Egypt making strides against Al Qaeda-based TerrorismApril 8, 2014 in Egypt
On 7 April, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, was referred to Egyptian criminal court on terrorism related charges. He and 67 others will be tried; only 50 of the defendants are in custody. The remaining defendants are currently on the run, and will be tried in absentia. The official court date has not yet been set.
The suspects are charged with creating an “Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group”. They are also charged with planning assaults on government and security installations, conducting attacks on Egyptian security personnel, and targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority with intentions to “spread chaos and undermine security.” The statement does not indicate specific events or attacks, but Egyptian investigations have disclosed that members of Zawahiri’s group were told to leave Egypt to fight the Assad regime in Syria. On 30 June 2013, the day Morsi was evicted from office, the group’s members were told to return to counter Egypt’s new authorities.
Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, is specifically charged with forming the AQ inspired group, arming its members, and training them in developing explosives and planting bombs. Authorities have stated they have evidence that the group was trained in hidden locations in the Sharqiya province, as well as Cairo’s districts of Matareya and 6 October.
Sharqiya has been inflicted by frequent attacks targeting security forces. On 29 December, 2013, four soldiers were injured in an explosion near Sharqiya Governorate’s Military Intelligence Headquarters in Anshas. A car packed with explosives detonated near the building, partially destroying the structure’s rear façade. Sharqiya police officers have also been killed and injured in targeted shootings since August 2013. Most recently, perpetrators on motorcycles showered police with bullets as they drove past, killing one and injuring three. In Matareya and 6 October, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have clashed regularly with police.
Since the 30 June ouster of Morsi, and particularly since 14 August crackdown on Morsi supporters protesting in Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares in Cairo, Egypt has suffered a string of bombings and shootings targeting security forces, killing nearly 500 people. While the bulk of the attacks have occurred in the Sinai Peninsula, attacks have steadily moved westward into Nile Valley Egypt. A majority of the attacks have been claimed by a Sinai-based, al Qaeda inspired group called Ansar Beit al Maqdis. Despite the group’s vocal claim of responsibility for several attacks, in September 2013 the Muslim Brotherhood was designated as a terrorist organisation in Egypt, accused of having financial and operational links with Al Qaeda and other militant organisations.
Also on 7 April, Egyptian authorities apprehended Thirwat Salah Shehata, an Egyptian national and one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s top deputies. Shehata, a senior al Qaeda leader, took shelter in Iran for much of the post-9/11 period.
In early 2011 during the revolution to remove President Hosni Mubarak, Shehata released a statement from Iran calling on the people to “remain steadfast” and reject any economic concessions from Mubarak. “Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart.” Sometime after this statement, Shehata left Iran and went to Libya. US officials believe that he met with other senior al Qaeda leaders in Libya in 2013, including Abu Anas al Libi, who was detained by US forces in Tripoli. Al Libi was wanted for his role in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and had also fled to Iran following 9/11.
Egyptian authorities believe that Shehata was in Libya to train militants in the Eastern region, which is currently a stronghold of militant groups threatening to break off from Libya and become an autonomous region.
Al Qaeda has an extensive presence in Libya. A January 2014 report from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence indicates that subgroups from the organisation, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Muhammad Jamal Network have all “conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.” It is believed that senior AQ leaders, including Shehata have played a role in these efforts.
Shehata was initially a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which was headed by Ayman al Zawahiri. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the EIJ merged with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda operations. Within the EIJ, Shehata was the head of their security committee, and “maintained information about individual members and how to reach them, documenting physical, psychological, academic and religious information about each member and determining the type of work he could do.” According to former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, US officials received credible information that Shehata “was willing to strike US, Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future.” Tenet writes. Shehata was also “linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs.
Egypt’s capture of Shehata and the trial of Zawahiri come as Egypt prepares for presidential elections on 26 and 27 May. Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al Sisi, who removed Morsi from office, has experienced widespread popularity and is expected to win the election in a landslide victory. Since August 2013, Sisi has loudly vocalised the need to rid Egypt of the terrorist element. As Commander in Chief of the army and the Minister of Defence, his harsh stance against terrorism has been met with controversy. Although he stepped down from his positions to enter the presidential race as a civilian, the timing of this trial and arrest may serve to support his campaign in the lead up to the elections.