Report: Al Qaeda emir’s hand in Egypt and Syria

Die Welt, a German daily, has published an interesting report on al Qaeda’s plans for Syria and Egypt. The original can be found here and Worldcrunch has produced a translation of the article, “Has Syria become Al-Qaeda’s New Base for Terror Strikes on Europe?”

Die Welt‘s reporting jibes with what we’ve reported at The Long War Journal concerning the ties between al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Egypt and the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Here are the key excerpts [emphasis added]:

Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria and Egypt, trying to build new structures in these two key countries since many of the established al-Qaeda offshoots no longer listen to the network’s leadership after the death of Osama Bin Laden, according to information from Western intelligence sources.

Al-Zawahiri’s contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Jabat al-Nusrah leader. In Egypt, Jamal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel Shehato look after al-Qaeda interests. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to fight the “heretical regimes” in both countries; to al-Zawahiri the new regime of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi also counts as one of these. In one of his recent speeches, al-Zawahiri called for attacks on the Egyptian military to help bring down Morsi’s government.

According to intelligence sources, several al-Qaeda leaders who were originally from Egypt have returned there after years of fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other leaders and active members have been released from prison by the Morsi government. The al-Qaeda cell in Egypt is thought to have been involved in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

On October 24, Egyptian security forces however did raid a “safe house” in Cairo that was used by al-Qaeda members under al-Kashef’s orders. One al-Qaeda fighter was killed, and others were taken into custody. A large weapons depot and explosives were found at the site. In several other raids over the next few days, 20 more al-Qaeda operatives were arrested. Egyptian sources said the cell was directly under al-Zawahiri’s orders and was working to bring the Morsi government down.

Because of the political turmoil in Egypt, the country has become a stomping ground for global jihadists. A German al-Qaeda fighter, Denis Cuspert, who has threatened attacks in Germany, has gone to Cairo. Many German and European fighters pretend to be going to Egypt to study Islam or Arabic, but then head for al-Qaeda training camps in Egypt, the Sinai or Libya.

The key parts here deal with the Nasr City cell and the roles played by its leaders Muhammad al Kashef and Sheikh Adel Shehato. Egyptian authorities raided an apartment building in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo on Oct. 24 after they learned that an al Qaeda cell tied to the Benghazi attack was operating there. Since then, the Egyptians arrested Shehato (accusing him of founding and financing the cell) and Kashef (who is another senior leader of the cell). Some of the terrorists responsible for the Benghazi attack were trained in Kashef’s Libyan camps.

Both Kashef and Shehato are longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leaders. And the EIJ has long been headed by Ayman al Zawahiri. Shehato has openly professed his admiration for al Qaeda and appeared alongside Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman’s younger brother, and other pro-al Qaeda jihadists in propaganda videos. Shehato and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists helped incite protesters in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012.

Kashef has reportedly reached out to Ayman al Zawahiri since his release from an Egyptian prison. According to some Arabic press reports, Kashef became a top al Qaeda leader in Egypt and Libya and was given clearance by Ayman al Zawahiri to launch operations.

Surprisingly, the connections between al Qaeda’s Egyptian network and the Benghazi attack have received little coverage in the American press. The Wall Street Journal provided in-depth coverage, and there have been some mentions in other press reporting. But, overall, there has not been nearly as much reporting on this throughout the media as one might expect. Links to The Long War Journal’s coverage are included in the text above.

On another note, the last paragraph excerpted from Die Welt above mentions “German al Qaeda fighter” Denis Cuspert’s relocation to Egypt. You can read The Long War Journal’s summary of press reports concerning Cuspert and other German jihadists now in Egypt here.

Based on Western intelligence sources, Die Welt reports the following with respect to Syria:

(1) Ayman al Zawahiri’s point of contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Julani. You can read more about him here.

(2) “Western intelligence agencies believe that there are some 100 Muslims with European passports involved in the war in Syria” and those same agencies are concerned that they will return to Europe with bad intentions.

(3) “Western intelligence operatives say that al Nusrah runs several large training camps in Syria where Islamists with fighting experience – veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – train new recruits, including Islamists from Western countries.”

(4) There is growing concern that the al Nusrah Front will get its hands on Assad’s chemical weapons.

Remember, though, al Qaeda is supposed to be dead.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • mike merlo says:

    No surprise here. TLWJ long ago singled out the Islamic Internationale’s designs with detailed observations & analysis throughout the Muslim Ummah. And has since provided a ‘running account’ of development’s & possible scenario’s.

  • irebukeu says:

    “Remember, though, al Qaeda is supposed to be dead.”— what is the basis for this claim I am wondering? Who said al Queda is dead?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I could list example after example, but won’t. This was the admin’s position about 1 year ago; it has changed little:
    OK, I couldn’t help myself; see this too:

  • irebukeu says:

    Bill, I have heard this claim before but always from politically partisan sources and only during the election campaign. I know the admins position was that al Queda Centrals leadership was on the balls of its *ss after the death of Bin Laden. The position as I recall, was that AQC was hurting very badly but that its franchises and allied groups were very dangerous and very much operational and there was lots of work to be done still. Let us remember the admin was in an election campaign and was really looking to champion its success’s. That’s understandable. Also lets remember that our citizens and allies are looking to see signs of success in a struggle that frankly is hard to measure. From your provided link…. “The leadership ranks of the main al-Qaeda terrorist network, once expansive enough to supervise the plot for Sept. 11, 2001, have been reduced to just two figures whose demise would mean the group’s defeat, U.S. counter terrorism and intelligence officials said.” lets balance that statement which I will admit sounds a bit hyperbolic but probably is referring to the 9-11 era al-Queda leadership, with info from this very article.”Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria and Egypt, trying to build new structures in these two key countries since many of the established al-Qaeda offshoots no longer listen to the network’s leadership after the death of Osama Bin Laden, according to information from Western intelligence sources.” Lets add to that, information from past LJW articles- “the al Qaeda brand has been tarnished in Middle Eastern and African countries because of the group’s indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. Al Qaeda’s principal victims since its founding have been Muslims. In Iraq and elsewhere, al Qaeda’s attacks alienated large numbers of Muslims.” “The Ansar al Sharia brand is al Qaeda’s attempt to win back some of the hearts and minds it lost.”
    So we can see there is some contextual basis to the admins claims as well as good reasons for them putting the information out there. Also convincing would be joiners of al queda that the group is bankrupt militarily and morally has great value. Even from the first link you provide which I quoted from first, the very next line is “U.S. officials said, although lower-level fighters and other insurgent groups remain a focus of Predator surveillance and strikes.” The claim that al Queda was dead is what Mitt Romney and the far right wanted us to think that Obama’s position was during the election while they pretended the president is incompetent. Some of them wanted us to think that Obama claimed to have led the mission or somehow killed Bin laden with his own hands. The idea that the top leadership is hurting badly in Pakistan is fairly accurate IMO. Even as we lose the war in Afghanistan to the Taliban we are still landing body blows and head shots to al Queda. Lets keep kicking them while they are down.
    One final addition from the text of the speech Obama gave while announcing Osama’s death. “”Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that Al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must – and we will – remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
    When I read the last sentence of your article I could not help myself. I had comment. It looked to be tongue in cheek. Thank you for this wonderful website and the information you are providing here. I find it always to be a valuable resource.

  • Larry says:

    What is this article basing its assertion on the AQ field commanders don’t take orders from Zawahiri? Last I checked he gave the green light on Assad’s regime. How’s that playing out?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Thank you. First and foremost, Thomas Joscelyn wrote the article above, not I. I merely commented on it.
    Second, Tom & I recently did a debate with Peter Bergen and Tom Lynch at the New America Foundation, where they argued to us that al Qaeda was indeed dead. You can watch that here:
    As you can see, that wasn’t a Romney thing. Again, I could provide numerous other links to other articles. But that debate neatly sums up a prominent view in the CT world.

  • AMac says:

    > Surprisingly, the connections between al Qaeda’s Egyptian network and the Benghazi attack have received little coverage in the American press.
    Most of the mainstream American press prefers a perspective on events (1) that is easy for “average” Americans to understand, and (2) that reflects well on Pres. Obama and his administration.
    “Terrorist Qaddafi bad, Libyan freedom-fighter rebels good” was the favorite mainstream meme throughout the fighting. LWJ reporting must have been absurd and shocking to people who got their news from CNN and the NYT.
    It’s hard to know how much of the post 9/11 Benghazi “I’m shocked!, shocked!” spin of the media is due to foolish naivete, and how much to unbridled cynicism.
    Ditto for the “Israel’s longtime enemy Assad bad, Syrian freedom-fighter rebels good” notion that’s now starting to erode.

  • Caleb says:

    I would like to apologize, beforehand, for not commenting about the above article. I would like to, however, add to your discussion with irebukeu.
    In your debate with Peter Bergen and Tom Lynch, they argued that al-Qaeda was dead. I’m failing to see how AQ could, in fact, be dead. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see how their central command could be diminished; but, the group as a whole (including their off-shoots), I’m failing to see how this could be.
    Using Syria and Mali as examples, it seems to me that they are far from it. According to a previous article here, the al-Nusra Front is pretty much al-Qaeda in Iraq’s cell in Syria. They have members from AQI in their ranks, and they use Iraq as a support base. The said article also mentions how AQ is an adaptive group, and they utilize chaos to work in their advantage.
    As for Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine have literally taken over half the country (roughly the size of Texas). Correct me if I may be completely off here, but could AQ possibly use this area as a safe-haven, similar to how Afghanistan was used when the Taliban was in power?
    Could you offer any insight here, Bill?
    I am a student who has a huge interest in the counter-terrorism world. Your website has helped me out immensely, so thank you again.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Caleb, First, thank you for the kind words. I believe I can speak for the entire team and say we are pleased that you have found LWJ to be a resource.
    Second, no need to apologize. You comment is on topic. It directly relates to the point Tom Joscelyn made at the end of the article.
    You are asking the right questions, and your outlook on this is sound. In fact, Mali is already being used to train foreign jihadists (we’ve written several articles about this), as is Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Even if the fighters are acting locally at the moment, it is a matter of time before that switch can be flipped. Just ask FBI agents who deal with Shabaab recruitment in the US about their views on that score.

  • miguel cervantes says:

    You have done great work, Bill, Bergen seems to forget how AQ
    came about, how they declared war back in ’96, and it seemed
    a boast back then, as they had only struck at minor targets like Khobar Towers, but they were scouting the African embassies,
    and were putting together what they would be known as the Hamburg cells. They were active in Chechnya and Bosnia as well,

  • blert says:

    I rebuke you?
    Next time, paragraphs, please.
    This is the Internet, not a compelled textbook, sheesh.


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