Upon his return to Egypt, al-Muwafi settled back in Cairo with his wife and two children and worked in several health clinics at schools before being arrested in 1996 by Egyptian security forces for being a member of al-Qaeda (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 26, 2008). Al-Muwafi’s role as an effective weapons maker, alleged liaison to militant Salafist organizations in the Sinai and symbol of global jihad through his connection to Bin Laden, could make him a potent mentor figure and strategist for the Salafist insurgency in the Sinai.

SIPAN HEMO EMERGES AS KEY YPG COMMANDER IN SYRIA

Nicholas A. Heras 

Recent fierce fighting between Syrian militant Salafist groups and brigades of Syrian Kurdish militias in the ethnically mixed north-east of Syria has brought renewed attention to Syrian Kurdish ambitions for autonomy in the region, known to the Kurds as Western Kurdistan. The most active combat has been between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG-People’s Protection Units) in the al-Hasakah governorate (see Terrorism Monitor, July 24; August 9, 2012). The fighting between the YPG and Syrian armed opposition groups for the control of mixed, Kurdish-majority northeastern cities such as Ras al-Ayn and Hasakah has resulted in approximately 50 deaths, the kidnapping of over 200 Kurdish civilians and attacks against Kurdish communities and infrastructure (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 3; July 19; al-Arabiya, August 1). 

The YPG, which reportedly has strong ties to the alleged PKK-affiliate Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (PYD – Democratic Union Party), is the most frequent combatant on behalf of Syrian Kurdish-majority communities throughout northern Syria from the region of Afrin in Aleppo governorate in the northwest along the Syrian-Turkish border, to the governorate of al-Hasakah in the northeast region of the country. Combined with the Turkish government’s fear of the establishment of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, the YPG’s seizure of Ras al-Ayn is believed to have led to the recent official invitation to Ankara for Syrian Kurdish leaders, including the leader of the PYD Salih Muslim, to meet with Turkish officials (Rudaw [Erbil], July 29; for Salih Muslim, see Militant Leadership Monitor Special Report, April, 2012). Sipan Hemo, the military commander of the YPG, is emerging as an important leader in Syria’s civil war. 

Hemo is originally from the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli near Syria’s northeastern borders with Turkey and Iraq. He has extensive experience as an advocate for Kurdish rights in Syria. He and like-minded Syrian Kurds formed the YPG in secret after their experiences in the March 2004 ethnic clashes between Syrian Kurds and Arabs supported by the Syrian security forces in Qamishli and Raqqa (Welati.net, November 26, 2012; Rudaw.net, July 22). The clashes and the subsequent Syrian government repression of Kurdish political demonstrations left almost 50 Kurds killed and hundreds injured. The ensuing security crackdown in the area by Syrian security forces forced thousands of Kurds to flee to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan and a harsher security administration was erected against Kurds in northeastern Syria. [1] 

Hemo asserts that the YPG, prior to the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, received little support from within the Kurdish community in the country due to the strong Syrian security presence that caused apathy in the Kurdish population (Hawar News Agency, June 25). Now though, a growing number of young Syrian Kurds who were resistant to joining the armed struggle in Syria prior to the Syrian revolution are being recruited into their local YPG units to defend their communities from attack (Welati.net, November 26, 2012). 

According to Hemo, the YPG are not subordinate to a particular political party—Kurdish or non-Kurd—and represent their community as a whole (Firat News Agency, July 3). Contrary to claims that the YPG are military units of the PYD, Hemo states that the YPG protects all Kurdish areas of Syria and is subservient to the Supreme Kurdish Council, the umbrella governance structure that includes many Syrian Kurdish parties (Rudaw.net, July 22). He also states that other Kurdish Armenians, Assyrians and Arabs have joined and are encouraged to join the YPG (Firat News Agency, July 3). 

Hemo asserts that the militant Salafist opposition is strong in the areas of northern Syria that border Turkey where Kurds and Arabs live as neighbors and that militant Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra are abetted by Turkish intelligence to attack Kurds (Hawar News Agency, August 6). He claims that Syrian Kurds are friends of Turkey and that the PYG’s confrontation with Syrian militant Salafist groups benefits Turks and the fight for democracy in the Middle East (Rudaw.net, July 22). 

Hemo is a committed Kurdish commander with long experience in organizing an armed Kurdish presence to strengthen his community’s ability to negotiate its role in a future Syria. In his public statements Hemo has been positioning the YPG to be the foundation of a Kurdish “regional guard” that, like the peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) in northern Iraq, is organized to defend the interests not only of Kurds, but also other ethnic minorities such as Assyrians and Armenians that cohabit the same areas as Kurds. Due to the increasing role of the YPG in the Syrian conflict as an antagonistic actor against militant Salafist movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIS, as well as Syrian Kurds’ increasingly assertive role in governing the ethnically diverse areas where they form a majority, Hemo will be an important commander in the war and Kurdish public figure in the war’s aftermath. 

Note 

1. “The al-Qamishli Uprising: The New Beginning of a New Era for Syrian Kurds?” European Center for Kurdish Studies [Berlin], December 2009, http://www.kurdwatch.org/pdf/kurdwatch_qamischli_en.pdf; also Author field research in the area in and around Qamishli city, March 2010.