The Egyptian interior ministry announced Saturday that an al Qaeda plot against a Western embassy and other targets had been disrupted. Two suspected terrorists are being held for questioning and a third is under house arrest.
The Egyptian government did not say which embassy the three-man cell targeted. The New York Times reports that “a Western official said the Egyptians had privately identified the embassy as the United States Embassy in Cairo.”
During a surprise press conference, Egyptian interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim offered a number of intriguing details about the plot, which he said was close to fruition. But two of these details stand out.
First, the three-man cell sought direction from the leaders of the so-called Nasr City Cell, which is connected to both al Qaeda and the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Second, the cell had ties to al Qaeda operatives in several countries, including Iran. One of the cell’s members allegedly received military training inside Iran and Pakistan.
Nasr City Cell Ties
According to the New York Times, Interior Minister Ibrahim said that a key point of contact for the cell is a senior al Qaeda terrorist known as Dawud al Assadi, who told the trio “to get in touch with a terrorist cell in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City.”
Ibrahim named the Nasr City Cell leaders the three-man al Qaeda team sought out as Muhammad Jamal al Kashef (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed) and Tariq Abul Azem, a former Egyptian army officer. Both al Kashef and Azem have significant al Qaeda ties. They were imprisoned by Hosni Mubarak's regime, only to be released in the wake of the Egyptian revolution and then re-arrested late last year.
After his release from prison in 2011, al Kashef set up training camps inside eastern Libya. Some of the Egyptian graduates from these camps participated in the Benghazi attack, according to multiple press accounts.
On October 24, 2012, Egyptian authorities launched their first raid on al Kashef’s cell in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo. In that raid, as well as subsequent ones, authorities compiled extensive evidence concerning al Kashef’s activities. They found, for instance, that al Kashef had been corresponding with al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.
Two of al Kashef’s letters to Zawahiri have been published in the Egyptian press. The first was written in late 2011 and second is dated August 18, 2012. Al Kashef heaps praise on Zawahiri and also seeks Zawahiri’s additional support, saying he had already received financial assistance from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al Kashef’s letters read like status reports, updating al Qaeda on his activities stretching from the Sinai to Mali. In the 1990s, al Kashef served as a bodyguard for Zawahiri.
Ties to al Qaeda in Iran
Interior Minister Ibrahim did not provide many details concerning the al Qaeda cell’s ties to Iran, other than the fact that one of them had received “military” training in both Iran and Pakistan.
Ibrahim’s identification of Dawud al Assadi as a key point of contact for the cell may be especially important, however. Ibrahim described al Assadi as “the head of al Qaeda in some west Asian countries,” which is somewhat vague.
Dawud al Assadi is, in fact, one of the aliases used by Muhsin al Fadhli, the head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran.
Al Fadhli has a well-established al Qaeda pedigree. According to the U.S. government, he is so trusted by al Qaeda’s most senior leaders that he was one of the few terrorists who had foreknowledge of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In October 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that al Fadhli had taken over as leader of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network, which was previously headed by another al Qaeda terrorist known as Yasin al Suri. This network operates under an “agreement” between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda, according to Treasury. The U.S. government has offered multi-million dollar rewards for information leading to the capture of both al Fadhli and al Suri.
The Treasury Department first designated al Suri in July 2011. Shortly thereafter, al Fadhli replaced al Suri as the head of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network. The Iranians arrested al Fadhli in 2009, but let him out of prison in 2011 and he quickly resumed his terror activities.
In its October 2012 announcement, the U.S. Treasury Department explained how the relationship between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda works. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran, al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities,” Treasury explained. “In return, the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families. Al Qaeda members who violate these terms run the risk of being detained by Iranian authorities. “
Treasury said that its designation “further exposes” the Iran-based al Qaeda network and “Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.”
Therefore, if the al Assadi mentioned by Ibrahim is in fact Muhsin al Fadhli, then this detail is a very big deal.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.