ATbar Osama bin Ladin and the Egyptian Terrorist Groups
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Osama bin Ladin and the Egyptian Terrorist Groups

25/06/1999 | by Schweitzer, Yoram  
Recently the United States and Britain closed a number of diplomatic missions in Africa due to “concrete information” that Osama bin Ladin’s network is planning another attack. The evidence that an attack may be in the works is said to include intercepted phone conversations in which bin Ladin’s operatives discussed the transferal of explosives and personnel. In addition, several embassies have also reportedly been under observation by unknown elements.

Bin Ladin’s televised interview on Qatar’s al-Jazeera satellite would also seem to fit the pattern. In the past bin Ladin has been particularly outspoken just before attempting a terrorist operation.

The timing of these events is interesting, in that bin Ladin’s network has recently suffered a series of severe setbacks. With his back to the wall, bin Ladin may be more motivated than ever to perpetrate an attack.

The “Returnees from Albania”
On 18 April 1999, one of the largest anti-terrorism trials in recent memory wound to a close in Egypt. The trial involved 107 Islamic fundamentalists, 63 of whom were tried in absentia. Most of the accused belonged to the Egyptian al-Jihad group, while the most notorious had ties to Osama bin Ladin’s al-Qaidah organization. Among the suspects was one of the leaders of the Gama’a al-Islamiyah. The court sentenced several senior members of the Jihad group—including the organization’s leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri—to death or to life imprisonment. Al-Zawahiri, who was convicted in absentia, is a close associate of bin Ladin and one of the founders of the “Islamic Front for Jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews.”

The proceedings came to be called the “trial of the Albanian returnees,” due to the fact that twenty of the accused were extradited from Albania in July of ‘98 in the wake of a foiled attack on an American installation in Tirana. A number of the others were arrested in various countries during 1998.

The trial, which lasted from February to April ‘99, revealed a wealth of details about the Egyptian Jihad—the group’s structure, membership, policies and operational capabilities, as well as its connections with Osama bin Ladin. The trial was a milestone in the worldwide fight against fundamentalist terrorism in general, over and above its importance to the Egyptian campaign against the al Jihad group.

A change in policy
In the past the Egyptian Jihad Group carried out attacks against Egyptian officials. Among the group’s targets: the Chairman of Parliament (1990); the Ministry of Interior (1993). In 1995 the Jihad orchestrated attacks outside of Egypt against the Egyptian attaché in Switzerland and the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of 15 people.

The past two years there have seen a change in the declared policy of the al-Jihad group. In addition to its bitter ideological conflict with the “heretical” Egyptian government, the organization began calling for attacks against American and Israeli targets. In the eyes of the Jihad group, these countries are the vanguard of a worldwide campaign to destroy Islam and its believers, with the help of the current Egyptian government.

This change was the result of, among other things, the Egyptian al-Jihad’s joining the coalition of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations led by the Afghan Veterans. The collaboration between the Egyptian organizations and al-Qaidah played a key role in the formation of Osama bin Ladin’s “Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.”

Al-Jihad - One step too far
The first hints of the Jihad’s change in policy vis-a-vis attacks outside of Egypt were seen in a foiled attack against an American installation in Albania in June 1998. Members of al-Jihad were also involved in the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, which killed 224 people and wounded nearly 2,000.

The interrogation of several of the perpetrators of that attack led to the arrest of other members of bin Ladin’s network in Germany and in England. The details revealed by the investigation—together with the lessons learned from the Egyptian group’s involvement in the terrorist attacks in New York in ‘93—led to an increased cooperation between the United States and Egypt in the fight against the “International Islamic Front.”

Egypt, through the good offices of the Americans, gained the cooperation of a number of other countries, among them: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, South Africa, Equador, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. This cooperation resulted in the extradition of members of the Jihad Group and bin Ladin’s network to Egypt.

Thus, the Egyptian groups’ involvement in terror outside of Egypt brought about a severe backlash—a worldwide cooperative effort that dealt a significant blow to bin Ladin’s coalition.

Yet another setback to bin Ladin was the public declaration of a unilateral cessation of terrorism against the Egyptian government by the exiled leaders of the Gama’a al-Islamiya, Egypt’s largest terrorist group. This declaration resulted in a massive release of Gama'a operatives from Egyptian prisons. From the time of the founding of the International Islamic Front in February ‘98, bin Ladin had assigned the Gama'a al Islamiyya a central operational position in the religious-military heirarchy of the organization.

Despite the considerable achievements of the Egyptian and American counter-terrorism efforts, it must be remembered that the fight against Islamic fundamentalist terror is long and involved, replete with attacks and counter-attacks. Although the fundamentalists have suffered some serious setbacks, it’s safe to assume that the last shot has not been fired. The militant declarations of al-Zawahiri in the wake of his conviction in absentia in Cairo, as well as Osama bin Ladin’s ceaseless threats only strengthen this conviction.

The American precautions are an indication of the seriousness with which they view the threat. This, together with the recent threats made by bin Ladin and his Egyptian colleagues, and the loss of prestige suffered by the Islamic Front, would seem to portend a concentrated effort on the part of bin Ladin's network to execute another round of attacks in the near future.

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