A Leading Jihadist is Dead

By J.Millard Burr
Thursday, April 28th, 2016 @ 11:32PM

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The Gama’a takes its direction in accordance with the predecessors [salaf], and is united under a single intellectual banner which aims to isolate the submission of people to their Lord to the exclusion of others, and to establish an Islamic viceregency (khilafat) in accordance with the prophetic guidance, and to seek the pleasure of Allah, the Lord of the worlds. – Refai Ahmed Taha, Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya 

On 6 April a drone strike in the area of Idlib, Syria, killed Egyptian Rifai Ahmed Taha, a predominant member of the mujahideen.  The killing of Taha (AKA Refa’I Ahmed Taha Musa, Ahmad Refa’I Taha, Abu Yasser al-Masri, Issam Ali Muhammad Abdallah, etc.), ended the career of a jihadist who for more than a quarter-century was considered by Western intelligence agencies to be one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. Fifteen years after it had caught Taha for the first time, “US intelligence managed to hunt him down again.” 

Although Taha’s name was unfamiliar outside of the Middle East, the drone strike ended the life of an unyielding Islamist. For decades, he was known throughout that region as the leader of the “terrorist wing” of the Egyptian “Islamic Group,” the al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GAI).  He is also known as the successor to Omar Abdel-Rahmen, his former teacher after the notorious blind sheik departed the Middle East for the United States in 1990.  Though not as colorful or outspoken as Sheikh Omar, and lacking the Sheikh’s religious credentials, Taha still served for the next ten years as the GAI’s éminence grise and mastermind of a score of terrorist plots.   

Background

Rifai Ahmed Taha joined the GAI in the nineteen seventies apparently while at college in Cairo.   He apparently did so about 1978, the same year that his teacher the blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman joined.  (At that time Omar, a Salafist by conviction, was employed as a professor of Shari’a studies at Al-Azhar in Cairo.)  Sheikh Omar would soon emerge as the GAI’s Salafist ideologue while Taha would be known as both a proficient planner and battlefield commander. 

The extensive roundup that followed the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 led to the jailing of Sheikh Omar.  And faced with an enemy bent on the destruction of a military dictatorship, Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, used his police and intelligence service to either jail or drive from Egypt most active GAI members.  Taha — like many other Egyptian Islamist revolutionaries — joined the stream of so-called “Arab-Afghans” who traveled to northern Pakistan; there Taha joined the Jihad against the USSR whose troops had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.  Shortly after arriving in Peshawar, Taha served as a GAI field commander.

By 1984, the GAI was a small but significant presence in Afghanistan.  In Egypt, it was thanks in large part to the assistance of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) that the GAI slowly managed to revive its clandestine network. 

By 1988 and the departure of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was aware that returning Afghan-Arabs posed a potentially dangerous threat to his government.  To obviate the problem he began to block their return.

Aware that he could be jailed at any time in 1989 the GAI’s Sheikh Omar fled Egypt for the Sudan.  On his way, he stopped-off in Peshawar where he met  Mohammed Shawki al-Islambouli, a former student of his at Assiut University in Upper Egypt.  Islambouli, yet another “Mujahid Sheikh,” was the brother of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli, and had arrived in Afghanistan in the mid-nineteen eighties.  There he had worked closely with Ahmad Taha to direct GAI activity. The two men and Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar served as guides when Sheikh Omar visited the Russian front in 1985.  By then Taha was well known in Arab-Afghan circles, but he was hardly a known quantity in the West.  Omar’s visit may, in fact, have settled responsibility for the GAI leadership, including the creation of a shura (council) that would govern GAI affairs once he would leave the Middle East. 

Certainly, Ahmed Taha was a difficult man to pin down.  Even his birth date (24 June 1954) was questionable.  In fact, little is known of Taha’s last years in Afghanistan; however, by 1988, it seems clear that he was associated with Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi from a wealthy family who was known for funding Arab-Afghan mujahideen camps in Afghanistan.  In fact, Ahmed Taha was close to Bin Laden’s guru, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.  And while he was rarely labeled the GAI’s paramount leader, Egyptian media (especially Al-Ahram) would leave little doubt that until his capture in 2001 he was the most important GAI field commander

The GAI Post-Afghanistan

After leaving Egypt for the Sudan, Sheikh Omar soon found his freedom of movement in jeopardy.  As Mubarak despised the Sudan military dictatorship, the Sheikh’s appearance in Khartoum only increased the tension that existed between the two countries. 

Shortly after arriving at Khartoum Sheikh Omar had obtained a visa from the United States embassy in Khartoum that allowed him to enter the United States.  Thus, Sheikh Omar stayed but a short time in Khartoum before making his way to the United States in early 1990.

With Omar’s departure Muhamad Shawqi Islambouli was named paramount GAI leader in the Middle East.  It was rumored that the decision was reached at Peshawar when on his way to the United States sheik Omar met with Islambouli and Taha and other mujahideen leaders.  Of concern was the training of GAI recruits.  In 1989 Adli Yusuf, a GAI military chief had opened the first GAI training camp in Afghanistan, and observers felt the meeting involved the financing and logistics needed to support GAI training camps which were supervised by the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

It was also In 1990, and after Omar’s departure, that the GAI began a campaign of direct attacks on Egyptian government officials.  It was responsible for the assassination of the speaker of parliament Rifa’at al-Mahgoub,  and then initiated a series of attacks on policemen and tourists that would eventually cause the death of hundreds. 

Taha  in The Sudan 

With the GAI leadership scattered, Refai Taha and a small knot of GAI jihadists soon found a home in the Sudan.  There, a favorably disposed and nascent Islamist military government had seized power in July 1989.  In 1991, thanks to the effort of Sudanese politician and noted Islamist Hasan al-Turabi, Osama Bin Laden enjoyed a comfortable pied-à-terre where he could plot an attack on the West without interference.  Ahmed Taha, whose presence was never really admitted in the Sudan, was associated with Bin Laden in Khartoum where both were protected by Turabi.  And both joined Turabi’s Popular Arab and Islamic Conference (AKA The Terrorist Internationale) that held its first general meeting in Khartoum in April 1991.

 In response to the GAI assassination campaign in Egypt, in 1992 Mubarak initiated a counter-attack and many GAI activists and other jihadists were jailed.  Most of the GAI who escaped Mubarak’s net joined the nascent GAI camps that had been created in Yemen and the Sudan.  In Khartoum Taha (then better known as Abu Yasser al-Masri) was serving as GAI paymaster with funds likely provided by Osama Bin Laden himself.  There was, however, a quid pro quo, and beginning in 1993 many GAI members joined the jihad in the Balkans where the notorious Fuad Kassem served as their field commander.    

Turabi undoubtedly understood that the New York World Trade Center bombing of 26 February 1993 was the opening salvo in a jihad war that would directly attack Western targets.  The bombing which was intended to send the North Tower crashing into the South Tower while killing tens of thousands would create nothing but problems for the Egyptian GAI.  Sheikh Omar was arrested and tried as a conspirator (although Bin Laden would remain an unindicted co-conspirator).  It had an immediate impact on the work of the GAI and on Mohammed Shawki Islambouli who was then directing operations from Peshawar.  With the Pakistan government under pressure from Washington, in May Islambouli moved to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and by August, the followers of Sheikh Abd al-Rahman had all left Peshawar.  In effect, the situation was saved by Sudan’s Turabi, who served as an advance party and welcoming committee of one for the nearly 500 Afghan-Arabs who would be transported from Pakistan to Khartoum. 

Mubarak:  The Assassination Attempt   

It was the 26 June 1995 attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa that led to disastrous consequences for the GAI.  It planned and participated in an attack whose failure led to the scattering of both GAI and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad mujahideen of Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Both groups had found a safe-haven in the Sudan.  It was the end of a close relationship, and their camps were closed.  Many GAI chose asylum in Europe; some joined the mujahideen war of the warlords in Afghanistan.  The Balkans was out, as the war in Bosnia was winding down.  Returning to Egypt was out of the question as Mubarak began yet a new roundup of GAI supporters. It was only the emergence of the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that saved the GAI from total isolation or from extinction itself.    

Mubarak publicly blamed Sudan and Iran for masterminding the attack on his life, charging that Egyptian gunmen belonging to the GAI and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egypt Islamic Jihad had rented an Addis Ababa villa where they plotted the murder.  While Sudanese President  Omar al-Bashir responded that the suspect Egyptians had left the Sudan months before the attack, his credibility was ineluctably damaged when it was found that a villa used by plotters had been rented to Mohammed Siraj, an Egyptian GAI mujahideen in the pay of Sudanese intelligence chief Nafi’ Ali Nafi.   Eventually, Siraj was labeled the “mastermind” of the Addis Ababa operation by none other than Sabri Ibrahim al-Attar, an important Egypt Islamic Jihad leader who had trained in the Sudan.  Mustafa Hamza, a known GAI terrorist, wanted in Jordan, was also involved.  Hamza and members of his GAI group either resided at Khartoum or used it as a safe-haven.  In the end, no mention was made of Taha, although almost certainly he approved the attack – if in fact he had not organized it. 

The GAI suffered a second blow in 1995 when Italian counterterrorism police raided a GAI guesthouse and headquarters in Milan.  Police uncovered substantial information on GAI operations in Italy, the Balkans, and in Europe itself.  One find eventually led to the capture of terrorists in Albania (including Zawahiri’s brother) in mid-1998.  In turn, after being shipped to Egypt, they provided substantial information on GAI activity, including aspects of the GAI active in Egypt. 

The Egyptian government claimed that Taha still resided in the Sudan in late 1995.  However, he departed Khartoum at about the time that Bin Laden was flown from the Sudan to Pakistan in May  1996.  Tangentially, Mustafa Hamza, a GAI and close associate of Taha, was reported to have “moved along with him.” 

In April 1996 elements within the GAI made an abrupt volte-face, urging an end to the attacks in Egypt (the inner jihad) and instead calling for jihad against Israel and the United States (the outer jihad).  Taha, then the head of the GAI Shura Council opposed the move, as did Zawahiri and his Egypt Islamic Jihad. 

N.B.  At this time, and for the next five years the Taha (GAI) – Zawahiri (EIJ) relationship, always complex, cooled dramatically once a splinter element of the GAI had chosen the path of peace in Egypt.  This occurred even though Taha continued to enjoin the jihad.  (For an excellent overview of this struggle of egos see Montasser al-Zayyat’s The Road to Al-Qaeda, Pluto Press, 2004, pp. 73-92.) 

GAI Annals

November 1997.  Mustafa Hamza planned and directed the Luxor massacre, during which dozens of foreign tourists were killed.  The act occurred just as the Mubarak government hoped to influence imprisoned and exiled GAI to reach a modus vivendi.   The Luxor Massacre left 63 dead including tourists who were beheaded and disemboweled.  The attack proposed by GAI leaders in exile sought to undermine the Egyptian government’s July 1997 “Nonviolence Initiative” that was designed to put an end to the Islamist terrorist campaigns that had since 1992 killed hundreds of Egyptians and foreigners since. 

Taha, then the GAI military leader, and  Mustafa Hamza, then labeled the GAI’s new “emir,” hoped a massive terror attack would impact Egypt’s  tourist economy and destroy Mubarak’s “Nonviolence Initiative.”   Instead, Egyptian public opinion overwhelmingly turned against the terrorists.   The day after the attack, Taha claimed — despite evidence to the contrary – that “the attackers intended only to take the tourists hostage.”  In the USA Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman blamed Israelis for the killings, while Zawahiri, not to be left out, blamed the Egyptian police.

February 1998.  Taha along with other Islamist leaders signed the fatwa (religious pronouncement) produced in Afghanistan and entitled “International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders.”  This was the fatwa bin Laden and his allies used to declare war on the West. It begins by quoting the Qur’an: “…slay the pagans wherever ye find them.”  The fatwa concludes that it is the “duty of every Muslim” to “kill Americans anywhere.” 

July 1998.  Taha issued a statement that he had never really signed the charter.  Rather, he claimed that for his purposes, Zawahiri, who had just joined al-Qaeda, had used his name without permission.  He did not object, however, to his inclusion

1998.  Taha in the US was only named an unindicted co-conspirator) in the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Though the U.S. named him only as a co-conspirator. 

March 1999.  GAI members chose to accept the government’s peace terms, and its Shura issued a decision to end all attacks both inside and outside Egypt.  This decision led in December to dissension in the organization.   The split led Taha and Mohammed Shawki Islambouli to resign from the GAI Shura Council. 

1999.  Taha was sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt, reportedly for the number of assassinations (actual and failed) the GAI had initiated. 

2000.  In late September Al Jazeera Television broadcast an al-Qaeda video that presented Taha sitting between Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.  Also present was Mohammed Abdel Rahman, the son of Sheikh Abdel Rahman.  Their purpose was to threaten revenge if the blind sheik was not released from prison in the USA.  It featured a statement by Mohammed Abdel Rahman. 

In November Taha was quoted in Asharq Al-Awsat bragging that the suicide attack that had badly damaged  the US destroyer Cole in a Yemeni harbor in October “cost 10,000 dollars at most.”  And, “A military and not a civilian target was chosen so as not to attract accusations of terrorism.”  Taha implied that the attack was a GAI operation throughout.  At that time, Taha was said to be still “Afghan-based.” 

2001.  An FBI spokesman noted that even though al-Qaeda functioned independently of other terrorist organizations, it also had alliances with and supported terrorist organizations including GAI (“led by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and later by Ahmed Refai Taha, a/k/a “Abu Yasser al Masri”).     

In the weeks following the 9/11 attack, it was rumored that Taha barely escaped Afghanistan in advance of the U.S. military occupation of Kandahar to the Sudan.  In October, the CIA arrested Taha the Damascus airport.  Shortly afterward he was extradited to Egypt, where he was jailed and remained incommunicado for years. 

2001-2006. Nothing was heard of Taha for years.  He seemed a  forgotten man, and in 2006 reports circulated that he had died in prison. 

2011.  Despite rumors of his death, Taha was “released by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces when it assumed power following the 25 January 2011 Revolution.”  The actual date of his release was not revealed but occurred shortly after the explosive beginnings of Egypt’s “Arab Spring.”

2012.  Taha was definitively identified as one of the leaders of the 11 September attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.  

Taha and the GAI Shura supported Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and campaigned to unite with it the very conservative Salafist Noor Party. 

In 2013, there were reports that Zawahiri’s EIJ had put past differences aside and had joined forces with the GAI in Egypt and elsewhere.  And during the year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, the GAI “was active in recruiting Egyptian jihadists and sending them to Syria where they enlisted in the ranks of al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra.” 

 In the aftermath of the Arab-Spring, the GAI for the first time began to directly participate in Egypt’s politics. It began by creating the Islamist-dominated Construction and Development (C&D) Party which would win sixteen seats in the People’s Assembly.  It also worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party to win elections for independent candidates.  When the C&D found it difficult to enhance Party numbers, Taha, and the GAI shura agreed to form an alliance with the Strong Egypt Party headed by former Muslim Brother factotum Abdel Moneim Fatouh. 

July 2013.  In Egypt, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Morsy government (30 June 2012 – 3 July 2013) would lead to yet another scattering of the GAI. 

 The August 2013 pro-Morsy “sit-ins” held at al-Nahda Square in front of Cairo University and the Raba’a al-Adaweya Square in Cairo led to a clash with security forces leaving hundreds of protesters dead along with two police.  It was later reported that sixty GAI were killed at Raba’a alone.  In all, a total of 379 pro-Morsy activists were charged with rioting and resisting police — with only 110 later appearing in court.  The absentees, including many GAI members, were tried in absentia. 

The GAI once again found its organization under attack.  Once Al-Sisi was firmly in charge of the government Taha fled to the Sudan, his previous safe-haven.  Some GAI joined the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the jihadist movement active in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula; others joined the al-Nusra which was devoted to the overthrow of Syria’s Assad; still others entered the Murabitoun, an al-Qaeda affiliate then operating from Derna in Libya. 

September 2014.  Taha’s presence in Sudan was a detriment to the maintenance of proper relations with Egypt and Al-Sisi.  Consequently, the Bashir government “deported” Taha to Turkey where Prime Minister Erdogan, a known Muslim Brother, had a soft spot for Egyptian revolutionaries.  In Turkey he was soon interviewed by a TV channel operated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; the program was broadcast from Turkey in September 2014 and re-broadcast in the West.  In it, the unrepentant Taha argued, “It is time we stopped using the word ‘peaceful’….  If bearing arms is our only way to confront Al-Sisi, then so be it.”

Conclusion

Exiled in Turkey many GAI,  (E.g., Abdel Maged, Khaled Islambouli, Rahim Al-Ghamri, Mamdouh Ali Yousef, Nazar Gharab,, etc.), including former members of its Shura Council, chose the pen rather than the sword to fill out their days.  The GAI Shura Council operating in Istanbul did so quietly, creating one wing, the National Front for the Defense of Legitimacy, devoted to the overthrow of Sisi;  the other was a bureau for international affairs devoted to the support of various regional jihad.  Meanwhile, Taha and Mohamed Shawqi Islambouli (arrested in Turkey in August 2015 for being too obvious the jihadist) returned to their old ways, and they joined the ranks of the Sunni revolutionaries determined to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Taha remained true to his background and was soon seen as a spokesman for al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Nusra Front)  active in northwestern Syria.    

Taha was aware that the small jihadist groups operating outside of the direct responsibility of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (al-Dawlat al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa bilad al-Sham; AKA: ISIS, IS, ISIL, Da’esh) spent much too much time fighting among themselves – whether actual or word-slinging.  In addition, the al-Nusra often engaged in an inter-rebel conflict with both the Free Syrian Army and with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

Since 2013 al-Nusra has clashed with ISIS on many occasions. It opposed ISIS tactics employed in the effort to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria. The two split ineluctably in February 2014.  Ostensibly, ISIS was too savage for even al-Qaeda to take, and it also opposed the unilateral ISIS move to re-create an Islamic Caliphate and name ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph.  Once again there was the clash of egos among Islamists as al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri detested the ISIS leadership, and not even Osama Bin Laden, killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011, had dared to declare a Caliphate. 

Little could be done by Taha to end the ISIS-Nusra antagonism, especially after a late 2015 clash when the two sides fought a bloody battle for control of territory in what ISIS called the “Wilayat Halab” or “(Islamic) State of Aleppo.” 

In April 2016 Taha once again appeared to be on a thankless mission, one whose aim was to unite the forces of al-Nusra and yet another rebel group, the Ahrar Al-Sham.  (Background on Ahrar Al-Sham and the complexities that exist in and around Aleppo is found here: “In Syria, Potential Ally’s Islamist Ties Challenge U.S., New York Times, 25 August 2015.)  The Ahrar operated in Syria’s center and northwest and was known for its ties to al-Qaeda.  However, there seemed to be some internal struggle that needed resolution, and Taha was chosen to mediate. 

Certainly, with Taha’s death, his enemies are out in force.  In one case, his epitaph has been written: “It is Taha and Islambouli who longed for an arena similar to Afghanistan. They have found it in Syria. They ripped apart the organization and drove gullible youth to war on the pretext of jihad.”  

What the future holds for the GAI is now anyone’s guess.  There are rumors that some of its leaders are willing to make a deal with Sisi that will allow them to return to Egypt. And other rumors claim that the al-Nusra and ISIS have entered into a “hidden agreement.”  One of the remaining jihadist warriors who began their campaign in the Afghanistan battleground is now dead.

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