World Trade Blast Casts Focus on Radical Sheikh
Suspect may be a follower of Sheikh Rahman, the spiritual leader of militant movement that advocates the fall of Egypt's government
STATEMENTS by investigators that the first suspect charged in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center may be connected to a militant movement in Egypt has focused new attention on the organization, known as the Gamaa Islamiya or Islamic Group.
A decentralized conglomeration of extremist groups, the Gamaa demands both the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's administration and the full implementation of the Sharia, or Islamic law, in Egypt. The accused man, Mohammed Salameh, a Jordanian passport holder of Palestinian origin, attended the Al-Salam Mosque in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Gamaa's spiritual leader, sometimes preaches.
Sheikh Rahman is widely believed to be the man who issued the religious edict, or fatwa, calling for the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Fleeing persecution by the Egyptian authorities, Rahman has been in the United States since the spring of 1990. According to the State Department, the US Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, issued Rahman a US visa, overlooking the fact that the sheikh was on a lookout list because of his role in violent activities in Egypt. He has now appealed for politic al asylum.
"He is a spiritual symbol and leader," says Hala Mustapha, an expert in Islamic fundamentalism at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "He can give the Gamaa religious legitimacy. In Islam, for example, if you want to assassinate someone, you need a fatwa. He's the one who gave the fatwa to kill Sadat."
Echoing the views of President Mubarak, an editorial in the semi-official Cairo daily Al-Akhbar said yesterday: "Terrorism itself has become an export commodity.... The act of countering this danger before it grows must be a joint task of countries."
The Gamaa has become increasingly troublesome for the Mubarak administration. Rahman, previously a scholar at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, a center of moderate Sunni Muslim teachings, advocates overthrowing the Egyptian government and has called for Mubarak's assassination. He communicates to his followers in Egypt through thousands of cassette tapes smuggled into the country through Sudan.
Rahman's calls for violence have coincided with a marked increase in attacks against tourists in Egypt. The latest incident involved the bombing of a cafe in Cairo's Tahrir Square the same weekend as the Trade Center bombing. Tahrir is a bustling square featuring the Egyptian Museum, the city's biggest subway station, and the Nile Hilton hotel. Three people were killed in that blast: an Egyptian, a Swede, and a Turk.
Islamic extremists have targeted government officials, police officers, and Egypt's Christian Coptic community for years, but attacks on tourists began only last summer. These militant groups apparently want to embarrass the government and damage the country's tourism sector - Egypt's main foreign-currency earner, which fetches more than $3 billion per year. More than 70 people died in Egypt last year from extremist violence, the largest number of deaths since 1981, the year Sadat was killed.
Gathering most of its recruits from Egypt's young, poor, and unemployed, the Gamaa has been gaining influence as the country's economy slips deeper into recession.
To illustrate the economic hardships Egyptians have endured under Mubarak, a young leader of the Gamaa in the town of Assiut, 200 miles south of Cairo, recently explained that he earned $30 a month as a veterinarian. He had to spend $25 on rent and electricity, leaving $5 to feed his wife and two children. "There is a war going on because the government is getting worse," he said. "Every one of us is ready to die. We are expecting to die any minute."
Official corruption, limited democratic freedoms, and the extremist groups' provision of community services also boost membership in the Gamaa. These organizations offer funds to the destitute, health services, and protection against crime. After an earthquake in Cairo last October the Islamists were the only ones dispensing blankets and food in the immediate aftermath.
Egypt's Muslim militants are suspected of receiving funds form Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and possibly Iran. Egyptian officials claim extremists also smuggle weapons across Egypt's porous southern border with Sudan, where militants receive training. Several hundred Egyptians who fought in the Afghan conflict have brought their guerrilla warfare skills back to Egypt, Egyptian officials say.
It is widely rumored that the Gamaa's Afghan connection is one reason Rahman was allowed into the United States. The cleric is said to have received safe haven because he supplied information to Washington during the Afghan conflict.
The Egyptian government has reacted to the growing threat created by the Gamaa by detaining, imprisoning, and torturing increasing numbers of suspected militants. Nearly 2,000 Islamic radicals were detained in December after attacks on tourists. Mubarak is using Washington's arrest of Arabs from the Jersey City mosque to defend his heavy-handed measures against extremists. He also ruled out further political liberalization as a way to combat Islamic militancy.
Political analysts believe the authorities' increasingly repressive measures, rather than stemming the tide of extremism, have pushed Islamic radicals toward greater violence.
"Last spring the state started its offensive against Gamaa militants. At that time they had no choice but to mobilize," says Alain Rousillon, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at a Cairo-based French research institute.
Even so, political and social analysts say the Muslim extremists are incapable of toppling the Egyptian regime.