Zawahri: Gamaa Islamiya members join Al Qaeda

Ayman Al Zawahri just showed up on Al Jazeera with a tape saying that several members of the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiya had now joined Al Qaeda. Here's an initial wire report:

AP 05.08.06 | 22h14

Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader announced in a new videotape aired Saturday that an Egyptian militant group has joined the terror network. The Egyptian group, Gamaa Islamiya, is apparently a revived version of a militant group that waged a campaign of violence in Egypt during the 1990s but had largely been suppressed by a government crackdown. «We announce to the Islamic nation the good news of the unification of a great faction of the knights of the Gamaa Islamiya ... with the Al-Qaida group,» Ayman al-Zawahri, the deputy leader of al-Qaida said in the videotape aired on the Al-Jazeera news network.
While it's not clear what the immediate significance of this in terms of Al Qaeda's operational abilities, it is quite a momentous even from an Egyptian perspective. Firstly, it casts a shadow over the decade-long process of re-integration of former Gamaa Islamiya militants, starting with the public recantation of a good deal of the imprisoned leadership and the release of hundreds of prisoners.

Secondly, on a symbolic level it marks the reunificaiton of the Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, groups that parted over method in the late 1970s and went on two different paths: a popular militant movement borne out of universities in Upper Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s that originally had government backing before it turned terrorists/insurrectionist for Gamaa Islamiya; and a cell-structured highly secretive group that carried out political assassinations as well as terror attacks for Islamic Jihad.

Islamic Jihad now only exists (aside potential sleeper agents) as Al Qaeda since Zawahri teamed up with Bin Laden in the 1990s; Gamaa Islamiya was on its way towards social reintegration (former member Montasser Al Zayat, a prominent lawyer, was a parliamentary election candidate in 2005). Tonight's announcement spells out the possibility of a dissident wing of Gamaa Islamiya that had refused the recantation of the prison leadership (actually we know there are several dissident wings) joining Al Qaeda, and possibly making use of old networks in Egypt. So how worried should we be?

Probably not too much. The exiled Gamaa Islamiya leadership in Europe and elsewhere did not have mass appeal, indeed post-9/11 it became very difficult for it to do anything at all -- especially after Londonistan began to be closed down. We will probably see in the next few days a statement by the imprisoned leadership condemning their old comrades and reiterating the recantation orchestrated by the Egyptian security services in the late 1970s.

I just spoke to Arabist contributor Hossam al-Hamalawy, who follows Islamist movements closely and has worked on rendition issues for human rights groups (read this article by him for background on the recantation). Hossam saw the Zawahri video, which I missed, he remembers three names mentioned by Zawahri:

1. Mohammed Shakwi al-Islambuli, the brother of Sadat assassin Khaled al-Islambuli, who lived in Iran (where his brother is a hero) at least until 9/11 and has been on the record for being against the imprisoned leadership's recantation.

2. Mustafa al-Murq', alias Abu Issar, who was based in London and was famously against the Algerian FIS' killing of civilians. He also operated many of the Gamaa Islamiya's outpost in Afghanistan during the Afghan civil war.

3. Most strangely, Rifai Ahmed Taha, who is believed to have been rendered from Syria to Egypt in 2001 and in prison ever since (although some believe he was executed.) Taha was known as the Gamaa's "military commander" has also spent time in Afghanistan, and was even reported in 1998 to have signed the founding charter of Al Qaeda (which would mean he was already operating under Al Qaeda's aegis.) Taha has reportedly received visits from his family in prison, but some say he was also heavily tortured. There is virtually no way he would have agreed to this while in prison, since he'd be signing his own death warrant.

What all this points to is that it's unlikely to be more than a publicity stunt by a once major militant Islamist group that is now for the most part irrelevant in the world of Jihadis. As for membership of Al Qaeda, beyond allegiance to "Emir" Osama, it probably doesn't mean any real operational co-ordination but following Al Qaeda's general guidelines and stances on current events as highlighted in these kinds of tapes.

More on this tomorrow.

Related:
Egypt group leaders join al Qaeda: Zawahri video (WaPo)
Al-Qaida welcomes new Egyptian group (AP)
Gamaa vets go free (Arabist April 2006)
More Gamaa Islamiya members freed (Arabist November 2004)
Gamaa Islamiya (Wikepedia)
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.