Hot Issue – Al-Qaeda’s Long Game in the Sinai


Executive Summary

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s long-game strategy has created international networks with the ultimate intention of creating a united Islamic Emirate to take the place of the lost Ottoman Caliphate, across a continuous band from Turkistan to the Atlantic coast. [1] Bruce Hoffman brought the implications of al-Qaeda’s expansive international presence, including countries beyond Zawahiri’s traditional caliphate, into bold relief over a year ago when he argued that al-Qaeda “should now be considered the world’s top terrorist group.” [2] A renewed look is especially important now that the United States has shifted its national security priorities away from counterterrorism in the Greater Middle East and North Africa to focus on the threats posed by Russia and China. Now, President Donald Trump has also signaled his intention to abandon the successful American counterterrorism strategy that is based on strategic relationships with local partners who provide ground forces and are assisted by small cadres of American Special Forces.

While the world press has been focused on the potential resurgence of Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of the physical caliphate and the death of its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a serious threat may emerge from al-Qaeda’s networks of like-minded Jihadi-Salafist groups. Many IS fighters in Syria are not Syrians. Academic studies and past experience have shown that once converted to an extremist ideology, such individuals resist surrendering to reason. If they escape from Syria, do they return to another prison in their home countries, or do they travel to another “hot jihad” location with an IS affiliate in Egypt or North Africa, or perhaps this time disappear into al-Qaeda’s networks? [3] Like others before them, will Egyptians with significant experience fighting with Jihadi-Salafist groups in Syria or Iraq decide to find their way to use their battle skills in the Sinai or elsewhere in North Africa? Al-Qaeda’s online voices are suggesting that IS fighters join them in a common struggle against the forces of unbelief. Could IS under its new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, allow cooperation in the field with al-Qaeda networked groups without requiring a formal alliance? While this decision will likely come slowly, if at all, in the battlefields across the Greater Middle East and Africa, the lines between IS and al-Qaeda have begun to blur. If the recent past has one lesson, Sinai could provide logistical and command links from the central Muslim lands into the active fields of jihad in North Africa, the Sahel, and sub-Saharan West Africa.

The al-Qaeda Approach in the Egyptian Cauldron

The threat of various violent radical groups, large and small, has been a focus of the Egyptian security apparatus since the first attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser (on October 26, 1954). This focus intensified after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (on October 6, 1981). The Sinai Peninsula largely escaped these stresses before the Arab Spring, the downfall of Mubarak, and the ascension of Ayman al-Zawahiri to the leadership of al-Qaeda.

It took al-Qaeda years to build its resistance infrastructure in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and to connect it to a jihadist underground network stretching in a wide band to the Atlantic Coast. To understand how this emerged requires an examination of the stages of what became al-Qaeda in Sinai. Analysis of the Sinai and its jihadist connections with northeastern Libya and other areas since the so-called Arab Spring indicates that we need to take a closer look at al-Qaeda’s retrenchment strategy and reassess al-Zawahiri’s leadership in the longer term. If we ignore some of the experiments al-Qaeda has been pursuing in the Sinai, Nilotic Egypt, and Africa more generally, we may discover in a few years that the threat to various local interests, considered distant to us, is now once again a global threat. In fact, it appears that the Sinai became Ayman al-Zawahiri’s personal laboratory for testing and perfecting the strategy of his acerbic friend and author of The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Mus¢ab al-Suri. Recent research has revealed that jihadists in Sinai, in addition to studying al-Suri’s strategy, have also been studying the works of other Jihadi-Salafist figures in al-Qaeda’s orbit, e.g., Abu Bakr Naji, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Zawahiri’s Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, as well as general works on guerrilla warfare. [4] However, individuals are not converted to Jihadi-Salafism by reading these works. Recruitment begins elsewhere, often with seemingly innocent religious lessons. A close look at the Sinai by two Egyptian researchers indicates that the Jihadi-Salafist infection had been festering there for years before it became an insurgency. [5]

Sinai Before the Arab Spring

Egypt has never truly assimilated the Bedouin Arab tribes of the Sinai Peninsula. They do not have access to membership in the military or security forces, or jobs in the lucrative tourist industry. Although their members also exist in Nilotic Egypt, their culture is closer to that of the tribes in the Negev and the Northern Arabian Peninsula than to that of mainland Egypt. The Northern Sinai tribes have maintained licit and illicit trade relations with their neighbors across the border in Gaza and elsewhere. Traditionally, the Sinai Bedouin version of Islam has involved Sufi mysticism rather than the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, strict Salafism, or its distortion, the Jihadi-Salafism of modern jihadist groups. Ideological violence was never associated with the population of Sinai until relatively recently.

A series of terrorist bombings carried out by Sinai Bedouin tribesmen hit major tourist attractions and other high-value Sinai targets in Sharm al-Sheik, the Taba Hilton, and Dahab between 2004 and 2006. It was reasonable for the formidable Egyptian security apparatus to consider these events to be individual attacks on the Egyptian tourism industry by disaffected local Bedouins, rather than a single sustained set of attacks coordinated by al-Qaeda. [6] Soon, however, the attacks were associated with a local group calling itself al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (monotheism and jihad), which claimed to focus on attacks against Israel rather than on Egyptian targets. However, the Jihadi-Salafist al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad was distinguished from al-Qaeda only by name, and even its name has a legacy with the name of Abu Mus¢ab al-Zarqawi’s group in Iraq before he joined al-Qaeda.

Origins of Jihadi-Salafism in Sinai

Socially conservative Islam has always existed in modern Egypt alongside more liberal interpretations. Salafism was a term coined by the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905); however, it was far from the belief structure that is claimed by the same name today. Wahhabi-style Salafism arrived via the well-funded Salafist outreach from Gulf countries, which began in earnest in the 1970s. Before that period, individual Muslim intellectuals and leaders on occasion were introduced to Saudi-style Salafism during the annual Haj to Mecca. Egyptian Salafists, especially in Alexandria and the Egyptian Delta, more generally dispatched preachers and established mosques to spread their atavistic but non-violent ideology to the discontented tribesmen. The introduction of Salafism provided an inroad for its distortion, the Jihadi-Salafist ideology of modern jihadist terrorist groups and violent attacks on traditional Sufism.

In his Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner (2001), Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote that in Egypt, only the Sinai Peninsula is suited for traditional guerrilla warfare. The heavily populated towns and cities along the Nile were governed by a strong central authority with a powerful security apparatus, and that area’s flat terrain was inhospitable to guerrilla training camps or bases. Zawahiri was an expert, having participated in the growth of violent radical thought and clandestine jihadist organizations in Egypt during the 1970s in parallel to the growth of radical university student organizations. In all this ferment, the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood was not radical enough for those with dreams of overthrowing Egypt’s modern system in favor of a post-modern Islamic Emirate. The poison leaked into the military, and President Sadat’s brave and historic outreach to Israel was enough to trigger the plot in which a small group assassinated him during a military parade in 1981. The Mubarak regime built a formidable security apparatus that suppressed radical groups by the late 1990s. Some of those groups were to reappear, at least in name, in the Sinai after Mubarak’s overthrow.

The Spread of Jihadi-Salafism to the Sinai

Although all the presidents of Egypt, except Mohamed Morsi, have been military officers before their ascendancy to power, the military is designed to be an apolitical institution; this extends to the exclusion of political Islam. Islamist and jihadist concepts are discouraged or suppressed, especially since the assassination of President Sadat. Nevertheless, a few officers became infected with radical jihadist ideology. The Egyptian researchers Ferghali and Hassan give an example of how this happened. [7] A young Egyptian officer, Tarek Abu al-Azm, was selected to be part of a group attending military training in the United States. Like Sayyid Qutb before him, the young officer’s experience was  psychologically crushing. He asked himself the question “Why are they advanced while we are backward?” He began “to buy the books of Sayyid Qutb and search the Internet for the words of Bin Laden and Abu Mus¢ab al-Suri until he became convinced that the [age] in which we live is [the pre-Islamic] age of ignorance; and that the political system in Egypt is non-Islamic and demonically tyrannical.” [8] The young officer spread his ideas and connected with other officers, among whom was Hisham ‘Ashmawi, who would become a major jihadist figure in the Sinai, mainland Egypt, and Libya. Egyptian military intelligence had already placed  al-Azm under surveillance and so they removed him from the army along with the others in his group. [9] ‘Ashmawi, a talented officer in the Egyptian Special Forces who was an expert in guerrilla warfare, was later to serve, along with Tarek Abu al-Azm, in a major role for al-Qaeda in the Sinai, mainland Egypt, and Libya until his capture in Derna, Libya (on October 8, 2018).

The books that al-Azm was reading, and similar materials, flooded into the Sinai long before the popular revolt against Mubarak. Egyptian security had never considered the Sinai to be vulnerable to jihadist groups. According to some accounts, one of the earliest to bring jihadist concepts and books to the Sinai was Khaled Musa¢id, an unlikely source of violent extremism. A descendant of the prominent Sawarka tribe in Sinai, Musa¢id was a 1999 graduate from dental school in the Sharqiyah Province of mainland Egypt. [10] During his college years, he became radicalized in part by reading the foundational jihadist texts of Muhammad Abdel Salam Faraj, and Dr. Fadl. Faraj, founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and associate of the young Zawahiri, was executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Sadat. Dr. Fadl wrote one of the earliest religiously-based justifications for al-Qaeda-style jihad. [11] Musa¢id preached this radical form of Islam in local mosques in Sinai and began to organize jihadist cells. In part because Egyptian intelligence was keyed to radical organizations and did not track individuals because of ideology alone, Musa¢id did not rise to the attention of security services during the time of his preaching radical doctrine in Northern Sinai. His message of eternal jihad as a personal, legal obligation had an impact. Inspired by al-Qaeda, he began to establish jihadist cells among fellow tribesmen in Sinai. [12] Along with several colleagues, Musa¢id is credited with founding the group al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), which was later held responsible for the attacks on Sharm al-Sheikh and Taba, among others. Once his name became associated with several of these attacks, Musa¢id was killed at a security checkpoint in Northern Sinai (on September 28, 2005). In a scenario that was to be repeated, his death did not impede his goals or destroy his organization, which  eventually morphed into Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), and ultimately, the IS Sinai Province.

Like other jihadists in the Sinai with violent orientations against Israel, Musa¢id maintained close ties to Gaza beyond the usually close ties of traders and smugglers. Al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad maintained a presence in Gaza along with other Jihadi-Salafist groups, until Hamas drove the group into Sinai. In fact, al-Qaeda had developed multiple ties to both Gaza and the Sinai, possibly as early as 2005 when Israel began its withdrawal from the Strip and Hamas began its rule. [13] Sinai was a convenient hiding place both for fugitive radicals fleeing from mainland Egypt and also Palestinians and others fleeing from Gaza. In the early days of ferment in the Sinai, fugitives were safe from detection as long as they did not join armed jihadist groups. The common assumption was that problems in the Sinai threatening either Israel or Egypt were a spillover from Gazan terror. Among the earliest influxes of Jihadi-Salafist fugitives into Sinai were the 2009 Hamas purge of Jihadi-Salafists and the prison breakouts in Egypt associated with the downfall of the Mubarak government in 2011.

After Mubarak’s downfall, dozens of groups were formed in the Sinai almost overnight. Some of these were new and others carried the names of 1990s-era Egyptian jihadist groups, like the infamous al-Gama¢ah al-Islamiyyah, which al-Zawahiri in a video would call a branch of al-Qaeda in Sinai. Most of the newsworthy attacks emanating from Sinai were focused on the Egyptian-Israeli pipeline and targets just inside the Israeli border. By 2012, Israeli intelligence officials were telling the Hebrew press that most of the attacks in Sinai were the product of a single terrorist network associated with a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which “used to have close ties to terror groups in Gaza, but has recently taken an independent track” and were no longer  a “back yard” for Gaza. [14] In fact, the terrorist network was likely shaped by al-Qaeda much earlier. After Ansar Beit al-Maqdis became the well-funded IS Sinai Province, most of the media attention focused on its aggressive role. Hisham ‘Ashmawi withdrew from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis after its transformation to the IS Sinai Province; the group lost one of its greatest assets to al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda’s long strategy remained in play. As part of that strategy, after Mubarak’s overthrow  Zawahiri delegated Abdul Basit Azuz to establish a camp for jihadists in eastern Libya near Benghazi. [15] Azuz was later apprehended by Turkish authorities for his suspected ties to the murder of the U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. [16]

Al-Qaeda in the Sinai

In August 2013, intelligence sources leaked the intercept of an international conference call between al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri and 20 al-Qaeda international operatives. [17] The call revealed three things relevant to the Sinai and al-Qaeda in general: the existence of an official branch of al-Qaeda in the Sinai; the prime importance of the Yemeni component of al-Zawahiri’s global network; and the notion that he had adopted Abu Mus¢ab al-Suri’s structural recommendations for maximum network security and effectiveness.

Although “Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” had a representative on the call, his identity was not revealed. A likely candidate might be the Egyptian jihadist Ramzi Mahmoud al-Mowafi, an explosives expert and a dentist who had treated Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Serving a life sentence in a Cairo maximum-security prison (Wadi Natroun), Mowafi escaped to Sinai on July 30, 2011. He was rumored to be both the leader of al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula and its so-called military branch, Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai, which publicly proclaimed its allegiance to al-Zawahiri in December 2011. Two years later (on July 18, 2013), Egyptian Special Forces, after arresting two jihadists in the mountains including one from Yemen, confirmed that Mowafi was playing a major role in the insurgency with advanced weapons, possibly including Katyusha rockets. Both weapons and personnel were regularly smuggled from northeastern Libya. [18]

The second revelation was that Zawahiri intended for the then-leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi (d. June 12, 2015) to be the Mas¢ul al-Amm, an Arabic term for someone in the network who is responsible in a general sense to al-Qaeda’s leadership. [19] However, one can understand this term only if one considers that al-Zawahiri leads an international network organized generally as that described by Abu Mus¢ab al-Suri and Abu Bakr Naji in their foundational studies. Al-Wuhayshi, who was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen (on June 12, 2015), was apparently expected to be an autonomous deputy, or cut-out point of contact, for al-Zawahiri, whose message could be interpreted as “don’t write me for money, write him.” Al-Wuhayshi is known to have provided funding for the infamous Nasr City cell in Egypt.

The third revelation was not explicitly stated on the call, but becomes evident in light of additional evidence unearthed by Egyptian researchers, as we will discuss. In al-Suri’s analysis, the “Global Islamic Resistance” needed a new structure, especially after the United States overthrew the original Taliban government in Afghanistan and scattered al-Qaeda to the winds. [20] Al-Suri had concluded that jihadists, as structured under Bin Laden, could not defeat the powerful international coalition the United States had formed with its allies and regional partners. Al-Suri describes a more effective structure as three separate circles of terror. The central circle is the al-Qaeda leadership, which acts as a central source of guidance, propaganda, and education for global jihad, or the Global Islamic Resistance. This circle should have no physical or traceable connections to the second circle. The second circle is composed of the affiliates and branches, which are responsible for open front insurgencies or major operations within their separate geographic areas, as well as coordination, funding, and support for the third circle cells. It appears that al-Zawahiri deputized al-Wuhayshi to be the leader of the second circle, in the sense that he would be trusted to be the central leadership’s cutout, who could coordinate, fund, plan, or merely inspire international operations, including small-cell and so-called lone-wolf operations in the Greater Middle East, Europe, or the United States. The third circle consists of individual and small cell terrorists, functioning independently of each other, with no contact with, nor knowledge of each other. Al-Suri refers to these as “resistance units” or “operational units.” Each has its own emir. The only allegiance for these small cells is to the concept of Global Islamic Resistance, with which they share common slogans, symbols, and ideas. However, these entities share no tangible ties to organizations in the second or first circles because such links undermine security, especially in states with strong central security services.

The third circle cells consist of terrorist units, propaganda or agitation units, and builder units. These last are individuals who recruit, train, and may initially fund the operational units. The builder units, while absolutely crucial, are the weak links in the system. A builder unit is the only one who knows about the existence, identities, and locations of the terrorist and propaganda units in its cell. For this reason, al-Suri recommends that the builders either leave the country when their work is done, or stay to commit suicide operations. Ideally, these cells should not know their recruiter and creator’s origin or identity. Al-Suri’s theory is not merely academic. He was a lifetime jihadist who learned his craft as part of the military wing (“The Combatant Vanguard”) of the Muslim Brotherhood revolt against Hafez al-Assad in Syria, in military courses on urban warfare and special operations in Sadat’s Egypt, as well as military intelligence training in Iraq. [21]

Ferghali and Hassan point out that Egypt has for decades faced small group and individual terrorist cells which seem to align with al-Suri’s model, with some specific variations in the Egyptian context. [22] For decades before the Arab Spring, small to medium-sized Jihadi-Salafist groups operated in Egypt under their own commanders who were sympathetically allies of al-Qaeda now with an allegiance to Zawahiri without necessarily being formal affiliates. The best known of these include the Jund Allah (soldiers of Allah) group based in Alexandria, Gharbia, and Beheira Governorates. Other organizations were also in the municipalities of El Materea, Port Said, and Giza, as well as al-Jaysh al-Islami (the Islamic Army) group, the so-called Azhar group, and others. After the downfall of Mubarak, many other small and medium-size groups emerged in the Sinai where al-Qaeda may have already existed clandestinely. If there were 500-1,000 members at any time from Cairo through the Egyptian Delta associated with these mid-sized groups, one can assume the existence of nameless small clandestine cells with their own leaders and Jihadi-Salafist terrorists.

Even al-Qaeda in the Sinai appears to be composed of a number of medium-size groups  with various names that may be considered part of the al-Qaeda effort but operate independently. In addition, some small groups’ names might never emerge, for example, if an entire group is killed in a single encounter with the Egyptian military or security services. These smaller groups of about 15 fighters should not be confused with individual and small clandestine cells. They often have a name and represent a 15-person operational brigade, which act as independent entities even though they may be openly pledged to al-Zawahiri.

Individual and small cell terrorist groups are limited in size and lack access to heavy weapons. The possession of military-type weapons beyond assault rifles would be very unusual and would risk attention to the small group or lone-wolf terrorist, so small and medium-sized groups are taught to avoid storing them where they live. Such weapons, useful in terrorist operations, pose only a limited threat to a modern military or militarized police force beyond individual terror attacks to undercut morale. However, group training in remote desert and mountain areas in the Sinai often includes instruction in the preparation and use of explosives. Mowafi himself is rumored to have trained small groups in remote areas of the Sinai. According to al-Suri’s thinking, even a few small cells able to mount a small number of attacks per year may generate a greater terror effect than a large, well-established group. In Egypt, the purpose of these small terrorist cells is to create constant pressure on army and police security units and political leadership to discourage the main population from continuing the war in the Sinai. The ultimate purpose of the large groups, such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or its successor, IS Sinai Province, or another al-Qaeda branch is to seize and hold territory to create an Islamic Emirate or expand the IS footprint.

As noted above, al-Qaeda in the Sinai gained a great deal when Hisham ‘Ashmawi broke with IS Sinai Province and remained faithful to al-Qaeda. Affiliation with al-Qaeda also distinguished ‘Ashmawi’s colleagues consisting of former police and military officers, like Walid Badr, Imad El-Sayed, and Tarek Abu al-Azm, who is also credited as one of the of the founders of the Nasr City cell.

‘Ashmawi moved like a “hidden wolf’ throughout an extended region, relocating as governments hostile to his activities were overthrown. Following the ouster of Mubarak, he travelled to Libya where he pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. He associated with the Libyan Ansar al-Shariah organization in Benghazi and Derna, a group that would later provide logistical support and weapons to al-Qaeda elements in the Sinai and elsewhere. ¢Ashmawi fought as part of the al-Qaeda-pledged groups’ war against former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. After Qaddafi’s death, a number of Egyptians, who had fought with al-Qaeda elements in Libya, sought “hot jihad” in distant West Africa. They joined the al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad group in northern Mali and ultimately became associated with the al-Murabitoun group, newly founded by the infamous Algerian smuggler and jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and others. After ¢Ashmawi had fought in the Libyan insurrection and became linked to al-Qaeda in North Africa, he travelled to Syria to fight with al-Qaeda elements there. Once Morsi was removed from power, ‘Ashmawi cut short his stay in Syria to return to the Sinai where he and his colleagues remained faithful to al-Qaeda, breaking eventually with the newly minted Sinai Province of IS. Finally, he is acknowledged as the founder of a very successful and innovative group which was based in Libya, but was able to operate in Egypt in general, including the Sinai, Cairo, and even targets in the Western Desert. [23] He named this group the Murabitoun, which may be interpreted as ‘the sentinels on the frontlines of the Islamic Community’ (Ummah). The choice of this name creates a romantic and symbolic bond with the far reaches of al-Qaeda in North Africa and the Sahel, and lines up with the westernmost regions of al-Zawahiri’s new caliphate.

Zawahiri has been most successful at the task of staying alive. His al-Qaeda does not require a rigid structure and he has so far avoided the mistakes that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden, although that could change at any time. Command and control in al-Qaeda is compartmentalized. The leader of a large group will order or recommend an attack, but the details and timing are known only to those closest to the operation’s perpetrators. If an operation in the Sinai is carried out by an individual or small cell jihadist group, the cell has no links to any other cell or central organization. If one or more members are captured before or during the operation, they therefore cannot pose a threat to other cells or the larger organization. They may have been trained in an urban safe house, a clandestine camp in the desert or mountains, or in another country, especially Syria, Iraq, Gaza, or in eastern or southern Libya.

Despite all their precautions, however, larger groups are more vulnerable and rely on lessons from guerrilla warfare to keep them viable. Many fail eventually, and operational leaders like Musa¢id, ‘Ashmawi, and Tarek Abu al-Azm are killed or captured. Other groups rise out of their ashes as long as the phoenix of Jihadi-Salafist doctrine, as interpreted by al-Qaeda, survives. The individual and small cells may also expand into larger groups when the conditions are right, and the process begins again.


Why is the Egyptian Sinai a hot issue now? The answer is not because al-Qaeda ever thought that they would be able to win a long battle with the powerful Egyptian military and security forces. The al-Qaeda theorist Abu Bakr Naji, a close compatriot of Zawahiri, considered Egypt as a country that jihadists cannot overthrow without external military help, which is unlikely. However, Sinai serves as a link between al-Qaeda’s Levantine operational sector and its North African Sector, which in turn provides linkages to its Sahelian and West African sectors. All of these sectors share a legacy of training operations and general strategy in regions that geographically defy the regions assigned to the American military and diplomatic services. The Sinai, with its ties to the East and the West, could provide an entry point for jihadists, including escaped IS fighters, fleeing from Syria to find new places to continue their jihad. Despite all its losses, the al-Qaeda system provides a jihadist underground to join.

We have entered a dangerous period in which al-Qaeda is fulfilling its old claim to be the inspirational jihadist vanguard of any number of jihadist organizations without interfering in local operations. In 2018, al-Zawahiri claimed that the Islamic community (Ummah) was spread among 50 separate entities stretching from Turkestan to the Atlantic Coast. His message called upon Muslims of all persuasions to join together to resist the forces of unbelief. He held out the hope for this collection of Muslim communities to form the basis of a massive Islamic emirate one day. It was not a rhetorically inspiring speech, but it offered an alternative to IS without mentioning it by name. Significantly, he made no claims that al-Qaeda would have a central role in his potential caliphate. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda appears to be close to claiming the success of Bin Laden’s goal of seeing the United States withdraw much of its military presence in the Greater Middle East and Africa.

In fact, al-Qaeda has an international jihadist network covering the areas in Zawahiri’s 2018 speech, and then some. One great advantage for Zawahiri is to be far away from the relatively self-sustaining network stretching from the Sinai to the Atlantic Coast, with a historically large number of trained and dedicated jihadist fighters in the Levant who need somewhere to operate. Under Zawahiri, it has secretly planted violent jihadist cells of all sizes in a number of areas without clear connections to al-Qaeda, to any other cell, or to any other prominent Jihadi-Salafist group. It has jihadist safehouses and international connections throughout the Greater Middle East, South Asia, and increasingly in Africa.


[1] Zawahiri refers to 50 separate entities that composed the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate before its dissolution in a video speech, “The Battle of Awareness and Will: The Solid Structure” (August 23, 2018). The video may be seen with a subscription at  The solid structure in the Qur’an was a stone structure infused with lead to give it cohesive strength.

[2] Bruce Hoffman, Al-Qaeda’s Resurrection, Council on Foreign Relations (March 6, 2018) Hoffman’s calculus includes all areas with a known al-Qaeda presence beyond Zawahiri’s imagined Caliphate, e. g., India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

[3]“Hot jihad” is a term used by Sayf al-Adl to refer to popular jihad that draws foreign fighters and others.

[4] See Maher Ferghali and Salaheddin Hassan, Dima’¢Ala Rimal Sina’ (Blood on the Sands of Sinai), (Cairo: Mominoun Bila Hudud Press, 2017). This book is in Arabic only and is not currently available in the United States or in a digital version. Hereafter it is referred to as “Blood on the Sands.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] The attacks included the Taba Hilton Hotel and two other small lodges south of the Egyptian-Israeli border (October 7, 2004), three bombings in the Sharm el-Sheik resort area at the southern tip of the peninsula (July 23, 2005), and a series of bombings in and around Dahab (located between the two previous attacks) as well as two bombings at the Multinational Force and Observers base near the al-Gorah Airport (April 24 and 26, 2006).

[7] Blood on the Sands, 183

[8] Ibid. 183

[9] Ibid. 183. My translation loses the flavor of the Arabic, which is filled with evocative terms regularly used by Sayyid Qutb, al Qaeda,  ISIS and other Jihadi-Salafist groups; e.g., ”jahilliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance), “kafir” (unbeliever), and “Taghut” (demonic tyrant), which evokes a powerful Qur’anic reference.

[10] See Mohannad Sabry, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare, ( Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015)  pp. 127-130 (digital edition).

[11] Faraj was the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and author of the foundational  jihadist tract The Neglected Obligation, which refers to the failure of modern Muslims to recognize the personal obligation to wage jihad. For more context see: Michael W. S. Ryan Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 40-44. Dr. Fadl is an alternative name for Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, another member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and an early associate of Zawahiri. He wrote one of the most important early text for jihadist, The Essential Guide for Preparation [for Jihad], which provided a justification for jihadist violence. 

[12] Blood on the Sands, p.128.

[13] Early al-Qaeda affiliated groups included Jaysh al Islam (Gaza 2006)  and Jund Ansar Allah (Rafah 2008). See Blood on the Sands (131-133).

[14]See Asher Zeiger, “Single terror group responsible for most attacks in Sinai, intelligence sources say,” (The Times of Israel), October 3, 2012),

[15] Blood on the Sands, pp. 250, 255

[16] “Turkish security forces capture Benghazi attack suspect: report,” (April 12, 2014).

[17] See Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, “Al Qaeda Conference Call Intercepted by U.S. Officials Sparked Alert,” The Daily Beast website (August 7, 2013)

[18] See Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, “The Jihadist Threat in Egypt’s Sinai,”  (July 22, 2013).

[19] The Daily Beast article indicates that this term would designate someone who would act as the general manager under his leadership, but this makes no sense in the context of how al-Qaeda’s far flung network actually operates. All management is local. The leadership has hoped for coordination on spectacular operations, but even that has been impossible to achieve. It appears that Zawahiri was designating Wuhayshi, with his established relationship with the core AQ leadership, as the person responsible for supporting that coordination.

[20] For an analysis of al-Suri’s general theory for organizing the “Islamic Resistance,” see, Ryan, Decoding al-Qaeda’s Strategy, 242-254; and, Figure 5.2,  p.245. For his biography, see Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus¢ab al-Suri, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[21] See Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, 252.

[22] Ferghali and Hassan, Blood on the Sands, Khalaya al-Irhab al-Fardi (individual terror cells), 200-205. In this chapter the authors assert “…Egypt faced what is termed ‘individual terrorist cells and small terrorist cells’.” The authors go on to point out that the larger groups in Sinai were following al-Suri’s thinking in setting up these clandestine cells without any connection to the central organizations, which created them. Meanwhile, the central groups are waging guerrilla warfare to seize and hold territory. 

[23] Blood on the Sands, 189-193