The End oF Egyptian Islamic Jihad?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 3

In October 2004, three explosions rocked Egypt’s red sea resorts killing 33 people, mostly Israeli tourists. Despite an official Egyptian denial, Israel and other Western governments were quick in blaming these attacks on al-Qaeda. They associated the attacks with an audio tape broadcast on al-Jazeera which emerged a week earlier urging Muslims to attack the interests of “crusader America” and its allies across the world. The voice in the tape sounded similar to that of al-Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In the tape Zawahiri urged Muslims to defend the Palestinians and to resist Israel. Not surprisingly the attacks were seen as a response to Zawahiri’s call, especially since Taba was the last town returned to Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and most of the major hotels in the area were subsequently built with Israeli capital and mostly frequented by Israeli tourists.

The speedy denial of responsibility by Egyptian Islamic groups and their condemnations of these attacks were seen as further proof of the rapprochement that has taken hold between the Egyptian government and the Islamic groups in recent years. Indeed the attacks at Taba were the first of their kind in Egypt since the shootings outside the Hatshepsut Temple near Luxor in November 1997 in which 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were killed. The Luxor attack was blamed on al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya that was headed by the blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States for his involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and other planned attacks.

Following the Luxor attack, many of al-Jama’a leaders – some of whom were serving jail sentences in Egypt – issued a public statement urging their followers to halt all operations and to renounce violence. This public declaration effectively signaled the end of the latest round of the long-running war between the Egyptian government and radical Islam. The latest conflict started in 1992 and by 1997 it had cost the lives of more than a thousand people; most of whom were informers and security officials.

Historical Overview

The Egyptian state has fought a long and bloody war with radical Islam. From the days of the Egyptian Monarchy to the current autocratic reign of Husni Mubarak, different Islamic groups have consistently tried to wrest control of the state from the secular nationalists and their allies. The Islamists’ most spectacular success came in October 1981, when a militant cell led by Lieutenant Khaled al-Islambouli assassinated the then President Anwar Sadat.

However the modern Islamic movement in Egypt does not have violent origins. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, developed mass support by building schools, clinics and hospitals. In 1949, al-Banna was assassinated by the Egyptian secret police, which subsequently dismantled most of his pioneering organization. It is widely believed that this assassination was retaliation for the alleged attempt on the life of the Egyptian Prime Minister by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the coup of July 1952 that brought the “free officers movement” led by Gamal Abdul Nasser to power, the Muslim Brotherhood organization was revived under the leadership of the legendary theoretician and Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, a school inspector who joined the Brotherhood in 1953. Qutb was jailed in 1954 after the failed attempt on the life of Abdul Nasser. He was released in 1964, only to be jailed again in 1965 and was finally hanged in 1966.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, political Islam was exposed to a relentless ideological and intellectual assault by a uniquely Egyptian blend of Arab nationalism and socialism (best known as Nasserism) led by the charismatic Nasser. However, the humiliation of the 1967 war and the succession of Anwar Sadat to the presidency in 1970 revived the fortunes of radical Islam. It is widely believed that the rise of political Islam was tacitly approved by Sadat who hoped to use radical Islam as a counterweight both against the more radical manifestations of Nasserism and communism.

The honeymoon period between Sadat and the Islamists proved to be short lived, especially after the implementation of Sadat’s liberal economic policies and the signing of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979. In fact, the peace treaty with Israel and Sadat’s enmity towards the Iranian Islamic revolution incensed Islamists to an extent that they plotted his assassination.

The Rise of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Following the assassination of Sadat, hundreds of activists were jailed, amongst whom was Ayman al-Zawahiri. Born on June 19, 1951, Zawahiri’s family moved to the middle-class Cairo suburb of al-Ma’adi when he was nine. The Zawahiri family belonged to Cairo’s upper middle class; Zawahiri’s father, Rabi’, was a professor of pharmacology and his great maternal uncle was the first Secretary of the Arab league. Here it is important to note the contrast in the backgrounds of Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. The former belonged to a distinguished middle-class family of scholars and politicians whereas the latter is the son of a poor Yemeni who left Yemen for Jeddah, where he later made his fortune by working as a contractor for the Saudi ruling family.

Zawahiri enrolled in the medical school of Cairo University in 1968 and graduated in 1974. He visited Afghanistan for the first time in 1980 and then a second time in 1984 after serving a 3 year jail term on a minor weapons possession charge. Zawahiri stayed in Afghanistan until 1992 when he left for Yemen and then Sudan. Later on, he moved back to Afghanistan and stayed there until the toppling of the Taliban regime in November 2001.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Islamic movement in Egypt was principally led by two groups: Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) under the leadership of Zawahiri and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya headed by the blind Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. According to Montasser al-Zayyat, an Islamist lawyer and a reliable source on the Egyptian Islamic movement, Zawahiri refused to merge the two groups on the belief that Abdul Rahman lacked the competence to lead the Egyptian Islamic movement. [1]

More importantly, Zawahiri’s main objective was to topple the Egyptian regime, whereas Abdul Rahman had Pan-Islamic ambitions. Moreover, Zawahiri did not pay much attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For him, fighting the close enemy (the Egyptian regime) was more important than fighting the far enemy (Israel and the West). According to Zayyat, Zawahiri believed that the road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo. [2] In 1995, Zawahiri wrote that “the battle will not be won and Jerusalem will not be conquered unless Cairo is conquered and the battle in Egypt and Algeria is won.” [3]

In fact, Zawahiri is the author of several books, the best known of which is “The Bitter Harvest” (1991), a powerful critique of the Muslim Brotherhood. This book, like the others penned by Zawahiri, strongly reflects the influences of Sayyid Qutb and the Indian Islamic ideologue Sayyid Abul-A’la Mawdudi on the Egyptian’s thinking and strategy.

EIJ & al-Qaeda

In 1998, Zawahiri chose to pursue a different strategy. He was the second of five signatories (after bin Laden) to a fatwa declaring “jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” In February 1998, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda formally merged and formed a unified organization. The first 9-member council that emerged after this merger contained 3 non-Egyptians (one of them is bin Laden).

Zawahiri is widely believed to be the main strategist and theoretician of al-Qaeda. As the right-hand man of bin Laden, he is also believed to have contributed to the planning of many of the mega-terror attacks attributed to al-Qaeda since 1998. The key question is why Zawahiri changed his mind and decided to channel his activities against what he used to refer to as the “far enemy”.

Broadly speaking there are 3 reasons behind this change in strategy. Firstly, the Mubarak regime was successful in dismantling the organization of Egyptian Islamic Jihad inside the country. Numerous EIJ militants were killed in shootouts with security forces and hundreds more were detained. Moreover, on the wider international front, Zawahiri’s organization received a major blow when in 1998 Albania agreed to extradite to Egypt 12 members of EIJ in the case known as the “Returnees from Albania”. In the same year, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, a senior member of EIJ, was arrested outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan. Mabruk’s laptop computer apparently contained vital information on EIJ members in Europe. Two leading figures of this cell, Ahmed Ibrahim El Naggar and Ahmed Ismail Osman, were sentenced to death in February 2000. Furthermore, there were reports that Zawahiri’s brother, Mohammed, who is believed to be the former military commander of the organization, is one of these returnees and is currently held in an Egyptian prison. The capturing of Mohammed Zawahiri and other key members in Europe and Egypt had a catastrophic impact on the morale and organizational coherence of EIJ.

Secondly, Zawahiri was isolated in Egypt after the public declaration by the leaders of Islamic movements against violence. Zawahiri in fact publicly dismissed the declaration and encouraged the EIJ to continue striking at the Egyptian regime. He even took the unprecedented step of criticizing the leaders of Islamic groups in Egypt and accused them of working with the regime against the Islamic cause. As a result of this growing isolation, Zawahiri began searching for a new and secure base for his organization. Consequently, EIJ operatives decided to establish operational and communications bases in the Caucasus, particular Chechnya. In December 1996, Russia arrested Zawahiri and two of his lieutenants in Dagestan for entering the country illegally and holding false papers. Interesting though, the Russians allegedly did not discover Zawahiri’s true identity. The three men were sentenced to six months in prison and were released in May 1997.

Thirdly, Zawahiri was forced into Bin Laden’s hands because he needed funds and other assistance to keep his organization afloat. In this respect the decline of the militant Islamic movement in Egypt ironically boosted the strength of the broader international movement coalescing around Osama Bin Laden.

More than three years after the toppling of the Taliban regime and the ejection of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri remains at large. In March 2004, there were reports that the Pakistani Army was fighting al-Qaeda loyalists under the command of Zawahiri in the Waziristan region. Irrespective of the credibility and accuracy of these reports, the Pakistan army later claimed that Zawahiri had managed to escape. In any case the killing or capture of Zawahiri will deal a devastating blow to al-Qaeda and will surely deprive it of its most capable and innovative strategist.

Khalil Gebara is a Lebanese researcher and holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Politics from the University of Exeter (UK).


1. Al-Hayat, 11/01/2005.

2. Montasser al-Zayyat, Ayman al-Zawahiri Kama A’riftaho (Ayman al-Zawahiri as I knew him), (Cairo: Dar Misr Al Mahrousa: 2002), p. 116.

3. Ibid, p. 117.