Communications with Ayman al Zawahiri highlighted in ‘Nasr City cell’ case


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.

Egyptian prosecutors have uncovered a treasure trove of information in the so-called “Nasr City Cell” case, including correspondence between the terrorist who headed that cell and al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The Nasr City cell allegedly plotted various attacks inside Egypt and has connections to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

One of the two terrorists who led the Nasr City cell is Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad), who served Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s.

A computer recovered during a raid on an apartment in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo on Oct. 24, 2012 includes correspondence between Jamal and Zawahiri. Two such letters were discussed in the Egyptian press last week. The revelation is important for many reasons. For instance, Jamal’s trainees reportedly participated in the Benghazi attack, which left four Americans, including a US Ambassador, dead.

The letters do not deal with the assault in Benghazi. They were written beforehand and summarize Jamal’s various nefarious activities, including inside Libya.

Letters to Zawahiri

Cairo’s Al Yawm al Sabi first published one of the letters from Jamal to Zawahiri. The letter was apparently written in late 2011. The Long War Journal has obtained a translation of the original Al Yawm al Sabi account.

“My Dear Sheikh Abu Muhammad,” Jamal begins, referring to Zawahiri by his kunya. Jamal goes on to call Zawahiri an “asset” for Islam and prays for Allah to enable Zawahiri to establish an Islamic state.

Jamal also thanks Allah “for the blessing of communication with my brother and teacher Sheikh Ayman.” Jamal says he has greatly desired to see Zawahiri after his release from an Egyptian prison, “so that I can be by your side, which is an honor for me.”

Because he was “banned for travel” and his “name was on a list of international terror in more than one Arab country,” Jamal says, he could not reach Zawahiri. Jamal even tried, to no avail, to travel using fraudulent documents.

“So I resorted to send another person who was with me in prison,” Jamal writes. “Agreement was reached on jihadist action inside Egypt, irrespective of the conditions inside the country. We believed in the necessity of establishing a jihadist entity in Egypt.”

Jamal writes that he “encouraged the youths by virtue of my past record to work with you.” Somewhat cryptically, Jamal notes that he does not know Zawahiri’s “opinion of establishing an effective jihadist organization in Egypt against the Zionist-Crusaders… or exploiting the security vacuum for advocacy and religious media promotion.” It is not entirely clear what Jamal means.

Jamal then summarizes his work to date. Jamal’s letter reads like a request for additional resources, given all that he has accomplished thus far. Jamal says he had established “solid forces from the cadres we trust here and an advanced base outside Egypt in Libya to take advantage of the conditions in Libya after the revolution.” This was done “in order to buy weapons and also attract elements not known in Egypt.”

Jamal writes that he formed “groups for us inside Sinai,” an especially interesting revelation given that some jihadist groups there have openly proclaimed their allegiance to al Qaeda.

Shortly after he was released from prison in early 2011, Jamal began work. He complains that he “received an amount of money from our brothers in Yemen,” a reference to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), “but it was much less than what is required.” Zawahiri is “aware” of the “huge amounts of money” needed to purchase arms, set up training camps, move vehicles into the Sinai Peninsula, and “provide for the families of the brothers who work with us.”

Transporting small arms and missiles from Libya into Egypt is expensive, Jamal writes. “We point out that part of the strategy of international action relies on heavy weapons like mortars and Grad Missiles.” It is therefore necessary for them, Jamal continues, to request assistance from brothers who are either “hard-pressed” or “miserly.”

At the conclusion of the letter, Jamal says he wanted “to speak with our brother Shakir in Yemen on this matter,” but he was prevented from doing so due to “harsh circumstances.” Jamal requests that Zawahiri reply to his plea for further assistance.

Cairo’s Al Ahram published excerpts from another letter a few days after Al Yawm al Sabi’s account. Al Ahram reported that the letter was dated Aug. 18, 2012. It includes some of the same details as the first, plus additional information.

In the second letter, Jamal calls the Sinai the “the next confrontation arena with the Jews and the Americans” and notes that Libya can be used as a passageway to other important areas, including Mali. He mentions forming “a solid nucleus” of trustworthy persons “who showed steadfastness during the prison days” to send abroad to wage jihad.

Jamal also makes two other noteworthy points. He says that he was a member of Zawahiri’s contingent of guards. And he says he was the “teacher” in 1996 for the “brothers in Yemen,” including “Abu Basir, Abu Hurayrah, and Abu al Zubayr Adil Ubab.”

Abu Basir is an alias for Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of AQAP. Likewise, Qasim al Raymi, AQAP’s military commander, is also known as Abu Hurayrah. Abu al Zubayr Adil Ubab is a well-known AQAP ideologue.

The excerpts of Jamal’s letter published by Al Ahram therefore connect him to the most senior AQAP leaders, whom he reportedly contacted in order to get in touch with Zawahiri.

In sum, Jamal’s letters to Zawahiri read like status reports, in which he summarizes his history and recent actions in an attempt to procure additional support. Jamal’s mention of an “agreement…on jihadist action inside Egypt” and his work inside the Sinai and Libya are among the most significant revelations in the letters.

Additional pieces of correspondence found on the Nasr City cell’s computer, including any responses from Zawahiri, would further illuminate this relationship. But the contents of these two letters show that Jamal is operating within al Qaeda’s orbit. He defers to Zawahiri’s leadership and says that he has received financial support from AQAP.

Jamal’s ties to senior al Qaeda-linked jihadists, including those who incited the Sept. 11, 2012 anti-American protest in Cairo, are evident in other sources as well. [For more information, see LWJ report, Old school Egyptian jihadists linked to 9/11 Cairo protest, Benghazi suspect.]

Ties to Benghazi attack

According to Al Ahram‘s account, Jamal’s second letter was written on Aug. 18, 2012 — less than one month before the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Multiple published reports confirm that some of Jamal’s trainees took part in that attack.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that “[f]ighters linked to” Jamal were among those who assaulted the US Consulate. “Intelligence reports suggest that some of the attackers trained at camps [Jamal] established in the Libyan Desert, a former U.S. official said.”

The New York Times has cited “American officials” as saying that some of the participants came from “the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.”

CNN reported that “many” of the attackers “are believed to be Egyptian jihadis” and that “an Egyptian jihad network,” a reference to Jamal’s network, was involved.

A member of the Nasr City cell who was killed during the Oct. 24 raid was allegedly involved in the Benghazi attack, although the precise details of his participation are not clear.

In addition, numerous additional ties between the Nasr City cell and al Qaeda have been found.

*Correction: The original version of this article stated that the agreement mentioned by Jamal was struck with Zawahiri. It is not clear, after reading additional translations, who was in agreement over the need for jihadi action inside Egypt. The rest of the analysis remains unchanged.

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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  • Stu says:

    Some readers who follow LWJ say AZ should not be targeted. What more evidence do these self-described “experts’ need to declare that AZ is our mortal enemy. The hands-off AZ argument goes that he is entrenched in a crowded city and we must at all costs avoid collateral damage, or that the chap is only symbolic, or that he provides a source of leads in the GWOT.
    What treachery! He is the Hitler of our time. He is actively leading the AQ murder cult. Any hands-off attitude to AZ is suspect, in my mind.
    Any readers out there who still think AZ should be watched, rather than eliminated? I would like to hear your argument.

  • mike merlo says:

    Interesting information. So this ‘begs the question:’ is Zawahiri in the vicinity of the Red Sea, upper ME, Sahara or still somewhere in the AfPak Theater?

  • Stu says:

    Mike Merlo:
    Sarcasm noted.
    I suppose you believe other readers of this forum will be impressed with your knowledge of geography.
    My comment is not to claim I have any idea of this worm’s whereabouts, but rather to state that he certainly should be targeted.
    I’m also referring to a few comments on LWJ over the past few years that depect Zawahiri as some kind of ‘Teflon Don’ who needn’t be agressively targeted because of the reasons I cited. I’m also referring to others on this forum who offers little teases that they have good educated guesses about Zawahiri’s whereabouts.
    Obviously no one who has any information about Zarahiri’s location would whisper it here. But at least we can ignore the sophistries of this debate concerning targeting sworn enemies of our country.

  • Joe says:

    I’m totally guessing, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that he was not too far away from where UBL was when he was found, definitely on the same side of that river. I live in Ireland (where we’ve had a problem with terrorists for quite a while, for a long time funded mostly by misty-eyed ex-Pats in the US!) and it’s strange, but these guys look familiar. For one thing, money “for the cause”, and having control of it, is important. Not necessarily because these guys want to have, or more to the point flaunt, money for them-selves. They often make a show of living in a spartan kind of way, to show their people that it’s not about money, but if you look at where this guy is asking Al Zawahiri for money, it’s plain to see that the guy who holds the purse-strings holds the power. And that is what it was about for the IRA, and that’s what it’s about for Hamas, and that’s what it’s about for Al Qaeda. Power, control. Not just as an organisation, but within the organisation. These IRA nut-jobs are still going around wiping each other out here, a guy who was said to be some sort of unit commander was murdered in Co. Louth yesterday, actually… But to get back to why I reckon Al Zawahiri was not far from UBL, the same reason. Power. Neither of them could afford to let the other out of their sight, lest they might cede power. These guys are always brothers only up to a point.


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