Old school Egyptian jihadists linked to 9/11 Cairo protest, Benghazi suspect
Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, a main suspect in the Benghazi consulate assault, from a video posted by the Al Marsad News Network. Courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.
Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, who is suspected of playing a significant role in the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, has longstanding ties to the al Qaeda-linked jihadists who helped incite a protest in Cairo earlier that same day.
Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed) is part of a network of Egyptian jihadists who have long defended al Qaeda and the terrorist organization's ideology. One episode, in particular, demonstrates this network's continued commitment to al Qaeda.
In 2007, a prominent jihadist ideologue named Sayyid Imam al Sharif (also known as Dr. Fadl) published a critique of al Qaeda's approach to waging jihad.
At least three of the jihadists responsible for inciting the Cairo protesters signed a response written from behind bars. Jamal also signed the rebuttal.*
"We support all jihad movements in the world and see in them the hope of the nation and its frontlines toward its bright future," their statement read. "We say to our Muslim nation that no matter how long the night may last, dawn will emerge."
In addition to Jamal, Mohammed al Zawahiri, Sheikh Tawfiq al 'Afani, and Ahmed 'Ashoush signed the rebuke of Sharif.
Mohammed al Zawahiri admittedly helped orchestrate the 9/11 Cairo protest. Both he and al 'Afani attended the anti-American rally and incited opposition to the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims." A video posted online in early October by Al Faroq media, an Egyptian jihadist group that espouses al Qaeda's ideology, shows pictures of Zawahiri and al 'Afani at the Cairo protest alongside an image of deceased al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden.
'Ashoush published a fatwa several days later, on Sept. 16, calling for the makers of the film to be killed.
All three -- Mohammed al Zawahiri, al 'Afani, and 'Ashoush -- have well-established ties to al Qaeda's senior leadership.
Jamal reportedly served as a military commander in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) under Ayman al Zawahiri.
[For more on the Cairo protest, see LWJ report: Al Qaeda-linked jihadists helped incite 9/11 Cairo protest. Other senior Egyptian jihadists, such as Sheikh 'Adel Shehato and Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, also helped instigate the 9/11 Cairo protest.]
Ideological attack and counterattack
Sharif's ideological attack on al Qaeda from behind bars in 2007 garnered widespread attention. Outsiders regularly criticize al Qaeda's ideology, but Sharif's critique was different. Sharif was close to Ayman al Zawahiri long before the world had heard of "al Qaeda," and he was considered one of the preeminent jihadist ideologues.
In his work, Rationalization of Jihad in Egypt and the World, Sharif did not disavow violence entirely. Instead, among other criticisms, he attacked al Qaeda's slaughter of Muslims as inconsistent with a proper understanding of jihad. Indeed, al Qaeda's Achilles heel in the Muslim world has always been its indiscriminate violence. Most of al Qaeda's victims since the group's inception have been Muslims.
Sharif's assault on al Qaeda's ideological foundation stung so badly that Ayman al Zawahiri recorded lengthy rebuttals. Even by Zawahiri's long-winded standards al Qaeda's replies to Sharif were over-the-top.
But the al Qaeda honcho was not alone in attacking Sharif. The statement by the Egyptian jihadists, signed by Jamal and his ilk, was utterly dismissive.
"We assert that the jihadist factions' unanimous agreement to the document [Rationalization of Jihad in Egypt and the World] by Sayyid Imam is untrue and false, and those who publicize it are the first to know that," the statement read. Its authors went on to argue that a "majority" of jihadist detainees in Egypt's prisons "reject this document with openness and frankness in spite of the measures of suppression against them that continued for more than 15 years and are identical to those of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Prisons."
Once freed from prison, the Egyptian jihadists continued to defend al Qaeda, its ideology, and its leaders. 'Ashoush, in particular, has become a vocal defender of Ayman al Zawahiri, calling him a "brave jihadist."
'Ashoush and the others advocate for a complete and swift implementation of Sharia law, as opposed to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood's more gradualist approach. Indeed, 'Ashoush has released statements in the name of "Ansar al Sharia" -- a brand utilized by al Qaeda-affiliated parties elsewhere.
Ayman al Zawahiri clearly appreciates 'Ashoush's loyalty. Judging by the al Qaeda emir's videos, 'Ashoush has become one of his favorite Egyptian ideologues.
Ayman al Zawahiri's Sept. 10 video included a clip from Al Faroq media of 'Ashoush honoring the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. Also shown in the clip was Mohammed al Zawahiri, who was sitting to the left of 'Ashoush in front of a flag commonly used by al Qaeda in Iraq.
Mohammed al Zawahiri (right, in front of an al Qaeda in Iraq flag), Sheikh 'Adil Shehato (center, bottom), and Ahmad 'Ashoush (center, speaking on microphone), from an As Sahab video released on Sept. 10, 2012.
In another two-part Ayman al Zawahiri video released online on Oct. 24, and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, 'Ashoush is shown in nine video clips taken from Al Faroq's productions. Ayman al Zawahiri argues in the video that a "battle" is being waged between those who seek to implement sharia law inside Egypt and those who are trying to block it. 'Ashoush has made the same argument.
Operational ties reported
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Jamal's active ties to the Egyptian jihadists who defended al Qaeda.
For example, US officials think that Mohammed al Zawahiri put Jamal in touch with Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, who also happens to Mohammed's older brother. The Wall Street Journal reported that Jamal "petitioned" Ayman al Zawahiri, "to whom he has long ties, for permission to launch an al Qaeda affiliate and has secured financing from al Qaeda's Yemeni wing."
Jamal has established training camps inside Libya, and some of the Benghazi terrorists were reportedly trained in them. The camps accept recruits from Egypt and elsewhere.
Since the Wall Street Journal's initial report, Mohammed al Zawahiri has attempted to deny that Jamal had anything to do with the Benghazi attack. But CNN and the New York Times have both reported that US intelligence officials think Egyptian jihadists took part in the assault on the US consulate. CNN referred to Jamal's organization as "an Egyptian jihad network," while the Times specifically referenced "the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt."
An additional detail in the Wall Street Journal's account stands out. Another Egyptian jihadist with longstanding al Qaeda ties, Murjan Salim, is suspected of sending recruits to Jamal's Libyan camps. Salim denies this. According to other accounts, however, Salim is so influential inside al Qaeda that he previously wrote for the terrorist organization's publications while living in Pakistan.
In fact, Ayman al Zawahiri's Oct. 24 video contains several clips of Salim alongside 'Ashoush and Mohammed al Zawahiri.
Old school network
The public discourse over what occurred on Sept. 11 in Benghazi has become muddled. The US government was initially confused as to whether or not a protest sparked the attack that killed four Americans in Libya. There never was any protest Benghazi. There was, however, an anti-American rally in Cairo.
And some of the jihadists who helped organize the Cairo protest are old school ideologues with close ties to both al Qaeda's senior leadership and Jamal, whose trainees are suspected of attacking the US consulate in Benghazi.
*Updated: A previous version of this article noted that the Muhammad Jamal wanted in connection with the attack in Benghazi may be the same one who signed the rebuttal of Sharif. A senior US intelligence has confirmed that it is, in fact, the same Muhammad Jamal.