At the height of the Iraq War, the U.S. intelligence agencies got hold of a secret letter dated July 9, 2005, written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then deputy head of al-Qaida, to the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The 15-page letter in Arabic was published by the director of U.S. national intelligence. Since then, Zawahiri has become the head of al-Qaida, after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. With all the talk today about the growing presence of al-Qaida in Sinai, which increased with last week’s lethal attack on the Egyptian-Israeli border, the 2005 letter is important to look back on because it lays out how Zawahiri views the future strategy of al-Qaida.
In his letter, Zawahiri dismissed the importance of the wars in which many of al-Qaida’s recruits had engaged in the 1990s: “As for the battles that are going on in the far-flung regions of the Islamic world, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia, they are just the groundwork and the vanguard of the major battles which have begun in the heart of the Islamic world.” Instead, he stressed the importance of al-Qaida’s establishing itself in “the heart of the Islamic world,” which he defined as “the Levant and Egypt.” He viewed Iraq mainly as a jumping-off point for spreading al-Qaida to its neighbors, which would lead to “the clash with Israel” at a later stage.
Zawahiri’s focus on Egypt is not at all surprising. He was born in the suburbs of Cairo in 1951 to a well-accomplished Egyptian family, and joined the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of 14. He helped form the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al-Qaida. He was arrested for involvement in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later fled Egypt, moving first to Saudi Arabia and then to Afghanistan. In 1995, he wrote an article, “The Way to Jerusalem Passes Through Cairo,” in which he presented his thesis that the Arab regimes needed to be overthrown before it was possible to destroy Israel.
Zawahiri now sees the “Arab Spring” making his strategy far more feasible. He issued a message this month saying that Islamic fighters had been held back by “borders and restrictions … sanctified by our rulers.” However, the uprising against the Arab leaders has created a number of areas where a vacuum of authority exists, which has been exploited by al-Qaida affiliates. In late July, a force of nearly 100 armed rebels, carrying flags with Islamic slogans, attacked an Egyptian police station in the port town of El-Arish, killing five Egyptians. According to the newspaper Al-Ahram, of the 15 men arrested on July 30 in connection with that incident, 10 were Palestinians. Many Egyptian police stations in Sinai had also previously been attacked along with the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan, which has now been disrupted five times. And a new organization was announced called “al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula.” It is too early to judge whether there is any real organization behind this declaration.
What is happening across Sinai is that an assortment of Palestinian organizations from the Gaza Strip, which identify to varying degrees with al-Qaida, are now active there. Operating from Sinai, it was mainly the Popular Resistance Committees, collaborating with Egyptian Islamists, who killed eight Israelis last week along the Israeli-Egyptian border. The Committees was originally founded in 2000 by former members of the Preventive Security Forces of Mohammed Dahlan, but the group later cut its ties to Fatah and adopted an ideology closer to that of al-Qaida. (The military commander of El-Arish said on Egyptian television last month that Dahlan’s men were involved in the July attack, which might indicate that the force had Palestinian elements connected to the Popular Resistance Committees.
In 2006, there was a split in the Committees led to the formation of Jaish al-Islam, which sees itself as a wing of al-Qaida. That group has kidnapped Western hostages in Gaza and demanded the release of an al-Qaida activist in Britain. A joint unit of Jaish al-Islam, the Popular Resistance Committees and Hamas abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. In January 2011, Egypt’s interior minister accused Jaish al-Islam of attacking a Coptic Church in Alexandria, killing 25 Egyptians, and planning many other attacks on Egyptian soil. He linked Jaish al-Islam to the February 2009 attack on the Khan al-Khalili Bazzar in Cairo, as well. He explained in an interview in Al-Ahram that the al-Qaida threat was being directed through the Internet, adding that an Egyptian al-Qaida operative admitted, under interrogation, that he had visited the Gaza Strip and coordinated al-Qaida attacks in Egypt proper with Palestinian activists.
What emerges from the previous analysis is that al-Qaida’s growing interest in Sinai is not just a threat to Israel, but a threat to the internal security of Egypt itself. True, there have been difficulties in the relations between Israel and Egypt lately, especially after the recent deaths of Egyptian security personnel along the tense border between the two countries. But the need for both countries to continue their cooperation, given their joint interests, should help protect their relationship despite the more challenging period they face ahead.