John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head to the CIA, is scheduled to appear before a closed-door hearing held by the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow. Interested senators should take the opportunity to ask Brennan about an Egyptian who is connected to both al Qaeda and the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. Intriguing revelations by the Egyptian press last week raise all new questions about the attack on the U.S. consulate.
The Egyptian in question is Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed, sometimes referred to as Mohammad Jamal Abdo Ahmed, or Muhammad Jamal al Kashef), who served under Ayman al Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad during the 1990s. Jamal was freed from prison following the revolution that swept Hosni Mubarak from power. He quickly got back to work, establishing training camps in the Sinai and Libya.
Some of the participants in the Benghazi attack were trained in Jamal’s Libyan camps. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN (referring to Jamal’s group as “an Egyptian jihad network”), and various Egyptian press outlets have all reported this.
During a raid on October 24 on an apartment in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo some of Jamal’s co-conspirators were captured. Jamal himself was subsequently detained. And now two Egyptian newspapers, Al Yawm al Sabi and Al Ahram, have revealed just some of what investigators found.
One recovered computer included correspondence between Jamal and al Qaeda’s senior leaders. Namely, Jamal was communicating with Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, in 2011 and 2012.
In fact, one of Jamal’s letters to Zawahiri was written on August 18, 2012 -- less than one month prior to the Benghazi attack.
The two letters discussed in the Egyptian press (one was reproduced in its entirety), both of which were authored by Jamal, do not discuss any plans to attack in Benghazi. But they do discuss much else. Complete summaries can be read here.
Jamal clearly sees himself as a subordinate to Zawahiri. Jamal heaps praise on the al Qaeda master, saying it would be an “honor” to sit by Zawahiri’s side. His efforts to travel to Zawahiri’s hideout were frustrated by counterterrorism measures, Jamal writes in a late 2011 letter, so he sent an intermediary.
Jamal summarizes his approach to setting up his network: “Agreement was reached on jihadist action inside Egypt, irrespective of the conditions inside the country. We believed in the necessity of establishing a jihadist entity in Egypt.”
Jamal continues, saying he had established "solid forces from the cadres we trust here and an advanced base outside Egypt in Libya to take advantage of the conditions in Libya after the revolution." He did this "in order to buy weapons and also attract elements not known in Egypt."
Jamal also writes that he established "groups for us inside Sinai." In his August 18, 2012 letter he says the Sinai is “the next confrontation arena with the Jews and the Americans.”
Money is Jamal’s primary concern, and he writes about how expensive it is to maintain his operations in Libya, the Sinai and elsewhere. Purchasing and transporting weapons is especially costly. “We point out that part of the strategy of international action relies on heavy weapons like mortars and Grad Missiles," Jamal writes.
Jamal says that he received funds from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but this wasn’t enough to manage his operations. (Jamal also writes that he was the “teacher” for AQAP’s senior leaders in 1996, long before they established one of al Qaeda’s most lethal affiliates in Yemen.)
And in providing his historical background, perhaps as a reminder for Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s new middle managers (thrust into their positions by lethal raids on the so-called al Qaeda “core”), Jamal writes that he served as one of Zawahiri’s bodyguards in the 1990s.
Jamal’s letters read like summary memos, written to review his work (both past and present), while also asking for additional resources.
All of this leads to new questions for Brennan and the Obama administration:
(1) Did the U.S. government ask the Egyptians to detain Jamal? If so, on the basis of what intelligence? If not, why not?
(2) Has the U.S. government asked the Egyptians to detain any of Jamal’s associates? If so, on the basis of what intelligence?
(3) Has the U.S. government (the FBI or any other agency) been granted access to Jamal? If not, why not? The same questions are appropriate with respect to Jamal’s associates, more than two dozen of whom were captured during the Nasr City raid and in other operations.
(4) Has the U.S. government asked for any of these suspects, Jamal or his associates, to be transferred to U.S. custody for questioning?
(5) Has Jamal been questioned about his role in the Benghazi attack? If he has denied prior knowledge of the attack, why should we believe him? Is there evidence indicating that he did have foreknowledge?
(6) How many of Jamal’s trainees took part in Benghazi assault? Put another way, how many “Egyptian jihadis” were part of the assault team? Has Jamal been asked to identify them? What steps are being taken to locate them? One member of Jamal’s Nasr City cell who was killed during the October raid reportedly was involved in the Benghazi attack. Can the Obama administration confirm what his suspected role was, if any?
(7) What is Jamal’s relationship with Ansar al Sharia in Libya? According to ABC News, Jamal has “admitted to traveling to Libya and assisting Ansar al Sharia, which U.S. officials suspect organized the attack on the consulate that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.”
(8) What other intelligence on Jamal’s relationship with AQAP exists?
(9) What is Jamal’s relationship with Ayman al Zawahiri’s younger brother, Mohammed al Zawahiri, who operates in the open inside Egypt? Put differently, what intelligence has the U.S. government collected on this relationship? (The two both served under Ayman al Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad during the 1990s. While imprisoned in 2007, they both signed a letter rebutting criticisms of al Qaeda’s ideology as well.)
(10) How many pieces of correspondence between Jamal and Ayman al Zawahiri have been recovered by the Egyptians? The same question goes for any other communications between members of Jamal’s circle (including Jamal) and al Qaeda members, including Ayman al Zawahiri. How many total pieces of correspondence have been recovered?
(11) Has Brennan read the correspondence between Jamal and Zawahiri? What is his impression or analysis of this correspondence?
(12) Will the Obama administration make all of the correspondence available to the Senate Intelligence Committee (and not just summaries of the communications prepared by intelligence analysts)?
These are just some of the questions the Senate Intelligence Committee, journalists, and other interested parties should be asking.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.