The Obama administration is engaged in a quiet and largely fruitless effort to persuade Egypt’s security services to arrest scores of terrorists who were released or escaped from prisons during the country’s recent revolution.
The issue has been raised at high levels since March, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the sensitive diplomacy.
Daniel Benjamin, U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism, last month provided the military council in charge of Egypt, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, with a list of about two dozen terrorists thought to be at large.
“I can’t go into intelligence and law enforcement activities, but I am quite sure we have voiced our concern about some of the people who are out and about,” Mr. Benjamin said after a speech in Washington and before he left for Egypt.
The issue of released terrorists affiliated with organizations such as the Egyptian Islamic Group, the organization responsible for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, highlights the rocky U.S.-Egyptian relationship since the revolution that unseated President Hosni Mubarak in February.
President Obama called on Mr. Mubarak to step down as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding his ouster.
In the chaos of February and early March, many officers in Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate walked off the job and many prison guards left their posts. On March 4 and 5, demonstrators ransacked the Interior Ministry building that housed the State Security Investigative Services.
“There was essentially a collapse of state authority,” said Steven A. Cook, an Egypt analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Ministry of Interior, State Security Investigations and the General Intelligence Directorate - these have all been allies of the United States in combating terrorism.”
As a result of the uncertainty surrounding the revolution, people walked off their job and “we don’t know who is left,” he said.
“We don’t know if the Egyptians have the capacity to continue our robust counterterrorism cooperation,” Mr. Cook said.
Murderers, rapists and terrorists
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said the issue of the escaped terrorists came up during his visit to Cairo in May.
“It is something I think you have to be concerned about,” he said. “You’ve got street criminals, but you’ve also got murderers and you’ve got rapists and terrorists, assassins and a whole range of people that ought to be behind bars, but aren’t.”
Mr. Chabot added that “the Egyptians clearly need to get very serious about security in that area and from what I heard there are people, ordinary law-abiding citizens, who are being terrorized, that fear these people for good reason. It is something the Egyptian government needs to step up and get serious about securing these people.”
The U.S. list of Egyptian terrorists thought to be at large includes Rifa Ahmed Taha, also known as Abu Yasser. He was one of the original signatories of Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States and, until his 2001 rendition and detention in Egypt, was considered a senior leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group.