By Phil Reeves
JERUSALEM: Anyone labouring under illusion that Egypt is - as the tourist brochures suggest - a land of quivering female bellies, vast pyramids and gm-drenched Nile boat trips need only glance at the FBI’s files to set the record straight. These cliches have always been only one side of this large Muslim country’s spilt personality, and the facts emerging in the aftermath of the US atrocities provide a telling insight into the other. No fewer than a third of the men on the FBI’s list of ,’most wanted terrorists" are Egyptians.
Far from mere spear-carriers, living in the shadow of Osama bin Laden - widely portrayed in the West as the single evil genius behind the US outrages - this group includes some serious heavyweights from the world of Islamic militancy. They are men of such apparent influence that it is possible to argue that the roots of the organisation that massacred more than 6,000 people in America lie not in the jagged mountains of Afghanistan, but in the helter-skelter, down-at-heel yet infinitely more familiar and Westernised streets of Cairo.
They include Saif al-Adel, who is believed to be Al Qaeda’s highest ranking member, and its seeond-in-command, Mohammed Atef, a former Egyptian policeman. Atef is a particularly intriguing figure. An associate of Osama’s for more than a decade, the Americans accuse him of commanding the 1998 US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, in which more than 200 people died. He also has personal ties with Osama: in January, his daughter married one of Osama’s sons.
American prosecutors also allege that Atef, who is in his late 50s, sits on Al Qaeda’s military committee and is in charge of training recruits in the Afghanistan camps that the Allied forces are now trying to demolish. The indictment in the US embassy bombings said that he travelled several times to Somalia in the early 1990s to provide "military training and assistance to Somali tribes" opposed to US intervention.
But the most important name on the list seems to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama’s right-hand man -literally, for he is the figure you see standing with the Saudi dissident in his videotape appearances - and personal physician. More than anyone else, the soft-spoken 50-year-old doctor seems to be pivotal. Western intelligence believes he played a leading role in forging the bridge linking these two distant worlds, by bringing violent Islamic militancy from Egypt - where it existed under permanent threat from President Hosni Mubarak’s ruthless security forces - to take root in the stark but easier environment of Afghanistan.
An urbane man, of upper middle-class stock, he has been high on Egypt’s wanted list for years - a fact that grates heavily with Egypt’s security forces who wonder why the doctor was allowed to go on a fundraising tour across the US in 1991. By then, he had amassed a long rap sheet, stretching back beyond the 1981 assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was despised by the Islamic radicals for being the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. At the time of Sadat’s death, Zawahiri was in command of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the authors of the president’s murder. He was jailed for three years, although only on the technicality of illegal possession of a pistol.
When he left prison, his ties with Afghanistan began to evolve in earnest. He moved to Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan, joining thousands of other Arabs who went to the region to help the Afghani mujahiddin (including Mohammed Atef) - then secretly backed by the CIA - fight the USSR after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Years later, the same veterans of the Soviet conflict - having by now identified the world’s only remaining superpower’ the US, as their Satan-in-chief - would stand shoulder-to-shoulder again. In February 1998, Zawahiri is thought to have joined forces with Al Qaeda, becoming the closest confidante of Osama.
They were united under the aegis of a broad new organisation, the International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders, whose followers include an assorted list of Muslim hard nuts ranging from Chechens - radicalised by years of seeing their people subjected to murderous abuse at the hands of the Russians, while the US turned the other way - to Afghans, Saudis, to Palestinian, Jordanians and Egyptians. By now, the Egyptian Islamic Jibad had stopped attacking targets on its home turf, although it bombed the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan and tried to bomb the US embassy in Albania.
Their mission was no longer primarily confined to nationalist issues - unlike the Palestinian groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who carried on sending out suicide bombers in the name of freeing the Palestinians from Israel, but kept their operations to the neighbourhood. It had become a sophisticated global enterprise, whose goals were conceived by articulate men whose apocalyptic vision owed nothing to a lack of formal education or brains.
Zawahiri has both. He is a graduate of Cairo University, a master of disguise - he has reportedly used false passports, changed his appearance, and posed as an Arab of Swiss origin - and the son of well-to-do members of the Egyptian professional classes. The same is true of Mohammed Atta. the man at the controls of one of the aircraft that slammed into the World Trade Center. He was also Egyptian. The Islamic Jihad is not the only Egyptian group of its kind to decide to take their war directly on to American soil.
If the FBI is to be believed, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s plot to attack New York was as audacious and murderous as Osama’s. The blind cleric, spiritual leader of the Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group), has been serving a life sentence in the US since 1995 for planning to blow up a number of the city’s landmarks.
After gaining further notoriety in 1997 by killing 58 tourists in the Egyptian resort of Luxor, Gama’a al-Islamiya declared a ceasefire two years later. But this was later renounced by the sheikh from his cell. There have been some intriguing warning signs of trouble brewing. At a Cairo news conference this year, the group’s spokesman said the US would "reap a bitter harvest if it continues humiliating (the sheikh)", adding that this could result in an explosion of events targeted against US interests". The spokesman added ominously: "Sheikh Omar has many followers."
Some of these are to be found in Osama’s entourage. According to The Washington Post, the cleric’s two sons joined forces with Osama several years ago - although they are not directly accused of the Sept 11 attacks - bringing with them other members of Gama’a al-Islamiya. – Dipetik dari The Independent, 15 Oktober, 2001.