Tal‘at Qasim got his start in al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya [1] (the Islamic Group) in the 1970s when it took control of many student organizations in the Egyptian universities. He led the student union in Minya, a hotbed of the Islamist movement, and later was a founding member of the majlis al-shura (governing council) of the organization at large. Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman later became head of the majlis.

In 1981, the Gama‘a majlis recruited artillery officer Khalid al-Islambuli to carry out its decision to assassinate President Anwar al-Sadat. Qasim, who was al-Islambuli’s superior within the Gama‘a, had been arrested two weeks before the assassination and incarcerated in Tura prison, but security forces failed to uncover the assassination plot. In the subsequent trials, Qasim was sentenced to seven years, and was actually incarcerated for eight before escaping and making his way, via Sudan, to Peshawar, Pakistan, and the ranks of the Afghan mujahideen (fighters against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul).

In Peshawar, in late 1989, he began publishing al-Murabitun, the first magazine of the Gama‘a. He was also involved in setting up a mahkama shar‘iyya (Islamic court), which passed “death sentences” on various Egyptian officials and secularist personalities in Egypt. It was this court that issued the order resulting in the death of Farag Fawda. Al-Murabitun published rationales for Fawda’s assassination, and for the Gama‘a decision to target tourists.

Over the next four years, Qasim traveled between Peshawar and Afghanistan, where militants were trained for armed operations in Egypt. In 1989, he became na’ib al-amir (deputy chief) of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya. Following the arrest of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman, he became the Gama‘a leader. Egypt put pressure on Pakistan to extradite Qasim after an Egyptian court sentenced him to death in the case of the “Afghans.” He then fled to Copenhagen, where he was granted political asylum. Hisham Mubarak spoke with him there in November 1993. The interview was translated from the Arabic by Souhail Shadoud and Steve Tamari.

How was al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya formed? How did it evolve from the 1970s to the organization of today?

It began in the mid-1970s with nine people in Minya reading the works of Ibn Taymiyya, Abu ‘Ala al-Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Sayyid Sabiq and others. [2] A group began in Asyout around the same time. The Minya group pressured the school administration to segregate girls and boys, to halt classes at prayer times and to establish mosques. This activism then spread to neighborhoods and surrounding villages. The group worked to change the munkar (that which is forbidden), and after some destruction of property they got a law passed banning alcohol. It was after this that these activists formed al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, a real organization. At Minya University in 1977-1978 they took over the student union.

When did the Gama‘a move from being an evangelical organization to one devoted to confronting the state?

Religion requires not just personal “conversion.” We began by spreading our message, but our goal has always been the establishment of an Islamic state.

What was the state’s response?

Confrontation with the state began in earnest in 1978, with the arrest of some members after protests against Camp David. Soon afterward, protests against Sadat’s offer of asylum to the Shah of Iran led to the murder of some of our members by security forces.

Some say that al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya was supported by the Egyptian state to fight the left.

Propaganda. Like the claim about Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman working with the CIA. In fact, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya was the only organization to confront the state. Many members suffered as a consequence.

How did you meet ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman?

Muhammad ‘Abd al-Majid, a disaffected Muslim Brother, introduced ‘Abd al-Rahman to audiences around 1978. We got to know him then.

What was Sheikh ‘Umar’s influence on the founding of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya?

His only influence was as a shari‘a professor at al-Azhar. We youth did not have his knowledge.

Why and when was the military wing of al-Gama‘a established?

In 1987, after the establishment of the first majlis al-shura, which included Karam Zuhdi, ‘Isam Dirbala, Najih Ibrahim, Salah Hashim, Usama Hafiz, ‘Asim ‘Abd al-Majid, Sabri al-Banna, ‘Ali al-Sharif, Hamdi ‘Abd al-Rahman, Rifa‘i Taha and myself. The idea was first suggested by ‘Isam Dirbala in my house during a meeting of the majlis, in response to violent attacks by the state. We supported the idea because “the only way to express yourself in this world is through force, the only language that is understood.”

What was your evaluation of the Muslim Brothers?

After we started al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, Sadat released a number of Muslim Brothers from jail to clamp down on us in Cairo. When they tried to take on our people, we developed our critical orientation toward the Muslim Brothers.

Were there differences within al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya over this orientation?

In late 1978, several Gama’a leaders, including the leader of the Gama‘a, Muhi al-Din Ahmad, were arrested in Upper Egypt. Some Muslim Brother lawyers came to the defense of these leaders. Muhi al-Din was too poor to afford a lawyer so the Muslim Brother lawyers agreed to defend him in exchange for his joining the Muslim Brothers. This was the first proposition by the Muslim Brothers to the Gama‘a. After that, leaders of the Muslim Brothers held a meeting at ‘Ayn Shams University. They invited us to this meeting. The Gama‘a was represented by three of its leaders including Muhi al-Din, Abu al-‘Ila Madi and me from Minya University, and by Najih Ibrahim and Usama Hafiz from Asyout. The Muslim Brother leaders who attended that meeting included Mustafa Mashhour and Salah Abu Isma‘il. They asked us frankly if we would join the Brothers. We refused because of the differences in our agenda. But they succeeded in influencing some Gama‘a leaders, the most prominent being Muhi al-Din and Abu al-‘Ila Madi from Upper Egypt, Essam al-Erian, Hilmi al-Jazzar and ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futouh from Cairo, and Ahmad ‘Umar and Ibrahim al-Za‘farani from Alexandria University. These agreed to follow the Muslim Brother leaders and they split from the Gama‘a.

Did they become the youth organization of the Brothers in the universities?

That’s correct. But they kept moving under the banner of the Gama‘a even though they had split from it. They wanted to profit from the reputation of the Gama‘a among students. They stopped doing this, however, after the events of 1981 due to the torture they endured at the hands of the security forces.

What was the effect of this split?

There were conflicts with the Muslim Brothers in Upper Egypt but no conflicts took place in Cairo because Essam al-Erian, Hilmi al-Jazzar and ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futouh had a strong base among the students there and they faced no competition. We continued our work in Upper Egypt and we started in 1978 to hold meetings in al-Rahman mosque in Asyout every Monday. Our differences with the Brothers began to emerge at this point. The majority of youth would go to al-Rahman mosque and the minority to the Brothers’ mosque.

You said you studied the writings of Sayyid Qutb.

He was a leader of the Muslim Brothers. There are two points here. One is our relation to the ideas of Qutb; the other is the extent to which Qutb’s ideas are those of the Brothers. Qutb has influenced all those interested in jihad (holy struggle) throughout the Islamic world. At the time there were many interpretations (turuq) and we were in need of direction. This Sayyid Qutb’s teachings provided. The Muslim Brothers today have abandoned the ideas of Sayyid Qutb.

But two years ago there was a declaration by ‘Abboud al-Zumur (head of the Jihad organization) calling for unity between the Muslim Brothers and al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya.

We published this statement in al-Murabitun. We have defined general areas where we can cooperate with other Islamic groups. But neither ‘Abboud al-Zumur’s statement nor what we wrote in al-Murabitun intended cooperation with the Muslim Brothers. Our disagreements with the brothers prevent cooperation. We think that multiplicity and variety are useful as long as the Islamic state has not yet come about.

When and how did you escape from prison to Peshawar?

I spent seven years in prison. Then I was under house arrest, was rearrested and spent another year of imprisonment, interrogation and torture. In 1989 I was able to escape in the course of all the transporting from court to prison to the central prison.

How did you get to Sudan?

I was aided by people later involved in the attempt on the life of the interior minister and the assassination of the speaker of Parliament. I was almost caught at the airport on my way to Sudan. I spent twelve days in Sudan before going to Pakistan, where I met Afghan Islamic leaders and the brother of Khalid al-Islambuli.

Some say there was a discussion between you and Egyptian security officials after you were released from prison in 1988.

There was no such discussion. Gen. Sa‘id Thabit, an important official from the state security forces, called upon me while I was under house arrest in October 1988, following my release from prison. He informed me of the necessity of stopping the violence undertaken by the Gama‘a in Upper Egypt, at ‘Ayn Shams and in other regions. I specified our conditions: first, release of Gama‘a prisoners, including those who had not yet been sentenced; second, lifting the ban on our propagandizing and rescinding the order to close our mosques; and third, ending state torture and the taking of hostages. Of course, these conditions were not met, and the security around my house intensified. After my escape and rearrest in 1989, I was visited by the same man who demanded again that we end the violence, especially around ‘Ayn Shams, where there had been a notable escalation in Gama‘a activities against the police. I repeated our conditions and he his refusal. There was no dialogue and there will be none.

But there was a mediation council that included ‘ulama’, and as a result Interior Minister ‘Abd al-Halim Musa — who was a participant — was forced to resign.

We issued a communique denying this. There will be no dialogue until one side is victorious over the other, or the Islamic regime is established.

Does this mean al-Gama‘a rejects any dialogue that could stop the escalation of violence?

We will only entertain discussions with state security officials and intellectuals of the state (mashayikh amn al-dawla wa ‘ulama’ al-sultan) in order to clear our name in the face of lies propagated by the state. After coming to power perhaps we will enter into a dialogue with the leaders about how they can leave the country.

Some have said ‘Abboud al-Zumur was part of the dialogue.

There was no dialogue, and ‘Abboud al-Zumur himself denied it.

Another report claimed that Safwat ‘Abd al-Ghani (a lawyer who defended Islamists) had a part in the mediation council, and that he there confirmed the existence of a dialogue.

First, there were changes in the statement of Safwat ‘Abd al-Ghani. No one speaks for the Gama‘a except myself, and I have only spoken to deny the existence of the mediation council.

What of talk of contacts between the Gama‘a and the American embassy?

The same. There have been no such discussions at any level. The Americans approached us and we rejected them.

How did the Americans approach you?

Right after my first release, I met with three foreigners. One of them was an American journalist who asked human rights questions and what Gama‘a members had faced in prison.

Were there other attempts?

The American journalist tried again and I refused. I had asked to see his report from our first meeting.

What about the American embassy?

After my rearrest in 1989, the political attache at the American embassy tried to contact me through the same lawyer who arranged the original meeting with the journalists. I asked him what the attache wanted. He said the attache could assist in his release and wanted to get to know me personally. He said he wanted to affirm that America was not the Great Satan, and to stress that American assistance does not aid the Egyptian government in clamping down on the Gama‘a. Of course, I refused. We consider the United States the main enemy and do not distinguish between the United States and Israel, or among Mubarak, Clinton and Rabin. We will never meet with them, ever.

How about discussions between the Gama‘a and the Jihad organization?

There is no such organization led by ‘Abboud al-Zumur. He is part of the majlis al-shura of the Gama‘a, and has created no rival organization.

In 1984, ‘Abboud al-Zumur released a statement opposing the leadership of the Gama‘a in Upper Egypt. He titled it “Invalidity of Rule by the Blind.”

Indeed, there was a debate over Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman‘s leadership, instigated by ‘Abboud al-Zumur, who asked for a fatwa (legal opinion) supporting his leadership. Since he joined the Gama‘a, he has been on the majlis al-shura and has always been a militant for the sake of God. We are proud of his presence among us.

It came out in a court case that there is a Peshawar-based organization, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, called Gama‘at al-Jihad, with ‘Abboud al-Zumur as one of its principals.

The question of ‘Abboud al-Zumur I have dealt with already. As for Gama‘at al-Jihad, this is an organization with which we have no relations. We met in prison after the events of 1981, but we have no relations with them. There was no unity to begin with, so no question of a split.

What was the role of this organization in the events of 1981 and the assassination of Sadat?

Gama‘at al-Jihad had no role in the assassination of al-Sadat or the events in Asyout; al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya was responsible. Jihad was simply caught up in the arrest campaign in 1981, and we met in prison. They are brothers and have exerted efforts in this sacred struggle. But they had no role in the events of 1981.

When you met with al-Zawahiri in prison you must have learned about the creation of this organization and its development.

According to al-Zawahiri, they started in the 1960s with 18 and ended in 1981 with just three. During the arrest and torture campaign, security forces discovered several secret groups, and included them in our case. They got short sentences. Some went to Afghanistan and some to Saudi Arabia. Al-Zawahiri went to Peshawar, where I met him in 1985. Al-Zawahiri started working among the Arabs and came to know a rich Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden, who helped create a base for those who wanted to help the Afghan struggle. From that point, they began to call themselves Gama‘at al-Jihad.

Did Gama‘at al-Jihad dominate activities in Peshawar? Where was al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya?

With the arrival of the leadership of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya in Peshawar in the mid-1980s, people began to hear more about us, especially because of the events of 1981. From that time on, the Gama‘a had a strong presence not only in Peshawar but on the battlefield throughout Afghanistan.

Ayman al-Zawahiri‘s group focuses on military activities. Is this a reason for the division between your groups?

I think they discovered that military activities alone would not suffice to attract new members. One must be involved in ideas and the propagation of new ideas in order to attract new adherents.

Is there still the matter of the “rule of the blind”?

Yes. The book they published on the conditions of khalifa (caliph) is weak. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman has not asked to be the khalifa, because [the institution] does not exist yet. As for leadership of the organization, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman has the qualifications for leadership (imara) of the struggle. In any case, we put forth a long rebuttal to al-Zawahiri‘s book, which we did not publish because we want to keep the discussion at this level.

What about reports of a union between your two groups?

There are many efforts in this direction. What I can say is that we have bridged many gaps.

Why the violence against tourists?

First, many tourist activities are forbidden, so this source of income for the state is forbidden. Striking at such an important source of income will be a major blow against the state. It does not cost us much to strike at this sector. Second, tourism in its present form is an abomination: It is a means by which prostitution and AIDS are spread by Jewish women, and it is a source of all manner of depravities, not to mention being a means of collecting information on the Islamic movement. For these reasons we believe tourism is an abomination that must be destroyed. And it is one of our strategies for destroying the government.

Why do innocent tourists have to be killed?

There are tourists who are innocent. That is why we declared tourism, not tourists, our target. We have tried to warn tourists not to come to Egypt. Otherwise they open themselves to danger.

There are countries without tourism that still suffer from AIDS and drugs. AIDS and drugs are not a result of tourism.

The Egyptian people did not know drugs. Tourism is not the only reason, but it is the main reason for the spread of AIDS, drugs and spying.

For the sake of argument, let’s accept that tourism is a source of abomination. Why did you decide to strike at tourism only in 1992, even though you were based in Upper Egypt, which is a center of tourism in Egypt? You have been active since the 1970s.

Tourism as such is not forbidden in Islam. But people come to Upper Egypt even though they know of the danger. There must be other reasons why they continue to come.

You mentioned that industry and agriculture — institutions of exploitation, you said — are your next targets. When will this start?

It depends on government hostility toward us.

What are the Islamically sanctioned reasons for striking at government industry and agriculture?

We will strike at these institutions without bloodshed as much as possible, and our military units will undertake those activities when the time is right.

The Gama‘a has suffered a lot from attacking tourism. Many members have been imprisoned, and the organization has lost influence in some areas. Did the Gama‘a make a mistake in striking at tourism?

Until now the real fight has not started. You will find in the newspaper accounts that say 99 percent of the Gama‘a is in prison. The police and the press do not know our true strength.

The security forces have been able to diminish your activities.

The Gama‘a exists in 18 provinces, including tens of centers and hundreds of villages. Up to now the state has not won one battle in any of the 13 centers, just in the province of Asyout. And the government suffers from grave economic and political crises. For every member killed, 20 join. Contrary to what some think, the power of the Gama‘a is on the rise. We are doing God’s work and it is a duty to keep up the struggle. The rest is up to God.

I disagree. There is no Gama‘a presence in Imbaba, ‘Ayn Shams, Qina, Aswan or Damietta. Your military wing has suffered many losses. Drafting forces from Afghanistan is the last resort.

You are wrong. Our activities are still strong in these provinces. Our proselytizing continues and we are using new means of communicating and strengthening our ties with the people.

There are reports of splits in the Gama‘a’s ranks, and that this is why the provinces of Minya and Suhag have been quiet.

There are no splits in the Gama‘a. The reasons for relative quiet in some areas are two: First, the government cannot open fronts all over the country, so they have not attacked us in certain areas. Second, it is in our interest — at this stage — to keep certain provinces quiet.

What are the main axes of the Gama‘a’s work now?

First, we are making ongoing preparations for a military coup. The security forces don’t know about these because they are preoccupied with skirmishes in Upper Egypt. Second, we are working in the area of mass mobilization. When the Islamic revolution happens there will be mass support to head off foreign intervention. Our commando units have acquired important experience over many years. The absence of such operations does not mean activity has stopped. The state does not know anything about these operations because of our cell formation.

I think you are exaggerating. What is the evidence for the existence of military units?

In 1981, the security forces had no idea of the existence of the military unit. The lack of arrests now by the security forces is no indication that our military units do not exist. In the Jihad case many government military persons were involved.

Those military who were arrested were of low rank and had no influence inside the military.

I disagree. The lower ranks are critical. This is the lesson of history.

Some say the recent increase in Gama‘a activities is a function of the Gama‘a’s illusion that it has as much power as the state.

We have no illusions. The Gama‘a is not just a movement of protest or limited opposition but an alternative to the regime, to the state. No other political forces will survive. There will be only al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya.

The role of the Gama‘a members from Afghanistan in the acts of violence committed in Egypt has drawn a lot of attention. What prompted you to go to Afghanistan to begin with?

From the beginning we have aimed at preserving our presence in Egypt, and focussed on spreading our activities within the country. After the events and arrests of 1981 we suffered from the loss of leadership. In 1984, when the first imprisoned activists were released, we reignited our activities and regained our following. As we expanded beyond Minya and Asyout into the Delta and Cairo, particularly ‘Ayn Shams and Giza, the security forces started to clamp down hard on our young activists again. We refused to compromise, so they launched a campaign of liquidation against us. It was at that point that the idea of protecting those youths by sending them to Afghanistan came up.

Why Afghanistan?

For different reasons, the most important being the need for military training.

What groups facilitated your travel to Afghanistan?

No governments. Afghan nationals involved in al-Da‘wa ila Jihad (Call to Holy Struggle), which had reached its peak in the mid-1980s, facilitated our travel and accommodations in Peshawar.

Did al-Gama‘a participate in the fighting in Afghanistan? How was it at the start?

The martyrs ‘Adli Yusuf, ‘Abd al-Fattah Abu al-Yusr and Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambuli, the brother of Khalid al-Islambuli, went to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. ‘Adli Yusuf established the military camp there in 1989. After gaining military experience these men began to participate more and more with the Afghan fighters.

How did the Afghan experience influence al-Gama‘a intellectually and practically?

Intellectually, there was no influence. All had been influenced by the events of 1981 and after. Practically, militarily, in intelligence gathering, and in the spread of our message, we learned a lot. The leadership of al-Gama‘a delivered the khutba (sermon) at the time of ‘Id al-Fitr (end of Ramadan holiday) in Peshawar. We started to publish al-Murabitun in Peshawar, which was distributed throughout the Islamic world and printed in Algeria and Indonesia, and the bulletin ‘Ajil, which presented news on our activities to the whole world, including Egypt (by fax), in addition to the distribution of cassettes and documentary videos.

News reports say the Americans helped the Afghan resistance. Did you receive American support, too?

The Americans had two goals: first, to weaken the Soviet Union, and second, to create a fifth column within the Afghan resistance which would be friendly to them after the victory over the Soviets. We, the Arabs, warned the Afghans of these strategies. We never received any aid from the Americans. They are our enemies.

How did you publish al-Murabitun?

The first issue came out in February 1990. The cover story, with a picture of a gun, was titled “Terror Is a Means to Confront God’s Enemies.” Our aim was to familiarize people with our ideology. We were shocked by its sudden success. Soon it was being distributed throughout the Arab world, first legally and then secretly. After publishing articles critical of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, pressure was brought to bear to stop publication. There were 27 issues altogether. Its publication will continue with a new issue under a new name, al-Ard.

What is the situation of al-Gama‘a in Pakistan, which is under Egyptian pressure to hand over Gama‘a militants to them?

There are many areas not totally under government control. In those areas tribes have control and we are safe from Egyptian, American and Saudi intelligence.

What about Afghanistan?

Because of the terrain in Afghanistan and because of our warm relations with Afghan parties and tribes we are protected from the Egyptians.

There have been reports of Gama‘a activities in northern Afghanistan, near the border with Tajikistan.

We are present there to assist the Tajiks against the communists in Tajikistan and to provide reserves for the Gama‘a units in Qunduz.

Where are your millitary camps and what happens in them? Where do your militants go after training?

The location and activities of our camps are not topics for discussion. As for where our militants go after training, some go to fronts under the control of al-Gama‘a where there are other Arab fighters, and some to fronts under the control of Afghan forces with which we have good ties. Some forces about whom we don’t want anything known go to areas under the complete control of al-Gama‘a.

The Afghan war has ended. What are these elements doing in Afghanistan now?

Some have died in battle, and some have gone to northern Afghanistan. Others are being kept in Afghanistan to be sent, when the time is ripe, to Egypt. Some have already been sent and are under the leadership of military units.

You say you have areas under the control of al-Gama‘a. So why did you leave Peshawar for Denmark?

I am not a military man, and those areas are only for military operations. Since I am in charge of information, I was in Peshawar, where our media activities were centered. But since last year I have been banned from there. If I went inside Afghanistan I would have to end my activities because the country suffers from devastation.

What pressured you to leave Peshawar?

The pressure began after I wrote a number of articles criticizing the Saudi royal family for preventing pilgrims from countries that support Iraq from going on the hajj (pilgrimage). The Saudis demanded that charity groups in Afghanistan stop supporting the Gama‘a. They asked Nawaz al-Sharif, the Pakistani president, to hand me over to the Egyptian authorities. Sheikh ‘Abd Rabb al-Ra’s al-Sayyaf, president of the Islamic Union of Afghanistan, put me under his protection. I found my activities hampered in Afghanistan. So, after receiving an invitation from Denmark, I sought political asylum there and got it.

Haven’t the Egyptians succeeded in hampering your activities?

The center of our activities has always been Upper Egypt. Since pressure was brought to bear on us in Peshawar we have moved to Europe, where we are very active. Modern means of communication make it easier for us to be in touch with Egypt, and probably new means of activity here we have yet to discover.

Editor’s Note: In September 1995, Tal‘at Fu’ad Qasim was arrested in Croatia, and subsequently “disappeared.” Both the US and Egyptian governments disclaim responsibility and knowledge of his whereabouts.

Endnotes

[1] Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) should not be confused with al-Gama‘at al-Islamiyya (Islamic Groups), the common term for all the diverse Islamic associations.
[2] Ibn Taymiyya was a medieval Hanbali jurist widely regarded as the source of much contemporary Islamist thinking. The other names listed here are leading figures of the modern Islamist movement.

How to cite this article:

Hisham Mubarak "What Does the Gama’a Islamiyya Want?," Middle East Report 198 (Spring 1996).
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