The Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiyya plans to sue the Egyptian Interior Ministry because members of the organization were “tortured by the State Security Bureau in the last three decades,” according to a statement this week by Alaa Abul Nasr, secretary general of the Gamaa’s new Building and Development Party.
Gama’a al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Group, one of the original affiliate groups of the al Qaeda network, was responsible for a wave of terrorism both inside Egypt and abroad in the 1980s and 1990s that elicited a sustained and brutal response from the Egyptian security services.
In his statement, Nasr added that some of the Gamaa members rounded up in the government crackdowns have gone “missing until this moment.” He further noted that many of the interior ministry officials involved in the sweep “are still in power.”
The Gamaa emerged as a loose grouping of independent Islamist organizations in Upper (southern) Egypt in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, Gamaa’s groups united under a single banner, and were led by Asyut-based cleric Omar abd ar-Rahman. Rahman was first known for his involvement in a 24-man cell responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the
commander of al Qaeda, was also a member of that cell.
After Sadat’s assassination, the Gamaa launched a violent uprising in the Egyptian town of Asyut. New Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak responded by arresting thousands. He cracked down on unlicensed mosques and implemented a state of emergency that remained until his ouster last year.
In 1984, the Gamaa published a radical manifesto titled The Program for Islamic Action. The group launched a sporadic campaign of violence that targeted Christian Copts, liquor stores, theaters, and government mosques throughout Upper Egypt.
By 1992, the terror campaign had expanded to include attacks on prominent Muslim moderates and tourists, in addition to bank and train robberies. There were also several higher-profile attacks over the span of a few years, including a 1992 attack on a tour bus full of Germans in Qena, the first of several attacks designed to debilitate Egypt’s tourism industry.
But the Gamaa’s activities were not restricted to Egypt. On Feb. 26, 1993, three men affiliated with the group attempted to destroy the World Trade Center in New York. The men belonged to a New Jersey mosque where Omar abd al-Rahman had been preaching. Abd ar-Rahman, who was jailed in Egypt from 1981 to 1984 for his role in the Sadat assassination, was eventually convicted in the US for conspiracy to bomb the United Nations and FBI buildings, as well as the George Washington Bridge and the Holland Tunnel.
While the Gamaa was never definitively linked to the 1993 attacks, its growing ties to al Qaeda were clear. Members gravitated to al Qaeda’s new base in neighboring Sudan from 1992 to 1996. Indeed, terror analyst Rohan Gunaratna believes that al Qaeda’s “Manual of Jihad,” compiled in Sudan between 1993 and 1994, was likely written by Gamaa members.
On Nov. 17, 1997, Gamaa carried out a grisly attack in the southern Egyptian town of Luxor, killing 62 tourists in cold blood. On Feb. 23, 1998, the Gamaa officially announced its affiliation with al Qaeda. Along with Ayman al-Zawahiri (representing the Egyptian group al-Jihad), Gamaa leader Refa’i Ahmad Taha joined Osama bin Laden’s World Islamic Front, an umbrella group for al Qaeda affiliates, which publicly declared its goal of waging a holy war “against Jews and Crusaders,” imploring all Muslims to “kill the Americans.”
With increased support from the West to address its terror problem, the Mubarak regime arrested more than 20,000 terror suspects. Some were detained for long periods of time without due process. Other detainee allegations included torture, beatings, and threats to suspects’ families. In the end, the group was defeated to the point that it was forced to concede. The Gamaa’s incarcerated leaders called for a ceasefire.
In 2002, the defeated group issued a four-volume set of books entitled Correction of Concepts, criticizing al Qaeda’s strategy and tactics. And in June of that year, the group condemned the Sept.11 attacks, in the government-run al-Mussawar magazine. In the wake of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attacks on Saudi targets in 2003, the Gamaa called the violence “a series of errors,” and implored the faction to “apologize to the parents of the victims.” Gamaa member Issam Derbella also published a book in 2003 entitled Al-Qaeda Strategy: Flaws and Dangers.
Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who is now standing trial for killing protesters during the 2011 protests that brought down the Mubarak regime, recently boasted that he had played a positive role in Egypt because he had forced the Gamaa to renounce terrorism. The Gamaa denied that this was the case, however, as Asem Abdel Maged, a Gamaa leader, shot back: “Not even once did the group coordinate with the Interior Ministry or security services.”
For Egyptians who recall the war between Mubarak’s security services and the Gamaa, Abdel Maged’s claims are difficult to reconcile. For that matter, Abdel Maged’s claim that the Gamaa “did not kill innocent people” is a tough one, too.
Nevertheless, the former Egyptian arm of al Qaeda now operates under the umbrella of a legal political party that currently has16 parliamentarians and even includes Copts among its members. The Gamaa’s historic opposition to Mubarak and its populist Salafi ideology appeal to the public. And in an attempt to harness anti-Mubarak sentiment, the group appears poised to sue for damages stemming from the crackdown against the terror campaign it launched three decades ago.
The Gamaa remains on the US list of terrorist organizations. But like much of the rest of Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, the group is rewriting its history.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups & The Next Generation of Terror (SPI Books, 2004).
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