Introduction & Overview
Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades (كتائب أبو حفص المصري) are a group which are alleged to be a branch of, or a part of, al-Qaeda. The organisation is named after former Egyptian policeman Mohammed Atef (also known as Abu Hafs) who was a former member of Ayman al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami). Mohammed Atef was also a relative of Osama bin Laden after his daughter had married the latter’s son. Although the group has claimed several high profile bombings such as the 2004 Madrid train attacks and the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003, there is no actual proof that a group by the name of Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades actually exists. Instead, there are competing claims that deny the group’s real existence, most of these being based on the fact that some of their attacks were the results of technical failures rather than terrorist actions – such as the 2003 August power grid failures in the United States.
History & Foundations
The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, or the Abu Hafs al-Masri Battalion, emerged in the early 2000s. As aforementioned, the group was named after Abu Hafs al-Masri, an Egyptian veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War and a prominent figure in the militant Islamist movement. The exact origins and motivations behind the formation of the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades are not clear. The most concrete argument behind the group’s foundations claims that it emerged as a splinter faction of al-Qaeda and that it has at least affiliated itself with the broader global jihadist movement.
The group gained public attention in 2005 after it claimed responsibility for the 7/7 bombings (7th of July 2005 London bombings) which killed 6 people. However, the authenticity of this claim remains disputed, and some analysts believe the group may have claimed it to gain attention (Global Terrorism Database, 2005). The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades claimed responsibility for various attacks and threats around the world, including bombings, hijacking plots, and issuing statements in support of jihadist causes. Nevertheless, the extent of its actual operational capabilities and the veracity of its claims have also been subject to scepticism (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004).
Over time, the group's activities seemed to decline, and its significance diminished. By the mid-2000s, there were fewer public statements and claims attributed to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. This suggests that the group has potentially been weakening or fragmenting for some time, if it even ever existed.
Objectives & Ideology
Allegedly, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades aimed to promote their extremist ideology and the group generally shared characteristics which are commonly found amongst jihadist groups affiliated with, or inspired by, al-Qaeda. The group advocated for a radical interpretation of Islam and sought to establish an Islamic state governed by their strict interpretation of Sharia law. It viewed the West, particularly the United States and its allies, as enemies of Islam and has sought to undermine their influence and presence in Muslim-majority countries.
Additionally, the group opposed the military presence of Western countries – particularly that of the United States – in Muslim-majority nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also condemned the Italian government due to its involvement in the Iraq war and issued several warnings to then Prime Minister, Silvio Burlusconi stating “We are giving Silvio Berlusconi a fifteen-day reprieve to withdraw from Iraq”, “15 days may be the final opportunity for you”, “The truce we had offered you [...] has almost ended” and also offering a “last warning to the Italian nation” (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004). The group also issued warnings to European nations after they had claimed the 2004 Turkey attack on a masonic lodge in which they stated “Mujahidin from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades carried out the first in a series of operations that will be waged in the face of the European countries, [...] European capitals will witness in the coming days a series of operations carried out by Mujahideen, who are lying in waiting, yearning for martyrdom in God’s path” (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004).
Military & Political Abilities
The Abu Hafs Masri Brigades' operational skills are unknown. While some observers speculate that they are just an online propaganda front, others are more likely to accept their claims of attacks, such as the alleged Madrid bombings, at face value. However, later investigations did not corroborate the group's participation in the Madrid attacks (Cole, 2004). According to a MEMRI research investigation by Prof. Yigal Carmon (MEMRI founder), the Brigades' claims of responsibility are unfounded given the Brigades' history of making erroneous claims, including ones about non-terrorist activities (Carmon, 2004). However due to the MEMRI founders previous role of 22 years as a colonel in the Israeli military intelligence service, this does need to be mentioned as there have been claims that they have effectively been a ‘psyop’ platform used to disingenuously misrepresent and mistranslate Arabic news broadcasts (Whitaker, 2002).
Further arguments and elements which complement the ambiguity of the group’s ties to Al Qaeda involve the lack of intellectual infrastructure typical of genuine Islamist mujahid statements. For instance, quotations from the Qur'an, the Hadith, or prominent scholars that support their views, are absent from texts released under the group’s name. This, according to Professor Carmon, suggests a nationalist goal as opposed to an Islamist one. The main question at hand involves the impact of the commotion surrounding the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades on their own cause. Indeed, if the group indeed exists, the possibility of a disinformation campaign by the Brigades arises, aimed at purposefully misleading governments and security services. The concern is that such a campaign could divert attention from real threats posed by other verified Islamist groups.
In a previous statement from the organisation, made at the start of July 2004, they provided what could be considered a "plan" for the upcoming time period, which included the directive to “enlarge the circle of the struggle by distributing the operations all over the world [...] scatter and exhaust the enemy [...] and form small organisations under different names, like the Jama’at al-Tawhid, and Jihad and the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. This will make it difficult for the enemy to discover and hunt them down and will scatter the security organs’ efforts [...]” (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004).
Approach to Resistance
Due to the ambiguous nature of the group, its approach to resistance is relatively unreliable to unpack. If the group truly does exist as a tangible organisation, then it may be responsible for one of the largest Islamist terror attacks in European history – the Madrid train bombings in 2004, amongst other claimed attacks. However, due to the high potential that it is a non-existent group, its approach to resistance may simply revolve around being a disinformation platform propped up by another Islamist group, such as al-Qaeda. This would serve a major goal, being that it would distract the varying security apparatus of enemy states from the activities of other ‘legitimate’ groups which can use the disinformation screen provided by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades as a way to cover preparations for upcoming attacks.
International Relations & Potential Alliances
In the assumption that the group may indeed exist, its potential alliances would effectively be limited to al-Qaeda and its allies, for it is a subsidiary group within it. However, this is all contingent on whether or not this group truly exists and if it isn't a mere disinformation/misdirection group, as aforementioned.
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Carmon, Yigal. “Assessing the Credibility of the ‘Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades’ Threats.” MEMRI TV, 10 Aug. 2004, www.memri.org/reports/assessing-credibility-abu-hafs-al-masri-brigades-threats
Cole, Juan. “Eta or al Qaeda Madrid Bombings.” Informed Comment, 12 Mar. 2004, www.juancole.com/2004/03/eta-or-al-qaeda-madrid-bombings.html.
Global Terrorism Database. “Incident Summary for GTDID: 200507070003.” Www.start.umd.edu, 7 July 2005, www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/IncidentSummary.aspx?gtdid=200507070003.
The Jamestown Foundation. “Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades: Fraud or Dissimulation?” Jamestown, 20 Aug. 2004, jamestown.org/program/abu-hafs-al-masri-brigades-fraud-or-dissimulation-2/#.Ucn-AZzHauc.
Whitaker, Brian. “Selective Memri.” The Guardian, 12 Aug. 2002, www.theguardian.com/world/2002/aug/12/worlddispatch.brianwhitaker.