Ayman al Zawahiri’s top deputy, Thirwat Salah Shehata, has released a statement praising the Egyptian people and calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
Shehata is a longtime member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a core part of al Qaeda, and has served Zawahiri since the 1980s. In the statement, which was released on jihadist message boards known to carry al Qaeda propaganda, Shehata calls on the Egyptian people to “remain steadfast” and refuse to settle for economic concessions from Mubarak’s regime.
“Indeed, the Pharaoh and his rotten party must depart,” Shehata says.
There is no evidence that the EIJ has played any role in Egypt’s turmoil. In fact, Shehata laments his organization’s inability to be “on the front lines sharing this honor.” The EIJ was “forced to leave the country after the regime’s war against us,” Shehata says, “and we ended up participating with the mujahedin on other fronts.”
According to Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi publication, an anonymous source close to the EIJ said that Shehata’s “statement was issued from Tehran where Shehata is currently residing.” Shehata and other top EIJ operatives received shelter in Iran after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A senior member of the EIJ and al Qaeda
Shehata has long been wanted by Egyptian authorities, who have twice sentenced him to death in absentia. One of his death sentences stems from his alleged role in an assassination plot against Atif Sidqi, Egypt’s former Prime Minister, in the early 1990s.
Shehata spent several years in an Egyptian prison following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. He was arrested as part of the regime’s crackdown on the EIJ. After being released from prison he resumed his EIJ career, leading the organization’s security committee.
According to the United Nations committee responsible for tracking al Qaeda members, Shehata was a member of the EIJ’s “nine-member consultative council, which was headed by Al-Zawahiri.” The EIJ’s council “was composed of several committees that supervised the various aspects of the organization’s work,” including the security committee. Shehata’s committee “maintained information about individual members and how to reach them, documenting physical, psychological, academic and religious information about each member and determining the type of work he could do.”
Shehata has pursued jihad around the globe since the foiled plot against Sidqi. The “other fronts” he has traveled to include Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iraq.
Interestingly, the CIA learned that Shehata was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq prior to the US-led invasion in March 2003. In his book, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explains that US intelligence tracked more than a dozen al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who “converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government” in the “spring and summer of 2002.”
In Baghdad, Tenet writes, they “found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies” to northeastern Iraq, where Abu Musab al Zarqawi had set up training camps. Shehata and another al Qaeda operative, Yussef Dardiri (also known as Abu Ayyub al Masri, the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq) joined this al Qaeda contingent in Baghdad “by mid-May of 2002,” Tenet writes. A “senior Qaeda detainee” in custody told American authorities that Shehata and Dardiri were among the EIJ’s “best operational planners.”
“At times we lost track of” Shehata and Dardiri, Tenet explains, “though their associates continued to operate in Baghdad as of October 2002.” Tenet says their “activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi’s camps was compelling enough,” but there “was also concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq.”
In particular, according to Tenet, there was “credible information” that Shehata “was willing to strike U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future.” Shehata had also “been linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs.”
Tenet says that the CIA could not prove Iraqi complicity in the operations of Shehata and the other al Qaeda terrorists, but “from an intelligence point of view it would have been difficult to conclude that the Iraqi intelligence service was not aware of their activities” in Baghdad.
The EIJ, al Qaeda, and Iran
It would not be surprising if Shehata did release his statement from Iran, as reported by Asharq Al-Awsat. Multiple press reports have placed Shehata in Iran, as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
In 2005, for instance, MSNBC reported that Shehata was “believed to be in Iranian control.” However, according to US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal, Shehata may be moving back and forth from Iran to the FATA.
Zawahiri’s and Shehata’s EIJ has long maintained ties to Iran. After Khalid Islambouli, an EIJ operative, assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini declared Islambouli a “martyr” and had a street named after him in Tehran.
In the early 1990s, the EIJ helped broker a deal between al Qaeda and Iran, which led to al Qaeda operatives being trained by Iran and Hezbollah. One of Zawahiri’s top henchmen, Ali Mohamed, told a US court in October 2000 that he helped arrange a meeting between Hezbollah’s top terrorist, Imad Mugniyah, and Osama bin Laden.
“I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and al Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side,” Mohamed told the court. “I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyah, Hezbollah’s chief, and Bin Laden.”
Mohamed elaborated: “Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.”
During the trial of some of the terrorists responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings, other al Qaeda operatives confirmed that the training described by Mohamed took place in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon. Osama bin Laden was interested in the training, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report, because he wanted to be able to replicate the Hezbollah terrorist attacks in Lebanon of the early 1980s. Mugniyah, who was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008, was the mastermind of those attacks.
According to the 9/11 Commission, the training gave al Qaeda the “tactical expertise” it needed to execute the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Members of the al Qaeda cell in Kenya, as well as some members of al Qaeda’s military committee, received the training.
One of the al Qaeda terrorists who received Hezbollah’s training is Saif al Adel, a top EIJ operative who joined al Qaeda’s military committee in the early 1990s. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Saif al Adel fled to Iran. In more recent years, al Adel reportedly made his way to northern Pakistan.
Al Adel’s father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, is another EIJ and al Qaeda operative with ties to Iran. In a Jan. 16, 2009, designation, the US Treasury Department described Hamid as a “primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran.”
The Treasury Department explained: “While living in Iran, Hamid was harbored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which served as Hamid’s point of contact for communications between al Qaeda and Iran.” Hamid facilitated communications between al Qaeda and Iran on multiple occasions and, according to the Treasury Department, “negotiated a secret relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Iran, allowing many al Qaeda members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan.”
Still another senior EIJ and al Qaeda operative tied to Iran is Muhammad Rab’a al Sayid al Bahtiyti. The Treasury Department describes al Bahtiyti as Ayman al Zawahiri’s son-in-law and says that, after Sept. 11, Zawahiri “instructed” Bahtiyti to take Zawahiri’s family to Iran. Bahtiyti “reportedly traveled to Iran with al-Zawahiri’s daughters, where he was subsequently responsible for them.” And “while working from Iran” in January 2003, “Bahtiyti arranged housing on behalf of al Qaeda.”
At some point in 2003 the Iranians placed the EIJ members of al Qaeda, as well as other al Qaeda members operating on Iranian soil, under a loose form of house arrest. This was done only after some of them were implicated in international terrorist attacks. Saudi and American authorities complained to the Iranians after Saif al Adel and other al Qaeda operatives were implicated in the May 2003 Riyadh bombings.
Subsequently, however, members of this network have resumed their terrorist activities. And if Shehata is indeed still in Iran, the Iranian government obviously has no qualms about his issuing anti-Mubarak statements to the public. The Iranians have long been been hostile to Mubarak’s regime and are willing to work with any jihadist organization when it comes to confronting their enemies.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.