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Al-Qaeda returns to Egypt under Iranian cover | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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With the rising of tension in several areas of the Middle East, Iran feels that nothing should detract it from its plan. On the contrary, it is seeking to take advantage of everything. In the past it invested in relations, particularly with al-Qaeda, and now it is time to reap the fruit.

At the time when the whole world knew that the United States would withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year, hoping that it would leave behind some troops or bases, it emerged that US President Barack Obama has not spoken to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki since February, and that contacts were only resumed following his recent surprising announcement that US troops would withdraw completely. Throughout this period of time, Iran was busy working on its investments at all levels. Once it was clear that Al-Maliki had carried out every order, Ayatollah Khamenei breathed a sigh and described the US withdrawal as a “new page” and a “golden victory”.

However, Iraq alone is not an adequate area for Iran`s activity. Iran is also seeking to manipulate other Arab areas for its plans. Egypt appears very important in this regard, a country which Iranian Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi has “attempted to reorder”.

A meeting was held last May in Tehran, between Atiyyah Allah al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader (who was later killed in July), and Heydar Moslehi. They agreed on a set of activities to infiltrate Egypt, to be carried out by active “Islamic Jihad” members of Egyptian origin. The aim was to promote Islamist movements, which would then support Iran’s regional policy. They discussed the cases of dozens of prominent “Islamic Jihad” militants whom Iran had released from prison along with their families. A number of them, most of whom were of Egyptian and Libyan origin, were released before the start of the revolutions in the Arab world, as part of a clandestine agreement between Iran and al-Qaeda. Others were released after the start of the disturbances, on the condition that they would join those who were already active in Egypt, and maintain contact with Iran.

However, Iran realized that the long-term objective of the al-Qaeda was to create an infrastructure in Egypt that would promote its dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate, something that is not in Iran`s interests.

During the Tehran meeting between Moslehi and al-Libi, the latter agreed to receive a sum of money to cover the cost of some necessary measures, including the cost of fake passports for those who had been released from Iranian prisons. Instructions were given by the Iranian intelligence services to those who had entered Egypt, through certain routes, to set up al-Qaeda cells and establish infrastructures to carry out activities and logistical work in order to destabilize Egypt, through tactics of sabotage and terrorist attacks. They were to take advantage of the weakness of the Egyptian security services (The Financial Times published a long report on Egypt on Saturday 29th October, in which Egyptian people complained of the decline in the role of the Egyptian security forces, and the open spread of drug smuggling). At the meeting, it was agreed that the funds should be used to purchase documents for those who had been recruited earlier in Egypt, in order for them to be sent to training camps, particularly in Sudan, and to be provided with equipment and weapons: explosives, machine guns, RPG missile-launchers and so on.

Until his death in July, Atiyyah al-Libi was in charge of coordinating relations between al-Qaeda and Tehran, through the instructions he was sending to the al-Qaeda infrastructure based in Iran. He was killed in North Waziristan by a drone-fired missile, and this deprived al-Qaeda of one of its most prominent visionaries. Following the dispersion of the Al-Qaeda leadership, as a result of the US campaign in Afghanistan in 2011, he had worked as the organization`s representative in Iran, and as the regional envoy of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.

In his book on Hezbollah, published in 2008, Al-Libi tried to convince his jihadist followers that Iran`s foreign policy was not based solely on religion, but that it was also pragmatic and opportunistic. In March, he wrote an open letter to the people of Misrata, Libya, in which he used his real name, Jamal Ibrahim Ashtawi al-Misrati. He called on the Libyan people to ensure the supremacy of Islam in governance, and enshrine Islamic Sharia in the constitution, as stated by al-Qaeda.

The returning members of Islamist organisations have benefited from the reforms introduced by the “new regime” in Egypt, which under an amnesty annulled the court sentences that had been issued against them, completely oblivious to the agreement that had been struck by Iran and al-Qaeda. Hence we witnessed the return of no fewer than four of the most prominent members of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya to Egypt after forty years. Among them was Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambouli, the brother of Khalid al-Islambouli who killed President Anwar al-Sadat, and was sentenced to death in the 1990s. His family and a great number of the leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya welcomed him at Cairo Airport in August. He surrendered to the representative of the Egyptian Army, and he will be tried in accordance with Egyptian laws.

Among other prominent returnees is Hussein Shamit, who was involved in the assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995. He returned with al-Islambouli, and was acquitted of all accusations of terrorism. Ibrahim Muhammad al-Saghir was also pardoned. He was known as ” the religious authority” in al-Qaeda, and returned to Cairo in May with his wife and three of his children.

As a condition for their release from Iranian prisons, these men agreed to be Iran`s mouthpieces in Egypt, and to encourage the emergence of radical Islamist regimes in Arab countries, particularly in Egypt. As before, al-Qaeda promised not to undertake any sabotage activity against Iran, and work with it against Arab regimes.

The junior members and the less known figures in the Islamic Jihad organisation were smuggled out to Egypt through other routes, without the knowledge of the authorities. Among them was Hisham Ramadan, who returned secretly to Egypt from Iran after spending years in Afghanistan.

The secret deal between Iran and al-Qaeda was no secret to the US intelligence service. On the 28th July, the US Treasury announced sanctions against six individuals, whom, according to the US announcement, were members of the Iran-based Izz-al Din Abdul Aziz al-Khalil network, which was helping to transfer funds to al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The announcement compliments US Executive Order 13224, which imposed sanctions on organizations that support terrorism. US Treasury Secretary David Cohen said that part of the “secret deal” between Iran, the “leading country in the funding of terrorism”, and al-Qaeda, was Tehran`s approval of the transfer of terrorist funds through Iran.

This coming month will be decisive. The Egyptian elections will be held. The IAEA report is expected to reveal noticeable progress in the Iranian (military) nuclear program. Iran may try to anticipate reactions by launching an operation in an Arab country, after its attempts failed in Washington. For its part, Washington is concerned over possible Israeli military action against Iran following the publication of the IAEA report, as any military action would not necessarily converge with US interests. US Republican and Democrat hawks are pressing for an Israeli military strike against Iran before the US withdrawal from Iraq. The Syrians and the Iranians, and their supporters in Lebanon in particular, are offering counter threats, saying that thousands of missiles will strike Israel if the Syrian regime is threatened, or if a NATO attack is launched against it.

What is being talked about behind closed doors is that Iran is not concerned with the interests of Arab countries; it sees them as mere arenas to carry out its plans. A US journalist put it to me this way: Iran and Israel agree on one thing, which is to maintain the status quo in Syria, but keep President Bashar al-Assad weak. The official told me that Israel will not attack Iranian nuclear facilities, and Iran will not attack Israel with nuclear weapons. Iranian nuclear capability grants legitimacy to Israel’s nuclear capability.

In conclusion, if Arab countries are not attacked by Israel, they will certainly be attacked by Iran, and al-Qaeda is ready to help.