US officials denied access to 'Nasr City Cell' suspects
A Facebook page entry by Ansar al Sharia Egypt showing Sheikh Adel Shehato after his arrest.
The US has not been granted access to the senior members of the so-called "Nasr City Cell" who were arrested late last year, according to several American officials familiar with the case. The Nasr City Cell is an al Qaeda-linked group that reportedly plotted acts of terrorism inside Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, Libya, and Mali.
The cell has also been tied to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, during which four Americans, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.
Egyptian authorities first detained members of the cell during a raid in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo on Oct. 24, 2012. The US government has asked Egypt for permission to interview the senior-most detainees in custody, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials contacted by The Long War Journal. Thus far, the Americans have been rebuffed.
The senior cell members in Egyptian custody include Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed), a longtime jihadist who corresponded with al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012, and Sheikh Adel Shehato, a senior Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) figure who has openly proclaimed his allegiance to al Qaeda's ideology.
According to multiple press accounts, some of the participants in the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack were trained in camps established by Jamal inside Libya. Shehato was one of several al Qaeda-linked jihadists who helped instigate a protest outside of the US Embassy in Cairo earlier that same day. [For more on Jamal's ties to the jihadists involved in the Cairo protest, see LWJ report: Old school Egyptian jihadists linked to 9/11 Cairo protest, Benghazi suspect.]
American officials have not been able to interview either Jamal or Shehato despite their high-profile ties to the al Qaeda-led terror network.
Both Jamal and Shehato were imprisoned during the tenure of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, released in 2011, and re-arrested in late 2012.
Correspondence with Ayman al Zawahiri
Communications between Jamal and Ayman al Zawahiri were uncovered during the investigation into the Nasr City Cell.
Jamal is deferential to Zawahiri in the letters and clearly sees himself as the al Qaeda leader's subordinate, praising Zawahiri and saying that it would be an "honor" to sit next to him. Jamal summarizes his past, including his stint as a bodyguard for Zawahiri during the 1990s, and recent activities. He also asks for additional financial support, saying he has received funds from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) but the amount is insufficient for his operations.
Jamal explains in the letters that he has set up camps in Libya and the Sinai and has also dispatched Egyptian terrorists to Mali.
The Egyptian press has reprinted the entirety of a letter written in late 2011 and excerpts of another written on Aug. 18, 2012. Two press accounts concerning Jamal's letters to Zawahiri that appeared in Al Yawm al Sabi and Al Ahram were previously summarized by The Long War Journal. [See LWJ report, Communications with Ayman al Zawahiri highlighted in 'Nasr City cell' case.]
A third Egyptian press report, published by Cairo's Al Jumhuriyah earlier this month, contains still more excerpts from Jamal's Aug. 18, 2012 letter.
Al Jumhuriyah reported that Ayman al Zawahiri was presented with "several offers" in the letter, including training jihadist cadres to be sent abroad to gain additional experience.
Jamal asks the al Qaeda master, "Do you still hold the same view of setting up a jihadist entity against Zionist-crusaders, or do you opt for Dawa work?" This query was made in reference to the post-revolutionary Egypt. The term "Dawa" includes proselytizing and charity work intended to woo new converts.
"With God's grace we set up that base in Libya. Also with God's grace we succeeded in setting up a group led by Malik al Masri, who is known to brother jihadists in Libya," Jamal writes.
"We reached Mali and set up a nucleus led by our brother Nasir al Masri," Jamal adds. "We need a direct and swift recommendation of brother Nasir from Shaykh Abu Mus'ab. We will keep you posted on the situation in Mali in the next message."
Thus, the letter reads like a status report, in which Jamal promises to keep Ayman al Zawahiri up-to-date on his activities in Mali and elsewhere. The identities of the individuals in Libya and Mali mentioned by Jamal are not clear.
Jamal pleads for additional support in his August 2012 letter: "Our financial depletion has curtailed our ability to purchase and enhance the weaponry useful to us in our clash in Egypt, although they are abundant in Libya and can easily be transported to Egypt."
Jamal explains that he has set up groups inside the Sinai. "We would like to point out that the biggest faction in Sinai is the Salafi front," Jamal writes. "They are well known. They were responsible for anti-gas pipeline operations and we know them personally."
In addition to publishing excerpts of Jamal's letter, Al Jumhuriyah also examined the various roles played by the Nasr City Cell's members. Sheikh Shehato is described as one of the cell's leaders and as being responsible for training and giving orders to the other members. [For more on Shehato and the Nasr City Cell, see LWJ reports: Egypt arrests pro-al Qaeda jihadist tied to Benghazi suspect, and More al Qaeda links to Cairo terror cell reportedly found.]
Salafi jihadist groups with ties to al Qaeda have been agitating for the release of the Nasr City Cell's detained members. For instance, Ansar al Sharia Egypt posted a picture of Sheikh Shehato entering an Egyptian courtroom in late December. The group, which is headed by an openly pro-al Qaeda jihadist named Ahmed Ashush, criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for allowing the prosecution to continue. The Facebook post can be seen at the top of this article.
Similarly, Mohammed al Zawahiri has professed Jamal's innocence in the Benghazi attack.