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By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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In Translation: A butterfly in Fayoum

Every now and then, I like to switch from the usual short news and commentary pieces we usually cover in this In Translation series and dive deep into a topic. The piece below, at over 6000 words, is long, complicated, and at times the prose gets a little purple. But it is worth reading: a mixture of social history of terrorism in Egypt, classic tale of Upper Egyptian banditry, ghoulish look at the practices of a depraved religious cult, and treatise on the unintended consequences of the actions of governments and their opponents. I will not delve into an explanation here, save to say that this story draws the links between a now-forgotten extremist group operating in Fayoum in the early 1990s and the ideology and some key figures in the Islamic State.

The piece has been edited a little bit for flow, although I have tried to retain the unusual style of its author, Ahmed Elderiny, who tells this story as if he was telling a ghost tale around a campfire. Rather than provide information upfront, I have provided links to further information (the piece assumes a lot of knowledge about 1990s Egypt and other issues) and a few footnotes where necessary (in some cases to correct minor factual errors). Hover over most links to get a little info, which avoids you clicking through. 

Many thanks to our partners at Industry Arabic who did an outstanding job with this translation. Please check them out for your company's translation needs.

The Shawkiyoun: A Dress Rehearsal for ISIS in Fayoum in 1990

Ahmed Elderiny, al-Masri al-Youm, 25 February 2017

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!”

Why does she blame her husband for Shawki’s killing? It is as if she expected him to lay down his life for Shawki, whether by taking a bullet for him or doing absolutely anything to save him from death. What is clear though is that she loved Shawki in some way that we are still not fully able to understand.

The place: the village of Kahk, in the governorate of Fayoum, approximately 100 kilometers south of Cairo. The time: an unknown day in April 1990. The atmosphere was clouded with confusion.

Before this woman ran towards her husband lamenting Shawki, several of his followers in the village of Kahk, in the Ibshway administrative district, were readying themselves for a fateful battle. The choice was either life with Shawki or death without him; there was no middle ground.

The “Shawkiyoun” – named for their leader – knew that men in black uniforms with stars and brass eagles on their shoulders were advancing toward Kahk with their weapons and armored vehicles. Shawki’s supporters rushed to the roofs of houses, the trunks of palms, and the branches of trees, each of them gripping his weapon and preparing to shoot, keeping a lookout in all directions.

The internal security forces had been tasked with bringing Shawki back with them, dead or alive. The Minister of Interior himself, Major General Abdul Halim Moussa, was waiting for a call regarding the results of the operation.

The village resisted them, defending Shawki al-Sheikh, who, in the popular memory of some in Fayoum, would become “Sheikh Shawki” in a purposeful transposition of his first and last names. This was not due to the weakness of their memory, but more likely was an expression of what they felt in their souls. For who was a sheikh like Shawki? And who was more deserving of being called sheikh?

Before the Egyptian internal security forces sprayed their bullets into Shawki’s body and into around 20 of his followers, and before the specific preparations were made for this decisive military operation, a great deal of blood was shed – on all sides. The day of the confrontation, which had been chosen by the Egyptian government, was like a final reckoning. It was Judgment Day for Shawki, when the bullets would hold him accountable for everything that had happened.

Hiding out of sight was Omar Abdel-Rahman, who along with his group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, waiting for any news of Shawki’s liquidation. To them, Shawki was the ungrateful estranged son who had rebelled against his spiritual fathers, devising his own approach and disregarding the words of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s leaders. Furthermore, he was in competition with them in word and action.

But do Shawki and those like him die easily, like sheep being slaughtered?

You are dreaming, if you thought that. There must be a curse hidden somewhere in the undertaking.

That is what the rules of drama dictate. There must be traces left to resume the story again or, from the point of view of those in the present, every story has a root in the past that forms it.

The theory of the “butterfly effect,” used as an example in what is called “chaos theory,” says that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Beijing could cause a storm in New York two weeks later. Similarly, Sheikh Shawki, or Shawki al-Sheikh (whichever you prefer, dear reader, at this stage of the story), left his butterflies flapping their wings around his corpse, a vibration that, after a quarter century, would open the gates of hell onto the whole planet.

So, why are we telling this story in a manner that could appear enigmatic?

On that day in 1990, Shawki’s butterflies were flapping their wings for what would later become ISIS.

Is that a satisfactory reason for us to resume? I think so.

The Fayoum Caliphate

The man had carried out a dress rehearsal for the most reviled terrorist group that humanity has ever seen, at a time in which there was no camera to witness it, and no journalist, and when social media was not at 1% of its current strength.

The stories indicate that ISIS was in its pilot launch phase at that time, in the form of a takfiri group that called itself “al-Shawkiyoun,” after its founder, the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh. He had been arrested in the early 1980s and accused of being a member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya group. There, in the heart of prison and consumed with the “jihadist” ideas that were brewing within him, he met the man who would be the secret to his destiny, Naguib Abdel Fattah Ismail. He was the son of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Fattah Ismail, who was executed in 1965 with Sayyid Qutb.[1]

Naguib’s father’s ideas provoked Hassan al-Hudaybi, the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, to respond to his theses in his famous book Preachers, Not Judges. This book, at that time, cast off from the Brotherhood the takfiri spirit that had characterized the ideas of Abdel Fattah Ismail.

When the young engineer Shawki al-Sheikh met Naguib the son, the latter, inspired by his father, was a member of the group al-Tawaquf wa al-Tabayun, which was one branch off the takfiri tree that has so many divergent guidelines and judicial opinions on the grounds for declaring someone an apostate.

Researcher on Islamist groups Maher Farghaly sees this meeting as the defining moment of Shawki al-Sheikh’s life. Looking at what happened, Farghali believes that the seed of takfir would have found a very fertile ground in Shawki’s mind during his discussions with Naguib. This seed would develop over the course of less than ten years, to become more extreme than the ideas of the founding fathers of takfir, and perhaps more extreme than they could have imagined.

However, Dr. Kamal Habib, who is an expert on Islamist movements, believes that Shawki al-Sheikh’s beliefs are similar to that of Magdi al-Safti’s group, which faced off with the security forces in al-Haraneya, in Menoufiya governorate. This group had tried to kill former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, and to attack then head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Makram Mohammed Ahmed. Habib believes that Shawki was influenced by Shukri Mustafa’s group, Takfir wal-Hijra, even more than by Qutbists in the prisons.

Shawki al-Sheikh would become a bright star in the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. It was said that the members of the group likened him to Omar Ibn al-Khattab, and to Abu Dujana, a companion of the prophet. Abu Dujana was a fearless man who wore a red turban on his head on the day of the Battle of Uhud in a sign of daring and courage that the Arabs could not mistake when they saw it.

Despite this dazzling celebrity status and his distinguished university studies, and given the fact that Shawki came from a notable family, with a soul eager for glory and a heart with the courage for confrontation… Shawki could not continue like this for long. He would soon reach his breaking point.

The distinguished Omar Abdel-Rahman was no longer a symbol in the eyes of the young engineer, and the doctrines of the group as a whole were no longer convincing to him. He had completed the development of his own vision, and the time had come to break away. So, he made his decision and broke from the group, never regretting it and never even stopping to look back.

Why did he break away so easily from the legendary Omar Abdel-Rahman?

Kamal Habib believes that, on the margins of the main groups of the Islamist trends there are always smaller groups with their own marginal ideas, like takfir, isolation, and confrontation with the state and society. In Habib’s view, this is what happened in Shawki’s case. He did not subscribe to the core of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s ideology. Rather, this group was naturally a temporary and passing phase for him.

Shawki had chosen Fayoum as the spot for his promised kingdom.

Mohammad Massad (a pseudonym), 36 years old, is from Shawki’s governorate and remembers those long ago years as though they were yesterday. He says:

“Shawki was never an unknown quantity. His family is very large, and his uncles worked throughout the Ibshway administrative district, as mayor, officer, and government official, etc. Among the people, he was known as a “knight” of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, working under its orders, carrying out its plans, and defending it to the death as the “community of Muslims” in the original jurisprudential sense. Everyone knew that he had strong relationships with Abbud al-Zumar, Omar Abdel-Rahman, and others who, in the minds of the people of Fayoum, were also “knights,” like Zayd al-Hilali or Khalifa al-Zinati.”[2]

Massad continues, “The man – a graduate of engineering school – said that the Arabic language is the vessel that God chose to broadcast his light, represented in the Quran, to the world. The rules of Arabic grammar state that there are two words that cannot be used in the superlative form. They are ‘died’ and ‘perished’, because the language does not permit someone to be ‘more dead’ or ‘more perished’ than someone else. Therefore, wealthy people should not hold large funeral services and erect grand canopies or tents for funerals. Whenever they would put up a large tent for a funeral, Sheikh Shawki’s group would burn it down immediately.

At first, people did not believe that the Shawkiyoun would really be able to impose their ideas. But this skepticism was quickly challenged when the funeral of engineer Ahmed Makhlouf (the elder in the Makhlouf family at that time) went up in a ball of fire, after members of the Shawkiyoun scaled rooftops and set fire to the funeral tent while people were sitting inside of it.

This incident repeated itself with the Muharram, Mahgoub, and al-Dawidiya families, and even with members of ancient Bedouin tribes, which had many weapons and men to protect themselves. From the burning of the funeral tent of the al-Basil family in Etsa, to the pseudo-street war that took place to prevent the building of a tent belonging to the Arabs of al-Marmah tribes in Tamiya, to the Awlad Ali family in Ibshway, who were shocked to find a message written in blood on the tent warning them “before it’s too late.”

Only the poor people were happy with what Shawki al-Sheikh was doing, and they are the overwhelming, and oppressed, majority in Fayoum. When people finally saw that they could bury their dead in the same way that the rich buried theirs, they grew closer to their “venerable popular hero.” The news traveled quickly through the towns, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (the dominant power in Fayoum at that time) became irritated by the popularity of this unique, charismatic rebel.

This is perhaps the way that Mohammad Hussein (55 years old), from Fayoum, understands the reasons for Shawki’s popularity. Hussein was arrested after he embraced extremist religious ideas. He met members of the Shawkiyoun in the early 2000s in the harsh prisons of Natrun, where he lived with them closely.

Hussein says, in an environment of extreme poverty like Fayoum, those who can confront the security forces, the state, or the authorities occupy a special place in peoples’ hearts. Shawki was closest to the needs of the people’s imagination. The people needed a hero to do battle on their behalf against oppression and poverty, and against the state – which, in their eyes, was the cause for their suffering.

During these bygone days at the end of the 1980s, the people talked about how Shawki al-Sheikh stood up to the governorate’s security director, rebuking and threatening him for something related to the people’s interests, with a steady heart and with a power whose source was unknown. As a result, Shawki was more of a popular hero before he became known as a religious figure. In the minds of simple people in a poor, remote village in 1990, matters appeared differently than they would to you in Cairo in 2017, says this 55 year old man.

This Separation between You and Me

We return to Mohammad Massad, who prefers to focus on the structure of the conflict between Shawki and his first teachers and former friends in al-Gamaa al-Islamiya:

The clash between the two groups played out on a number of different levels, but the Shawkiyoun became prominent because they preferred to focus on the economy and people’s needs. When Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman issued a fatwa forbidding force-feeding birds, considering the process of force-feeding to be an example of people interfering with God’s will for the bird that it should only eat as much as it needed, the women in the villages revolted. Raising birds and force-feeding them, then selling them, was the main source of these women’s income. After al-Gamaa al-Islamiya had asserted its control over the public space, and forbade the women from working in the fields, women had nothing else they could do for work other than force-feeding. As a result, the women chased away the proselytizing caravans that came to the villages to warn women not to engage in force-feeding.

In response, Shawki stood in the al-Rahma mosque in Ibshway and said, “Those who forbid what God has given to his creation in his generosity, they are the same as the unbelieving ruler. Oh people, those who have made problems for you in your livelihood, and forbidden to you what God has permitted to you, and championed the rights of birds over the rights of human beings, fight them, chase them, and wait for them at every lookout.” The people spread this speech amongst themselves, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya felt that it was in danger.

The rumblings among Shawki’s followers and Abdel-Rahman’s followers quickly began to spread, until Shawki reached the point of no return in the rivalry. Ahmed Ragab, a journalist from Fayoum governorate recalls, “Shawki asked his followers, who will bring me the head of Omar Abdel-Rahman and enter heaven?”

Concerning this point, the researcher Maher Farghaly points us to the theory circulated by some people that the Minister of Interior supported Shawki in the beginning to create a sort of balance in the face of the many-sided beast that was called al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The situation bore a strong symbolism, since the fact that one of Omar Abdel-Rahman’s followers broke off from him in the Fayoum governorate itself, where his power was centered, and with all of this charisma, was something that could cause a shockwave through the ranks of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. This is in fact what occurred, but at what cost?

Gog and Magog

The pillars of Shawki’s power solidified, and he gained many followers. They believed in him in a way that was somewhere between religious belief and belief in a hero, to the point that Shawki began to ask people to come to him so that he could pass judgment in their disputes, and to pay him zakat and other taxes, according to Maher Farghaly.

Popular memory holds that Shawki was able to manage the affairs of Kahk completely. He was sure of his followers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for him, and of his popularity among the people. He then committed his great folly, when he sent President Hosni Mubarak a telegram, which said “From the ruler of Kahk to the ruler of Egypt,” and called on the now ousted president to embrace Islam, to face him in battle, or to pay jizya!

Before we reach this dramatic point, and what follows from it, we return to the journalist Ahmed Ragab, from Fayoum, who remembers these days. He grew up hearing stories about them in a village neighboring Kahk, the capital of Shawki’s caliphate. He says, “The Shawkiyoun in those days plundered everything, once they were sure of the people’s loyalty. They stole the geese, ducks, and goats that were being raised in the streets, relying on a fatwa by Shawki himself that split the people into two groups – peaceful unbelievers and combatant unbelievers. He made everyone an unbeliever, except those who belonged to his group!”

The situation reached a point that no one would have imagined. The Shawkiyoun began to help themselves to all the edible animals at hand – as if they were Gog and Magog that lay waste to everything in their path. As Ragab narrates, “Even if you lost one goat that was grazing in front of your house, a few hours later you might find its hide hung up on your door, with a note from Shawki’s followers saying that they had eaten it, so don’t take any pains to go look for it.

Shawki’s Judgment Day Arrives

Anger began to creep into the hearts of many people, as Shawki’s followers increased their thefts of motorbikes, ducks, and geese, and their general aggressions towards the people. Additionally, worry was spreading due to the extortion of important Coptic figures in Fayoum, especially since this extortion was centered in an area close to the hometown of Youssef Wali, the Minister of Agriculture at the time and the deputy chairman of the ruling party. The time had come for revenge.

The Minister of Interior wanted to eliminate Shawki, as a penalty and punishment for all of his and his followers’ crimes.

Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya would have given anything to end the nightmare that was Shawki and his group. This was especially true after Shawki called for the head of their leader Omar Abdel-Rahman in front of his followers, who were fanatics and would obey him in anything with blind fearlessness.

The poor people who had celebrated Shawki in the beginning were then shocked when he ate their ducks and geese, and interfered in questions of marriage and divorce, issuing fatwas on the rules regarding marital relations between members of his group and those who did not belong to it.

This is the defining moment, when the camera moves to capture everyone waiting to ambush Shawki, while the young engineer grabs his weapon and orders his followers to defy death and face the security forces creeping towards Kahk.

What Happened Exactly?

Of course, popular memory will be inclined to make many changes to the original story. Exaggeration mixes with imagination, what occurred merges with what could have occurred, and what happened blends with what some had hoped would happen. In the end, this results in a final story that is a mix of hybrid chromosomes from the different accepted popular narratives.

The first story: Mubarak ordered the mobilization of the air force, so it headed to the village and crushed Shawki and his followers, raining fire down upon them after the telegram.

The second story: The military’s armored vehicles and tanks surrounded the village of Kahk, and razed it. Then, the soldiers walked among the wreckage of homes, the smoke of fires, and the groans of bodies as they lay dying.

The third story: The police, with broad formations from the Central Security Forces, came in and attacked the village for several nights and days while everyone defied death to defend Shawki.

However, the story about the motivations for the security forces taking action that is closest to the truth comes from within the Interior itself, of course.

At that time, a very specialized security cadre was chosen for the Shawki mission. It would be led by an officer, strong and solid of build, hard-handed, sharp-eyed, and with a calm demeanor, holding the rank of Brigadier General in the Central Security Forces (Special Forces), who had been trained in the El-Sa’ka Academy in the military. On top of all that, he had fought in a real war before, when he joined the ranks of the Egyptian Army in what was known as Operation Gazelle in the October War in 1973 against Israel. [3]He had also recently entered into a violent confrontation in a closed-off village in the Beni Suef governorate that was controlled by extremists.

This officer was Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the leader of the Central Security Forces in northern Upper Egypt. His base, with his strongest soldiers and his officers from the elite levels of the internal security forces, was in the Minya governorate (240 kilometers south of Cairo), around 140 kilometers from Fayoum, the site of Shawki’s kingdom.

A strange and fortunate coincidence led me to Brigadier General Khairy, who is now a professor of modern political history in Minya University. He took up academic work as soon as he completed his service in the Special Forces. The man’s memory appeared to be fresh, as though he had just stormed Kakh yesterday. It was like the smell of gunpowder was still in his nose as he spoke, and the blood was still warm and sticky around us.

Talaat says, “We moved towards Kahk with 20 to 30 fighting groups. Each group consisted of 10 individuals. However, the only way to reach Kahk was through a single agricultural corridor. At first light, we moved to storm the village, but we were surprised by a hail of bullets coming at us from all sides.

At that time, we could only move forward using the armored vehicles, but the armored vehicles did not permit anyone to raise their head or aim their weapon without being hit by a sniper. Therefore, at a certain point, my men and I decided to enter the village on foot. We moved among the thick vegetation until the battle began.

As a military man, I immediately realized that we were facing a well-trained militia. Their shooting was professional, and the way the battle was handled on their side suggested a tactical understanding of the principles of engagement. They had gathered behind barriers, and hidden in fortified spots. They had also constructed towers above the houses, and occupied centralized positions high off the ground. They had talented snipers, and showered us with grenades.

On top of all of this, they were spurred on by strong religious conviction, and by an inspiring leader named Shawki al-Sheikh, who stood among them, fighting alongside them and encouraging them.

Talaat added: I immediately requested additional forces from the Ministry of Interior, which was following the operation closely. They sent 500 soldiers from the Central Security Forces in Giza (approximately 90 kilometers north of Fayoum).

We began moving forward meter by meter, until we were able to hide among the village’s homes. Then, we could climb to the roofs of some of the houses. After this, we were able to tighten the siege, and slowly get closer to Shawki’s home.

Shawki’s home was the most protected area. A man with a Russian machine gun loaded with an ammunition belt holding 200 bullets was stationed on the roof, while we had only rifles. As for the rest of our weapons, we had left them in the armored vehicles that were not able to advance in the muddy fields under the hail of bullets.

We had no other option but to communicate by looks and hand motions, until we were able to penetrate the last fortified spot, where Shawki was standing among his followers. Directly above them were towers, upon which stood snipers with plentiful weapons and bullets.

It was summer, and the weather was exhausting for everyone. At sunset, Shawki and around 14 of his followers fell dead. Afterwards, some of his followers surrendered, and some escaped to the fields.

A group of us stood looking at Shawki’s corpse, with our rifles in our hands and sweat on our brows, and some of us bleeding, while the lower-level officers and the soldiers were tasked with hunting down the fugitives.

Behind the Scenes of the Secret Kingdom

While Shawki’s corpse was still warm, and the blood still flowed around him, his female followers and the wives of his followers went mad, screaming and wailing, until we reached the scene with which we began this story.

A woman wearing a niqab runs, panicked, until she reaches her husband. She slaps his chest with her hands, and then she punches his face as best as she can. She takes off her shoe and hits him over the head with it, yelling hysterically, “They killed Sheikh Shawki! They killed Sheikh Shawki!” Thus Ahmed Ragab tells the story.

While the women shrieked, the village people stood stunned, and the security forces gathered their rifles, some of the people in Fayoum would feel that the story showed treachery on the part of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. The group delivered Shawki (or information about him) to the Ministry of Interior on a silver platter, so the security forces could fill him with bullets. Many would feel – even those who rejected Shawki’s behavior – that the man died betrayed by the treachery of his old friends with long beards and trimmed mustaches.

But let us return now to Brigadier General Khairy Talaat, the central eyewitness. He was shocked by the secret world that Shawki had created in the village of Kahk. He must first try to fathom why so many people were saddened by Shawki’s death before we can understand it.

Talaat says, “The homes of his supporters were filled with luxury items. Shawki had cared for them, and distributed among them his spoils and the cash that he had collected through his extortion of Christian doctors, pharmacists, and gold dealers.”

He had also established a health clinic in the village, and brought doctors for it – by force or by their own will – from the heart of Fayoum governorate to care for the people of Kahk, and provide them with medical examinations and treatment. He appointed a number of his followers as nurses. He also forbade women from being examined by a doctor unless men from their family accompanied them. The woman would tell the man what her pain was, and then the man would relay this to the doctor!

“While I was in one of the village’s homes,” recounts Talaat, “I was surprised to find young girls of primary school age with their bellies swollen. I thought that there was a sickness in the house, so I asked the mother. I was shocked to hear that her daughters were pregnant, and that she herself was also pregnant, after Shawki forced them to marry his followers following the death of her husband!”

The journalist Ahmed Ragab says, “The people in the villages neighboring Kahk (Sinro, Ghaidan, and al-Hamuli) say that Shawki forbade people from cooking molokhiya, saying that it increased sexual desire! He also concocted fatwas that permitted a woman to be divorced from her husband if he was absent from her for more than three nights.”

The accounts that are available to us from several sources indicate that Shawki interfered to a great extent in the details of sexual relationships, marriage, and divorce. He was concerned with these issues to the point of obsession.

When he had forbidden the genders from mixing, and began to enforce his own interpretations of sharia, he did not permit women to sit with men. However, he would sit with women himself, and gather them together at appointed times, with the excuse that he was teaching them the foundations of the religion.

This is a story that must be looked at from a psychological angle, considering this man was concerned with women’s issues (even if it is was only concern isolated from its context and results) to such a great degree. He married his followers’ family members, and had a strong interest in everything concerning women, from the fatwa regarding force-feeding ducks, to structuring the sex life of all the women who lived within his territory. Perhaps this – as might be expected – is what made women such an active element in his short-lived state, whether they were the wives of his followers or simply his subjects.

Brigadier General Khairy is surprised when he remembers the reactions of the villagers after he and his men killed Shawki. He says, “Some of them were deeply saddened, and told us that Shawki reminded them of the caliphate of Omar bin al-Khattab, because he was just, and was concerned with the affairs of his subjects.”

Khairy adds, “What I learned of Shawki was that he was a cultured man, well-spoken, captivating, and convincing. He had memorized Ibn Taymiyyah and Abul A’la Maududi well. He had training for practically everything. He was a man with presence, and self-confidence.”

The Revenge of the Remaining Shawkiyoun

For several months after Shawki’s death, his remaining followers carried out robberies of Christian-owned gold stores. Then, two of his group’s members were involved in killing two agricultural engineers to steal their belongings. They buried them in one of the agricultural ditches.

When the criminal investigation team found the accused, and realized that they were followers of Shawki Al-Sheikh, State Security took over the investigation. Then, on a memorable day in 1991, the officer “A. O.” headed to the home of the two young men.

Here, the stories concerning what happened differ. Some say that the officer hit the mother of the two men, while others say that the officer ordered her to walk naked in the street. Still others say that he raped the wife of one of the men. Everyone that I met has a different story about what “A. O.” did. However, what is common among all of the stories is that the popular narrative accuses the State Security officer of doing something immoral or illegal involving one of the women in the young men’s home.

The young men were furious, and ambushed the officer, brutally and flagrantly killing him in a storm of bullets and in the view of everyone. It was a challenge to everyone in Fayoum.

Mohammad Hussein says, “ Sometimes, the two of them would ride a motorcycle together. One of them would drive, and the other would sit backwards, shooting their targets, which had been selected by the group, with a machine gun. I also heard that they would sometimes bury police officers alive.”

The Friend of Hell’s Butterflies

While the Shawkiyoun were being led to the prisons and jails in handcuffs, it appeared that the curtain had nearly drawn on the end of this brief story. No one noticed that Shawki had left his curse to continue its course after his death, until it consumed everything in its path.

A former police officer named Helmi Hashim would succeed Shawki in ruling the emirate. He would be greatly inspired by Shawki’s actions, would study them well, then preserve them within himself until he became the mufti of ISIS.

Yes, you read correctly, that is not a typo. The mufti of ISIS is Shawki’s disciple to the core, and an exceptional spiritual disciple of the engineer Shawki al-Sheikh’s curriculum.

One might ask, how can we logically say that the officer Helmi Hashim, who never met Shawki, is Shawki’s obedient son and outstanding pupil? He studied Shawki’s teachings, researched his ideas, and met his students (many of whom were illiterate). He studied Shawki’s ideas and turned them over in his mind until he came to two decisions.

The first was to expand his study of Islamic criminal law, according to those who lived with him, to add to his knowledge as a police officer who had studied law in college and had absorbed the concept of deciding which law applies in a given case against criminals.

The second was to quit police work in the last position that he held, which was in the prisons. He sympathized and joined with those whose jailer he had once been.

He was arrested more than once with different takfiri groups. He was determined to move forward with the path he had chosen, completed convinced of his role as a prisoner, perhaps more so than of what he had done as a jailer.

As a student of law, he expanded his understanding of the roots of the ideas of his spiritual father, Shawki al-Sheikh, in old Islamic jurisprudence. As a former officer, he had begun his service in the ranks of the Central Security Forces, which first taught him how to fight with weapons, and how to engage in battle amid the sound of gunfire and onslaughts of bullets. Ultimately, Hashim came to his most monstrous judicial creation – beheading.

Hashim is credited with finding a judicial basis for beheading, and encouraging members of ISIS to carry out rulings against their prisoners by beheading them in front of the whole world. In the lines of the face of this former officer, in the folds of his words, and in the depths of his soul, lies another man who is influencing his movements from the grave. His name is Shawki al-Sheikh (or Sheikh Shawki).

To what degree can a coincidence change the face of history? To a great degree, if you want the truth.

In 2004, after the explosions in Taba (in the Sinai) around 3000 suspects from the Sinai would be arrested. One of them would be the shy, introverted young man, Tawfiq Farig Zeyada.

The veteran officers in the state security forces would soon realize that the shy young man could not possibly have done any evil, so they let him go.

But things are not always so easy. Before they let him go, what had taken place?

Maher Farghaly says, “In jail, Tawfiq met the Shawkiyoun and takfiris, and became convinced of their ideas. He entered the prison, and when he left it, something of Shawki’s words had crept into him, and would stay with him forever.”

This is not the coincidence. The coincidence does not lie in the fact that a quiet, introverted young man with a simple education (technical diploma) turned into a violent takfiri follower of Shawki, embracing the ideas of a man he had never met in his life. However, on a day during the 25 January revolution, Tawfiq Farig was walking among the revolutionaries and the protestors. Without meaning to, he bumped into two young men. Tawfiq turned to them to apologize, and realized that they were his two friends from prison, Mohammad Afifi and Mohammad Haroun.

Whether through much talk or little, the encounter ended with Tawfiq convincing the other two men to join the group al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which had been active for years. The quiet, shy Tawfiq was able to build a strong organizational structure that would later stun the security apparatus.

He would distribute tasks according to geographical locations, and specializations that ranged from religious, motivational, organizational, and logistical. He would make his new friends into terrifying cadres within an organization made up of Salafi jihadists and the remains of the followers of Rifai Suroor, as well as a motley gathering of Islamists who had emerged from their hiding places following the January revolution.

This organization was active for a time after Tawfiq Farig brought it to life, until, in the end, it came to be called “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis,” which would follow ISIS and become ISIS in Egypt.

Did Tawfiq Farig realize that his proclivity for ISIS’s ideology can be easily accounted for? We do not now know.

But we do know well that the ideas that formed in Tawfiq’s mind after he sat down with the Shawkiyoun and lived among them are joined by a hidden, secret link, which sits at Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s right hand. Its name is Helmi Hashim.

Khairy Talaat says, “When I see ISIS and I follow the news about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I feel this strange similarity between what I see now and what I saw with my own eyes when I stormed Kahk 27 years ago.

Despite the tens who died defending Shawki, or were imprisoned for embracing his ideas, none of them were his true obedient son, who would bear the legacy and the ideas of the founding father.

Helmi and Tawfiq, two men who had never met Shawki, nevertheless brought him back from the grave, just as magicians summon spirits and genies from their bottles.

It is as though Shawki al-Sheikh speaks to us from beyond the grave. His ideas reached Tawfiq Farig Zeyada and became ISIS-Egypt, while Helmi Hashim has taken over as mufti – using Shawki’s ideas – for al-Baghdadi’s ISIS as a whole.

As for you, the woman who was running and slapping her face, and hitting her husband because “Shawki died,” I think that if you read the story above, you would feel a kind of solace if you still love him, since he did not completely die, as you see.

  1. Ismail and Qutb were in fact hanged in August 1966.  ↩

  2. Zayd al-Hilali and Khalifa al-Zinati are rivals in the Sirat Banu Hilal, the epic tale of the Banu Hilal Arabian tribal confederation, which invaded the Maghreb. Al-Hilali was a leader of the Banu Hilal and al-Zinati was a leader of the Zenata Berbers.  ↩

  3. Operation Gazelle was actually an Israeli operation in the 1973 war to retake control of the Suez Canal from the Egyptians. Egypt sought to counter and failed, pushing Sadat to seek a ceasefire.  ↩

In Cairo, one family's story shows rise of radical threat

Grimly fascinating report from Reuters' Tom Perry on a radicalized family in Egypt: 

CAIRO (Reuters) - Fahmy Abdel Raouf and his 13-year old son had been missing for months when their family got word they had been killed in a gun battle with security forces and hailed as "martyrs" by the most dangerous militant group in Egypt.
"If his intention was jihad, I hope God accepts his deed," said Abdel Raouf's wife, dressed head-to-toe in black with only her eyes visible behind a conservative Islamic face veil as she spoke at their family home in Cairo.

The story of the father and son from a working class neighborhood of Cairo offers a glimpse into the militant threat facing Egypt, which has increased dramatically since the army overthrew Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi last year.

The pair were members of the group spearheading Islamist attacks in Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, according to both the authorities and a statement from the organization.

Abdel Raouf, 38, had fought alongside Islamists in the Syrian civil war. His son, radicalized by the state's bloody crackdown on Islamists that followed Mursi's overthrow last year, was a much newer convert.

They symbolize the growing complexity of a problem that will face Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who became Egypt's de facto leader when he deposed Mursi. Sisi is expected to win a presidential election in May.

Armed groups are drawing in both established militants, such as Abdel Raouf, and the recently radicalized, such as his son.

Their reach has extended well beyond the Sinai Peninsula - birthplace of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis - to the capital. At least four members of the cell targeted on March 19 came from the same Cairo neighborhood.

"You are not talking about long-standing or known organizations," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

"We are talking about the third generation of radical jihadists that emerged from the Arab Spring," he said. "This is a generation that nobody has control over."

Also this little tidbit:

After Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011 and the Islamist Mursi elected the following year, the police left Abdel Raouf alone. But he found no satisfaction in Muslim Brotherhood rule. He viewed the mainstream group as too soft on Islam and said they were promoting "half religion".

"He never liked them," his wife said.

Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

This has caused many Syrians to despise ISIS. Since June, there have been anti-ISIS protests in Raqqa—something which requires courage given ISIS’s ruthlessness. More recently, even Islamist activists such as Hadi al-Abdullah, a prominent Syrian from Homs, have criticized the group, describing them as “Dawlet al-Baghdadi,” or Baghdadi’s state, echoing “Suria al-Assad”, Assad’s Syria, the way regime supporters refer to the country. And yet ISIS continues to recruit Syrian fighters. Some say that Syrians joined because the group offers better money and protection than other rebel outfits. In an interview posted to YouTube, Saddam al-Jamal, a former leader of Ahfad al-Rasoul, explains that he defected to ISIS, because moderate fighters are subject to too much foreign interference and are pressured to fight Islamists as well as the regime.

Michael Weiss, in POLITICO, analyzes the rise of the Saudi-backed Islamist front -- an only slightly less extremist Islamist militia than ISIS and al-Nusra. 

According to a newly published anatomy of U.S. policymaking in the Wall Street Journal, which cites Obama administration officials, Washington’s objective in arming and training rebels “wasn’t so much to help [them] win as to assuage allies who thought the U.S. wasn’t engaged.” Yet this limited approach failed on two levels: Not only did it destroy the West’s nominal proxy in Syria, but it also compelled Riyadh to “step outside the umbrella” of U.S. oversight altogether and plot the construction of an overshadowing Islamist counterpart army.

Josh Landis has a detailed account of recent fighting and an analysis of the real difference between the militias (which are more strategic than ideological). 

Aboud [of the Islamic Front] makes clear that he views ISIS as a potential partner. He is careful to pave the way for its return to the fold. He explains that ISIS’s goal of an Islamic state is not substantially different than that of the Islamic Front or the many other militias fighting in Syria. Where it does differ is that it sees itself as the unique heir to the state and has begun setting up mini-states wherever it rules, pushing aside fellow militias and refusing to submit to the common Sharia court system that the Islamic Front militias and Nusra have constructed and administer together. He points out how Nusra has agreed to cooperate and defer questions of permanent state-building and ultimate governance until after Assad is defeated. This is a way of putting aside what may be fairly substantial ideological differences between militias despite their common goal of an Islamic state and perhaps more importantly, it defers any contest over ultimate executive power. The Emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, hopes to assert himself as the Caliph and force the others to give him bay`a or allegiance.  He has also imposed rather draconian sharia punishments and forbidden smoking, music, and other simple pleasures that many find intolerable. This underlines the great problems that remain for the militias in determining what form and style an eventual Islamic state will take, not to mention who among the militia leaders will ultimately rule.

Islamic Front leaders have been very skilful about finessing questions on governance. The standard answer they give to those who ask what kind of government they intend is that they will call on an assembly of Ulema to decide on the correct form of Islamic government when the time comes.



The other failed dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I received a very funny email out the of blue from Nour Youssef, a young reader of the website. It started like this: “Would you be interested in taking on a slave under the pretense of an internship?” After some further quite funny correspondence and a meeting, we decided to try things out — I was not sure I had the time to work with an intern but she was persistent. She calls me Mr Miyagi and I have created a rule for my email that takes her emails and files them under a folder labelled “grasshopper”.[1] She has heen sending me some very useful links and notes that I will be putting up periodically. A few days ago, she went to the debate AUC hosted between ”Egypt’s Jon Stewart“ Bassem Youssef and ultra-conservative Islamist from the Gamaa Islamiya (once a terrorist group) Nageh Ibrahim. This is her account of the debate, and serves as the inaugural post of the contributor who shall henceforth be referred to as ”Nour the intern”.

  1. Fans of The Karate Kid will appreciate.  ↩

The debate on political satire between the famous political satirist, Bassem Youssef, and member of Gamaaa Islamiyaa Nageh Ibrahim, moderated by Hafez Al-Mirazi at AUC on February 7, did not have much to do with political satire or debating. While Bassem Youssef stood his ground, Nageh Ibrahim defied gravity to hover several inches above his.

Ibrahim, who is an accurate representation of the current Salafi mood — in the sense that he is a loyal Morsi supporter, but is openly, and politely, critical of the Muslim Brotherhood — was under palpable pressure to liberalize his views to mollify the high-class audience of embittered liberals and moderates, whose main reason for attending (apart from admiring Bassem Youssef up-close) was to see an Islamist get an intellectual beat down and have the “Islam they know and love” reinforced. They got more than they bargained for: a subdued and eager-to-please Salafi who let Youssef set the tone for the argument-turned-ditto and was content to smile benevolently and merely build on Youssef’s points.

In brief, Youssef’s main points were that a) islamists, at least the ones in power, have monopolized Islam, appointed themselves its guardian and official spokesperson, b) they used their religious standing to demonize their political opponents via labeling, citing examples like the Islamic bonds, the Islamic project, etc (all of which have little to do with religion but were nonetheless marketed as divine products), and c) that if the islamists continue their abuse of religion, they will alienate — and even disgust — people from it. He used his non-islamist family by way of example, saying that they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, but then turned against them because of their offensively exclusive statements and later on, offensive decrees.

Every point received a hot round of applause, whistles and wooos from the crowd, which seemed willing to cheer for just about any noise Youssef made and boo anyone who said something they didn’t like the sound of. Despite Youssef repeatedly, often jokingly, reminding them that “democracy is about listening to things you don’t want to hear, ” the scene was somewhat reminiscent of Islamist protests, where Brothers and Salafis would chant against mustard if it pleased the cleric.

Across Youssef’s charm and his command of the overflowing auditorium, sat an awkward Nageh Ibrahim, who cautiously agreed with everything Youssef said and spent his speaking turn paraphrasing Youssef’s points in fancy Arabic, including references to his books to prove for the consistency of his views.

When it came times for questions, members of the audience took the opportunity to make snide comments directed at a cornered Ibrahim; most of these remarks were focused on what Ibrahim conceded to calling “the deterioration of the Islamists’ rhetoric” and actual demands to denounce the Brotherhood in disguise, whereas the questions for Youssef lacked substance and were more like musings. “Err- where do you see Egypt in 50 years? ” an old man asked him. “No one knows where we are going to be in five months. We don’t know where we are going, but let’s hope we have fun going there, ” Youssef joked.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim was held responsible for everything any bearded man has said or done since 2010.

“Tell (the Islamists) that these liberals and seculars (they) attack, may not look very religious on the outside, but some of them are more religious and closer to God than they are! ” yelled a man into an innocent microphone, earning him loud cheers. “Why don’t Islamists ever criticize the president? ” asked a young AUC student, after sarcastically noting the Islamists’ unwavering support for Morsi’s decrees before and after they are declared and canceled. “Who’s really funding the Brotherhood? ” and “Hey, answer the question, old man! ”

Again and again, Ibrahim would strain to smile and almost demurely voice his reserved agreement or watered-down view.

For instance, when asked to comment on the fatwas issued, by famous Islamists like Mahmoud Shaaban, permitting the murder of opposition figures, Ibrahim uncomfortably dismissed them as the actions of “an odd few” and not respected religious figures. “Surely, we are not going to listen to the words of one young scholar out of 30 good ones, ” he concluded, anxiously. Adding that Islamists were and are not infallible – ignoring their claims to the contrary – and denouncing the labeling of liberals and seculars as ‘infidels’ because that’s Allah’s business, going as far as claiming that the majority of Islamists share this sentiment. “These words are good, but their application is bad, ” Youssef remarked, with an obvious note of speculation in his tone. He repeated that line after every particularly optimistic claim Ibrahim made.

The climax of the debate was when Ibrahim was asked for his thoughts on the Brotherhood and Morsi’s performance as president. After the oohs and aahs subsided, he began his answer in the name of God (which irritated the girls seated next me who muttered “(Ibrahim) does know we’re not infidels? ”). In what can only be described as a Richard Nixon move, Ibrahim started quoting a chapter in one his old books that criticizes the Brotherhood’s leadership for having an inadequate “party-based mentality” as opposed to the “country-based mentality” required to rule a country, and then moved on to detail the life story of Nelson Mandela, the history of South Africa, and the role the memoirs of Prophet Mohammed played in resolving the racial conflict in the then-torn nation – in a blatant attempt to put the audience to sleep. After the moderator, Mirazi, finally woke up and insisted he answer the actual question, Ibrahim grudgingly sighed and said: “I know Morsi is a good, well-meaning man… but he has not, yet, applied the proper Islamic solution to Egypt which will unite the people… unlike the great Mandela, who may not have been Muslim, but managed to learn, appreciate and apply true Islam. ”

Meanwhile, Youssef breezed through his questions. “What do you think of the opposition’s performance? ” asked a young man. “The opposition is trash. To put it lightly, they’re disgusting. They do nothing, ” answered Youssef, chuckling. That question was followed by a restless freshman who wondered if “(they) like, made Morsi leave, you know” who will fill the power vacuum. “Egypt has plenty of qualified options to take over after Morsi… but personally I don’t want Morsi to leave, let him finish his term, ” he answer, not unkindly, explaining that if Morsi did leave, and the people chose someone like ElBaradei to lead, the Islamists would riot.

It was not all compliments for Youssef: a veiled female student criticized him for being a bad influence on the youth, which is now “copying his sexual innuendos and raunchy jokes” to which he replied, “The show has an 18+ disclaimer and I don’t say anything you don’t hear every day on the streets. ” Later, a young man wearing a neat taqiyah (Islamic hat) with a trimmed beard, criticized Youssef for “attempting to correct a mistake with another mistake” by making fun of Islamists who make fun of him and liberals.

“I get to make fun of people, I am a political satirist” Youssef said, smiling, before getting heated. “I don’t make fun of someone’s name or appearance, I just point out their inconsistencies, ” he added, defensively. He went on to remind the speaker that he isn’t a cleric preaching things he doesn’t do, unlike the islamists, who gave themselves that responsibility, but are not living up to it. He angrily concluded that since “(he is) a clown, and a joke as they say, why are they stooping down to my level? ”

Just when the debate was coming to a close, and to Ibrahim’s great discomfort, he was asked if he would support a Copt as president. “According to our constitution, they can run, and if he wins, we must respect it, whether or not I support him is a personal matter, ” he answered briefly (visibly made uneasy by the mere prospect). But that’s not what he said in this televised interview when he was not outnumbered, as Youssef put it, in “a very hostile environment. ”

In his last attempt to win the crowd, Ibrahim stressed that only the holy Quran and authentic hadiths, not a party or the president, have authority over Muslims, which is rendered meaningless by the fact that Quran greatly stresses obedience to authority and some authentic hadiths forbid the act of rebellion in and of itself, even if the leader is corrupt. However, the trick gave the audience the false sense of security it craved, and earned him his perhaps only genuine round of applause.

In Translation: On Mali's Islamist groups

There is a strange divide about the situation in Mali in the Arab world. Beyond the regular newspaper coverage and almost reflexive suspicion of “neo-colonialist” motives behind the French-led operations, my impression is that the average Egyptian or for that matter average Arab is not greatly concerned with this situation, especially at a time when many countries are embroiled in tense domestic developments. Yet, for Islamists, the Mali issue has been important: not only for the Salafis who protested outside the French embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, but also in the wider Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brothers. Just see Mohammed Morsi’s surprisingly vocal and repeated opposition to the intervention (I’ll have more on that soon) and the Brotherhood’s quite strong stance on the issue. They care about it way more than the average person or that the geostrategic importance of what happens in Mali (and is supported by the UN, Mali’s neighbors and its government) would suggest. It’s an interesting phenomenon now that they are in power, because it’s always clear whether their positions stem from opposition to interventionism or sympathies for some of the Islamist movements of northern Mali.

I came across the analysis below through a link on Twitter. I’m not sure where it originates, but the author is a well-known writer on Islamists (with Islamist sympathies himself) who edits the al-Islamiyoun website, which covers analyses of Islamist movements. I won’t comment on the content, as I am no specialist on the issue.

As always, our In Translation series is made possible by the wonderful Industry Arabic. If you need something -- anything! -- translated, please give them a go. They're really, really good.

Islamist Groups in Mali…An Overview

By Ali Abdel Aal, editor of al-Islamiyoun, Arabic original in Word format here.

In the past nine months, groups of “jihadist” Islamist groups have taken control of Mali’s northern areas, having captured them in the aftermath of an armed rebellion by the Tuareg people, a rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country and to create an independent state.

The events of the conflict, which has continued to this day with repercussions both regionally and internationally, were sparked by the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in August of 2011. After the fall of the Libyan regime, hundreds of armed Tuareg, who had been fighting on the side of Gaddafi, began to return to their homes in Niger and Mali, bringing with them military vehicles, advanced arms, and ammunition.

As the Tuareg groups prepared to join forces to face off against the Malian army, one result was that a military coup took place in the capital, Bamako, on March 22, in which soldiers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré. In addition, the secular MNLA joined forces with the “jihadist” group Ansar Dine to take control of the northern areas from which the army had retreated.

However, this alliance did not last long, despite the efforts made to maintain it. Conflicts soon broke out between the MNLA and its former ally, Ansar Dine, which was able to extend its control of the North after widespread fighting between the two sides during the last week of June which resulted in dozens of deaths.

Control over Northern Mali and its three largest cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal (an area comprising more than half of the country), has since been divided among groups allied with Ansar Dine, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in addition to a number of smaller brigades such as Ansar al-Sharia and the al-Mulathameen Brigade.

What follows is an account of these groups and the areas they control.

Ansar Dine

Ansar Dine is an armed Salafist-Islamist group that seeks to apply Sharia law in all of Mali. Unlike the secular MNLA, which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country, it does not seek independence for Northern Mali.

Its founder and traditional leader is Iyad Ag Ghaly, a son of one of the families that historically led the Ifoghas tribes. A former soldier with a powerful personality, he was a leader of the Tuareg resistance that occurred during the 1990s. He hails from a long-standing Azawad family with roots in Kidal, in far Northwestern Mali.

An important official in Mali, Iyad Ghaly came under the influence of Salafi ideology while working as a diplomat in the Gulf, in addition to his work as an intermediary for the release of hostages kidnapped in 2003 by the AQIM.

Unlike other groups, whose membership is primarily Arab, Ansar Dine is mostly Tuareg. It is the largest and most important of the Islamist groups in Northern Mali, and like the Afghani Taliban is a local movement whose fighters and leadership are Malian. It is said that Ansar Dine’s military superiority and special status can be attributed largely to its alliance with Al Qaeda, whose infusions of money and manpower have given Ansar Dine the strongest field presence among Islamist organizations in the region.

Ansar Dine has come to completely control the historic city of Timbuktu, in Northwestern Mali. There, Salafi groups destroyed Sufi shrines and mausoleums that in 1988 had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provoking a strong reaction from UNESCO and the international community.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Hussain, a judge in Timbuktu where Ansar Dine is concentrated, has related a number of the reforms undertaken by the movement since taking control of the city. These include the setting up of a judicial board for the city, composed of members of Ansar Dine alongside other citizens, which has worked to settle disputes. The website Sahara Media has noted that all of the cities’ inhabitants “obey the rulings, be they organizations or individuals,” perhaps granting them complete acquiescence on the basis that they are derived from Sharia law.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, itself born out of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has for years been establishing bases in the Greater Sahara region, including Northern Mali from which to launch operations.

It is therefore the oldest and most experienced armed organization in the region, and has the most established ties with chiefs of local tribes. The organization, headed by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel, is thus linked to both Arab and Touareg residents, and maintains strong relationships with them.

The prevailing opinion among those who follow the region is that Al Qaeda is the real engine behind the various armed Islamist groups in Northern Mali, functioning as a fundamental link between different organizations and exercising the real influence in the region. Local sources most often describe it as the most deeply-rooted, knowledgeable and experienced organization in the Northern areas.

Several sources agree that the members operating within the ranks of Ansar Dine or MOJWA are ultimately former fighters from AQIM.

The organization states that it “aims to liberate the Islamic Maghreb from the West – France and America in particular – and the ‘apostate’ organizations loyal to them, to protect the region from foreign ambitions, and to establish a major state ruled according to Sharia law.”

Al Qaeda members in the Northern Mali work within the framework of the Saharan Emirate, the ninth region according to the administrative structure set up by AQIM. It is also called the Southern Region. In North Africa, the organization is divided into a number of military regions, with the “Saharan Emirate” spread across Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Libia, Mauritania and Chad. This region is known within the organization as “The Greater Islamic Sahara.” It is currently run by Yahya Abu al-Hamam, former commander of the al-Furqan Brigade, while its chief spokesman is Abdullah al-Shinqiti.

The commander of this region traditionally controlled two brigades and two squadrons, the brigades being the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, headed by Abu el-Hamid Abu Zaid, and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, headed by Mokhtar Bilmokhtar. The squadrons are the al-Furqan Squadron, and the al-Ansar Squadron, headed by Abd al-Kareem at-Tariki.

However, lately there seems to have been some splintering, with the Commander of the al-Mulathameen Brigade having left to form a separate organization. The Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade and the al-Furqan Squadron are based in Timbuktu, and all groups include members of every nationality present in the region, as well as some of Western origin. All of the brigades and squadrons are linked together by tight coordination.

Early last December, Al Qaeda announced the birth of a new brigade carrying the name of the Almoravid Leader Yusuf bin Tashfin. Its leadership was entrusted to al-Qairawani Abu Abd el-Hamid al-Kidali, whose name refers to the city of Kidal, the capital of the Tuareg tribes in Northern Mali.

The Brigade will work in Kidal and Aguelhok, and in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range that extends to the Algerian boarder. It is in this region where the organization is believed to have established its fortified bases.

The task of al-Kidali and his new brigade will be to increase recruitment of fighters in the region, especially among Tuareg youth.

There are no precise statistics on the number of fighters in the organization, but most sources estimate their numbers in the hundreds. Most are Algerian, with the rest coming mainly from Mauritania, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, and Nigeria. Some have estimated the number of small groups belonging to the organization at close to seventy cells.

AQIM’s organizational structure is characterized by both confusion and inclusion, reflecting the communal manner in which Al Qaeda works. The organization’s leadership is made up of a Commander, a Council of Notables, and the heads of the various committees and agencies who together make up what is called the Shura Council. This later is tasked with coordinating activity between the various levels of the leadership.

During the past few days, AQIM has displayed its fighting forces in the Azawad Sahara in a videotape entitled “Prepare for Them.” The video has seen the participation of large numbers of members, and has featured the use of the various weapons used by the organization.

The video concludes with a word from the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, warning African and European nations against entering the Northern Mali conflict.

In the video, the Al Qaeda commander addresses French president Hollande as well as the countries of the African coast, stating that his organization is prepared for peace if they should want peace, but also for war should they choose war. Abu Musab goes on to say that Al Qaeda will work to prolong the current war in order to deepen the wounds and inflict the most losses on the participating countries, vowing to turn the Sahara into a graveyard for the Western alliance soldiers.

He reiterated that Al Qaeda will make sure that the shrapnel of war reach every fragile, glass house that participates in the aggression, evoking the American defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa

One of the most important armed Islamic movements operating in the Northern areas, the group is an outgrowth of AQIM. It is led by Mohammad Ould Nuemer, and most of its members are Arabs.

The movement calls for jihad in West Africa, and its base of operations is the city of Gao, located on the Niger river in Northwestern Mali. For a time, MOJWA shared control of the city with the MNLA, following the expulsion of the Malian army. The MNLA was later also expelled following a two-month conflict between the two groups.

During that time, the movement gained control of an increasing number of Northern cities, where it declared that Sharia law would be implemented. The group continued to stress that they did not wish to reach the capital of Bamako.

MOJWA stated that if it wanted, it could take control of the Malian capital within 24 hours, indicating that it possessed a formidable military arsenal that would enable them to take Bamako and subdue the regional armies in the event of a military confrontation.

Due to its financial resources, tribal ties, and strong field presence, MOJWA was able to expel all of its Tuareg adversaries from the city of Ansongo after soundly defeating them in Gao (one of the three largest cities of Northern Mali) on June 27.

One of the causes facilitating the MOJWA’s presence was that the local population, especially in Gao, looked on them favorably, since they confronted the Tuareg rebels belonging to the MNLA. Before the intense battle that led to their expulsion at the hands of the MOJWA, these rebels had gained a reputation as highway robbers, and had been accused of numerous acts of violence and aggression.

Like their armed allies, the MOJWA has resorted to kidnapping diplomats and foreigners, including several Algerians kidnapped in the region of Gao last April. They also carried out the execution of an Algerian diplomat after Algerian authorities refused to sign off on an agreement that would have included the release of imprisoned Islamists and a ransom of nearly 15 million Euros.

In recent days, MOJWA has announced the creation of four military squadrons: the Abdullah Azzam Squadron, the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Squadron, the Abu al-Leith al-Libi Squadron, and the Martyrs’ Squadron. The organization stated in the statement they issued that the announcement of this new structure reflects the widening of their influence, and an increase in the number of their fighters. They went on to stress that the squadrons would be deployed according to the internal and external threats facing the region.

The movement also controls a brigade, known as the Osama bin Laden Brigade, which is headed by Ahmed Ould Amer, member of the Shura council of the MOJWA.

Ould Amer, known as Ahmed al-Tlemsi, declared in his first recorded appearance last December that the “international threat is a universal fate,” stressing that “it must be faced and repulsed through combat and jihad and by inciting Muslims to break the will of“ what he described as ”the global infidel system which seeks to ambush the Sharia of the Merciful One everywhere God has empowered his mujahideen servants.”

The Ansar al-Sharia Brigade

This brigade was founded by Omar Ould Hamaha, who had previously circulated among all of the Islamist groups in Mali, and who founded his own brigade immediately after leaving the MOJWA.

Ould Hamaha has been known since the beginning of the Islamist control of Northern Mali for his great ability to attract attention. Some have come to call him “The Red-Bearded Man,” and others “The Man of Great Charisma,” due to his striking presence, and his “sharp” French, which he speaks better than any other Northern Islamist leader.

Hailing from the Arab Barabiche tribes, Ould Hamaha has recently announced the formation of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade, which seeks to become a new force embracing all members of the Barabiche and Arab tribes who have, in his words, "been remiss in Jihad.”

Ould Hamaha presents Ansar al-Sharia as a “popular, regional Islamic brigade for the implementation of God’s Sharia in all of Mali.”

The new brigade has been able to recruit most of the members of the Azawad Arab Front, whose members come from Arab tribes of Timbuktu, and who for a year had remained on the margins of the conflict. This is in addition to the Arabs of the Gao region.

Ould Hamaha denied that the brigade’s creation had met with any resistance from the tribal, Jihadist, or popular sectors, and in his speech has pointed to a relationship with the Gao-based MOJWA.

The leadership of Ansar Dine has made room for the brigade, whose specific character is that of “the only Arab, Islamist organization” in a region where there are as many organizations as ethnicities. According to Ould Hamaha, the brigade was founded out of “zeal on behalf of the Arabs and the Barabiche whose Tuareg brothers had surpassed them in the depth of their Jihad.”

In an attempt to downplay the geographic and ethnic aspects of the brigade, Ould Hamaha stated: “The door is open to any Muslim, Arab, non-Arab, or Songhai, and is not restricted to the residents of Timbukbu.” He also stressed that some Songhai tribes from along the Niger River had decided to volunteer and join the new brigade.

Ould Hamaha was an activist in the Tablighi Jamaat, before moving on to what he describes as his “period of the sword” with AQIM and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, then MOJWA as well as Ansar Dine. Following this interesting career, Hamaha denies that it was “resentment” that caused him to withdraw from these groups, for he believes that their goal is one: “Sound doctrine, and raising the banner of jihad.”

The Brigade of “Those Who Sign with Blood”

This brigade is headed by the Algerian Khaled Abu al-Abbas, or “Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” who founded it after he was ousted from the al-Mulathameen Brigade by AQIM. The decision, described by Al Qaeda as nothing more than “an administrative, organizational measure,” was taken by the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, and accepted by Abu al-Abbas.

Belmokhtar left to found a new brigade of commandos under the name “Those Who Sign with Blood,” but remained committed to the decisions made by armed groups during the Northern Mali conflict.

Jihadist websites later published statements from a leader known as “The One-Eyed Man,” claiming that the brigade would respect all decisions agreed to by Ansar Dine and MOJWA, and by tribes calling for the implementation of Sharia, as long as they do not conflict with the principles of Sharia, and that it would be “an aid and a support to them in peace and in war.”

In Khaled Abu al-Abbas’s statements, he calls on the world to respect the decision of the Azawadi people to implement Sharia law on their land, and threatens whoever would participate in or plan for war in Northern Mali, calling it a “cunning, malicious plan, tantamount to a proxy war with the West.”

He also has stated, in a video recording, that “we will respond with force, and you have our word that we will bring the fight to your doorstep, make you feel the sting of your wounds, and oppose your interests.”

He also issued a call to scholars and students and those preaching Islam in Mauritania, urging them to “emigrate to help your Muslim brothers in Azawad,” stating that they “know the scope of the suffering and ignorance prevalent in this land, and you should be the first to come and assist in this Islamic undertaking, by virtue of your kinship and proximity, for there are already those fighting who have come from farther away.”