Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah (JI – The Islamic Group), once one of Egypt’s most feared Islamist terrorist organizations, has issued a statement urging al-Qaeda to observe a ceasefire to better assess the intentions of the new Obama administration in Washington (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 24).
JI has observed its own ceasefire agreement with the Egyptian government since March 1999. The agreement followed a number of spectacular terrorist attacks by the group, such as the 1997 Luxor attack that killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians. These attacks, however, only succeeded in alienating the movement from public support. The targeting of tourists and the tourism infrastructure proved highly unpopular in a nation that relies heavily on revenues from these sources (up to $4 billion per year in much-needed foreign currency). The group’s often pointless attacks on Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community inflamed sectarian divisions within the country while doing little to further the Islamist cause. In August 2006, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Egyptian national Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the merger of JI with al-Qaeda, but this development was immediately denied by JI leaders within Egypt (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 14, 2006).
The JI’s chief theorist, Shaykh Najih Ibrahim, was released in 2004 after spending 24 years behind bars following his conviction as a ringleader in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. Since then he has adopted a more conciliatory role in Egypt while rejecting the violence of al-Qaeda: "Their aim is jihad and our aim is Islam."
Shaykh Najih rejected a call from al-Qaeda strategist Abu Yahya al-Libi for immediate attacks on Britain and other Western nations as retaliation for the Israeli assault on Gaza: "We fear that the al-Qaeda organization might carry out operations that will turn Obama into another George Bush and turn the good [in President Obama’s stated intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and close Guantanamo Bay], albeit small, into evil from which only Israel will benefit" (Al-Arabiya TV [Dubai], January 23; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 24).
Isam al-Din Darbalah, a long-time JI leader, also issued a statement addressed to all levels of al-Qaeda’s leadership and membership. Noting that President Obama appears ready to abandon "Bush’s dead-end and crazy path," Isam al-Din urged a four-month ceasefire designed to test American intentions: "Say [to the Western states] without fear: ‘We will not start fighting you in the next four months, unless in self-defense, awaiting fair and practical stands on the part of Obama. We welcome a peace based on respect for the Islamic identity and our peoples’ right to live independently under their creed and shari’a and on the basis of common interests with America and the world for the good of humanity, away from the conflict of cultures.’" While still in prison, Isam al-Din collaborated with Najih Ibrahim and several other imprisoned JI leaders in a reassessment of religious extremism entitled "Correcting Concepts." He later contributed to a book-length study of al-Qaeda’s strategy that criticized the group for a flawed understanding of reality and the capabilities of the Muslim nation.
AL-QAEDA’S LEADER IN AFGHANISTAN RETURNS FROM THE DEAD TO THREATEN INDIA
Despite Pakistani claims to have killed al-Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan last summer, the veteran Egyptian militant Mustafa Ahmad "Abu al-Yazid" (a.k.a. Shaykh Said al-Misri) appeared in a 20-minute video last week threatening India with a repetition of last November’s terrorist outrage in Mumbai. Al-Yazid spoke of the shame India endured through its inability to contain the Mumbai attack and warned India that it could expect more of the same if it dared to attack Pakistan: "India should know that it will have to pay a heavy price if it attacks Pakistan… The mujahideen will sunder your armies into the ground, like they did to the Russians in Afghanistan. They will target your economic centers and raze them to the ground" (Press Trust of India, February 10; BBC, February 10).
Lest anyone think the al-Qaeda commander was in league with Pakistan’s government, al-Yazid urged the masses of Pakistan to overthrow the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and declared that former president Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on the order of al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Abu al-Yazid is a former member of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad group and served several years in prison before leaving Egypt for Afghanistan in 1988. Already under an Egyptian death sentence issued in absentia for terrorist activities in that country, Abu al-Yazid spent two years in Iraq before being appointed leader of al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in May 2007. The 54-year-old appears to be primarily a financial and logistical manager for jihad activities (in the original intention of al-Qaeda) rather than a military leader (see Terrorism Focus, July 3, 2007; March 18, 2008; July 29, 2008).
Reports of Abu al-Yazid’s death in an August 12, 2008, Pakistani airstrike were carried widely in the international press at the time, though Pakistani authorities offered no evidence for their claim. A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) denied the reports of Abu al-Yazid’s death (AFP, August 11).
One of Pakistan’s largest newspapers carried a report saying intelligence experts had determined Abu al-Yazid’s statement was actually the work of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) (Jang [Rawalpindi], February 11). The intent was to "defame Pakistan and show that it has links with Al-Qaeda."