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Terror in Egypy

January 1998

The brutal massacre of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians in Luxor, Egypt, in November 1997 has brought the issue of Islamic extremism in Egypt to the fore once again.

Islamic extremism in Egypt is predicated on a rejection of the West and Egypt's Western-oriented regime.The movement's political agenda is to topple the government of President Hosni Mubarak and establish an Islamic theocracy. The most significant terror organization in Egypt is the Gama'at al-Islamiyya or Islamic Group (IG), responsible for the Luxor tragedy.

The IG is an indigenous Egyptian Islamic extremist movement founded in the late 1970s by a group of radical Islamic theologians, led by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and former army intelligence officers and lawyers. Sheikh Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in New York for his role in inciting his followers to bomb the World Trade Center in February 1993. The original core of former army officers and lawyers are all serving life sentences in Egypt.

Today, the group comprises a loosely organized underground of terror cells. There is currently no known single operational leader while Sheikh Rahman remains the group's spiritual leader.

Believed to have several hundred armed operatives, several thousand members and an additional several thousand sympathizers, the IG is centered primarily in the poor provinces of upper, or southern, Egypt. It also enjoys support, however, in Cairo, Alexandria, and other urban areas, primarily among students and unemployed university graduates.

Banned from participating in Egyptian elections, Islamic radicals took control of trade unions and professional associations. They established a network of charities, businesses, schools and hospitals and gained adherents among Egypt's poor and disadvantaged.

Islamic extremists have sought to destabilize Egypt by destroying its tourism industry, the mainstay of Egypt's economy. Before the November massacre, with some 4.2 million visitors, the tourism industry was set to generate in 1997 nearly $4 billion in revenue for Egypt, making tourism the country's most important source of foreign exchange.

IG first gained notoriety for its assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October 1981. Over the years, it has engaged in attacks against Egyptian security and government officials, Coptic Christians, secular intellectuals and, since 1992, foreign tourists in Egypt. Its attacks include the 1992 assassination of secularist commentator Farag Foda, the 1994 assassination attempt against Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the June 1995 assassination attempt against President Mubarak and the April 1996 shooting deaths of 18 Greek tourists outside a Cairo hotel.

While the two brothers convicted and sentenced to death for the September 1997 attack on a bus outside Cairo's Egyptian museum in which nine German tourists and their Egyptian driver were killed denied affiliation with the IG, they did admit sympathies with IG ideology. IG issued a statement in October 1997 hailing the two men and warning tourists not to come to Egypt.

Despite a harsh government crackdown and the imprisonment and exile of its senior leaders, IG remains Egypt's most active extremist organization. Prior to the Luxor attack, Cairo had declared a victory in its war against Islamic radicals. The Luxor attack was the group's deadliest and came on the heels of repeated appeals by the six imprisoned founders of IG, starting in July 1997, for an end to the violence. Since 1992, nearly 1,200 people, including 92 foreigners, have been killed in Islamic extremist violence, including many attacks claimed by the Gama'a.

IG leaders have been arrested and imprisoned by the government while others are living in exile in Europe and Afghanistan. Exiled leaders are suspected of providing support for terrorist activities within Egypt and statements in the name of the IG have been issued from outside Egypt. In April 1996, for example, a senior IG leader, speaking from Afghanistan, publicly threatened to kidnap U.S. citizens in retaliation for the life imprisonment sentence of Sheikh Rahman, handed down in January 1996. An IG leaflet left at the Luxor massacre site claimed that the attack was carried out as a gesture to Mustafa Hamza, an exiled IG leader suspected of having masterminded the assassination attempt on President Mubarak and believed to be in Pakistan.

Most recently, exiled leaders have expressed sharp differences over the wisdom of continued violence and the best course for the terrorist group. In December 1997, one IG faction issued a statement saying that it had decided "to stop targeting either the tourism industry or foreign tourists" while another faction issued a statement denying the vow. Apparently the statement vowing to end such attacks was issued by Yasser el-Serri, an Islamic radical leader in London while the denial issued the next day emanated from Refaei Ahmed Taha, a senior IG leader living in Afghanistan. Both leaders are on the run from death sentences and appeared on a list that Cairo issued shortly after the Luxor attack of 14 fugitive militants Egypt says mastermind and finance attacks from abroad.

President Mubarak recently accused Britain and other states of providing safe haven to Islamic militants. Yasser al-Serri, for example, who faces a death sentence in Egypt for the 1993 attempted murder of then Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki, has lived in Britain since 1994. According to press reports, he is seeking political asylum in Britain. Although London denies protecting terrorists, British Home Secretary Jack Straw admitted in November that there was a problem with people using Britain as a base for financing and supporting terrorism abroad. He pointed to the fact that Britain's anti-terrorism laws do not consider it an offense to plot an attack abroad from British soil. Mr. Straw has pledged to review the law.

In October 1997, the U.S. State Department designated the Islamic Group as one of 30 foreign terrorist organizations who are banned from fund-raising in the U.S. and whose members and representatives are ineligible for visas to enter the U.S. and are subject to exclusion. It is now a Federal crime to provide funds, weapons or other types of material support to the IG.

Islamic Group prospects for the future remain unclear. On the one hand, the IG is currently experiencing a popular backlash from the Egyptian public. The severe blow dealt to the tourism industry as a result of the Luxor massacre has angered the Egyptian people who are the ones suffering from the decline in tourist revenues. On the other hand, the Luxor attack represents a more brazen approach on the part of IG militants who contradicted calls for a cease-fire from senior leaders of the movement. This, analysts have speculated, may portend the perpetuation of more independent, splintered and violent Islamic Group cells.

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