On October 24, Egyptian officials raided an apartment in Nasr City, a neighborhood in Cairo, suspected of housing a terrorist cell with ties to the September 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. A firefight ensued and one of the suspected terrorists was killed. An Egyptian police official explained to Agence France Presse that the man “is suspected of having connections with the group that carried out the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.”
While the Nasr City raid has received little attention in the American press, it has led to a slew of reports in the Egyptian and Arabic media. Not all of these reports are consistent with another, of course, as there is still significant uncertainty surrounding the whole affair. The investigation is still in its beginning stages. But Egyptian officials have openly connected the Nasr City cell to al Qaeda.
General Mohieddin al Sayyed, an Egyptian interior ministry official, has explained to the press that the “police department received information indicating that a terrorist, a member of al Qaeda, was present in an apartment” in Nasr City prior to the raid.
Other al Qaeda-linked extremists are reportedly involved with the Nasr City cell. These men have clear ties to the September 11 protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, too.
A Pro-Al Qaeda Ideologue
One of them is Sheikh ‘Adel Shehato, a longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leader who was imprisoned for years and released after the fall Mubarak’s government. Ayman al Zawahiri, who headed the EIJ, formally merged his organization with al Qaeda years ago. And the EIJ was tightly allied with Osama bin Laden’s venture even before the formal merger.
Egyptian authorities have arrested Shehato and accused him of founding and financing the Nasr City cell.
There is not dispute over where Shehato’s loyalties lie. During an interview in 2011, Shehato was asked what the EIJ believes in today. “We still espouse the old jihadi ideology that is today the ideology of Sheikh Ayman Al Zawahiri, the late Sheikh Osama bin Laden, and Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi,” Shehato replied, according to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
More recently, Shehato has been seen in al Qaeda’s videos. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, likes to include video clips of Egyptian jihadists with whom he agrees in al Qaeda’s propaganda videos. In Zawahiri’s September 10 video, for instance, Shehato can be seen in the foreground of one such clip. Shehato doesn’t speak, but is seen nodding in agreement as another al Qaeda favorite, Ahmed ‘Ashoush, proclaims Osama bin Laden a martyr.
Sitting next to Shehato is Mohammed al Zawahiri, Ayman al Zawahiri’s younger brother.
Both Shehato and Mohammed al Zawahiri helped incite the September 11 protest in Cairo, which occurred hours before the attack in Benghazi. A video released in October by Al Faroq media, an Egyptian jihadist propaganda outfit that openly espouses al Qaeda’s ideology, shows Shehato attending the protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
“We came here to support the Messenger of Allah, Allah's peace and prayer be upon him,” Shehato said during the protest, “and we say to the expatriate pigs, wait for the army of Muhammad.” The Al Faroq video was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Shehato has been especially brazen in advocating for al Qaeda. A publication based in Cairo, Al-Shuruq al-Jadid, recently referred to Shehato’s platform in Tahrir Square as “the tent of al Qaeda supporters.”
Since his arrest, according to multiple accounts, Shehato has denied wrongdoing. But Egyptian officials say they had enough evidence to arrest him and that he intended to flee to Libya.
Citing the Egyptian Interior Ministry, Al Hayat reported that Shehato and two of his accomplices were arrested while attempting to “slip through the Egyptian-Libyan border with [large] quantities of money and different currencies.”
The Muhammad Jamal Network
A second al Qaeda-linked, Egyptian jihadist who has been connected to the Nasr City cell is Muhammad Jamal. The Wall Street Journal was first to report that terrorists trained in Jamal’s Libyan camps are suspected of taking part in the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Like Shehato, Jamal was an EIJ leader under Ayman al Zawahiri. Jamal reportedly “petitioned” Ayman al Zawahiri to create his own al Qaeda affiliate and has received cash from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Jamal’s liaison to al Qaeda’s emir was the aforementioned Mohammed al Zawahiri.
Since the Wall Street Journal’s initial account, the New York Times has also reported that members of Jamal’s network took part in the Benghazi attack. CNN has referred to Jamal's organization as “an Egyptian jihad network” and also pointed to its role in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi.
In 2007, Jamal was one of several imprisoned jihadists who signed a statement rebutting Sayyid Imam al Sharif’s ideological criticisms of al Qaeda. Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), who was previously an ideological mentor to Ayman al Zawahiri, criticized al Qaeda’s slaughter of Muslims. While al Qaeda is frequently criticized by outsiders, Sharif’s criticisms were especially damaging as they came from a man with a long al Qaeda pedigree. Accordingly, Sharif received a harsh backlash from al Qaeda.
Jamal and his allies sought to rebuff Sharif from behind bars as well. “We support all jihad movements in the world and see in them the hope of the nation and its frontlines toward its bright future,” their statement read. “We say to our Muslim nation that no matter how long the night may last, dawn will emerge.”
In addition to Jamal, several others signed the statement, including Mohammed al Zawahiri, Sheikh Tawfiq al 'Afani, and Ahmed 'Ashoush. All three of these co-signatories helped incite protests over the anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims” in Cairo.
Some Arabic publications have labeled Jamal an outright al Qaeda operative. Citing “security sources,” Al Hayat reported the Egyptian “investigations revealed that [Jamal] had close links to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who assigned him to lead the organization in Egypt and Libya.” Jamal, Al Hayat continued, “has masterminded several operations carried out during the last period, particularly in Libya and Yemen, upon Zawahiri's instructions, and that he got the green light to carry out further jihadi operations in Egypt and Libya.”
Egyptian authorities continued to investigate Jamal’s ties to the Nasr City cell.
We are left with a conspicuous set of dots connecting al Qaeda-linked extremists, the September 11 protest in Cairo, and the terrorist attack in Benghazi.
These dots have received far too little attention here in the U.S.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.