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Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya: Limits and reach
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 04 - 2016

On 6 April an American drone strike killed Rifaai Taha, leader of the terrorist wing of the Egyptian Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, in a district of Idlib, Syria. He was in a vehicle with four members of Ahrar Al-Sham. The incident sheds light on the participation of Egyptian jihadists, and specifically members of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, in the war in Syria.
Taha was one the leading field commanders and ideological and organisational leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, an extremist Islamist organisation founded on Egyptian university campuses in the early 1970s. He met his death after a long career of violence against the Egyptian state.
He planned and directed the Luxor massacre in 1997, killing dozens of foreign tourists at time when many imprisoned Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, detained in round-ups that began in the wake of the assassination of Sadat in 1981, were in the process of undertaking major ideological revisions.
Taha, who vehemently opposed any suggestion that the group should abandon violence, joined Al-Qaeda. He travelled to Afghanistan where he became close to Osama bin Laden's assistant, and even closer to the current leader of Al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahri.
Taha was in the group that carried out the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and issued the Al-Qaeda statement claiming responsibility for the attack. Though he fled to Iran, where he spent several years, he maintained contact with his wife and family.
In 2001, US intelligence agencies, which had been monitoring his calls to his wife, captured him and returned him to Egypt where he was sentenced to life in prison. Despite the sentence, he was released by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces when it assumed power following the 25 January 2011 Revolution.
Rifaai and his Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya colleagues supported Muslim Brotherhood rule and campaigned to unite Salafist ranks behind it. During the year of Mohamed Morsi's presidency, Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya was active in recruiting Egyptian jihadists and sending them to Syria where they enlisted in the ranks of Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations.
The announcement of Taha's death came from two sources in the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leadership, both of whom were aware of his activities in Syria. The two men are Essam Abdel Maged and Tareq Al-Zomr. The first wrote on his Twitter account that Taha was on a mission to unite Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham, while Al-Zomr claimed Taha was on a relief mission when he was killed.
A Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya source interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly thinks Maged's version of events is the more likely.
The disclosure of Taha's role in Syria places Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya s leaders in an awkward position in Turkey, where most now live. Istanbul is now home to Al-Zomr, Abdel Maged, Khaled Islambouli, Amer Abdel Rahim (a member of the Gama'a's Shura Council and one of the organisation's founders who was also an MP during the Brotherhood's rule), Islam Al-Ghamri, Khaled Al-Sherif (head of the Asala [Authenticity] Party), Ehab Shiha (head of the Islah [Reform] Party), Atiya Adlan (head of the Fadila [Virtue] Party), Mahmoud Fathi, Mamdouh Ismail, Mamdouh Ali Yousef (Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya Shura Council member and former MP), Magdi Salem, Rida Sharabi and Nazar Gharab (Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's lawyer and also a former MP).
They are being hosted on the implicit condition that Ankara's knowledge of their activities is not made public. In August Turkish authorities arrested Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya member Mohamed Shawqi Islambouli, a senior figure in the organisation and brother of Khaled Islambouli, after his name appeared on a UN list of individuals active in Syria.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya underwent a qualitative shift at the organisational level following the overthrow of Brotherhood rule in Egypt. In Egypt they formed a loose entity, the Front to Defend Legitimacy. When leaders of the group fled to Turkey following the break-up of the Nahda Square sit-in they formed another loose entity, the National Front for the Defence of Legitimacy.
More importantly, however, members of the Gama'a's Shura Council who made it to Istanbul began to operate on two levels: one focussing on internal affairs in Egypt and the other on international and regional jihad.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya created an international bureau, just as the Muslim Brotherhood had done. Indeed, some Egyptian observers see Egypt's recent release of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya figures such as Safwat Abdel Ghani and Alaa Abu Al-Nasr as an attempt to assert control over the organisation before it moves abroad.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has undoubtedly played a role in the splintering of the Islamist front abroad. The fragmentation has manifested itself in various ways since the collapse of Brotherhood rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood, says Ali Bakr, director of the Islamist movements research programme at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, initially focussed exclusively on the break-up of the Rabaa sit-in as it attempted to present itself as a victim. It ignored the events at Nahda, where many Salafist leaders and their followers had staged a lengthy sit-in in support of Morsi.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's withdrawal from the Front to Support Legitimacy at the end of 2013 and the freezing of its role in the National Front a year later were indicative of the growing rift. Another sign of tensions surfaced after the death of Rifaai Taha. Abdel Maged and other Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leaders criticised Brotherhood media for failing to pay their respects to the “martyr”.
Brotherhood circles have recently raised suspicions about a deal between Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Egypt's security agencies under which the group's leaders will be allowed to return to Egypt. Abdel Maged denies that any deal has been made. Suggestions to the contrary, he says, are Brotherhood propaganda against his organisation.
Taha's death in Syria also casts a spotlight on the jihadist Salafist outlook on the Syrian crisis and the tensions between the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front. According to Egyptian security agencies, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and its leaders — including Abdel Maged — were active in recruiting and facilitating the travel of jihadists to Syria under Brotherhood rule.
In addition to recruiting their own members they also facilitated the travel of Hazemoon (supporters of Hazem Abu Ismail) members. While this recruitment activity would mostly have benefitted Al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliates, some recruits must also have enlisted with IS, though a source familiar with the subjects insists “these can be counted on the fingers of a single hand”.
Observers fear these connections could have serious repercussions for Egypt if they are not brought under control. There is the danger of the transfer of outside terrorist expertise to Egypt. Indeed, there has already been evidence of this in recent local terror attacks.
Some of those killed or arrested in Sinai also have links with jihadists in Syria. This applies particularly to members of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which has mutated into the IS affiliate the Sinai Province, though Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya's strongest affiliation is with the Murabitoun, the Al-Qaeda affiliate based in Derna in Libya.
“The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya was seduced by revolutions that erupted in Arab countries,” said Nageh Ibrahim, once a leading Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya ideologue and a member of its Shura Council. “This grave mistake unfolded in various stages, including alliance with the Brotherhood and support of Rabaa and participation in the Nahda sit-in. Sixty members of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya were killed in the Rabaa breakup. The Brotherhood leaders knew of the break-up in advance but were willing to sacrifice the victims.”
Nageh Ibrahim draws a distinction between Rifaai Taha and Islambouli and other members of the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya abroad.
“Taha and Islambouli adhere to the Al-Qaeda line. Taha refused to join us in our ideological revisions and we rejected his declaration forming a front with Al-Zawahri. Islambouli is related by marriage to Bin Laden. The other Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya members in Istanbul remain outside this framework,” said Ibrahim.
“It is Taha and Islambouli who longed for an arena similar to Afghanistan. They have found it in Syria. They ripped apart the organisation and drove gullible youth to war on the pretext of jihad.”
He continued, “When that war is over they will return, just as their predecessors returned from Afghanistan, and they will have reaped nothing. They are fodder in the war of intelligence agencies and the settling of scores in the Syrian arena. I warned of this, as did Sheikh Esam Karbala, who is the official in charge of the group.”
On the relationship with the Brotherhood, Ibrahim said: “The Brotherhood is in a difficult position and is relying on its allies but this will not last. The front is falling apart.”
As for current government policy, Ibrahim believes it lacks the maturity displayed in the later Mubarak years. “The policy of the Mubarak government was better, more aware and more credible than what we are seeing today.”
Fifteen years after catching Rifaai Taha the first time, US intelligence managed to hunt him down again. They clearly knew he was a valuable catch. And for a second time jihadist emirs from Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya have donned Al-Qaeda stripes, this time tailored to the latest model in Syria.

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