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III. Who are the Jihadists?

Most of the men rendered to Egypt were or were alleged to have been affiliated with one of the two main groups that carried out attacks against Egyptian security forces and government officials as well as civilians in the 1990s. The armed militants who eventually coalesced into Egypt’s al-Jihad [or al-Gihad] al-Islami (Islamic Jihad) and al-Gama`a Islamiyya (Islamic Group) first emerged in the early and mid-1970s.

In the mid- and late 1980s many went to Afghanistan to fight in the campaign to overthrow the Soviet-backed government there, an effort that had the full support of the United States as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab governments allied with the U.S. But both groups had reasons for leaving Egypt besides supporting the Afghan cause. “We wanted to secure the group’s leadership from detention or liquidation,” Tala`at Fu’ad Qassim, a leader of al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, said in an interview in the early 1990s. In addition, “all those [who traveled to Afghanistan] would return to Egypt, after gaining military expertise in combat, and would train their brothers in the organization.”21 In the early 1990s, following the overthrow of the former government in Kabul, many militants returned to their home countries, including Egypt, to continue the armed struggle there.

Al-Jihad al-Islami, whose leaders “opted for a highly conspiratorial, elitist, and militarist strategy,” was effectively dismantled with the arrest and mass military court trials of hundreds of suspected adherents in 1993 and 1994, following assassination attempts against the prime minister and the interior minister.22

Some of the groups that became al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya had origins in the relatively impoverished Upper Egypt provinces like Asyut.23 They initially enjoyed tacit support from the government of Anwar Sadat in his campaign to neutralize leftist and Nasserist opponents on university campuses, but broke with Sadat following the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978 because, in their view, it failed to address Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That, and the subsequent crackdown against them by the government, led some to align themselves with the Muslim Brothers, which had already adopted a non-violent stance of opposition to the government, and others to adopt a “jihadist” armed struggle position.

Unlike al-Jihad al-Islami, however, the Gama`a also established social welfare programs in poor neighborhoods and, through proselytizing and intimidation, attempted to establish an “Islamic order” in areas where it had a strong presence.24 Al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya’s confrontation with the state, which included numerous attacks against foreign tourists, culminated in the September 1997 bombing of a tourist bus in downtown Cairo and  the November 1997 massacre of fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians at the Hatsheput Temple in Luxor. In March 1999 the group’s governing Consultative Council issued a formal cease-fire proclamation, and 2002 saw the publication of four volumes of writings by imprisoned Gama`a leaders renouncing the views they formerly held, as illustrated by titles such as The Prohibition of Extremism in Religion and Shedding Light on the Mistakes of Holy War. In September 2003, the authorities released three top Gama`a leaders along with nearly 1,000 others.25

Many of the militants living in exile took a similar route, and appear to have severed ties with their former colleagues and begun new lives abroad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former Jihad leader who has emerged as Usama Bin Laden’s top lieutenant, may be the exception rather than the rule. The Egyptian authorities have nevertheless pursued many of those remaining abroad regardless of whether or not they had formally broken with the remains of the now-defeated insurgency. It did so with little regard for its obligations under international law. And it did so often with assistance from the United States.

The Egyptian state had responded to the armed insurgency with bare-knuckle tactics and brute force. Emergency Law 162, dating from 1958 and in effect without interruption since 1981, was augmented by a Ministry of Interior order in October 1981, following Sadat’s assassination, that allowed the imprisonment of any persons “under suspicion of any activity that compromises the public security or public order or threatens national unity or social stability.”26 The state’s powers of arbitrary detention were further strengthened by Law 97 of 1992, known as Law to Combat Terrorism.27 Thousands of Islamist suspects were detained without trial under these laws. Some estimates put the number of Islamist detainees by the late 1990s as high as 35,000.28 From December 1992 to November 1995, there were mass trials before military tribunals in which hundreds of Gama`a and Jihad suspects received harsh sentences, including seventy-one death sentences, thirteen of them in absentia. One hundred and forty four defendants were acquitted, but in most cases the Egyptian interior ministry continued holding them under the emergency law.29  An estimated 15,000 persons, including scores of lawyers, are still in detention under Emergency Law provisions.30

After the fall of Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government in 1992, Pakistan started to crack down on Arab militants on its soil in the early 1990s. With the insurgency sputtering out in Egypt, militants went to fight in conflicts in Tajikistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Yemen. Others, often seeking to leave the fighting behind, made their way to Western Europe.

“In those days, an Islamist could just buy a ticket, get on a plane, and go to Europe. He would tear up his passport on arrival and apply for political asylum,” said Muhammad Salah, Al-Hayat’s Cairo bureau chief and close observer of the militant Islamist groups. “This would take a few years of legal proceedings, but in most cases, they would be allowed to stay.”31

But those seeking safe haven would not always head to Europe, Salah said:

In other cases, they would go to African or Arab countries. They would get in based on forged documents – they were good at making documents – then find someone who was sympathetic to the cause, and find work through them. This was happening in Yemen, in Sudan, and in other Arab countries.32

[21] Hisham Mubarak, Al-Irhabiyun Qadimun [The Terrorists are Coming] (Cairo: Al-Mahrussa, 1995),  pp. 272-3. A version of Mubarak’s interview with Qassim was published in English (“What Does the Gama`a Islamiyya Want?”) in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 314-326. 

[22] See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Islamism in North Africa II: Egypt’s Opportunity,” Middle East and North Africa Briefing (April 20, 2004), pp. 4-6. A further series of arrests and trials took place in 1998.

[23] See Mamoun Fandy, “Egypt’s Islamic Group: regional revenge?”, Middle East Journal v. 48, no. 4 (Winter 1994), pp. 607-625.

[24] ICG, “Islamism in North Africa II,” pp. 6-7. These campaigns included attacks on Christian (Coptic) communities living in these areas.

[25] Ibid., p. 8.

[26] Ministry of Interior, Order No. 1 (1981), provided to Human Rights Watch by the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (Cairo), translated by Human Rights Watch.

[27] The official name is the Law Amending Some Provisions of the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code, the Law Establishing State Security Courts, the Law on Secrecy of Bank Accounts, and the Law on Weapons and Ammunition.

[28] Hossam al-Hamalawy, “The Forgotten Victims of Another War on Terror,” Islam Online, November 6, 2003: 

[29] The Returnees from Albania: Violence Recesses, while Military Tribunals Continue, EOHR report on the Military Tribunal Case 8/1998, April 18, 1999.

[30] Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, “Detention and Detainees in Egypt 2003,” (Cairo, 2003), p. 18.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Salah, Cairo, December 9, 2004.

[32] Ibid.

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