At a time when America is desperate to identify terrorist threats, recent events here are showing how difficult it is to make sense of new leads--even when they come from an ally.
Western diplomats say privately that a wave of much-touted arrests in Egypt is a perfect example of how local politics, genuine security concerns and competing interests can confuse the battle against terrorism.
Two weeks ago, just as the United States was asking Egypt for more cooperation in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, state-run media reported that Egyptian secret police had thwarted a massive strike against American interests. The reports said police rounded up 83 “extremists,” including a pair of U.S.-trained pilots with possible links to Osama bin Laden.
Egyptian authorities, without commenting on details, quickly confirmed the gist of the accounts.
But when Western officials looked more closely, they had a hard time determining what had really happened.
“We’re still plumbing the depths,” said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When we first heard about American-trained pilots, we were concerned. Then we were told this was old news and there was nothing to it.”
Outside of Israel, Egypt is America’s most reliable ally in the Middle East and can provide powerful backing for President Bush’s war on terrorism. The nation of 65 million people has an influential voice in the Islamic world and has been fighting its own war on terrorism for 20 years. Egyptian security agencies hold extensive files on Bin Laden and leaders of his Al Qaeda terrorism network, many of whom are Egyptian.
But Western officials say that Egyptians guard their information very closely, and that they must be careful not to intrude on Egyptian sovereignty. Foreign investigators sometimes get no closer than observer seats at a military trial.
“Sometimes we’re just not that well informed,” the diplomat said.
Human rights groups also have accused Egyptian police of making mass arrests with little evidence and branding political opponents “terrorists” or “extremists,” further clouding the issue.
“There’s a genuine conflict of priorities in Egypt right now,” said a former State Department official with many years’ experience in the Middle East. “The U.S. needs good information and as much help as we can get in counter-terrorism. The Egyptians need to maintain control. Sometimes, those two run together. Sometimes, they don’t.”
Simmering anger over U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan--and Bin Laden’s calls for a holy war--have reinvigorated support for militant Islamic groups that have tried to overthrow the Egyptian government in the recent past. Egyptian police, posted at nearly every major intersection of endless Cairo, are taking no chances.
Case Called ‘Offering’ to United States
Government critics have said the timing of this month’s news about the terrorist plot is mysterious, since the 83 men have already been held for five months.
“This case has become an offering to the States,” said Hazem Rushdi Mohammed, a lawyer who represents several of the accused. “Americans want so badly to stop terrorists. But under our system, nobody will ever know who is really a terrorist and who is an innocent man.”
Nabil Osman, President Hosni Mubarak’s top spokesman, said no charges had been fabricated. Osman would not discuss specifics of the case, and state security officials declined to be interviewed.
“Don’t ask us where we stand on these issues,” Osman said. “We have been fighting terrorism single-handedly for 20 years.”
In 1981, radical Islamic groups assassinated President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.
That treaty with Israel marked the beginning of a close relationship between Egypt and the United States, which gives Egypt $2 billion a year in combined military and economic aid, more than any other country except Israel.
Partly because of Egypt’s ties to the West, militant attacks intensified and peaked in 1997 when 58 tourists were machine-gunned in an ancient temple. The scale of that bloodshed and its devastating impact on Egypt’s tourism-dependent economy turned many people off to the fundamentalists trying to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state.
The attacks ceased, though the country is still under the same state of emergency instituted when Sadat was killed. Islamic groups, with their grass-roots networks of mosques and community organizations, are still perceived as the biggest threat to Mubarak’s ruling party.
All this may help explain the roots of Case 640-01, involving the 83 suspects.
In May, authorities charged several Cairo sheiks and their followers with funneling money to Palestinian territories and to Chechnya. Such back-channel aid and unlicensed political activities are illegal in Egypt, and the case was slated for civil court.
A Cairo professor who knows one of the arrested suspects said the men were supposed to be released this fall. “There just wasn’t any evidence to keep holding them, on anything,” the professor said.
But that changed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
Encouraged by their U.S. counterparts, Egyptian intelligence agents poured through old and pending court cases in search of links to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan and suspected of masterminding the attacks.
Egypt has been helpful in the past, Western officials say, because for years authorities have monitored the same groups America and others are now deeply interested in. Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which tried to foment a coup against the Egyptian government, is a key part of the Al Qaeda network. Bin Laden’s right hand man, Ayman Zawahiri, is a former Cairo doctor.
On Oct. 12, news broke that authorities had discovered an Al Qaeda link to the group arrested in May.
State-owned Al Mussawar magazine said that among the suspects were two young pilots who had trained at the same Florida flight schools as Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian native thought to be a ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackings. The group was planning attacks on U.S. targets similar to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it said.
Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the magazine’s 65-year-old editor, wrote the story, citing sources high in Egypt’s Interior Ministry. He stands by it.
“I am not a boy,” Ahmed said. “I am totally sure of my information.”
Lawyers for the two pilots denied all terrorism charges but confirmed that the pair had trained in U.S. flight schools two years ago. The two pilots are Ayman Said Ibrahim Al Mansi, a university graduate in his early 20s, and another man of like age whose name has not been disclosed.
Connections Alleged With Flight Training
Al Mansi’s name did not appear on the federal pilot databases or in any of the logs at the handful of flight schools where Atta trained.
The defense lawyers didn’t specify which schools the two had trained at, or know if the pair completed training. The lawyers said the men were searching for work as agricultural pilots. This raised even more fears because of claims Atta had looked into flying crop-dusters, possibly as a way to spread biological or chemical weapons.
A second Egyptian government publication, Al Ahram, then produced a richly detailed story about the foiled plot, including a specific list of bomb-making materials confiscated from the group. It also announced the case had been abruptly transferred to a military court, where there is no chance of appeal.
The second report, again citing government sources, said the suspects arrested in May were a shadowy cell of Islamic mercenaries called Al Waad, or the Promise.
Diaa Rashwan, who has tracked hundreds of fundamentalist groups for a Cairo think tank over the past 20 years, said he has never heard of the Promise. He also said he wouldn’t put it past government media or sources behind it to make everything up, including the name. “It happens,” Rashwan said.
Mubarak’s only comment on the case was that the suspects were “extremists” but not connected to Al Qaeda, further confusing the matter.
The 83 men are now headed for military court as early as next month to face charges including “harming national unity and social peace.” Long prison terms await them if convicted.
A senior Western official said he had been recently told by Egyptian authorities that the case did involve dangerous groups and that he “had no evidence [the authorities] are lying.”
“It’s a very sensitive time to be pushing these issues,” the official said, citing Egypt’s pivotal role in the Arab world. “Maybe, when the time comes, we’ll be allowed to attend the trials as observers so we can find out more.”