From Egyptian Islamic Jihad to Chechnya: A Portrait of Mahmoud Hinnawi

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 13

On April 20, the London based al-Hayat newspaper published details of the slaying of Mahmoud Hinnawi, an Egyptian Islamic militant. Although originally from the Middle East, Hinnawi was well traveled in the Caucasus. Indeed, his movements in 1996 had quickly brought him to the attention of the Russian authorities, who at that time had been embroiled in a bloody war against separatists in Dagestan’s neighboring republic, Chechnya. The announcement of the killing of Hinnawi sheds some light on the role of the Egyptian Jihad organization in Chechnya. More specifically, Hinnawi’s death offers an opportunity to study how a generation of Islamic radicals tried to manufacture a Salafi-Jihadist dimension to essentially national, separatist and secessionist struggles.

Hinnawi had traveled to Dagestan with two other militants – Ayman al-Zawahiri and Ahmed Salamah Mabrouk. After only a short period in Dagestan, the three men were arrested by the Russian authorities. According to sources, the three were eventually set free after bribing Dagestani officers. These sources indicate that Zawahiri and Mabrouk subsequently returned to Afghanistan while Hinnawi remained in the North Caucasus. It is said that Mabrouk then traveled back to Azerbaijan where he was arrested and extradited to Egypt. It is alleged that he is currently an inmate in the infamous Egyptian prison, Turra. Zawahiri on the other hand has since become the focus of worldwide attention following the events of 9/11.

But unlike Zawahiri, Mahmoud Hinnawi chose to stay in the North Caucasus. Following his release from prison, he joined a group of Dagestani Islamists and traveled to Chechnya in the hope of joining the small number of foreign fighters who were involved in the first Russo-Chechen campaign (1992-1996). In the period after Hinnawi’s arrest and imprisonment in Dagestan, the character of Russo-Chechen relations began to change. As the conflict in Chechnya came to an end, a small but influential number of foreign fighters began to arrive in the region. Many had significant links within the emerging global jihad movement and some had financial and material support from wealthy backers.

It is in this context that the announcement of Hinnawi’s death offers the opportunity to ask further questions regarding the development of the Salafi-Jihadist ideology – with which Zawahiri and other Arab fighters in Chechnya are affiliated. The aim is not to over-state the importance of specific individuals, but rather, to recognize and illustrate how globalization and trans-boundary interconnectivities shape the movement of foreign fighters in the ongoing violence in Chechnya.

Mahmoud Hisham Mohammad Mustafa Hinnawi (Abu Sahl)

In the mid 1980s, Mahmoud Hinnawi, like many Egyptian Islamic radicals, sought refuge from the Egyptian authorities in Saudi Arabia. There he began to work in trade. Although Hinnawi took part in the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan, he did not settle in that country and instead continuously moved between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

By the late 1980s Hinnawi had became a leader in the new founding council of the jihad movement. Upon the end of the Afghan Jihad, Hinnawi, alongside some of his companions, moved to Yemen and from there to Sudan from where they were expelled in 1995. Hinnawi’s work in trade later took him to China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Soon after, he moved to Azerbaijan before heading to Dagestan with Zawahiri and Mabrouk. It is thought that the three men intended to travel to Chechnya. After his arrest, imprisonment and release, Hinnawi, along with a number of Dagestani men, eventually reached Chechnya and subsequently became involved in the anti-Russian struggle.

Like Hinnawi, Mabrouk had a long history of involvement in Egyptian Jihad. Mabrouk was variously known as Abu Al-Faraj the Egyptian and Sharif. Mabrouk was a Jihad veteran who had been arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Upon his release, Mabrouk moved to Afghanistan and assumed a new role organizing Egyptian Jihad. In 1992, he moved to Sudan. However, it is said that his status in the ranks of Egyptian Jihad was catastrophically undermined when information was leaked from his department. The leak led to the arrest of a number of jihadists and Mabrouk was subsequently relieved of his post in the organization. In 1996 he traveled to Albania, where he stayed for two months. His movements thereafter are not known, but he soon resurfaced in the Caucasus with both Hinnawi and Zawahiri.

Thus, it is clear how the personal histories of Mohammed Hinnawi and Ahmed Mabrouk offer insights into the development of a radicalized and transnational jihadist movement that would later manifest itself in the second Russo-Chechen War. Each traveled, in search of funding for their own political causes, while also seeking to avoid arrest in their own countries.

The Near Enemy and the Far Enemy

The dichotomy in the jihadist ideology between the “far enemy” and the “near enemy”, created by the Egyptian engineer Muhammad Abdul Salam Faraj and author of The Absent Obligation – the manifesto of jihadist movements – is in part an expression of the salvationist thinking found more generally in international ideological movements. These movements believe that they are upholders of the truth; therefore, if they were to admit failure, their validity would be compromised. When the war in Afghanistan ended and the “far enemy” was vanquished, many of those who participated in the war went in search of other fronts to resume their jihad. Considered at the forefront of this form of jihad, were the conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia.

At the same time, however, other veterans of the war in Afghanistan went back to their respective countries and struggled against the “near enemy”. In Egypt a series of violent acts – such as the attempt to assassinate the President and the Prime Minister, the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan, and the Luxor massacre – threatened to destabilize the country in the period between 1991 and 1998. More specifically, Egyptian Jihad oscillated between resuming its operations in Egypt and searching for new outside fronts, such as Afghanistan, in order to garner more financial and international support. Ahmad Sayed Najjar, who was executed in 2000 – in the case of those who returned from Albania – indicates that the movement strove to reorganize itself by establishing a new founding council of which Hinnawi was a member. The movement also sought to reactivate its international operations in locations such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Yemen, Albania, Saudi Arabia, Austria and England so as to gain both media coverage and financial leverage for the movement’s activities in Egypt. Perhaps significantly, Hinnawi moved between some of these countries.

The Role in Chechnya

Following the events of 9/11, the stories of foreign militants who travel from region to region now appear typical. Yet, it was perhaps the end of anti-Soviet hostilities in the late 1980s and the ensuing conflict in Afghanistan which provides an important contextual device for understanding the emergence of fighters such as Mahmoud Hinnawi. Indeed, Hinnawi’s story demonstrates how some fighters sought to establish an international dimension to their struggle under the emerging banner of radical Islam. Still further, the visit of Hinnawi, Mabrouk and Zawahiri to the North Caucasus – and their attempted visit to Chechnya – should be viewed, retrospectively, as part of a series of unfolding events. Therefore, rather than viewing Hinnawi’s visit to Chechnya as part of a coherent Salafi-Jihadist plan to establish large-scale operations in the region, their visit to the North Caucasus should be viewed as a systematic and yet opportunistic attempt to search for other fronts for their war.

On reflection, it appears that Hinnawi’s role in Chechnya was limited. It also appears that the activities of the jihad movement – as an independent organization in Chechnya – were also limited. Hinnawi came to Chechnya later than many of the more prominent Arab fighters who began arriving, albeit in small numbers, from late 1995 onwards. These fighters had met in Bosnia and Tajikistan before heading for Chechnya and although they probably welcomed Hinnawi, he was not the leader of the foreign fighters in Chechnya. In fact, he was not the only Egyptian in Chechnya and was never as famous in anti-Russian circles as Abu Bakr Aqeeda – the Egyptian who accompanied Khattab from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and then to Chechnya.

Although Hinnawi’s death goes some way to indicate that foreign fighters who have links to Islamic groups do exist in Chechnya, it also illustrates that they alone do not shape the continued violence. More broadly, Hinnawi’s travels and relationships with key members of al-Qaeda such as al-Zawahiri demonstrate militants’ efforts to export and effectively globalize the Salafi-Jihadist ideology, particularly into unstable regions that are susceptible to their influence. Lastly, it provides a fascinating study of a leading Egyptian Jihad figure who ultimately failed in his efforts to establish his leadership in another theater of conflict for the global jihad and wound up dying in a remote corner of the world. In Hinnawi’s case, the attempt to leave Egypt to confront the ‘far enemy’ made him a martyr, but will likely be no more than a footnote in the history of the Egyptian Jihadist movement.