Spot Light on Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya is Egypt's largest militant group. At one point it had up to several thousand armed members. The organization is perhaps best known for killing 62 people, mostly foreigners, outside a tourist site in Luxor in 1997. The group's spiritual leader, the blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel al-Rahman, was jailed in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya has also joined the International Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an alliance formed in 1998 by al Qaeda and a number of other terrorist groups from the Muslim world.
An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya originally sought the overthrow of Egypt's secular regime and the creation of an Islamic state. However, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, its members believe only in violent jihad with no room for diplomatic compromise.
In recent years they have expanded their targets to include U.S. and allied interests abroad. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya formally organized in 1973 in the Upper Nile regions of Al-Minya, Asyu't, Qina, and Sohaj.
At first, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gave the group's members free reign, covertly supplying them with arms with which to defend themselves against potential attacks by Marxists or Nasserites. Quickly, they gained strong support among the university populations in both Cairo and Alexandria.
Sheikh Omar Abdel al-Rahman took the mantle of spiritual leader early on. He provided the moral basis for the group's money-making attacks on Christian shopkeepers and small-business owners by issuing fatwas - religious rulings that justify actions normally outlawed by the Koran.
By the mid-1970s, Sadat had changed his tactics regarding the country's Islamic militants, and he began rounding them up and putting them in jail. Al-Rahman fled to neighboring Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, where he found financial backers for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya.
While he was gone, the group gained further momentum and adherents after Sadat signed the 1977 Camp David agreement making peace with Israel. When al-Rahman returned in 1980, he issued a fatwa that provided the religious justification for the assassination of Sadat in 1981. Al-Rahman served six months for his role in the killing - avoiding a sterner sentence on a technicality.
Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, began a brutal campaign against Egypt's militant groups that lasted throughout the 1980s. His methods included false arrests, torture and executions.
Although fairly successful at curbing the number of violent attacks, this crackdown further radicalized the university-educated population who were also struggling under high unemployment. During this period, many Islamic militants fled abroad some to Afghanistan where they took part in the war against the Soviets. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya members fought alongside and forged bonds with other Islamic radical groups, including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, many of the Islamic fighters returned to their home countries. Back in Egypt the members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya started a campaign against the influences of Western culture. They carried out a number of attacks on tourists in 1992-1993 that killed dozens of people. Al-Rahman, who had immigrated to the United States, again provided the religious justification for these attacks by arguing that tourism in Egypt spread low morals and diseases such as AIDS.
Al-Rahman was arrested in the United States in 1993 in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing. In 1996, he and nine others were convicted for conspiring to destroy New York City landmarks, including the UN headquarters, the Federal Building, and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Throughout the 1990s, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya continued to attack tourists and other secular targets.
The group bombed theaters, bookstores, and banks. In 1995, the group allegedly joined forces with the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad in a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In September 1997, militants killed nine German tourists and their driver in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Two months later, the group killed 62 people at a tourist site in Luxor. In the wake of widespread public outcry over the killings, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya issued two statements - one asserted an end to attacks on civilians and foreigners, the second denied the validity of the first statement. A schism occurred and the group split into two factions. The more peaceful wing is headed by Mustafa Hamza, who has called for a unilateral cease fire. He is opposed by Rifa'i Taha Musa, a violent extremist who continues to advocate attacks on civilians.
In 1998, he signed bin Laden's fatwa calling for jihad against Americans and, in early 2001, he published a book in which he attempted to justify terrorist attacks that would cause mass casualties. He has since gone into hiding. There are conflicting reports about his current whereabouts.
A reinvigorated Egyptian government crackdown after the 1997 Luxor attack, combined with the group's ideological split, has shattered the organization. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya has not carried out an attack inside Egypt since August 1998. Today there are believed to be a few cells still operating in Egypt, Sudan, the United Kingdom and Yemen that are supported by funds from bin Laden, Iran and perhaps some Islamic nongovernm