Blowback from Egypt's released jihadist militants?

This is an important story by Siobhan Gorman and Matt Bradley in the Wall Street Journal:

The revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa also emptied prisons of militants, a problem now emerging as a potential new terrorist threat.

Fighters linked to one freed militant, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad, took part in the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya that killed four Americans, U.S. officials believe based on initial reports. Intelligence reports suggest that some of the attackers trained at camps he established in the Libyan Desert, a former U.S. official said.

Western officials say Mr. Ahmad has petitioned the chief of al Qaeda, to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing.

U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Mr. Ahmad's activities for several months. The Benghazi attacks gave a major boost to his prominence in their eyes.

Mr. Ahmad, although believed to be one of the most potent of the new militant operatives emerging from the chaos of the Arab Spring, isn't the only one, according to Western officials. They say others are also trying to exploit weaknesses in newly established governments and develop a capacity for strikes that could go well beyond recent violent protests in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

Since the fall of Mubarak, in Egypt alone dozens of former Islamist militants have been released, both by the SCAF and later by President Mohammed Morsi. Field Marshall Hussein Tantawy, while heading SCAF and acting as Egypt's de facto president after Mubarak stepped down, released hundreds. Egypt Independent's Heba Afify reported as early as June 2011 about this:

According Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who represents Islamist groups, over 400 political detainees were released since Mubarak’s resignation, including 80 leaders from the Jama’a al-Islamiya, the most notorious of whom is Aboud al-Zomor, charged in the murder of late President Anwar Sadat.

“The leaders of the Jama’a al-Islamiya who made the decisions were released while members of the Jama’a remain in prison,” says Taher. “This is not rational.”

Having been excluded from the military council’s decision to release prisoners, many of the prisoners have begun to relive feelings of injustice that they experienced when they were first detained.

“We were treated unjustly before and after the revolution. There is no difference between those who were released and those who remain in prison,” says Taher.

The lobbying has continued and Morsi, in July alone, released 25 such men. Many of them come from radical groups such as Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad who had been held in jail since the 1990s or later, or are veterans of the Saudi-funded (and often American-backed) jihads in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some may have been part of the recantation program run by Egyptian security, but not all. It may be that, in some cases at least, they legally had to be released because they had served their sentences (even life sentences are limited to 25 years in Egypt, although in the past the ministry of interior did not always release militants, even if they had court decision in their favor.)

At the end of last July, Reuters' Tom Perry reported that Morsi was pardoning some militants under pressure from Islamist groups:

(Reuters) - Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi has freed a group of Islamists jailed for militancy during Hosni Mubarak's era a step seen as a gesture to hardliners who supported his presidential bid.

A lawyer for 17 Islamists, many of them held since the 1990s, say they owe their release to a pardon issued by Mursi. At least three of the released Islamists had been condemned to death, said the lawyer Ibrahim Ali.

Those released in recent days include members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, jailed during the group's armed insurrection against the state in the 1990s, and Islamic Jihad, the movement behind the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

The pardon underlines efforts by Egypt's first Islamist president to satisfy the some of the hardliners he courted with election promises to implement Islamic law.

Mursi is facing calls from Islamists to secure the release of the remaining few dozen of their brethren who they believe are being kept behind bars by security forces resistant to the new president's wishes.

These may include many people like Abu Ahmad who are not articularly well-known, but some of Egypt's most high-profile killers. This recently included "Sheikh" Abu Elka Abd Rabbo, the man who killed secular intellectual Farag Fouda in June 1992. This was the first major attack on a public intellectual by radical Islamists in the Mubarak era, and would followed within a few years by the assassination attempt against novelist Naguib Mahfouz and threats against many others, as well as the spread of hesba lawsuits against   critical Muslim thinkers who questioned fundamentalist and traditional orthodoxy, like Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid. Abd Rabbo appeared on TV last week on the popular show Qahira wal Nass, while he regretted killing Fouda ("even if he was an unbeliever") his appearance did send a chill among Egyptian secularists for whom Fouda is a martyred icon.

Morsi also made a promise, during his campaign, to lobby the US for the release of Gamaa Islamiya leader Omar Abdel Rahman. (Not likely to happen, of course.) But his positive response to Salafi groups' call for the release of many former militants and the quiet and fast manner in which they have already been released does raise some important questions. It should be noted that many of these men were brutally tortured, and many may be too old to be any kind of genuine nuisance. But some have dedicated following within extremists groups (even of these groups are or have become non-violent) and will now have the opportunity and platforms to proselytize. The bottom line is, what criteria is being used to figure out who to release (other than demands by relatives and supporters) and what will be done to monitor their activities if they are released? Is the Morsi admnistration going to take responsibility for those who end up returning to their bad old ways in a region that offers plenty such opportunities?

Going back to the WSJ story, they have more on Abu Ahmad:

Of the new militant operatives, Mr. Ahmad is among the most worrisome to Western officials. Thought to be about 45, he is a native of Cairo's Shobra district, a densely populated, low-income neighborhood along the Nile that includes many Coptic Christians, said Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, who recently interviewed several of Mr. Ahmad's associates in Egypt.

According to Mr. Barfi, Mr. Ahmad attended college, studying either literature or commerce, and went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s. There, said his associates, he trained to make bombs.

On returning to Egypt in the 1990s, a former U.S. official said, Mr. Ahmad became head of the operational wing of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was then headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician who is now the chief of al Qaeda. Associates of Mr. Ahmad agree he was part of Egyptian Islamic Jihad but say he wasn't among its leaders.

Many of that group's fighters embraced a cease-fire with the government of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1997, but Mr. Ahmad earned a reputation as a hard-liner by rejecting it, according to Mr. Barfi.

"Unlike the organization's leaders who have reconciled with the state and have eagerly embraced the democratic process, Mr. Ahmad and his cohorts reject any semblance of compromise with the state they have fought for decades," Mr. Barfi said.

Former militants who knew Mr. Ahmad in an Egyptian prison, where he was locked up around 2000, describe a hardened inmate who showed belligerence toward the guards. While most prisoners submitted to random cell searches, Mr. Ahmad often refused to let guards remove items from his cell, the former inmates say.

He would start by preaching to the guards and escalate to shouted insults, said a former jihadi imprisoned with him starting in 2006. That often landed Mr. Ahmad in solitary confinement, in a roofless cell exposed to the elements. The guards sometimes let in dogs or insects to harass him, said the ex-jihadi.

Freed last year, Mr. Ahmad is building his own terror group, say Western officials, who call it the Jamal Network. They say he appears to be trying to tap former fellow inmates such as Murjan Salim, a man who, like Mr. Ahmad, has ties to al Qaeda's Dr. Zawahiri. Former associates of Mr. Ahmad said Mr. Salim is directing aspiring jihadis to Mr. Ahmad's camps in Libya.

In an interview in Cairo, Mr. Salim denied any connection to jihad, citing his physical limitations. He uses a wheelchair, a result, he said, of being wounded by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Also freed in Egypt last year was Mohammed al-Zawahiri, a brother of the al Qaeda leader. Mohammed al-Zawahiri backed a protest in Cairo three weeks ago but says he had no role in a later invasion of U.S. Embassy grounds.

U.S. officials believe he has helped Mr. Ahmad connect with the al Qaeda chief. In an interview, Mohammed al-Zawahiri denied that, saying that though imprisoned with Mr. Ahmad, he isn't helping him. "These are all accusations without proof," he said.

Mr. Zawahiri denied resuming past militant activities. "This is always what they say," he said. "This is meant to scare us away from exercising our political rights."

As for Mr. Ahmad, associates say he now lives in Libya. Western officials believe that besides financing through al Qaeda's Yemeni wing, he has tapped into its system for smuggling fighters. At his camps, militants are believed to be training future suicide bombers, say current and former U.S. officials, who add that he has established limited links with jihadists in Europe.

Incidentally, this really raises some important question about how the embassy riots started – was the campaign to incite a riot outside the embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi, as well as the campaign  on Salafi channels, deliberate attempts to create cover for a pre-planned attack on the Benghazi compound?