After embracing the "Arab Spring," it is not easy for most Western governments to admit that the uprisings opened new doors to al Qaeda – especially in North Africa.
It is a fact that the NATO-backed rebels of Libya opened their ranks and leadership to al Qaeda-linked extremists; and, contrary to the predictions of intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, the war in Libya is boosting AQIM-the Al-Qaida Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. (See the item on Libya in this issue.)
It is also providing fertile ground for Al-Qaida and its various offshoots to establish working relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.
This trend was further pointed up by recent events in Cairo and Sinai, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report:
1. Al-Tahrir Square Cairo, the hub of the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak, was taken over Friday, July 31, by one of the biggest Islamist demonstrations Egypt has ever seen.
The revolution's liberal leaders, after unseating Hosni Mubarak, were frozen out of the Cairo square by tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and a whole range of Islamists for a show of political unity. They chanted slogans calling for Islamic law in Egypt and denounced steps by secular politicians to distance them from influencing the content of the new reformed constitution.
They also shouted: "Obama, Obama, we're all Osama!"
Coordinated Islamist demonstration in Cairo, attacks in Sinai
Synchronously with the Islamist show of strength in Cairo last Friday, more than 150 armed and masked gunmen on motorcycles and pick-up trucks, waving black flags inscribed with the slogan 'There is no God but Allah' and Korans, rode into the Sinai capital off El Arish, a town of 150,000 residents, shooting in all directions with machine guns, RPGs, mortars and automatic weapons.
Before they left six hours later, they split into two groups – one continuing to shoot up the streets, the second attacking fortified police headquarters to which Egyptian police and soldiers had retreated with anti-tank rockets and mortar, fired from a five-shell battery previously installed there. Seven people were shot dead.
This was the first time that Al Qaida had used mortars in Sinai.
Armored vehicles and police cars caught fire, but the gunmen made no attempt to storm the building.
Clearly their objective was to keep Egyptian forces pinned down and prevented from interfering with their occupation of El Arish.
Local residents understood their message to be: Next time we'll take the whole town and declare the Islamic caliphate of Sinai from its capital, El Arish.
No one in Cairo, a city immersed in political chaos and lawlessness, took time to connect the outrage in Sinai with the Islamic show of strength in Tahrir Square.
The infamous Al-Takfir wal-Hijra returns
2. The following day, Saturday, July 30, the gunmen struck again, this time targeting the al-Shulaq terminal of the Egyptian-Israel gas pipeline near Sheikh Zuweid north of El Arish on Sinai's Mediterranean coast.
Instead of using explosives to sabotage the gas flow – as in the four previous attacks from February – this gang fired anti-tank rockets until the installation caught fire and burned down.
Egypt is not expected to resume the flow of gas to Israel any time soon – especially after the trial of deposed Egyptian Hosni Mubarak began Wednesday, Aug. 3. One of the main charges leveled against him is of corruption in the gas transaction his government concluded with Israel. Egypt's military rulers will not risk popular ire by resuming supplies to Israel for now.
But then, in a little-noticed statement, Cairo officials Sunday, July 31 revealed that one of the most violent groups in Egyptian history, thought to have been dismantled long ago, had returned to life as perpetrators of the attack on the gas installation. The arrest of five members of al-Takfir wal-Hijra was announced – "for the moment."
A former attack in the Egyptian-Gazan town of Rafah was traced to this group in early February before the fall of the Mubarak regime.
Al-Takfir wal-Hijra (the popular name for Jama'at al-Muslimin) was the forerunner of Al Qaeda in the sense that it was the nucleus of Ayman al-Zuwahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of the founding components of al Qaeda.
Zuwahiri, Osama bin Laden's partner and lieutenant, succeeded him after his death in May.
Disguised as Westerners to kill infidels
For many years, al-Takfir wal-Hijraha ("Excommunication and Migration") was believed to be defunct in Egypt – although copycat groups appeared in other places. The group was believed to have been smashed in the late 1970s, when Anwar Sadat ordered the mass arrests of its members and its top leaders put to death.
Nevertheless, Takfir appears to have raised its head again amidst the general post-revolution revival of Salafist sects.
Al-Takfir wal-Hijra appeared for the first time in the 1960s as a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Quintessential sleepers, its members were allowed to flout Islamic injunctions in order to blend in with the infidel societies which they target.
The faithful therefore shaved their beards, imbibed alcohol and even visited topless bars and used drugs as subterfuges to conceal their mission, which was not only to kill Westerners, but also apostates. In the belief that the ends justify any means, they were allowed to steal, kidnap, carry out forced marriages and assassinate individuals who did not conform to their beliefs.
The movement was unstructured, operating through small cells, each with its own "emir."
Takfir sets up a Sinai command base complete with smuggling ring
Taking advantage of the military junta's lax grip on authority in Cairo, the resurrected Takfiris have established a Sinai command center, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report. It is located in the small village of Kariya near Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai.
Most other Al Qaida-associated groups in central Sinai are fluid bands of local Bedouin and Al Qaida fugitives from Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Sudan. The Kariya group in contrast consists of Muslim Brotherhood members who are using the revolution to rebuild the Al-Takfir wal-Hijra organization in association with al Qaeda and recruit followers from among the local Bedouin, the Palestinians of Gaza and Libyans.
Their location in northern Sinai permits them to use their links with al Qaeda in Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to establish a thriving new smuggling network running from Benghazi in Libya through the Mediterranean coast of Sinai up to the Persian Gulf.
Northern Sinai is today a main hub for the smuggling of weapons, drugs and stolen European cars, including entire shipments of vehicles straight from the assembly line which drop off along the way. The profits are shared out among an assortment of Libyan rebels, Egyptian Muslim Brothers and Al Qaida in Libya and Sinai.
Campaigning for an Islamic republic in Sinai
3. The military rulers in Cairo dispatched reinforcements to northern Sinai after arresting five Takfiris for the attacks on El Arish and the gas pipeline. Nonetheless, pamphlets calling for the transformation of Sinai into an Islamic republic were circulated in El Arish mosques this week during the Taraweeh prayer ending each day's Ramadan fast.
The publication, entitled "A statement from Al Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula," includes verses from the Koran proclaiming Islam the true religion that must be pursued. The Egyptian-Israel peace treaty of Camp David which stipulated the demilitarization of Sinai was denounced, together with the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The writers also questioned the authority of Egypt's "Supreme Council of the Armed Forces" to suspend drug smuggling to Sinai.