Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa, one of Egypt’s most notorious al Qaeda-linked terrorists, attended the U.S. embassy protest in Cairo on September 11. Musa was just one of several al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who was present at the rally, imploring followers to punish those who produced the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.
Musa’s al Qaeda ties were publicly recognized by the U.S. government as early as 1998. He was included as a signatory on al Qaeda’s infamous February 1998 fatwa justifying terrorist attacks against American civilians. Musa would later disavow any involvement in the fatwa, but his al Qaeda ties are well established.
In September 2000, for example, Al Jazeera aired video of Musa sitting between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Musa was at the time a senior Gamaaa Islamiyya (IG) leader. The three called for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, aka the “Blind Sheikh,” to be freed from an American prison. Rahman, the IG’s longtime spiritual leader, was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and follow-on plots against the New York City landmarks.
In the months that followed the airing of that video, the CIA gathered intelligence suggesting that Musa was directly involved in anti-American terrorist plots. The CIA was so concerned about Musa that the U.S. government complained to Syria, which then housed Musa, in late 2001 and the Syrians agreed to deport him to Egypt. Musa, who has been connected to an especially brutal terrorist attack in Egypt, remained imprisoned until the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
And then there Musa was on September 11, according to a video produced by Al Faroq media, a jihadist video company located in Egypt, extolling followers to rise up in protest against a previously obscure anti-Islam film.
The Al Faroq video was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“We call on Muslim youth in the world to respond in a practical way,” Musa says during the embassy protest, according to SITE's translation. “There are a billion Muslims worldwide, and if they were strong and honorable we would have defended the honor of the Prophet, Allah's peace and prayer be upon him, and America wouldn't have gotten to this way.”
Musa was not the only al Qaeda-linked jihadist to attend the U.S. embassy protest in Cairo and call on followers to exact retribution for the anti-Islam film.
Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda’s emir Ayman al Zawahiri, admittedly helped stage the protest. He has said that he called upon members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a designated terrorist organization that merged with al Qaeda, to protest.
Mohammed al Zawahiri has tried to distance himself from al Qaeda’s organization during interviews, but has also admitted that he adheres to al Qaeda’s ideology. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Mohammed al Zawahiri put one of the terrorists thought to have been involved in the 9/11 Benghazi terrorist attack in touch with his brother. Mohammed al Zawahiri also denounced the anti-Islam film during the protest.
Recently freed EIJ leaders heeded Mohammed al Zawahiri’s call to protest. The Al Faroq video shows Sheikh 'Adel Shehato and Sheikh Tawfiq Al 'Afani at the embassy rally. Both are longtime EIJ officials who have openly proclaimed that they endorse al Qaeda’s ideology. According to SITE’s translation, Al ‘Afani even repeated the refrain heard from protesters: "O Obama, we are all Osama…”
Ahmed ‘Ashoush, a well-known Egyptian jihadist, has also incited protesters. The Al Faroq video does not show him attending the embassy protest, but he clearly sought to stoke anger over Innocence of Muslims. Several days after the embassy protest, ‘Ashoush issued a fatwa calling for the makers of the film to be killed.
‘Ashoush has well-known ties to al Qaeda. After his fatwa was released, the Associated Press reported that he is an "al Qaeda-linked Egyptian jihadist...who was believed close to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's current No. 1, Ayman al Zawahiri.” A video put out by al Qaeda on September 10 includes a clip of ‘Ashoush calling Osama bin Laden a martyr. Mohammed al Zawahiri and Shehato are seen sitting next to him.
A Dangerous Terrorist
Of all the senior al Qaeda-associated jihadists who incited protesters, the most conspicuous is Musa. Since his release from prison, he has admitted that he was "one of the planners" of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981.
The Clinton administration's indictment of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda members responsible for the Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings noted that al Qaeda has “functioned both on its own and through some of the terrorist organizations that operated under its umbrella.” The indictment then names the EIJ, headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, and the IG, which was headed by the Blind Sheikh and then Musa, as two groups that fall under al Qaeda's “umbrella.”
Musa was specifically named by Clinton-era federal prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in al Qaeda’s terror.
On Sept. 13, 2000, the FBI recorded a conversation between Musa and an Islamic Group member residing in the U.S. named Ahmed Sattar. An American court would later convict Sattar of passing messages from Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to the sheikh’s followers.
Citing a senior U.S. attorney, the New York Daily News described the conversation between Musa and Sattar in an article published in April 2002. The pair “discussed planned terrorist attacks similar to Luxor” and Musa mentioned “a second Luxor.” They used the code word “weddings” to describe future operations. Additional conversations between Musa and Sattar are also documented in the U.S. government’s federal indictment of Sattar.
On Sept. 21, 2000, just over one week after the FBI recorded the conversation between Musa and Sattar, Al Jazeera aired the video showing Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri demanding the release of Sheikh Rahman. It is not clear when the video was recorded. Sitting between the two al Qaeda masters was Musa. “By God, we all have a duty toward” Rahman “to free him,” Musa said. Al Qaeda’s dynamic duo agreed.
Less than one month later, on October 10, 2000, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole. Musa released a statement praising the attack. “Our officers and soldiers, and the sons of our people in Egypt, should learn the lesson of the U.S. destroyer in Aden,” Musa said, “they have the Suez Canal through which dozens of U.S. and Jewish ships pass.”
Musa continued to advocate for terrorism in the months that followed. “In early 2001,” the State Department reported in its Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2001, “IG leader Rifa’i Ahmad Taha Musa published a book in which he attempted to justify terrorist attacks that result in mass civilian casualties.”
Musa disappeared after authoring the book, but the CIA was on his trail.
In his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet explains that Musa was tied to pre-9/11 terrorist plots against Americans.
Tenet writes that “intelligence assessments painted a picture of a plot to kidnap Americans in India, Turkey, and Indonesia.” The plot “was said to be the work of” Musa, who was “then living in Damascus.” Musa ended up in Syria after reportedly being “expelled from Iran,” but the Syrians arrested him after the U.S. provided a “tip” concerning his whereabouts. Other reports confirm that Musa was deported from Syria to Egypt.
Musa “had put out numerous fatwas against the United States in the several months prior to his arrest,” Tenet writes. He “was also close to the Blind Sheikh…who was linked to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.” Citing Musa’s televised appearance with bin Laden and Zawahiri in September 2000, Tenet says the CIA “had a photograph of [Musa] seated righted between the two of them.”
“Talk about Toxic Trio,” Tenet writes, referring to bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Musa.
Less than two weeks after the embassy protest in Cairo, Musa was interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat. Musa was asked about the “the Anti-Islam film which insults the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the subsequent attack on the American embassy in Cairo.” Musa did not comment on the embassy assault, but branded the film “a criminal act” and called on the Egyptian government to “sever diplomatic ties with the United States and expel the US ambassador, if only for a short period of time.”
Ominously, while attempting to downplay his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 fatwa, Musa added: “As for the United States, we treat it as an enemy, and we do not consider it a friend of the Arabs and Muslims.”
As for al Qaeda, Musa admitted his organization has had a relationship with the group. “Yes, there was a relationship between al Qaeda and the Islamic Group, but it was not in the form of a common organizational framework,” Musa claimed. “It was similar to a relationship between any two political parties. There were exchanged benefits.”
Those benefits include collusion on terrorist plots. Asharq Al-Awsat asked Musa about his role in the 1995 assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia. Musa did not deny having a role in the plot, saying only that the “Islamic Group attempted to assassinate Mubarak in many locations, including Addis Ababa” and the “arrangements for this operation were made (by Islamist leaders) abroad.”
Osama bin Laden himself had a hand in the IG’s 1995 assassination plot. The 9/11 Commission found that Mubarak’s “would-be killers, who came from the Egyptian Islamic Group, had been sheltered in Sudan and helped by Bin Laden.”
State Department Warning in 2002
The State Department has previously warned that Musa and his followers are a threat. While some Gamaa Islamiyya (IG) leaders made revisions to their ideology while in prison, thereby allowing them to take part in the political process, Musa has rejected such efforts.
In the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2001, the U.S. government reported that Musa led a “faction” of the IG that remained committed to violence. While the group’s “[p]rimary goal is to overthrow the Egyptian Government and replace it with an Islamic state,” Foggy Bottom reported, “disaffected IG members, such as those potentially inspired by Taha Musa or [Sheikh Rahman], may be interested in carrying out attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests.”
That report was published in May 2002.
More than one decade later, Musa helped incite protesters outside the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
While much attention has been given to an anti-Islam film few had heard of until September, much less has been written about the well-known al Qaeda-linked jihadists who used that film to incite a large-scale anti-American protest.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.