Internet threats claiming responsibility for attacks have been coming thick and fast of late. In the latest claimed attack by Islamist terrorists in Istanbul, a series of bombings targeted hotels in the city’s tourist zones on August 10. Hovering over the incident was the by now familiar name of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. At the same time, responsibility for the bombing was also claimed by the Kurdistan Liberation Hawks, as a reaction to military operations by Turkish authorities against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. Turkish investigators ignored the first claim, and are already confident in their having under wraps eight Kurdish suspects.
The ambiguity associated with the incident symbolises the obscurity surrounding the identity of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. The name has been particularly prominent over the past few months, associated with warnings of dire violence. The statement issued the day after the Istanbul attacks is typical of the language:
“Mujahidin from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades carried out the first in a series of operations that will be waged in the face of the European countries, after all the states refused the peace offer which our Shaykh [Bin Laden] offered them…European capitals will witness in the coming days a series of operations carried out by Mujahideen, who are lying in waiting, yearning for martyrdom in God’s path. The coming attacks will be more violent, God permitting.”
The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades have been making threats against European states for some time, saying they will start with Italy, for not responding to a “truce” issued by Osama bin Laden, which expired in July.  The original threat against Europe was issued on April 15, by a voice that is largely held to be that of Bin Laden. Later messages appeared on July 16 (“We are able to aim at high value targets with unconventional weapons that will cause a massive disaster”); July 28 (“We are giving Silvio Berlusconi a fifteen-day reprieve to withdraw from Iraq”); August 3 (“15 days may be the final opportunity for you”); August 7 (“The truce we had offered you … has almost ended”); and most recently on August 16 (“The last warning to the Italian nation”). 
For all the noise, and the willingness to claim the limelight, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades present a conundrum. Little more than the name is known about them. Abu Hafs al Masri was the nom de guerre of Muhammad Atef, a former Egyptian police officer and chief lieutenant to bin Laden. A founding member of al-Qaeda, he was killed in the US bombing of Afghanistan in 2001.
The operational capabilities of the Abu Hafs Masri Brigades are unconfirmed; some analysts believe they are only an internet propaganda front, while others are more inclined to accept their claims for attacks at face value, including the Madrid bombings. Just as in the case of the Istanbul bombings, however, the presence of the group was not confirmed by subsequent investigations.
An interesting analysis by Prof. Yigal Carmon of the MEMRI institute dismisses the Brigades claims of responsibility on the grounds of the history of false claims made under this name, including events unconnected with terrorism. The lack of any information on its operatives or leaders, the high traffic in threats (as illustrated above) and, interestingly, their recent spate of denials of publication, accusing others of posting fraudulently under their name, have all added to the mystery. Of particular interest is the observation that the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ website compares unfavourably with sites whose affiliation with al-Qaeda is more assured. Texts published under their rubric lack the ideological apparatus common to genuine Islamist mujahid statements — citations from the Qur’an, the Hadith or famous scholars to support their views. This, Professor Carmon argues, indicates possibly a nationalist rather than an Islamist agenda.
The argument has strong cogency. The only proviso, of course, is the natural concern of security officials over the role of disinformation in the new cyber-conflict. The major question is how much, or if, the confusion surrounding the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades serves the cause of the Mujahideen.
An earlier announcement from the group, issued at the beginning of July, detailed what amounts to a “strategy” for the coming period, and includes the advice to “enlarge the circle of the struggle by distributing the operations all over the world…scatter and exhaust the enemy…and form small organizations under different names, like the Jama’at al-Tawhid, and Jihad and the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. This will make it difficult for the enemy to discover and hunt them down and will scatter the security organs’ efforts…”
Is the confusion surrounding the Brigades, therefore, an elaborate double-bluff? The experience of Madrid makes it a difficult call. Last December, al-Qaeda operatives posted a 50-page manifesto, calling for attacks on countries that had allied themselves with the United States in its campaign in Iraq.  With elections approaching, Spain was singled out as a target country that “could not tolerate more than three attacks before deciding to withdraw from Iraq.” The longer term plan behind this focused on the belief that “the withdrawal of the Spanish or Italian forces…would serve as a huge pressure on the British presence which Tony Blair would not be able to overcome…Hence, the domino tiles would fall quickly.” In this case, their prediction was fully vindicated. 
For now, the task of the security services is made all the harder for the latest guessing-game over the mooted high-profile killings, which, according to a report posted on a jihadi site, is to be triggered by the public release of a new video message from Osama bin Laden. This tape is claimed to announce the end of the deadline for troops to pull out of Iraq, and the start of a campaign of political assassinations.
How far the tape relates to the actual course of events could provide valuable insight into the credibility and the mindset of the al-Qaeda terrorists. Or alternatively, how much valuable insight al-Qaeda has into the mindset of its intended victims.
1. Threats to Europe from Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades or close imitators have also been launched at the Netherlands and Denmark (from the previously unknown ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Brigades’ who also threatened to attack El Salvador) if they did not pull out of Iraq. Denmark has about 500 troops in Iraq, El Salvador is to send 380 new troops this month to replace its current contingent.
2. An earlier statement more or less to this effect appeared on July 8 in poor Italian, supposedly issued by al-Qaeda.
3. The manifesto was entitled: Iraqi Jihad, Hopes and Risks: Analysis of the Reality and Visions for the Future, and Actual Steps in the Path of the Blessed Holy War.
4. On March 11, 191 people were killed in a series of bombings on commuter trains in Madrid. Three days after the Madrid train bombings, Prime Minister Aznar was defeated in elections and a new socialist government pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq.