Cairo's dirty war spills across Europe

Egyptian hit-squads: Islamist `terrorists' strike back as long arm of Mubarak's vengeance reaches out to London
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The Independent Online
Alaa al-Din Nazmi drove into the underground car-park of his luxury Geneva apartment at about 9pm on 13 November. Married with a four-month-old daughter, the commercial counsellor to the Egyptian embassy should have had no reason to fear assassination. Officials from the UN's European headquarters also lived in the apartment block and - officially, at least - Nazmi spent much of his time negotiating the future of Egypt's basket-case economy with members of the World Trade Organisation.

But no sooner had he parked his car and begun walking across the garage to take the lift to his seventh-floor flat than a gunman - or gunmen - opened fire. Nazmi was hit by six bullets and died instantly, although his body was not discovered for another two hours.

In Cairo, however, political sources suggested that Nazmi was working under diplomatic cover, and that his real job was to track down members of Egyptian Islamist armed groups in Europe who have sworn to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Nazmi's murderers said as much two days later. Describing themselves as the Gemaa al Adela al Alamiya - the "International Justice Group" - they claimed that his real job was to hunt Muslim "activists" on behalf of the Egyptian government.

The Egyptian authorities insist Nazmi was no more than a diplomat. But his murder came less than two months after Talaat Qassem, the co-founder of Egypt's Gemaa Islamiya - the "Islamic Group" largely responsible for the anti-Mubarak insurrection that has cost almost 900 lives in Egypt over the past three years - disappeared on a visit to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Mr Qassem held refugee status in Denmark and his family said that he was visiting former Yugoslavia to research a book. But other sources claimed he was on the way to visit Islamist fighters in Bosnia.

Whatever the purpose of his trip, the Croatian authorities said they arrested the 38-year-old Egyptian on 12 September, fined him for violating residence laws and expelled him from the country six days later.

Muslim activists sympathetic to the Gemaa, however, told a different story. They said Mr Qassem was seized by a group of American intelligence officers, interrogated and later sent to Egypt via the Croatian port of Rijeka, and is now being held in the Al-Mansoura Egyptian intelligence headquarters. Both the United States and the Croatians flatly denied the story. But two weeks later, a massive car bomb blew up in Rijeka, killing a Croatian policeman. It followed a threat from an organisation calling itself "Vanguards of Conquest" which had warned the Croats not send Mr Qassem back to Egypt.

By mid-November, therefore, the Egyptian regime was at war with its enemies overseas. President Mubarak, outraged at the continuation of the armed Muslim insurrection in Upper Egypt, decided to send large numbers of his own intelligence officers abroad to hunt down what he called the "Arab Afghans", the Arab volunteers who had fought against the Soviet Union with CIA backing in Afghanistan but, once the war was over, had turned against the regimes of Egypt and Algeria in the hope of creating Islamic republics.

Up to 100 Egyptian state security police were dispatched to London to set up a base for "anti-terrorist" operations in Europe. Around 40 of the men were stated by a reliable military source in Cairo to be armed; all of them were said to be tasked to eliminate the "terrorists" who had declared war on Egypt. Mr Mubarak also sanctioned the dispatch of another 100 men to Pakistan to pursue Egyptian militants in Baluchistan and other areas bordering Afghanistan.

One Cairo source says that Hassan al-Alfi, the Egyptian Interior Minister, was behind the entire project, having told the President during the summer that if three named "Arab Afghans" were liquidated, the "terrorist war" against Egypt would be over. The three men were named as Mr Qassem, an activist called Iman al-Zawahri, whom the Egyptians believed to be living in Switzerland, and Mohamed el-Islambouly, reported to be in Pakistan, the brother of Lieutenant Khaled el-Islambouly, the army officer who murdered President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

By late September, Mr Qassem had disappeared in Croatia. The Swiss denied all knowledge of Mr Zawahri but the Egyptian government's first diplomat casualty had been shot down in Switzerland in mid-November. Then, on 19 November, a suicide bomber attacked the Egyptian embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, killing 18 men, including five diplomats. Once again, sources in Cairo said that several of the dead embassy officials were working under cover as diplomats to help the Pakistani authorities track down members of the Gemaa and other anti-government groups, especially Mohamed el-Islam- bouly; indeed, the same sources claimed that these same men had already secured the extradition of nine wanted Egyptian militants to Cairo. Mr Mubarak was on the point of sending the next batch of 100 intelligence officers to Islamabad on a parallel operation to the one he had sanctioned for London when the Islamabad bomb went off. The operation was cancelled at 24 hours' notice.

Two days after the bombing, however, the Adela al Alamiya group - which had admitted the murder of Alaa al-Din Nazmi in Geneva - claimed responsibility for the Islamabad slaughter, and added a ferocious new warning. "There are other death sentences that have been issued against other [diplomats] and these sentences will be implemented even if they hang from the curtains of the Kabaa", (the holy black stone shrine in Mecca), the group said in a faxed acknowledgement of responsibility. "There is no punishment for you other than cutting your bodies into shreds. You are more criminal than the Zionists."

The claim also demanded the freeing of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, one of Mr Mubarak's fiercest enemies among Islamic prelates, currently jailed in the United States, and the release of Talaat Qassem from his supposed prison in Egypt.

Egypt's tit-for-tat war with its enemies abroad now seems set to produce further bloodshed. And just as Egypt's ruthless intelligence services are hunting for the regime's enemies abroad, President Mubarak has instituted an ever more draconian repression at home. Quite apart from the sentencing of 54 non-violent members of the Muslim Brotherhood before last week's parliamentary elections - in which several of the convicted men were candidates - and the death of 26 Islamists in Egyptian prisons since January, it has now emerged that his intelligence services took action against Cairo University students who protested at his decision to attend the Jerusalem funeral of Yitzhak Rabin on 5 November.

Sources close to the Egyptian security forces say that at least 50 students, most of whom were demonstrating against the regime rather than the Jerusalem visit, were arrested by plainclothes policemen posing as university officials. After they had been forced to give their addresses, police raided their homes and took their entire families, including women with babies, to the Central Security Camp on the Cairo-Alexandria road, where many were kept without food and water for two days. Some policemen brought bread and water to the elderly - but only for pay.

Even less publicised were the bloody raids by security force personnel on two villages, Maghaga in Minya province and another hamlet near the Fayoum oasis, just a month ago.

About 1,500 police were reported to have stormed Maghaga, apparently looking for Islamic "terrorists". They killed 13 men, including, they said, a local Muslim militant leader. In Fayoum, seven people were killed, including the local head of the Gemaa Islamiya. "This was not just a military operation," a source familiar with the raids said in Cairo this week. "The security forces were asked to be policemen, judges and executioners."

Is that, European governments may now ask, what the Egyptian government has ordered its intelligence men abroad to be?