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Gama'a al-Islamiyya
aka Islamic Group,
aka GI,
aka IG,
aka alGamaat,
aka Islamic Gama'at,
aka Egyptian alGama'at al-Islamiyya

The Egyptian cleric convicted of participating in a plan to blow up landmarks in New York City died in prison 18 February 2017. The spiritual leader of the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, the blind sheik named Abdel-Rahman, was serving a life sentence in the U.S. for plotting to blow up the World Trade Center and other New York landmarks. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman died early Saturday after a long battle with diabetes and coronary artery disease.

There are many different spellings for the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, which is the most common spelling. Egypt’s largest militant group, active since the late 1970s; appears to be loosely organized with no single readily identifiable operational leader. The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya is not a single group; it has become factionalized. The original group has broken down into smaller factions, in part due to the imprisonment and/or exile of its leaders.

The Islamic movement in Egype was fragmented into a multitude of autonomous factions that shared the common goal of an Islamic state but differed in social origin and in tactics. The more activist Jamaat al Islamiyah (Islamic Associations), an amorphous movement of many small groups, were drawn from a cross-section of the student population, while the most radical Islamic groups, such as At Takfir wal Hijra (Atonement and Alienation) and Al Jihad (Holy War), were made up of educated, lower middle-class elements and recent urban emigrants from the villages. Various populist preachers in the traditional urban neighborhoods enjoyed broad personal followings. The more violent messianic groups, such as Al Jihad, were the targets of continual repression and containment, apparently only partly successful.

Abdel Rahman was born in a village along the Nile on May 3, 1938. Blinded shortly after birth because of diabetes, Omar Abdel Rahman had memorized the Koran by the age of eleven. One report describing Abdel Rahman as “blind, with one eye without a pupil, the other an empty socket”. With his long grey beard, sunglasses and red and white cap, he was a famous religious figure in the 1980s and 1990s.

Abdel-Rahman’s fiery oratory had inspired the creation of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad – the organization responsible for the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. In September 1981, Sadat ordered the biggest roundup of his opponents since he came to power, at least 1,500 people according to the official figure but more according to unofficial reports. The Muslim Brotherhood bore the brunt of the arrests. The supreme guide of the Brotherhood, Umar Tilmasani, and other religious militants were arrested. Also arrested were such prominent figures as journalist Mohamed Heikal.

On 06 October 1981, while observing a military parade commemorating the eighth anniversary of the October 1973 War, Sadat was assassinated by members of Al Jihad movement, a group of religious extremists. Sadat's assassin was Lieutenant Colonel Khalid al Islambuli. The conspirators were arrested and tried. In April 1982, two of the conspirators were shot and three hanged. As a result of the assassination, the military dismissed 30 officers and 100 enlisted men because of their extreme religious views.

Abdel Rahman was tried but acquitted in Egypt as an accomplice in the murder of President Anwar el-Sadat. He was later included in an arrest of 1,500 Muslims regarded as extremists, but he was freed several months later. Abdel Rahman said in Egypt he was hung upside-down from the ceiling, beaten with sticks and given electric shocks while held.

By the summer of 1989, Abdel-Rahman was being held under house arrest by the Egyptian government. In June 1990 Sheik Abdel-Rahman arrived in New York after absconding from house arrest in Egypt. He managed to get to New York after the US embassy in Sudan granted him a tourist visa in 1990 - despite the fact that he was on the state department's list of people with "ties to terror groups".

US authorities blamed a computer error for the visa, but the mistake was compounded in 1991 when Abdel Rahman was given a green card and permanent US resident status. The New York Times reported the CIA had approved the visa application for Abdel Rahman, who had supported the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Abdel-Rahman began preaching at the al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn, and then at the Jersey City mosque. Sometime that summer, the blind Sheik issued a fatwah, calling on his Muslim brothers to rob American banks and kill Jews anywhere they were found.

In the fall of 1990, El Sayyid began stalking Rabbi Meir Kahane, the outspoken 58-year-old founder of the Jewish Defense League. On the evening of November 5, Nosair, wearing a yarmulke to disguise himself as a dark-skinned Sephardic Jew, approached Kahane, pulled a .357 revolver and fired two shots into Kahane’s jugular vein, killing him.

Abdel-Rahman's followers plotted to assassinate Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, during a March 1993 visit to the United Nations in New York City. But the plot was foiled when a confidant of Abdel Rahman’s, Abdo Mohammed Haggag, informed the Egyptian government of the assassination plan, and Mubarak’s New York trip was canceled.

According to the 9/11 Commission, “After it was discovered that Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, had come and gone almost at will, State initiated significant reforms to its watchlist and visa-processing policies.” The 9/11 Commission Report 95 (2004) reported that the government allowed Abdel Rahman to remain free pending his deportation appeal because he was not considered a flight risk and the conspiracy evidence against him was weak. But after his van evaded federal agents following him on 30 June 1993, the government decided to arrest him on an immigration detainer. Abdel-Rahman faced a deportation order at the time of the World Trade Center bombing.

On Friday, February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, killing six people and injuring more than one thousand. On April 24, 1992, Ahmad Mohammad Ajaj moved from Houston, Texas, to Pakistan, where he attended a terrorist training camp on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan called Camp Khaldan. He learned how to make bombs, and he met Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. On September 1, 1992, Ajaj and Yousef entered the United States using false identities. Ajaj’s passport was discovered to be a forgery. He was indicted in the Eastern District of New York, where John F. Kennedy International Airport is located, and imprisoned for six months on a guilty plea. Yousef was stopped for traveling on an Iraqi passport without a visa but released on his own recognizance because the detention center was full.

In the United States, Yousef assembled a conspiracy of terrorists. With the assistance of Mahmoud Abouhalima, Yousef and Mohammad A. Salameh rented in Jersey City, New Jersey, an apartment and a storage unit, where they made and stored explosive materials. Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer, acquired the explosives. On February 23, 1993, Salameh rented a Ryder van, which the conspirators loaded with explosive materials.

Originally, the slightly built Palestinian, Salameh, was scheduled to be the wheel man for the rented yellow Ryder truck that would deliver the device. But by the fall of 1992 Salameh was involved in no less than three separate traffic accidents. In one, Yousef was injured and hospitalized. Three days later, Yousef and Eyad Ismoil drove the van to the World Trade Center, where they exploded the bomb by timer at 12:18 pm.

Ayyad anonymously contacted the New York Daily News by telephone and the New York Times by mail to take responsibility for the bomb as retaliation for the United States’ support of Israel. Salameh was arrested when he returned to the Ryder rental office on March 4 to recover a $400 rental deposit on the destroyed van, which he had reported stolen.18 “Because [Yousef] was the financier and had fled the country, leaving his accomplices on their own, Salameh was broke and desperately needed the cash from the deposit. It was not until February 7, 1995, that Yousef was captured in a guesthouse in Pakistan.23 For a $2 million reward, and to avoid prison, one of Yousef’s recruits turned him in to the FBI. Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), was staying in the same guesthouse and was an on-the-scene witness.

Much of the case against Abdel Rahman, a preacher at a New Jersey mosque, and his followers was based on video and audio recordings made with the help of his bodyguard, who became an FBI informant. One of those videos showed four defendants mixing fertiliser and diesel fuel for bombs.

On May 24, 1994, the court sentenced each of the four defendants to 240 years in prison. The terms varied according to the defendants’ ages, because for some of the counts, Judge Duffy used a sentencing method recently approved by the court of appeals of imposing a sentence of one month less than a defendant’s life expectancy if the sentencing guidelines suggested a life term.

They were convicted of conspiracy “to conduct a campaign of urban terrorism,” including participation in the bombing of the World Trade Center, the murder of Rabbi Kahane, the plot to assassinate President Mubarak, and plans to bomb New York landmarks. Public attention to the trials was diminished somewhat by the coincident criminal trial of O.J.Simpson for the murder of his wife and her friend. While the trial was in progress, on April 19, 1995, the federal building in Oklahoma City, including the courthouse there, was partially destroyed. On January 17, 1996, Judge Mukasey sentenced Abdel Rahman and El Sayyid Nosair to life in prison, and other defendants to long prison sentences.

Lynne Stewart was one of the lawyers for Sheik Abdel-Rahman during his trial in 1995. She kept communications open after he was sentenced. In 1999 she was charged with passing messages from the sheik to his supporters in the Egypt-based terror organization, the Islamic Group. Stewart, considered by many a left-wing radical and a tough courtroom fighter, has had her share of unpopular defendants over a 40-year career.

It has an external wing with supporters in several countries world-wide. Activities included armed attacks against Egyptian security and other officials, Coptic Christians, Western tourists, and Egyptian opponents of Islamic extremism. It assassinated the speaker of the Egyptian assembly in October 1990 and launched a series of attacks on tourists in Egypt in 1992. The group wounded the Egyptian Information Minister in an assassination attempt in April 1993.

Overall, the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya avoided conflicts with Americans, as its leaders felt they would be fighting a powerful adversary that they cannot match. Rather the group focuses on fighting its enemies within Egypt, mainly the government. The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya began fighting the state in 1992 when Egyptian volunteers who fought the Islamic mujahedeen in Afghanistan returned.

Conflicts with armed Islamic groups in Egypt since 1992 have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people on both sides, and have been blamed for many human rights abuses. The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya was associated with the following attacks:

  • January - April 1996: at least 46 civilians throughout Egypt were killed by members of armed opposition groups.
  • February 19, 1996: On the eve of 'Id al-Fitr, 3 gunmen believed to be members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, shot and killed 5 civilians in a coffee shop in the village of al-'Aqal al-Bahri.
  • February 20, 1996: 2 Coptic Christians brothers were killed when 3 gunmen (believed to be members of the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya) attacked house in the village of Sahel Salim.
  • February 24, 1996: 8 people were killed, including 6 Coptic Christians, when 2 armed men (allegedly members of the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya) opened fire on civilians sitting outside their house in al-'Uthmaniya village near al-Badari in the governate of Asyut.
  • April 18, 1996: 4 armed men killed 18 Greek tourists including 14 women outside a hotel in Cairo, while 15 others were injured including nine women and an Egyptian man. The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya claimed responsibility for this attack saying they had mistaken the Greek tourists for Israeli nationals and attacked in retaliation for the Israeli attacks in Southern Lebanon.
  • September 18, 1997: 2 gunmen (believed to be members of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya) killed 9 tourists and injured 35 others on a crowded tourist bus in Cairo.
  • November 18, 1997: 71 tourists were killed by Islamic militants outside the Temple of Hatsheut, which is across the Nile form the town of Luxor and near the Valley of the Kings.

According to a 1997 Amnesty International report, "...the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya has been charged with plotting to overthrow the regime, threatening peace and national unity through the use of violence, and illegally importing weapons and ammunition into the country..." among other things. In July 1997, six imprisoned leaders of the al-Gama'a al-Islamiya called for a cease fire followed by talks with authorities. However, an unyielding leader of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, Rifai Ahmed Taha who was based in Afghanistan, denied any offer of a cease fire.

The al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, Gihad, and Talai'al-Fatah have been responsible for serious human rights abuses and have carried out attacks on the Coptic minority, foreign tourists, and opposition writer Farag Foda. Experts said that Osama Bin Laden may have subcontracted the al-Gama'a'-Islamiya to bomb the embassies in Africa.

The President's Daily Brief received by President William J. Clinton on December 4, 1998 reorted " Reporting [...] suggests Bin Ladin and his allies are preparing for attacks in the US, including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Shaykh 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman, Ramzi Yousef, and Muhammad Sadiq 'Awda. One source quoted a senior member of the Gama'at al-Islamiyya (IG) saying that, as of late October, the IG had completed planning for an operation in the US on behalf of Bin Ladin, but that the operation was on hold. A senior Bin Ladin operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit IG counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options - perhaps including an aircraft hijacking. IG leader Islambuli in late September was planning to hijack a US airliner during the "next couple of weeks" to free 'Abd al-Rahman and the other prisoners, according to what may be a different source."

The group issued a cease-fire in March 1999, but its spiritual leader, Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, sentenced to life in prison in January 1996 for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and incarcerated in the United States, rescinded his support for the cease-fire in June 2000. The Gama’a had not conducted an attack inside Egypt since August 1998. Senior member signed Usama Bin Ladin’s fatwa in February 1998 calling for attacks against US.

It is unofficially split in two factions; one that supports the cease-fire led by Mustafa Hamza, and one led by Rifa’i Taha Musa, calling for a return to armed operations. Taha Musa in early 2001 published a book in which he attempted to justify terrorist attacks that would cause mass casualties. Musa disappeared several months thereafter, and there are conflicting reports as to his current whereabouts.

The emergence of democratic, accountable governments in Muslim countries might help undermine the appeal of extremist groups and encourage radical Islamists to refrain from violence. The revelations of the leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) in Egypt confirmed this view. A careful reading of the statements of this group’s leaders in Al-Ahram al-Duwali (published in Cairo in February/March 2002) clearly indicated the role of humiliation and state violence in pushing the group toward violence in the 1980s and 1990s.

By 2006 Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya exhibited an ideological reversal. This includdd not only a rejection of terrorism, but also revised views on fundamental issues in the interpretation of the Koran, the hadith, and Islamic law - views which challenge the theoretical bases of militant Islamist ideology.

Primary goal is to overthrow the Egyptian Govern- ment and replace it with an Islamic state, but disaffected IG members, such as those potentially inspired by Taha Musa or Abd al-Rahman, may be interested in carrying out attacks against US and Israeli interests.

Group conducted armed attacks against Egyptian security and other govern- ment officials, Coptic Christians, and Egyptian opponents of Islamic extremism before the cease-fire. From 1993 until the cease-fire, al-Gama’a launched attacks on tourists in Egypt, most notably the attack in November 1997 at Luxor that killed 58 foreign tourists. Also claimed responsibility for the attempt in June 1995 to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Gama’a has never specifically attacked a US citizen or facility but has threatened US interests.

Strength is unknown. At its peak the IG probably commanded several thousand hard-core members and a like number of sympathizers. The 1999 cease-fire and security crackdowns following the attack in Luxor in 1997, and more recently security efforts following September 11, probably have resulted in a substantial decrease in the group’s numbers.

Operates mainly in the Al-Minya, Asyu’t, Qina, and Sohaj Governorates of southern Egypt. Also appears to have support in Cairo, Alexandria, and other urban locations, particularly among unemployed graduates and students. Has a worldwide presence, including the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Austria.

The Egyptian Government believed that Iran, Bin Ladin, and Afghan militant groups supported the organization. Also may obtain some funding through various Islamic nongovernmental organizations.

Egypt's President-elect Mohamed Morsi addressed a crowd of thousands of supporters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square 29 June 2012, insisting that he intended to be the president of all Egyptians. The president-elect also made a pointed reference to Egypt's blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is being held in a US prison for collusion in the 1993 attack on New York's World Trade Center. He expressed sympathy for the Sheikh's family, and indicated that the Sheikh, and all other prisoners like him, “should be freed.”

In NOvember 2009 Bernard Madoff, also known as prisoner 61727-054, was moved to a medium security facility in Butner, North Carolina. He was one of thousands of convicts in the prison complex. They include spy Jonathan Pollard, bomb plotter Omar Abdel-Rahman, and John and Timothy Rigas, a father-and-son team convicted in a separate massive fraud case.

On 28 June 2012 a US federal appeals court upheld a 10 year prison sentence for a disbarred lawyer who helped her jailed terrorist client smuggle messages to his followers. The three-judge panel in New York wrote that Lynne Stewart still refused to understand the seriousness of her crime. Stewart was originally sentenced to 28 months in prison in 2006, and showed apparent contempt for the court by telling reporters that she could serve the time “standing on her head.” Federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as being too light and a court re-sentenced her in 2010.

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Page last modified: 18-02-2017 19:20:30 ZULU