Egyptian radicals comprise the senior leadership of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Washington is now moving to dismantle the network by removing bin Laden and his Egyptian lieutenants, but a new generation of extremists would likely replace these leaders and potentially cloud the picture that U.S. intelligence is trying to clarify.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ordered the military to interrogate 250 suspected Islamic radicals, including 170 alleged members of the outlawed militant group Gamaat al-Islamiyya, according to News 24, a South African news agency. The crackdown is aimed at preempting a surge of unrest in Egypt led by Islamic militants.
Egypt has a history of Islamic radicalism, and many of its adherents have intimate ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. In fact, Egyptians make up the single largest faction within al Qaeda and play a key role in its senior leadership. As a result, al Qaeda reflects the agenda and training of these Egyptian dissidents. Washington's knowledge of al Qaeda, gained through its relationship with Cairo, has proven useful in formulating a target list for its war on terrorism.
The intelligence, however, could prove to be a double-edged sword. Removing bin Laden's Egyptian lieutenants could allow a second tier of leaders to rise to the top, potentially altering the group's agenda and making it more difficult to identify and combat.
Saudi exile bin Laden is the leader of al Qaeda, but the group functions in large part because of a cadre of Egyptian dissidents and militants. For instance, Mohammed Atef, also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, is bin Laden's military chief. A former police officer in Egypt, Atef brings a wealth of knowledge of law enforcement and Egyptian intelligence techniques to the organization. He reportedly set up al Qaeda networks in East Africa and has been connected to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Time magazine reported Oct. 8.
Another key Egyptian is Ayman al-Zawahiri, a 50-year-old surgeon thought to be bin Laden's right-hand man. He founded the militant Egyptian Islamic Jihad and was jailed in connection with the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Al-Zawahiri comes from an affluent family with ties to the renowned Islamic university, Al Ahzar, and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He is also thought to have connections to wealthy patrons and Islamic radicals throughout the world.
Mustafa Ahmed Hamza is another important lieutenant. Hamza, a military commander for Gama'at Islamyyia, is a chief adviser to bin Laden and a key suspect in the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Currently thought to be in Afghanistan, Hamza worked closely with bin Laden in Sudan and is an experienced military commander, Egyptian state-run weekly Al-Ahram reports.
Other central Egyptian leaders include Mohammed Islambouli, the brother of Sadat assassin Khaled Islambouli; and Rifie Ahmed Taha, another military leader of Gamaat al-Islamiyya.
Many of al Qaeda's mid-level operatives are also Egyptian. For example, Ali Mohamed, who was among those convicted of involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, is a former Egyptian intelligence officer. Before his arrest for the bombings, Mohamed trained al Qaeda fighters in surveillance techniques in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the U.S. State Department.
Although al Qaeda members come from all over the Muslim world — including Algeria, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even the United States — it is the Egyptians that bring a cohesive agenda and operational focus. Many are former military, intelligence and police officials, and their unique experience is clearly reflected in the organization's far-flung networks and operational capabilities.
More important, perhaps, is the influence that they have over al Qaeda's agenda. Much like bin Laden himself, most of the Egyptians are dissidents. Their ultimate goal is not war with the United States or the West but the overthrow of their own governments. The Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States are a means to that end. By driving a wedge between Washington and Muslim governments like the one in Cairo, these militants hope to sever a relationship that brings billions in military aid and trade into these Middle Eastern nations and keeps the current regimes in power.
Decapitating al Qaeda is a logical goal for the United States. From a military standpoint, dismantling any organization is best accomplished by taking out its leadership.
In this case, however, the strategy presents a dilemma. Due to the close cooperation between Cairo and Washington, the United States now has a clear picture of who's who in al Qaeda. Were second-tier leaders to rise to the top — possibly from the ranks of groups like the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group or the Palestinian Asbat al-Ansar — Washington would face a whole new set of variables.
Washington might also find itself turning to nations like Iran and Syria for key intelligence on the new leadership. These are nations that, unlike Egypt, do not rely on Washington's good graces and have fewer reasons to provide intelligence.