Though in recent years its influence has waned considerably and its ideology has undergone a radical transformation, the Islamic Group (Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya) once had several thousand armed members, making it Egypt’s largest militant organization. Closely linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, it was originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. From its inception, IG’s objective was to overthrow Egypt’s existing government and replace it with a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Eschewing diplomatic compromise entirely, IG viewed violent jihad as the only acceptable means of advancing its power. In addition, the organization advocated the spread of violence and mayhem to “infidel” countries like the United States and its allies, and openly called for the destruction of Israel.
IG was founded in 1973 at Asyut University in Egypt to serve as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, which IG’s adherents considered too liberal on religious matters. The “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, quickly established himself as the fledgling organization’s spiritual leader. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat initially gave free rein to Rahman’s group, covertly supplying its members with arms that could be used to repel potential attacks by Marxists or Nasserites. During this period Rahman issued numerous fatwas, or religious rulings, encouraging attacks on Christian shopkeepers and small-business owners in Egypt. By the mid-1970s, the social tensions created by such assaults caused President Sadat to begin imprisoning militants and terrorists.
This change in policy caused Rahman to flee to neighboring Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, where he found financial backers for his organization. After Sadat signed the 1977 Camp David agreement making peace with Israel, Arab anti-Semitism rose to a fever pitch and resulted in the rapid growth of IG’s membership rolls. In 1980 Rahman returned to Egypt, where he issued a fatwa calling for Sadat’s assassination. After the Egyptian President was gunned down in October 1981, Rahman served a prison term of six months for his role in the killing — escaping a sterner sentence on a technicality. Additional Islamic Group leaders were arrested as well — not only for their role in Sadat’s killing, but also for their participation in a failed attempt two days later to depose the Security Administration in Asyut and take over the city. It is believed that the assassination was plotted jointly by IG and the Muslim Brotherhood.
For the remainder of the 1980s, Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak treated Egypt’s militant organizations with extreme harshness, in many cases torturing or executing actual or suspected members of such groups. During those years, many IG members went to Afghanistan to participate in that nation’s war against the Soviet Union. It was there, in Afghanistan, that IG members first fought alongside, and forged alliances with, members of al Qaeda.
In the early 1990s, IG members in Egypt launched a violent campaign aimed at snuffing out any and all influences of Western culture, killing dozens of people in attacks against foreign tourists. Rahman, who by this time had immigrated to the United States, again provided religious justification for these attacks by arguing that tourism in Egypt was infecting the country with immorality and sexually transmitted diseases.
Throughout the 1990s, IG continued to attack tourists as well as Egyptian business establishments like theaters, bookstores, and banks. In 1995, IG and the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad joined forces in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Then in a wholly unexpected move, on July 5, 1997 the Islamic Group announced a unilateral initiative of conciliation with the Egyptian government. In a court hearing, an IG member read aloud a communiqué, signed by six of the organization’s leaders, declaring an end to all armed operations within and outside Egypt. The initiative was received with much skepticism by the Egyptian media and government. Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed in September 1997, when IG members murdered nine German tourists and their driver in Cairo. Two months thereafter, six IG members wielding guns and knives murdered 58 German and Japanese tourists and three Egyptians. Then-head of IG’s Shura Council, Rifa’i Taha, who opposed the conciliation initiative and who had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1992, claimed responsibility for the Luxor attack from Afghanistan, where he had been living for several years. He explained that this mass slaughter was carried out for the purpose of persuading American authorities to release Omar Abdel Rahman, who in 1996 had been given a life sentence in a U.S. prison for his role in masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and other terrorist plots.
Following the Luxor killings, IG split into two factions that were bitterly opposed to each other — one calling for an end to attacks on civilians and foreigners, the other advocating a continuation of the violence. The more peaceful faction was led by Mustafa Hamza; the other was headed by the violent extremist Rifa’i Taha Musa, who in 1998 signed Osama bin Laden’s fatwa calling for jihad against Americans; Musa and his followers also joined the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, an alliance formed in 1998 by al Qaeda and a number of other terrorist groups from the Muslim world.
The Egyptian government tightly circumscribed IG’s activities in the aftermath of the Luxor killings. That, combined with the organization’s ideological split, rendered the Islamic Group relatively inert after August 1998, the month in which it last carried out an attack inside Egypt. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, what remained of IG in Egypt embraced more fully the conciliation initiative of four years earlier.
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, “The Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya organization [Islamic Group], which perpetrated terror attacks in Egypt throughout the 1980s and ’90s, has in recent years undergone an ideological reversal exceptional among Islamist organizations. The leaders of the organization have undertaken to forsake violence and have apologized for past attacks and now promote a new ideology of coexistence with the regime. In addition, they have gone to great lengths to argue against Al-Qaeda’s ideology and to restrict its influence on Muslims.”