looking for answershomesaudi arabiaegyptintelligence failurediscussion
interview: yasser el-sirri

You were telling me that you left Egypt in 1988. Why did you leave? What was going on in Egypt?

Because of continuous violations of human rights in Egypt. And because I was arrested several times. Because of [that] I have to leave.

Was it because they linked you to activities related to the Islamic Jihad or to opposing the government?

I was arrested in September 1981 with all other Egyptians students, Muslims and Christians alike.

Because of the assassination of Sadat?

Before the assassination of President Sadat. He was assassinated [in] October. I was arrested in September. 1,536 people were arrested among the elite of the Egyptian people. Several people, politicians and clergymen, even among the Christians and among the church leaders were arrested at that time.

In the United States, Sadat was seen as a great hero. But to you, when he was assassinated, what was your reaction?

Unfortunately, the American public opinion is based on reports on the media. And it's not based on real truth and real information. The American public opinion does not know the real information about Egypt.

For the American administration, Sadat must appear as a hero, because he was working for the American administration, for the interests of the American administration.

about yasser el-sirri

An Egyptian dissident based in London, Yasser el-Sirri is the director of the Islamic Observation Center. In 1994 he was sentenced to death, in absentia, for his alleged involvement in a failed assassination attempt of former Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki in which a young girl was killed. He denies the charges. El-Sirri tells FRONTLINE the Egyptian regime is "dictatorial" and that change will come in Egypt only through a military coup or a popular uprising. He also refutes charges made in the British newspaper Daily Mail that he was involved in the Sept. 9, 2001, death of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance. This interview was conducted through a translator in September 2001.

UPDATE: In New York on April 9, 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that el-Sirri was one of four people indicted for providing material support to the Islamic Group, which he described as an Egyptian terrorist group. Ashcroft said that el-Sirri had been charged with "facilitating communications among Islamic Group members and providing financing for their activities."

But for you, what was your reaction when you heard that he had been killed?

... All people were happy when Sadat was assassinated. He was a dictator and a violator of human rights. He was not working for the interest of the Egyptian people. Unfortunately, we were ruled later on by someone who was worse than him, and it is Hosni Mubarak.

Do you know a General Fouad Allam?

Fouad Allam was the head of security in Egypt. I called him in Islamic terms as "butcher." He participated in a lot of massacres during the 1960s and 1970s, especially with the Muslim Brotherhood.

He says he knows you, or knows of you.

Not true, because I never met him in my life.

But he says he knows of you. And he says that you are one of the problem people.

[I] do not know him. He's a liar. [I] once participated in a conversation over a telephone, and [I] told him his hands were stained in the blood of their Egyptian people.

[You] told the general?

[I] spoke to him through the [Al Jazeera] channel, and [I] told him that his hands were stained with the blood of the Egyptian people. [I] told him he was a butcher, not a general.

And he says that you must be psychopathic.

He still wants to live on the past. He was the head of security, and he participated in the imprisonment and torture of Egyptian people. He wants to continue his work in the media now. ...

Why do they want you back in Egypt?

The Egyptian regime is a dictatorial regime. It violates the simplest of human rights in Egypt. The Egyptian regime put me on trial in 1993, and I was sentenced to death in 1994.

In absentia?

I was not in Egypt at the time. That was a military court. I am a civilian, and I was put on a military court. And all human rights organizations have condemned this court, because it's not fair. Human rights organizations are sure and they have evidence [that] these courts did not take into consideration the real law, and all the evidence was extracted through torture.

Set aside the case of the Egyptian government, that they want you for murder. Do you believe that it'd be justified to attack the government, to assassinate its leadership, because they are a dictatorship and unjust?

I oppose all forms of assassinations. I have always said that. I now declare and say it again, that I am anti-assassinations. I believe that change in Egypt would come through two ways. One is through a coup by the Egyptian armed forces. And secondly, through educating the Egyptian masses to do an uprising against the Egyptian government.

But you do believe that it will take force to [change] what is going on in Egypt?

As I said, change in Egypt has got to come in the previous two ways, either through a military coup or through an uprising, because there is no other way. The Egyptian government does not allow any form of protest.

You have no alternative?

Elections in Egypt are [rigged]. They are not true. They practice gagging. People cannot say their opinions.

I'm going to mention some well-known names. Maybe you could explain your opinion of these people, and what you think the American people should know about them, to the extent that you know them. Sheik Abdel Rahman?

Sheik Abdel Rahman is a clergyman who is qualified from Al Azhar mosque. ... He was a victim of a conspiracy in the United States and has been wrongly imprisoned in the U.S.

In the United States, they say he was the mastermind of terrorist plots.

This is not proof that he should be convicted. The federal judge himself said to Sheik Rahman that he was accused of something that was not known. If that accusation was proved, then a lot of damage will happen. So, even the judge doesn't know and didn't know. How can I talk? How can I judge, pass sentence on someone because of his intention to do something? Not on his actions, on his intentions. ...

It's a political conviction. He's a blind man. It is an insult to Muslims that he's imprisoned. If he dies in prison, there will be a lot of problems for the United States in the Muslim world.


People know that he is wrongly convicted in the U.S. and he's treated unfairly and inhumanely. The U.S. Attorneys like Ramsey Clark and others have confirmed this. His death in prison will cause a lot of problems, a lot of things that may not be very pleasant.

From his followers?

He has many followers. And they could do a lot of damage to the interests of the U.S. I do not think that a blind man will cause a lot of problems to the U.S. if they release him, especially when we said that the conviction was a political conviction, and there was no [justice] in it. ...

We understand that there is a Mr. al-Zawahiri, who is the Islamic Jihad leader in Egypt. Who is he, and what are we to think of him? We are told he is a terrorist and a partner of bin Laden's.

Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is one of the people of Egypt. He was arrested in 1981 after the assassination of Sadat. He [has] an M.A. in medicine.

Have you met him? And what we read about him in the press -- is that true?

Dr. al-Zawahiri comes from a very well known family in Egypt. He is a doctor, surgeon, and his father was a professor of the medical college in Egypt, and his grandfather was the first secretary general of the Arab League.

And this is who is involved with the Islamic Jihad of Egypt?

He was a member prior to 1981, member of a group. He was not the leader. ...

But today, Dr. al-Zawahiri -- like you -- cannot go back to Egypt?

The main reason is because of the absence of democracy, the absence of freedom in the Arab world. The U.S. should not support these regimes which have caused the crashes. Instead of fighting terrorism or Islam, they should stop supporting these regimes, because of the regimes which have caused the problem in the first place.

For example, all those Egyptians who fought in Afghanistan were not able to go back to Egypt after the end of the war. Their return means that they will stand trial in military courts and they would be sentenced. That's why most of these people could not go back to Egypt, because of the absence of justice. They had to stay away.

Dr. al-Zawahiri is now a friend of Osama bin Laden, yes?

Dr. al-Zawahiri worked as a doctor in a hospital in Peshawar at the beginning. ... Like others after the end of the war, he could not return, so he stayed abroad. He didn't have a passport, he did not have the opportunity to speak his mind, and he did not have the freedom of expression.

But we now see him in pictures with Osama bin Laden.

This is not the problem. His presence with bin Laden is not the problem. There is no evidence to sentence him or to incriminate him.

He's wanted by the U.S. government.

That's the U.S. problem. The problem now, in [my] opinion, is that the United States has put itself as the judge, jury and executor. ...

You say that we, the United States, has accused Dr. al-Zawahiri unjustly?

[There] was no convincing evidence. No clear evidence. The U.S. has not finished its investigation. How can it [make] a charge? ...

Is the United States the friend of your enemies: Mubarak, the repressive regime?

The U.S. helps these regimes forge and rig elections that helps them stay in power.

And so if you see your enemy attacked, like on Sept. 11, did you regret that or did you think that this was justified?

... I only expressed my opinions in words, and I have said it before, but I will not support any violent actions. I am against the killings of innocent civilians. ...

There's no other culture or place in the world today where the United States or any country has had suicide bombers, people willing to die. It has only been in the Middle East, and it has only been in this incident at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon.

... Until now, there is no evidence that those people are responsible for these acts of Sept. 11 were Muslims. The United States rushed into saying after half an hour -- President Bush said it was bin Laden. There must be thorough investigation to know the reasons and the people behind these attacks.

I agree. I agree. I also agree, based on what you said so far that there are reasons behind these attacks. And we must talk about the reasons.

The reasons are the policies of the United States. The U.S. has problems all over the world, in Japan, Grenada and other places. And the reason is the policies of the U.S.

But before we can talk about politics or economics, we have to talk about who is involved and how people feel. For example, if it turns out that they were Muslims who were responsible for Sept. 11, for the policy reasons that you mentioned, was their action justified?

I disagree with this method, because I know the victims will be innocent people and civilians. If it was proved that Muslims were involved in these acts, then it is a crime which has been committed by those people and by the U.S. administration. ...

What was your involvement with the [killing] of Massoud and the bombing in Afghanistan?

My organization is a human rights organization for all people around the world. And I only work in the media. ... I condemn what happened to Massoud. He was one of the leaders who participated in the defeat and the ousting of the Russians from Afghanistan.

It is not possible that Massoud has met with these generals because of a letter from us. ... What has happened on our part, someone has contacted us and wanted to make a TV program and sell it to us because we are independent. He told us he contacted us from Afghanistan and he told us he was going to meet with Afghan leaders among whom is Mohammed Omar.

Accordingly, we did not pay anything, and so we get the program that was talked about. It was an outstanding offer to us to have such a program, so he asked for a letter of reference. The program is called under the title, "Afghanistan: Past, Present and Future."

[In the] Sept. 19 [London] Daily Mail, [it says], "An asylum-seeker running an Islamic fundamentalist organization in Britain provided vital help to Osama bin Laden's hit men. Egyptian dissident Yasser al-Siri supplied the key document to assist assassins in the murder of the Taliban's main opposition leader in Afghanistan."

It's not true, because this paper, firstly, it's a tabloid newspaper. It is a gutter press. This paper tries to distort my reputation and organization I represent. ...

The truth of the letter is that I could not have assisted in the murder and killing of Ahmed Shah Massoud, whom I think was one of the best leaders of Afghanistan. ... I strongly condemn this action and could not have participated in it.

Do you support the Taliban? Do you think they are the true government of Afghanistan?

Taliban, they have good and bad people.

My question is, do you support them? Do you think they are the valid government of Afghanistan?

This is an Afghan issue, and it's not within my right, [nor] I will be making the same mistake as the United States -- interfering in other peoples' internal affairs.

When you hear that someone like Osama bin Laden or Dr. al-Zawahiri wants to kill Americans and Jews, do you support that?

I have said in the past to the press that I disagree with many of the actions committed by these people which target civilians. Some of these innocent people are not the enemy. They have nothing to do with American policy. They are not involved in it. They are innocent people. They have committed no crime. Islam clearly prohibits the killing of innocent people. ...

If I were to interview President Mubarak, what should I ask him?

You should ask him why he doesn't let people live in peace. Why doesn't he let people have freedom? Why doesn't he allow the authority, power, to be transferred in peaceful means?

His ambassador said to me, "They use the law forcefully and they succeeded. Today, they negotiate. In the past, they had a bigger problem. They had to be tied."

This is not true. They say this because they want to give the impression they have succeeded. They are hiding the truth.

Their days are numbered?

All people of all walks of life in Egypt reject the Egyptian regime. It could fall any time. It's very unique. ...

I want to make sure we understand. There are limits on use of force, of violence, to achieve a better Egypt or a better Islamic world?

... No person, including myself ... should exceed the limits set by Islamic law, Sharia. Nobody is above the law. Nobody has the right to kill innocent people. That is clearly prohibited by the Koran.

And if it can be shown that the people who did Sept. 11 were Muslims, they would, in a sense, be discrediting their own cause -- in your eyes, and many other peoples' eyes.

Islam forbids the killing of innocent people. It is regrettable what happened in the U.S.

There should be no hasty decisions. We must not be hasty. We should wait for the truth to come out. We should not follow what some media institutions want to do, which is to distort the truth.

home +  introduction +  saudi arabia +  egypt +  intelligence failure +  islamic terrorism
reporting from the ny times +  interviews +  video +  discussion
tapes & transcripts +  press +  credits
frontline privacy policy +  FRONTLINE +  pbs online +  wgbh

photo copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation