- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

CAIRO Egypt is considering the early release from prison of the leader of the country's largest terrorist group, the Gamma Islamiyah or Islamic Group (IG), who says he would continue leading the group but has renounced his past life of crime.
But senior military, security and prison officials said they are not sure whether to believe the sincerity of the moderate orientation claimed by Karam Zohdy, who has served 20 years in jail for ordering the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat.
Zohdy and another IG founder, Nageh Ibrahim, are hoping to be released this year, five years short of their 25-year sentences, because of time off for good behavior.
A key element of President Hosni Mubarak's anti-terrorism policy has been an offer of amnesty or reduced sentences to extremists who renounce violence. More than 1,500 suspected or convicted extremists from the IG and other groups have been released since 2000.
Zohdy told The Washington Times that if and when he gets out of jail, "I will do the same job call for Islam and stop the misrepresentation of Islam. I like for Islam to prevail" over other religions, "but not by coercion," he said.
For two decades, the IG's violence included massacres of tourists and assassinations of government officials.
Zohdy showed no remorse for the death of Mr. Sadat, who was gunned down during a military parade in 1981. He also said in a jailhouse interview last week that he opposed the terror attacks of September 11 mainly because they led to the fall of the Islamic regime in Afghanistan.
"No use crying over spilled milk," Zohdy, 49, said of Mr. Sadat's killing. "I approved the order to kill Sadat. We made the decision because some Islamists were arrested, and he made peace with Israel. We were young and frustrated."
Twenty years of studying the Koran at the sprawling Turajail outside Cairo "led us to change our attitude," he said.
Zohdy took over the leadership of the IG when the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman was sentenced in 1996 to life in jail for plotting to blow up the World Trade Center and other New York landmarks.
"If it is proved Omar is guilty, then we are against it. But people plotted to entrap him, and he was not able to know what is wrong because he is blind," Zohdy said.
Federal prosecutors, however, recently said that Abdel Rahman continued to direct the IG from his Minnesota jail cell and last July ordered the Egyptian group to end a 2-year-old cease-fire.
Abdel Rahman's lawyer, his translator and another man were arrested and indicted for helping him direct the IG, which is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
"We declare as Gamma Islamiyah that we are against any crime," Zohdy said June 4 at Tora Prison outside Cairo, in his first interview since his incarceration.
Egyptian security officials asked a foreign visitor after the interview, "Do you think he is lying or he is telling the truth?" They said they are not sure what to believe.
Egypt already has released from jail two terrorists who went on to kill Americans, and it is worried about making the same mistake again.
Abdul Rahman, the IG founder, was jailed with Zohdy for the Sadat assassination but was released after a few years and went to the United States, where he was convicted of bomb plots.
Ayman Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, also shared jail cells with Zohdy in the early 1980s. He was released and fled to Afghanistan, where he joined Osama bin Laden and helped plan the September 11 attacks.
Zohdy, wearing a blue robe and full beard with his reddish-tinged hair combed over a balding head, called the September 11 attacks on America a "failure."
"Osama bin Laden failed because the attack eliminated two Islamic states Afghanistan and Chechnya," he said, speaking of the U.S. and Russian defeats of Islamists after September 11.
The IG has a long history of brutality. It was blamed for an attempt to assassinate Mr. Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1995, and it claimed credit for killing 18 Greek tourists in central Cairo in 1996, believing them to be Israelis. The group later apologized for the deaths.
A year afterward at Luxor, the IG slaughtered 58 tourists and 12 Egyptians, crippling the tourist trade and alienating many Egyptians dependent on the industry.
The organization declared a cease-fire in 1997.
Zohdy denied the cease-fire was the result of a government crackdown on militants, saying they had corrected "misinterpretations" of Islam and "learned from the killing of Sadat about the way to God."
But authorities remain wary of the group, as well as the still-banned oldest and largest Islamic group in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood recently bringing charges against about 20 of its members.
"We rejected September 11," said Zohdy. "Zawahri sees jihad as an end in itself the goal is to look for any hot spot they can find and fight there."
Ibrahim, 47, also wearing a blue robe and sporting a large callus on his forehead from bowing to the ground in prayer, said the IG believes in jihad only "for defending a Muslim country." Prison officials said about 250 prisoners remained in the Islamist wing of the jail.
Despite the pledges of nonviolence expressed by the two terrorists, a security official voiced contempt and suspicion.
"They are just criminals," said the official, who declined to be identified. "Will I make deals with criminals? They declared a cease-fire because they were unable to continue. Even after the cease-fire, we continue to arrest and prosecute them and jail them."

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