CAIRO, Egypt, AP – Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader said in a new videotape aired Saturday that an Egyptian militant group has joined the terror network.
It was the first time that al-Qaeda has announced a branch in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation. The Egyptian group, Gamaa Islamiya, is apparently a revived version of a militant group of the same name that waged a campaign of violence in Egypt during the 1990s but was crushed in a government crackdown.
“We announce to the Islamic nation the good news of the unification of a great faction of the knights of the Gamaa Islamiya … with the al-Qaida group,” Ayman al-Zawahri said in the videotape aired on the Al-Jazeera news network.
Al-Zawahri, who is Egyptian, said the Egyptian group was led by Mohammed al-Islambouli, the younger brother of Khaled al-Islambouli, the militant who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and was later executed.
The video included a statement by Mohammed al-Hakayma, identified as another top leader of the revived Gamaa. Al-Hakayma was shown talking in a grove of palm trees.
“A large number of the brothers have decided who are still on the same genuine path of Gamaa Islamiya and its principles, headed by the holy warrior Mohammed al-Islambuli, decided to unite with al-Qaeda, considering it one of the most important seekers of jihad (holy war) of this era,” al-Hakayma said.
Mohammed al-Islambouli left Egypt in the mid-1980s and was believed to have been in Afghanistan working with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups.
It was not clear how much of a following the new version of Gamaa Islamiya has in Egypt. Its previous incarnation was largely eliminated by the government crackdown, and its leaders later announced a truce from prison. It has not claimed any attacks since a 1997 attack on a pharaonic site in the southern city of Luxor that killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians.
Rashwan said al-Zawahri’s claim was likely just propaganda.
“This is media talk from Ayman al-Zawahri. The Gamaa Islamiya has its own leadership and they said they have already rejected joining al-Qaeda in the past,” he said. “Gamaa Islamiya has no command outside Egypt. They have dissolved in Egypt.”
Egypt has seen a string of terror bombings against tourist resorts in the Sinai Peninsula since October 2004, killing 98 people. Egyptian authorities have said those attacks were carried out by a group calling itself Monotheism and Jihad, with links to Palestinian militants.
Many experts believe Monotheism and Jihad is inspired by al-Qaida and may have some operational links, but the Egyptian government has not announced any connection.
The excerpts of the video played by Al-Jazeera did not mention any imminent threats of attacks in Egypt. In the video, al-Zawahri wore a white turban and was in front of a plain black background.
Al-Zawahri was once a member of Islamic Jihad, the other main Egyptian militant group that led violence in the 1990s alongside the original Gamaa Islamiya. In the late 1990s, he moved to Afghanistan and joined forces with bin Laden, bringing a number of Egyptian militants with him.
In the video, al-Hakayma, wearing glasses and holding an automatic weapon, said former members had decided to revive the group and rejected their jailed leaders’ adherence to a truce. He vowed loyalty to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Gamaa’s former leader who is in a U.S. prison after his 1995 conviction in a conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks.
Al-Hakayma was once a “second tier” leader of the original Gamaa, Montasser al-Zayat, an Islamist lawyer who once represented many militants in court, told Al-Jazeera.
It was al-Zawahri’s second message in just over a week and his 11th this year. The Egyptian-born militant appeared in a video on July 27 in which he called for Muslims to unite in a holy war against Israel and to join the fighting in Lebanon and Gaza.