While much has been said of America’s declining influence in the world, developments in the Middle East and North Africa indicate America has actually remained an influential player. The problem is that the White House’s influence is fast proving counterproductive. And the fruits of President Obama’s foreign policy innovations may soon enough be viewed as fuel for the global jihad.
If one is looking for dangers manifest by the Obama administration’s amateurish foreign policy maneuvers, an excellent case study is Egypt. There, the president supported a revolt against a longtime American ally only to help the anti-American Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, coat-tailed by radical Salafists who seem to hate everyone but other Salafists, claim power. If this seems reasonable, an Orwellian paradigm shift is upon us.
More recently, the Morsi regime’s calls for the US to release prominent terrorists like the Blind Sheikh, or Egyptian leaders’ visits with Iranian officials, are rightly viewed as shocking developments by many Americans. Of course, let’s not forget Egypt’s new government has stood by and done little as Christians have literally been crucified there. Then again, so too has the global Christian community.
But what is most troublesome is that, and ostensibly due to Mr. Obama’s refusal to place red lines before the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly-elected political leaders, Egypt’s new leaders seem to think it’s an option for them to make their country a new haven for the leaders of various terror groups. Including ones affiliated with Al Qaeda, which — perhaps ironically — President Obama claims to be waging a war against.
In recent months, dozens of Egyptians who are members of terror groups linked to Al Qaeda have been released from prison by the Morsi government. Largely unmolested by authorities, such jihadis have also been utilizing supply routes that traverse Egyptian territory to amass arms in the Sinai Peninsula, obviously to support future assaults on Israel. And aside from offering Egypt billions in US aid dollars, the Obama administration has mesmerized many attentive onlookers with a policy of inaction.
Among the blood-thirsty radicals released by the Morsi government are leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which was led by Al Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri until he merged it with Al Qaeda in 2001. Also included are members of Al Gama’a Al Islamiyya, in which the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman served as a leader.
At least four of the Mubarak regime’s most wanted terrorists following 9/11 — numbers 2, 6, 9 and 12 — were released from prison soon after Mubarak lost power.
Others, like number 23, a member of the EIJ’s Shura council named Hani al-Sibai, have been welcomed back to Egypt from abroad. Like number 6, who is the brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Sibai was a longtime member of al-Zawahiri’s inner circle. And it’s interesting that many terrorists operating freely in Egypt today once enjoyed the hospitality of another hostile country whose officials have ties to al-Zawahiri, Iran.
For counterterrorism analysts, perhaps what is most chilling is that jihadi chatter indicates number 12 on that list, Mohamed al-Islambuli, returned to Egypt from Iran alongside Mustafa Hamid (aka Abu Walid al-Masri). Accordingly, a former Al Qaeda intelligence official based in “Londonistan” brokered the deal with Egyptian authorities that facilitated their safe passage. Press reports indicated al-Islambuli was initially jailed, then released several months later. However, the reception Hamid received has not been documented.
As with many terrorists living in Egypt today, Mustafa Hamid is presently unknown to most outside the counterterrorism community. Still, he is nevertheless a force to be reckoned with among the “vanguards” of the global jihad. Placed next to Hamid, guys like Sufyan ben Qumu, who’s believed to have led the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi, look like guppies.
The father-in-law of top Al Qaeda military leader Saif al-Adl, who served as a colonel in Egypt’s special forces prior to becoming one of the world’s deadliest terrorists, it is believed Hamid took up residence in Iran prior to the 9/11 attacks. Just before the attacks he served as a top adviser to the Taliban in Kandahar alongside Abu Musab al-Suri, the so-called architect of Al Qaeda 2.0 who has been imprisoned in Syria for several years. Hamid has also served as one of Al Qaeda’s top liaisons with the Iranian regime, which has for years provided shelter to his son-in-law, who some experts believe may have smuggled Al Qaeda’s “nuclear suitcase” into Iran after the 9/11 attacks. (For an interesting reference to both suitcases and Iran, see the recently declassified letter seized in Abbottabad that Usama bin Laden wrote in October 2010 to advise his son Hamzah to find a new hideout.)
If there is a person capable of brokering deals between Al Qaeda and Tehran, which has provided Al Qaeda the lifeline it needed to survive the past decade of American strikes, Mustafa Hamid is it. Whether his ties to Iranian defense and intelligence officials will be an issue for Egypt’s new leaders remains to be seen. So too does the matter of whether he is currently in Egypt. But as we see with the freedom granted to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brother and others, it’s clear Mustafa Hamid’s ties to Al Qaeda’s leadership are anathema to the Morsi government’s concerns.
Developments like these — so far left unchecked by the White House — could offer insights into much more than the new Egyptian regime’s agenda. Indeed, according to some analysts, the Obama administration’s inaction is proving tantamount to a form of encouragement. For this camp, it’s as if the president is being deliberately remiss in not interdicting what some view as a trajectory that could lead Egypt to one day resemble Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban — before 9/11.
As is the case with terrorists freed in Libya, the US should have sent an unmistakable signal to the world by capturing or killing many of the influential jihadis living comfortably in Egypt months ago. For, and as we see in Libya, awaiting further reason to do so could prove as sensible as swimming in shark-filled waters with a ball of chum tethered to one’s neck.
The Obama administration has proved capable of exerting much influence in our rapidly changing world. It's just not the kind of influence most Americans would prefer. And it may not be long before more Americans like those killed in Libya this month pay the price for Mr. Obama’s dangerous habit of playing with fire.
Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, counter-terrorism adviser to members of the United States Congress, and a senior analyst with Wikistrat Ltd. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelSSmithII.