An intelligence-related quarrel flared this week between Cairo and Jerusalem over the cells al Qaeda operates in the United States and Canada.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report the quarrel surfaced in the form of a disclosure Sunday, Feb. 4, by the Cairo daily Al Ahram that Egyptian intelligence had detained Mohamed Essam Ghoneim al-Attar, 31, a Canadian-Egyptian, and charged him with spying for the Mossad. He was described as using a bank clerk’s job to monitor Egyptian accounts in American and Canadian banks.
This disclosure brings out three important points:
1. The fundamentalist Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an operational partner of al Qaeda, whose leader Ayman Zuwahiri is second only to Osama bin Laden, runs undercover cells and individual operatives in the United States and Canada. The first attempt to blow up New York’s Twin Towers in 1993 was carried out by an Egyptian Islamic Jihad cell from a center in Brooklyn.
2. Israeli intelligence has stepped up its surveillance of al Qaeda networks across the world, including the United States, in the last six months, since bin Laden and Zuwahiri made Israel a central target in their broadcast warnings.
Israel security chiefs believe North American- and Europe-based al Qaeda networks are just as capable of unleashing large-scale attacks against their country and citizens as the cells in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egyptian Sinai – especially since last June, when US forces killed al Qaeda’s Iraqi chief, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, for whom the Jewish state was a prime target.
3. Cairo made a point of limiting disclosure of the alleged Israeli spy ring to a single paper – just enough to drop the word in the right ears in Washington and Jerusalem that Egypt was not happy with Israeli intelligence spying on Egyptian al Qaeda operatives in the United States and Canada. Egypt is not clear about whether or not Israeli agents operate with the go-ahead of Washington and Ottawa. But its security agencies insist that they take no part in Egyptian-US intelligence-sharing arrangements for the war on al Qaeda and the Egyptian Jihad Islami.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources add that these arrangements are extensive. For instance, the United States transfers to Egypt for interrogation al Qaeda members captured in West and South Europe, Pakistan and North and East Africa. And Egyptian intelligence officials take part in major crackdowns against al Qaeda networks in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
How much is Cairo holding back from Washington?
Cairo’s hypersensitivity to exposure of the doings of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad enforces the suspicions of American intelligence that Egyptian intelligence is withholding blocks of data about the group. The Egyptians, for their part, suspect that Israel penetration agents are being sent to Egyptian expatriate communities in the Middle East, Europe and North America to dig out this missing data and fill in the blanks for US and Israeli security services.
Egyptian intelligence refuses to tolerate this two-tier action. To show he means business, intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman suddenly ordered al-Attar’s detention upon his landing ago at Cairo airport on a home visit a month ago – although the suspected spy had been known to be gathering intelligence for Israeli intelligence among Egyptian communities in Turkey and Greece as back as 2001.
To underscore their disapproval, Egypt disclosed the names of three Israelis suspected of being al-Attar’s Mossad controllers in those countries as Daniel Levy, Kemal Kosba and Tuncay Bubay and issued warrants for their arrest. The latter two hold Turkish passports.
This was an unthinkable step outside rules of the game.
An unwritten rule held by all international agencies engaged in the common global war against al Qaeda binds them never, ever to betray each other’s agents. Egypt broke this rule as an implicit threat to expose more secrets unless Israel guarantees to keep its hands off the Egyptian Jihad group.
According to our intelligence sources, some of the particulars published by al Ahram are incorrect – possibly for domestic reasons.
For instance, al-Attar was not a bank clerk in Canada, but an oil engineer living in Chicago, USA. From Cairo, DEBKA-Net-Weekly learns that the intelligence authorities may have been trying to muddy the waters because the public incrimination of al-Attar, scion of one of Egypt’s most celebrated dynasties, has caused a backlash in Cairo and a major scandal.
His father is a famous air force pilot and descendant of the iconic Sheikh Hassan al-Attar, known to every Egyptian schoolchild as the father of the revivalist movement founded at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Sheikh Hassan was the first Muslim thinker to preach that the key to political and social progress lies in self-perception and the acquisition of science. His teachings influence all Egyptian reformers to this day. Among the alleged spy’s ancestors, there is a Grand Imam of al Azhar, who also bore the name of Sheikh Hassan al-Attar.
Egyptian officials will have a hard time bringing the man they arrested as a Mossad spy to book.