Without a Trace

 A report that Iran may have been involved in the 2005 kidnapping and murder of Egypt’s top diplomat in Iraq has raised fresh questions about his disappearance. It has also given new energy to his daughter’s quest to keep her father’s memory alive
By  Manal el-Jesri

WAS THERE IRANIAN involvement in the kidnapping and apparent murder of Ihab El-Sherif, the man who was Egypt’s top diplomat in Iraq at the time of his disappearance in the summer of 2005?

Sources in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the nation’s Foreign Intelligence Service believe El-Sherif was abducted and later killed by terrorists from Al-Qaeda in Iraq in July 2005, but a story carried in January by Al-Ahram, the nation’s leading daily, claimed Iran may have had a hand in the high-profile case.

The news item quoted an unnamed source as saying there was new information suggesting that Iranian intelligence operatives had at least helped plan El-Sherif’s abduction. A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly denied the news, only to later deny his denial, quietly leaving open the possibility that it was indeed true.

Believed by some, ridiculed by others, the report thrust El-Sherif’s story back into the news, and his diplomat’s daughter knew just what to do. Few twentysomethings understand the power of the media better than Inji Ihab El-Sherif, who has just graduated with a degree in mass communications from Sixth of October University and is now interning at Orbit.

“I talk to everyone who wants to write or do something about Baba. I do not want people to forget,” she says.

Shortly after El-Sherif’s reported kidnapping, the Egyptian government confirmed that the director of the nation’s mission to Iraq had been killed by his abductors. While official funeral services were held and attended by top government officials, doubts still lingered as authorities admitted they had no proof of his death.

Hadi Mizban
In this 2005 file photo, an Iraqi guard stands outside the Egyptian embassy in Baghdad. Ihab El-Sherif had only been in Iraq a few months before his abduction.

“There is no evidence that El-Sherif is either alive or dead,” Egypt Today quoted a top Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying in August 2005. “I cannot think of any reason why someone would say he has killed somebody and he actually has not.”

El-Sherif had only been in war-torn Iraq a few months when he was captured. A video posted on the website of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group showed the ambassador, a veteran diplomat and star of the diplomatic corps, blindfolded and calmly answering questions from his captors about his identity and job.

“We, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, announce that the judgment of God has been implemented against the Ambassador of Egypt,” claimed a statement attributed to the group later posted to the internet. “Oh, enemy of God, Ihab El-Sherif, this is your punishment in this life.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq was led at the time by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who has since been killed by American forces.

El-Sherif had previously served as a senior Egyptian diplomat in Israel, one of the reasons his captors claimed made him a target.

His body has never been found.

Karim Kadim
An Iraqi Interior Ministry soldier guards insurgents suspected in El-Sherif’s kidnapping after their arrest in September 2005.

This winter’s allegations of Iranian involvement came as a shock to Inji. “I really do not care to know who killed my father,” she says. “If you bring my father’s killer right here, I would not kill him. God is great, and He will torture these people in His own way.”

What really hurt El-Sherif’s family was that they read the news in the papers like everybody else. “I do not care for politics, and I do not understand it, but if a newspaper like Al-Ahram has published this news, then they must have their sources. My question is: Is Baba’s name a toy for them to play with?” she asks, a veiled reference to questions some have raised about whether allegations of Iranian involvement were levied to heighten tensions between Iran and Egypt.

In constant contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Inji has always been told that Egypt would never forget her father.

“They say they are working on his case. They tell us they will avenge him. So far, though, we have not been not told anything concrete,” Inji says.

Still, the first anniversary of El-Sherif’s disappearance passed last July without much notice, save for a few lines in the daily press and a picture posted by Inji in the obituaries. “The ministry called. They said the minister wanted to hold a memorial celebration for my dad, but then they did not call back, and no celebration took place,” she recounts.

Today, Inji says the headlines generated by allegations of Iranian involvement in her father’s disappearance gave her a chance to remind the nation who her dad was and of what happened to him.

“When he was told he was going to go to Iraq, we were all afraid for him. He was going to be the director of Egypt’s mission to there, [taking on] the duties of an ambassador. His last post was to Israel, where we had stayed for four years. He tried to allay my fears regarding Iraq and told us that he would have tight security,” she recalls.

El-Sherif was kidnapped barely two months into his tour.

“The ministry called and told us this news. We were told not to talk to the press, but a few days later, we were allowed to talk to the Egyptian Satellite Channel. We were told to send a message to his captors. Until today, I do not know why they told us to talk to this channel. I believe my father was already dead by then. We discovered this a few hours later,” Inji recounts.

Although the official story was that El-Sherif was kidnapped while on his way to buy the morning papers, his daughter has her doubts.

“I am certain he was kidnapped from the residence,” she says. “Someone must have betrayed him. To begin with, embassies receive all the newspapers as a matter of course — they’re delivered. Add to that the fact he was wearing a training suit? My father never went out unless he was dressed in a suit. He always took his cameras.”

A renowned travel writer with four books to his credit, El-Sherif “would take two cameras with him even if he went out to buy bread. When we received his belongings, we found his phone, cameras and keys among them. He could not have gone out without them,” she argues.

El-Sherif’s kidnapping and apparent murder has been shrouded in mystery from the very start. “We asked the ministry to tell us how he was killed. We asked if they saw his body, or if we could get it back. They answered, ‘We know nothing about it.’ I know why he was killed,” she says. “I believe it was because those who killed him believed Egypt was a traitor and an agent for the US.”

While the Al-Zarqawi group initially claimed responsibility for the ambassador’s kidnapping, it later said it was not responsible for his death.

“It was unlike them not to state their demands when they kidnap someone. They did not do so in Baba’s case. I believe he was released, but was later killed by another group,” Inji theorizes.

Another strange incident took place weeks after El-Sherif’s assassination, she says: “Following the Sharm El-Sheikh bombings [which took place July 23 and in which 88 people were killed and over 150 injured], footage of my father speaking about Israel was released on Al-Jazeera. He spoke about the fact that Israelis come to Egypt without the need for a visa, in addition to a lot of political information I cannot really remember. It aired only a couple of times. In this video, he was not wearing a blindfold, and was talking directly to the camera,” she remembers.

To this day, El-Sherif’s family has not received the ambassador’s body. “That was one of my main public pleas in the beginning. But after his first anniversary passed without much attention, I stopped asking for anything,” Inji says.

Following the apparent assassination, El-Sherif’s name was mentioned in all of Egypt’s mosques and by the faithful around the world. “That was one thing that made me feel happy. People really felt he was a shaheed [a martyr] who was killed for his country, not a so-called martyr who has killed thousands,” Inji says.

All she wants now is for her father’s memory to be kept alive.

“I do not want him to be forgotten. He was killed in the line of duty. Is this too much to ask? My mother cannot understand why I insist on talking to the press. But I studied journalism and I know how important it is. I want everyone to know who my father was, and what he did for his country.

“I will keep talking about him,” she says.

Inji Ihab El-Sherif is currently setting up a website to keep her father’s memory alive.  et

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