“In the mid-1970s unfolding events in Egypt—the undisputed leader of the Arab world and politics—were also having a major impact on the Saudi educated elite,” wrote Yossef Bodansky in his 1999 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. As the then-House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare director discussed, previously examined Islamic convulsions and controversies in Egypt have far reaching consequences in other Muslim lands.
While post-9/11 many eyes turned to Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of 19 Al Qaeda hijackers, as a source of jihad terror, Islam’s birthplace is in fact merely part of wider historic struggles between the faith and the West. Particularly Saudi Arabia’s modern oil wealth has fueled rapid development that has only accentuated such conflicts in this theocratic kingdom as it integrates ever more into the wider world. As Bodansky noted, one key node for this global influence was the Saudi Red Sea port of Jedda, which became an important locale for the jihadist development of Osama bin Laden.
The wealth and worldly character of Jedda also transformed it into a shelter for Islamist intellectuals persecuted throughout the Muslim world. Several universities, primarily King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, which bin Laden attended from 1974 to 1978, became a hub of vibrant Islamist intellectual activity; the best experts and preachers were sheltered in the universities and mosques, providing an opportunity to study and share their knowledge. They addressed the growing doubts of the Saudi youth. Their message to the confused was simple and unequivocal—only an absolute and unconditional return to the fold of conservative Islamism could protect the Muslim world from the inherent dangers and sins of the West.
Many of these intellectuals who came through Jedda’s open door were Egyptian, Bodansky explained:
Jedda was the key entry port for printed material arriving from Egypt, and many of the Islamist intellectuals operating in the city’s universities and mosques were Egyptian. They maintained close contacts with their colleagues still in Egypt and advocated their views, exposing the students of Jedda’s universities, including bin Laden, to their works and opinions. Already attuned to and tilting toward Islamism, bin Laden was influenced by these Egyptian studies and the events that prompted them.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, Egypt influenced Afghanistan as well in the jihad during the decade following the 1979 Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation. “By 1980 the United States was pressuring Arab governments to take a more active role in the Afghanistan crisis,” Bodansky wrote. Egypt’s President Anwar “Sadat agreed to help the fledgling Afghan resistance with weapons.”
Sadat’s promotion of the Afghan jihad, Bodansky observed,
enabled the Islamists to agitate the population in the name of Afghanistan and also to find a safe haven outside Egypt for some of their people, especially those linked to the assassination of Sadat in October 1981.
These jihadists included former Egyptian army officers, Bodansky wrote, who
began arriving in Afghanistan to share their military knowledge with the mujahideen. Many of the first Egyptians to arrive were led by Ahmad Shawqi al-Islambuli, currently one of bin Laden’s senior terrorist commanders and the brother of Khalid al-Islambuli, Sadat’s assassin. They were fugitives from purges in Egypt, and they soon established a cohesive Arab revolutionary and terrorist movement that still constitutes the hard core of bin Laden’s key commanders and most trusted troops.
Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov noted in a 2009 interview the historic precedent for this Egyptian-Saudi collaboration. In the 2007 book, The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda, he had analyzed the November 20, 1979, takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by jihadists. The resulting two-week siege
was the first time that the two components of al-Qaida today—the Wahabi zealots from Saudi Arabia and the jihadi extremists, the outgrowth of the Islam Brotherhood in Egypt—have come together. Just as today’s al-Qaida is led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, a veteran of the jihadist groups there, so was this movement in Mecca. The senior leaders there were Egyptians.
Egypt’s importance to jihadists globally made an Islamic government takeover there supremely important, as the June 26, 1995, assassination attempt upon Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, showed. Bodansky traced the state sponsorship of this plot by Egyptian jihadists to the Islamic governments in Iran and Sudan. Especially the “weapons delivered at this time left no doubt about the direct involvement of the Sudanese government in the operation. Virtually all the weapons seized with the terrorists in Addis Ababa belonged to the Sudanese army,” he wrote.
Bodansky delineated why Mubarak was such an important target for jihadists:
Both the Egyptian Islamists and their sponsoring states were determined to kill Mubarak, whose regime is a constant reminder of the Islamists’ failure to overthrow a U.S.-supported government. Following the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, by Islamist terrorists, Mubarak not only stabilized the government but launched a violent crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists. Under his leadership Egypt retained its peace agreement with Israel and was the leading force in consolidating the Arab communities in support of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq during the Gulf War. Mubarak has repeatedly reiterated his determination to support any conservative Arab government against Islamist challenges, even if it requires the use of Egyptian expeditionary forces. Mubarak epitomizes a Western-supported Arab leader, and the Islamists believed his assassination would shatter the entire concept of such a thing.
Mubarak’s would-be assassins saw a particular connection between Egypt and the Gulf region, Bodansky observed:
Both Tehran and Khartoum were convinced that they could bring about the collapse of the conservative regimes of the Arabian Peninsula and take over the holy shrines rather quickly. The only impediment was Mubarak’s Egypt—a pro-Western nation, it was likely to protect the Saudi regime. The Islamists could only take over the Arabian Peninsula if Cairo were so preoccupied with a domestic crisis that it could not come to the assistance of the conservative regimes on the Arabian Peninsula.
Following on Sadat’s 1981 assassination, Mubarak’s experience indicated how endangered such pro-Western leaders can be in the Muslim world. “Although President Mubarak survived and the Islamist popular uprising envisaged by the conspirators failed to materialize in Egypt, the mere attempt gave a major boost to the Islamist surge throughout the region,” Bodansky noted. Mubarak would ultimately fall from power during the mercifully brief Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt during 2011-2013.
During this “Arab Spring,” past Egyptian history should have tempered Western leaders such as President Barack Obama in their visions of a democratic Egypt. Egypt was more likely during this turmoil to become a sharia state, with devastating strategic consequences for the wider region. As future articles in this series will show, one base for jihad in Afghanistan is bad enough.