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Exploring the Roots of Radical Islam in Egypt

September 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
What are the lingering effects of -- and attitudes about -- 9/11 in Egypt? Margaret Warner reports on the Egyptian roots of the radical Islamic movement that led to the attacks on the United States.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a two-part look at the lingering effects of 9/11 in two Arab nations — first, from Egypt, a report from Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili market has stood for 630 years. Shoppers and sellers jam the streets and alleys. And here, 5,000 miles away from America’s shores, the 9/11 attacks still resonate a decade later.

WOMAN (through translator): No one supports this. We were shocked beyond belief.

MARGARET WARNER: But there was another sentiment as well.

ISLAM SAYED ABDULLAH, Egypt (through translator): I felt that the American government deserved it, not the people, but the government deserved it.

MARGARET WARNER: There was little debate, however, on one point. Like 75 percent of Egyptians in a recent poll, no one here believed that Arabs or Muslims, much less Egyptians, could possibly have been involved.

HASSAN KAMEL, Egypt (through translator): Most Egyptians are Muslims, and Islam doesn’t permit such violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Some hinted at more powerful forces at work.

WOMAN: It wasn’t one — only al-Qaida doing this.

MAHMOUD MOHAMED, Egypt (through translator): Muslims don’t do that. This is an economic conspiracy at its highest level.

MARGARET WARNER: The 19 hijackers were all Arabs, of course. Their ringleader, Mohamed Atta, grew up in a middle class Cairo neighborhood. So did Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, now running al-Qaida, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri.

Egypt was an incubator of militant political Islam, aiming to overthrow secular governments and replace them with Islamic ones. In the ’90s, the movement also drew the U.S., long a supporter of secular Arab regimes, into its sights.

We have come to Cairo to explore that history and find out if that ideology still has appeal, even after the Arab spring. As a young man in the ’70s, Zawahri was a leader in a new breakaway radical Islamic movement, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. It was banned from taking part in politics.

In the early ’80s, Zawahri and his cohorts turned words into violent action. The radical movement’s first really spectacular attack took place here 30 years ago. President Anwar Sadat, while reviewing a military parade, was gunned down. That event, so remote from the daily lives of most Americans at the time, set off a chain reaction that climaxed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Sadat’s successor, the new president, Hosni Mubarak, rounded up hundreds of alleged conspirators and imposed tighter constraints on all of the country’s Islamist groups. Among those brought to court in a defendant’s cage in 1982, then-31-year-old Zawahri.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI, defendant: We are Muslims!

MARGARET WARNER: Zawahri railed against Zionism and imperialism and his conditions in prison.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI: They kicked us. They beat us. They whipped us using the electric cables. The shocked us with electricity.

FOUAD ALLAM, Egyptian State Security Anti-Terror Office (through translator): I met him three times, and he was a very decent, calm and shy man. Afterward, when I saw his sermon on television, I didn’t recognize him. He was a different human being, very aggressive.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired Police General Fouad Allam, who helped lead state security’s anti-terrorism unit, rejects the theory that the Mubarak regime’s torture and repression drove Zawahri and other Islamists to greater violence.

FOUAD ALLAM (through translator): He was already convinced before his arrest of this concept of takfir, which means anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the same ideology is an infidel and should be attacked and killed. He wasn’t tortured. I can vouch he was not. It would be great if you could present one person who charged such a thing.

ABOUD EL ZOMOR, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (through translator): These are the marks from being hung by my arms, by my wrists on a sling. They are permanent marks.

MARGARET WARNER: Aboud El Zomor, founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, just released after 30 years for his role in Sadat’s killing, says both he and Zawahri were tortured.

ABOUD EL ZOMOR (through translator): I saw it with my own eyes. Even though we were tortured one by one, when they took him, I looked out of a small hole and saw the torture firsthand.

MARGARET WARNER: What effect did that have on Zawahri?

ABOUD EL ZOMOR (through translator): This torture didn’t change our thinking, but it made us believe, though we must endure this pain for the sake of Allah, we will engage in the revenge for such treatment.

MARGARET WARNER: Columnist and editor Hala Mustafa, who studies Islamist movements, believes Zawahri was transformed into a global jihadi figure after he felt forced into exile from Egypt.

HALA MUSTAFA, Democracy Review: Because it was very difficult to topple the regime at the time, the militant groups and Islamic groups in Egypt shifted their focus from the domestic field to the foreign field, from the domestic ruler to the United States, which — and to the West in general.

MARGARET WARNER: After prison, he joined the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, teaming up with bin Laden, matching his brains to the Saudi’s charisma.

Since bin Laden’s killing, Zawahri has been urging his followers to exploit democratic upheavals in the Arab world and to step up attacks on U.S. targets as well.

But do these messages still find a receptive audience here? Mohamed Abdel Rahman of the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah says the answer is no. He’s camped in front of the U.S. Embassy, petitioning for the release of his father, the so-called “Blind Sheik,” imprisoned in the U.S. for terrorism.

Mohamed Rahman says now that his group can take part in politics, they don’t need the tactics Zawahri still espouses.

MOHAMED ABDEL RAHMAN, Jemaah Islamiyah (through translator): His message to seize the opportunity in Egypt to revive the spirit of violence doesn’t resonate with the Egyptian people, because they have seen firsthand with the revolution that there is a possibility for peaceful change.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, several nights later, with Sadat conspirator Zomor on stage, one attendee told us, U.S. policies abroad still make America target.

MAN: After killing a lot of people, innocent people, in Sudan, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and supporting the Jewish state, Israel, so what is — what am I going to expect out of that? Of course someone, you know, will have a feeling of getting revenge against the Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: Another unanticipated terror threat may be emerging in Egypt as well, especially in the desert expanse of Sinai far from Cairo. There, militants returning from exile after Mubarak mingle with local bedouins in what U.S. officials fear could become a safe haven for terrorists.

The last few months have seen attacks on gas pipelines into Israel and a police station. A group calling itself al-Qaida in North Sinai claimed responsibility.

We asked Abu Faisial a follower of the fundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam, if he’d seen new faces in Sinai since the revolution.

ABU FAISIAL, Salafi Islamist (through translator): I see old and familiar faces of people that had scattered due to the old regime’s presence. Now many of the sons of Sinai have returned to their homes from which they were deprived.

MARGARET WARNER: Salafi leader As’ad Amin Kheiry Bek said the state’s security presence is much diminished since Mubarak fell.

AS’AD AMIN KHEIRY BEK, Salafi leader (through translator): When the government left, there was a vacuum that we had to fill. Since the police and court systems are not functional anymore, we have been mediating to maintain the peace by Sharia principles.

MARGARET WARNER: But Cairo attorney Montasser Al-Zayat (ph), jailed with Zawahri and still representing Islamist groups, says the real threat to the U.S. is not in Sinai; it’s in the hearts and minds of a new generation of Egyptians, Islamists and secular alike.

Do you think that the conditions that created Sept. 11, that came out of Egypt at least, are worse even now, that it could create another Sept. 11?

MONTASSER AL-ZAYAT, attorney (through translator): There is actually a large chance that this might be repeated, because the youth of the Middle East have a lot of anger towards American policy against Iraqis and Afghans and Palestinians.

MARGARET WARNER: And has the Arab spring changed any of that?

MONTASSER AL-ZAYAT (through translator): Not at all. Arabs were against their autocratic governments and corrupt leaders, but the resentment towards the U.S. still remains because of its policies. Zawahri’s message resonates within this group of youth.

MARGARET WARNER: To explore that, we went to Zawahri’s leafy boyhood neighborhood of Maadi to meet three Egyptians who were barely teenagers when the towers fell, 23-year-old Ahmed El Sheikh and his friends Sara Mahmoud and Islam Dardeery.

What do you remember about the time of those attacks and what you thought?

AHMED EL SHEIKH, Egypt: I had this mix of feeling about feelings of joy, like Islamists was taking its revenge from supporting America to Israel, and, at the same time, feeling sorry about this and most — all of these innocent people who have died.

MARGARET WARNER: They voiced resentment that 9/11 had tarred all Muslims as terrorists.

ISLAM DARDEERY, Egypt: We have to justify, OK, we are not terrorists, we are Muslims.

SARA MAHMOUD, Egypt: We love these and we do not want to kill you. And, just, we are normal human beings.

MARGARET WARNER: They all criticized the U.S. response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its support for Arab autocrats like Mubarak, who repressed all opponents at home.

But Islam Dardeery thinks the terrorist threat to the United States has lessened because Egypt’s Islamist groups can engage in politics.

ISLAM DARDEERY: It will help them to move away from their extreme thinking to more moderate one. OK, they have to have a solution for everything.

MARGARET WARNER: Sara Mahmoud thinks healing also may come from the Western world’s new regard for Egyptians since the February uprising.

SARA MAHMOUD: Actually, the world, the whole world actually respect us. And they start to open newspaper and look what happened in Egypt today.

MARGARET WARNER: Americans have to hope that, through young Egyptians like these, the U.S. can find a new accommodation with the Arab world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late tonight, hundreds of protesters converged on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. About 30 of them reached a room on a lower floor and threw documents from windows.

In her next report, Margaret looks at the revolutionaries now working to build a new democratic Egypt.