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.
Also on the list is Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman, the son of the man known as the “Blind Sheik,” or Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a federal prison for plotting bombings of New York City tunnels in the 1990s.
Also on the list are Shawky Salama Mostafa and Mohammed Hassan Mahmoud, who are connected to al Qaeda and were captured by U.S. forces in 1998 in Albania but sent to Egypt for trial. Many other members of that cell from the 1990s in Albania are at large.
A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the sensitive diplomacy said the list Mr. Benjamin presented was narrowed down from a list generated by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
“We recognize there are political issues here,” this official said. “We are giving them an easy option to demonstrate their willingness to work with us.”
One problem is that Egyptian security officers still on the job are wary of cooperating with the United States after its longtime partner in counterterrorism, Mr. Mubarak, was abandoned at the height of popular unrest, according to this official.
The official said the response to U.S. appeals from Gen. Tantawi has been, “If you want this done, I can make this happen, but you cannot question my methods. And when I keep these methods in place, you can’t complain there either.”
Among the individuals who are not on the list Mr. Benjamin delivered are Abbud al-Zumur and Tariq al-Zumur. The cousins were initially arrested as key plotters of the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In interviews with the Egyptian press, Abbud al-Zumur has said he is forming a political party. In 2007, the two men issued statements expressing regret for the Sadat assassination.
Encouragement for jihad
Ayman al-Zawahri, who was second in command to Osama bin Laden, mentioned the cousins in an April address about the Egyptian revolution.
Al-Zawahri acknowledged in that speech the release of what he called “political prisoners.”
“I ask God to benefit them so that their release is a benefit for Islam and a support for the Muslims and all the others downtrodden and oppressed people,” he said.
Al-Zawahri said that “a special congratulation goes to the noble and virtuous brothers, [Abbud al-Zumur, Tariq al-Zumur,and Muhammad al-Zawahri]. I ask God to be with them and for their release to be a beginning of a campaign … to awaken the [community of believers] and mobilize it behind the demand for Islamic Shariah so that it will be the ruling body of law and not subject to other laws.”
In an interview in Cairo, Nageh Ibrahim, a chief theologian and leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group, estimated that 50 members of his organization were released from prison since the revolution began on Jan. 25.
“It’s impossible to say how many people have been released from prison since the start of the revolution,” said Muntassir al-Zayyat, an Egyptian lawyer who has represented dozens of jihadists who were arrested in recent years on terrorism-related charges.
Mr. Ibrahim said his organization has rejected violence against the Egyptian state since 1997, when several prominent members of the group signed a statement announcing their view.
But Mr. Ibrahim also distinguished between what he regarded as violence and what he considered jihad, or holy struggle. “Jihad is one thing and it is not the same as violence,” he said. “Violence is against your country, your police and your fellow people. But jihad is against the enemy of the country.”
Mr. Ibrahim also said that “at this moment we will not make a war with Israel, but the jihad is still our way.”
Bruce Hoffman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University, said in an interview that he was worried about radical terrorists who were released during the revolution.
“I look at this as a grave development,” he said. “I don’t think these people’s views will have moderated, having spent in some cases decades in the insalubrious confines of Egyptian prisons.”
Mr. Hoffman added: “I think there is a possibility they will blame the United States as well as Mubarak for their fate. The United States in their view backed Mubarak and encouraged him in the crackdown and repression of Islamist radicals.”
Mr. Ibrahim said, however, that he had no ill will toward the United States or President Obama. He said that he was urging Mr. Obama to release Abdel Rahman from prison so he can return to Egypt.
“I am giving advice to our friend Obama, release the blind sheik for your own benefit. No, this is not a threat, it’s advice from one friend to another friend. This will save America’s reputation from the cynicism of George W. Bush,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
• Special correspondent Maged Atef contributed to this report from Cairo.
• Eli Lake can be reached at email@example.com.
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