Cairo Bids for Truce with al Qaeda’s Right Arm

Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence affairs minister, General Omar Suleiman, believe they can work out a truce with the local Islamic Jihad group, whose head, Ayman Zuwahiri, has turned the organization over to al Qaeda as its foremost operations arm.

Zawahiri himself is in hiding with Osama bin Laden somewhere between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources reveal that negotiations are already going forward.

In essence, Cairo wants to replicate the deal it reached last year with Egypt’s second biggest terrorist group, Gama’a al-Islamiyya, whereby its members were released from jail in return for a. a pledge renouncing terrorism and violence and promising to pursue their goal of disseminating the word of Islam peacefully. Since then, the Gama’a is turning itself into a political grouping. This effort is given credence since before their release its leaders filled four volumes with religious treatises amounting to a fatwa which explained their decision to relinquish terrorism. These works were disseminated to their adherents.

Things could be a lot more complicated in the case of the larger Islamic Jihad which for decades has dedicated itself to overthrowing the Egyptian regime through political violence at the level of presidential assassinations. Suleiman’s agents believe the operational links between Zawahiri and his Egypt-based organization are non-current and, after long years in prison, his old comrades in the leadership may now be amenable to talking terms that would effectively de-activate the group’s terrorist functions.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, the Mubarak regime is willing to open negotiations for a sweeping amnesty that could drastically reduce Egypt’s prison population and even touch on the fates of Islamic Jihad activists fighting under the al Qaeda flag around the world. The group would be required to publish the same kind of binding, elucidated renunciation of terrorism as the Gama’a al-Islamiyya. The terms on offer include:

  1. Freedom for all the roughly 10,000 Islamic Jihad prisoners and detainees languishing in jail – some for decades.

  2. Amnesty for inmates and fugitives who took part in the 1981 assassination plot against Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Some rumors contend that, despite publication of his execution, Egyptian intelligence officer Colonel Abd al-Latif al-Somer who, as a clandestine Jihad Islami member took part in the crime, was committed to a secret prison. Ayman Zuwahiri himself is suspected of being a key conspirator. In 1999, an Egyptian court convicted him in absentia on charges of terrorism.

  3. New trials with reduced sentences for the “Albanian returnees”, a group of hundreds of al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad members captured fighting with an al Qaeda legion in Albania and Bosnia whom the United States and other countries extradited to Egypt in the years between 1995 and 1998. This group, including the activists detained in Cairo without trial, could walk free in return for adhering to the required comprehensive pledge to retire from terrorism for good.

  4. A retrial to overturn an old sentence standing against Zawahiri’s brother Ahmad, who was caught in Pakistan a few weeks ago and handed over to Egypt.
    This concession may be easily extended to Islam Jihad activists fighting in such places as Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen if they returned or were extradited to Egypt and signed the pledge.
    US-backed Yemeni forces have just captured key operative Said Imam Sharif in their siege operation against an Egyptian Jihad unit in the Abeen mountains. Sharif’s importance dates from the time he carried out liaison functions between Zawihiri and bin Laden in Afghanistan before their two organizations merged in advance of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

  5. Prison terms commuted for members of the Jihad team which murdered late prime minister Atef Sidki and information minister Sawat Sharin in the 1990s.

To secure the deal, Mubarak is even prepared to forgive a fundamentalist who took part in an attempt on his own life. Cairo is asking Tehran to hand over Ahmed Hassan Abul Kheir, the most senior al Qaeda operative in Iranian hands. Kheir, believed jailed in Tehran, headed al Qaeda’s special operations committee. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources disclose he was one of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders sentenced to death in absentia for complicity in the 1995 attempted murder of Mubarak in Addis Ababa.

The Egyptian president’s close advisers believes they can count on Kheir, if returned home, to put in his oar in favor of the government’s reconciliation deal with his fellow terrorists and their signing the pledge to desist from terrorist activity. He will have a powerful incentive to play ball: the promised annulment of the death sentence outstanding against him. If Kheir is withheld by Iran or refuses to cooperate, the old Islamic Jihad prisoners are expected to throw their weight behind the deal to gain their freedom.

When he goes to Washington in mid-April to meet President George W. Bush, the Egyptian president will explain the advantages of his complicated negotiations with the heads of al Qaeda’s leading operational arm. He will argue that his initiative holds out temptation for Islamic Jihad activists to break away in a body from their association with al Qaeda. This mass walkout would gravely diminish the organization’s operational capabilities.

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