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interview: nabil fahmy

When I was speaking about the fear [of terrorist acts] in the United States exists today, you were telling me that Egypt went through this in the 1990s. Could you explain that?

In the early 1990s -- particularly around 1992 -- there was ... quite intensive...terrorist activity in different part of Egypt in almost all of the major cities, particularly Cairo. And it was not directed only at government buildings, or the police or the military. But to make a statement, the terrorists would place bombs in front of banks ... try to target public areas where they would get a lot of coverage. ... I know of people who worked in and around the university who were killed by a terrorist bomb because it exploded right in front of the door of the university. ... And then ... as it peaked, [acts were directed] towards the tourist industry, because that was the easiest way to get the message covered abroad -- by targeting tourists.

So that was the shootings in Luxor, for instance?

Even before that. [It peaked in 1995, and then] the government put its foot down forcefully against terrorists, taking very serious security measures. You had a reduction in the intensity in 1995 to 1997, almost absence of anything. And then in 1997, you had one of the most marginal terrorist groups doing this horrific attack in Luxor, where you had 65 or 66 tourists killed. ...

But there's a difference [between the terrorists in Egypt in the 1990s and those that attacked America on September 11. As I understand, those were Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who wanted to change your society, your country, into an Islamic state.

No, I don't think there's a difference. Because for me, they're terrorists. The issue that they claim to be Islamic is an aberration. There's no relation between terrorism and Islam, in my mind. [There are] terrorists around the world. The sarin attack in Japan made people afraid to go into the subway. And they're not Islamic, but they're terrorists. The Bader-Meinhof [group] in Germany before. The Italian terrorists in Europe in the 1970s. They made the average locals scared. And they had nothing to do with Islam. Timothy McVeigh -- the 100 or more people killed in the federal building. Doesn't that make people scared?

about nabil fahmy

Nabil Fahmy is Egypt's ambassador to the United States. In this interview he discusses how Egypt successfully repressed its own internal terrorism and what it took, why the U.S. is a target for terrorists, and what fuels anti-Americanism in general in the Middle East. He also talks about the problems of extraditing Egyptian terrorists who are living in other countries, and the new international arrangements that are needed to fight terrorism. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.

I guess the difference that I'm hearing from people we've talked to is that Egypt was successful in the sense of suppressing or repressing this terrorist movement internally. It subsided.

We were successful for two reasons. The government was extremely forceful in dealing with this trend; secondly, because the community itself rejected the trend as whole. This was not something that was beneficial to ... the layman in the street. There was no generic support for it. I like the word you used -- suppressed or repressed, whatever -- whichever one; because we solved it, or almost solved it, domestically. But to solve the trend as a whole, you have to go through a process of international cooperation.

What the people who survived the suppression of their movement in Egypt, who have fled to the United Kingdom, to the United States, and to other countries, say to us is that Egypt did this through torture, through suspending civil liberties, through basically becoming an authoritarian state. True?

No, I don't think it's true. I think we applied the full force of the law. That's probably the better interpretation of what we did.

That's what you would say. But they say...

That's the truth. I'm not a terrorist; they are. We applied the full force of the law, which meant aggressively pursing terrorism ... and violations of the law, and aggressively pursuing intelligence leaks ... in a proactive way. In other words, before things happened, we were looking for them, because we were aware that people were trying to undertake those activities in our country. And I'm sure that the terrorists were annoyed by this -- but that's the whole idea.

I think they were a little more than annoyed.

We meant it that way. It was meant to get rid of terrorism, and we did a decent job in doing that. It does not mean the issue has been solved completely, because you can't solve it alone. These guys get money from abroad. You have networks all over the place. They travel freely. To get rid of terrorism ... you have to have international cooperation, because money is fungible. The network is extensive. Communications are quite intensive. And they will move around.

...I'm sitting out in the American public, watching, and especially in the last couple of weeks, reading. I see in today's New York Times: "Egyptian seen as top aide in successor to bin Laden." This is Mr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. And previously, it was the blind sheik, Abdel Rahman in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Why Egyptians? ... Some of your citizens are involved in [the current attack on New York and Washington]. And some of them are in very prominent roles, either the second in command -- I believe there's a Muhammed Atep, who is another Egyptian, who is apparently one of the commanders of bin Laden's organization. And so the question becomes, why do they see us, the United States, as their enemy?

Let's draw a distinction between several things. You supported the Egyptian government because of its considered moderate policies in attempt to modernize our country and pursue peace in the Middle East. That remains the widespread position of the Egyptian community as a whole. So the relationship between what you've done for Egypt, and where Egypt is, is a relationship between the civilized society in Egypt, and ... civilized society in the U.S. It is not between you and the terrorists. Terrorists do not represent Egypt. There are Egyptian terrorists, like there are American terrorists, like there are European terrorists. ...

[But] let me explain why the U.S. could be a target in the minds of the terrorists, although I don't speak on their behalf. You represent the largest, strongest, industrialized and modern country in the world. So if people are against modernization, then needless to say, you would ultimately be one of the targets. Not the only target; but ultimately, one of the targets.

But why would you, in particular, be a target? Well -- and I'm not justifying this, I'm just explaining it -- people, like these people, who are marginalized, will look at your policies in the Middle East, and see what they agree with and what they don't agree with -- your policies and others, Europeans', Asians.' ... And they find in what you're doing in the Middle East justification for considering you to be an enemy.

We support Mubarak's government, they say. We do -- with our tax money, as well as our policies. And apparently, the Egyptian group accepted bin Laden's argument that they should suspend going after Mubarak's government, and join him in attacking the really big enemy, United States. Is this the price we're paying for our policies in the Middle East?

I think it's partially that, yes. I want to be very clear. I'm not justifying ... what they're doing. [But] one of the arguments that they use to try to attract recruits, or try to heighten anti-Americanism, is your policy in the Middle East. People today -- whether that is right or wrong -- when they see Palestinians being killed with American weapons, they link that to the U.S., even though it may be a result of an Israeli action. So this is one of the reasons they use to justify this. They will use the continuing sanctions regime against Iraq, as another example. ...

It's not incorrect to say -- as has been now reported in our media in the United States -- that on the street, if you will, in Egypt today, there is some sympathy for these fundamentalists, for what they say they believe in terms of their critique [of U.S policy]. [And there's] not so much sympathy for what's happened in the United States.

No, I disagree with that. I think there is an obvious degree of criticism of the U.S. in terms of its policy in the Middle East.

... with Israel?

With Israel specifically. Or particularly with Israel, in support of Israel.

With Iraq?

A little bit with Iraq, but mostly with Israel. There's an increasing sentiment that the U.S. has not been balanced in its posture in the Middle East, and that has not been strong enough in stopping Israel from using American weapons against Palestinians. That exists, and one should not deny that.

And our policies related to oil in the Middle East?

Yes and no. The oil policies are not ones that really create antipathy towards the U.S. It's much more the use of force by Israel using American weapons that leads to anti-Americanism, or the anti-American sentiment. That exists.

But that does not mean that people support terrorism. You had mosques holding prayers after the World Trade Center tragedy. The Egyptian president -- every Arab president or leader -- issued statements. The head of the most prestigious Islamic university, the Egyptian mufti, as well as the head of the Egyptian public church, all issued statements unequivocal in condemning what happened.

I don't believe that there was supportive sentiment for the terrorists after what they did in the World Trade Center. But there is more and more an anti-American feeling as a result of the peace process, and what they perceive -- whether it's right or wrong -- to be a policy fully supporting Israel at the expense of the Arabs.

So it's primarily our support of Israel and the Israeli government and its policies that you see as one of the things that undermines our friends in the Middle East?

I think that's one of the things that creates problems for you in the Middle East, yes. You will need to change that perception if you want to succeed in dealing with the issue of terrorism completely. On the other hand, that's not a justification for the terrorist acts. And one should not draw that linkage too quickly. But if you want to truly succeed in dealing with terrorism in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world, you're going to have to deal with the root causes and the general public sentiment.

And in your perspective, the root causes of this Islamic terrorism coming from Egypt [is] the condition of the people?

Again, it's not coming from Egypt. The people, the organizations you're talking about that are of Egyptian origin are not working out of Egypt; they're trying to get back into Egypt. They're actually working from foreign countries. So it's not something that's we're exporting to the world. They're not in Egypt.

Well, you did export them, in a manner of speaking.

We got rid of them. And other countries welcomed them. But we did not export them; we were trying to arrest them. ...

But they can't get back in their country ... They can get back in their country to go to prison. ...

It's a strange situation. The country of origin in this case is waiting to arrest these people, has warrants for their arrest, and they're operating, in some cases, in places like United Kingdom, in western Europe, in United States. And then we see what happens here.

It's a very valid question. We have made this point repeatedly, that in order to really deal with terrorism, we have to work together. We had issued requests for extradition and warrants for arrest after court verdicts. And in some cases, we were faced with a situation where people said, "Well, you have a death penalty in Egypt, and therefore, we cannot extradite anybody from our country to yours, even if it is an Egyptian national, because you have a death penalty." That's what the European countries have been saying.

You're going to face the same problem today as the U.S. if you try to extradite people from Europe. How do you deal with the fact that you have the death penalty and they don't? These are issues which have to be dealt with constructively. And that's why President Mubarak from day one of the World Trade Center crisis said, "Let's establish international norms." ... To deal with issues of money laundering -- where's the money coming from? How's it going? How do you deal with privacy laws? These are real issues.

After the public condemnation of terrorism, what next? Now we've all condemned terrorism. What are we going to do about it? How do we work together? I respect the laws of countries that do not have a death penalty. I respect the laws of the countries that have privacy requirements. I also would expect them to respect my laws, which are based on a very distinguished and long legal system, and that we're applying the law to deal with criminals. ...

In your government's opinion, we should not, in the United States, give political asylum to people who are wanted for crimes in Egypt?

Definitely not for terrorists.

It must seem absurd, in some ways, to your government in Cairo, when they looked to the United States and, "We want Abdel Rahman back in Egypt. We want these people back from the United Kingdom." And they won't send them back; and then they complain that you're sending us terrorists.

Well, it's frustrating. But we're 7,000 years old. And frankly, we know that many of these international issues are not resolved by the stroke of a pen, or quickly. We know that they are complicated processes. ...

We are as interested as everybody else in preserving civil liberties -- preserving civil liberties for our nationals who are fully committed to trying to live within a civilized society according to the established norms -- and even preserving civil liberties for criminals; but in a manner which allows us to pursue them.

So if Human Rights Watch, or some of these organizations say, "That's absurd what this man is saying. There are political prisoners in Egypt. There are people who have been detained without warrants. They number in the thousands, and sometimes in the tens of thousands in the 1990s..."

I respect the human rights organization. I know that their intentions are noble intentions, and we want to work with them. There are no absolute facts here. There are no absolute or easy answers. One cannot say that you should not arrest terrorists, that you should not pursue intelligence reports aggressively. But one would not say, either, that you have to drop civil liberties completely. That would be ridiculous. ... We want to preserve civil liberty, but we want to pursue ... to have law and order in our country and in yours. There's no contradiction by definition between civil liberties and aggressive policing. There will be a contradiction if we don't sit down and discuss it.

[Do you think there is] financial, if not also ideological, support for the bin Laden organization, or at least what it stands for [in Saudi Arabia]? And that there is a flow of money that's coming from there through charities, through other organizations, to his organization?

... I'm not speaking on their behalf. But I can confirm that the Saudi royal family and the Saudi government is not financing bin Laden. ... Bin Laden has been out of Saudi Arabia for years. He opposes what's happening there. They have publicly, and quite prominently expressed their condemnation of what he's done.

I was following the reports about the stock market over the last few days, after the World Trade Center issues. And some people were reporting that bin Laden had made a profit. ... In other words, the money is not in Saudi Arabia, it's not in the Middle East. It's in the Western financial circles, among other places. ...

There are those who say that Iraq is involved in some fashion. Does the Egyptian government have any reason to believe that there is Iraqi support for this particular action, or for any of the terrorist activities going on?

We don't have specific information that would allow me to draw that conclusion at this point. And frankly, in terms of political logic, I would not expect it to be the case -- because why would Iraq want to bring the wrath of the U.S. government on itself?

... Isn't the fact that the U.S. bombs Iraq, an Arab country, a Middle Eastern country, part of the reason why there is, if you will, resentment or hatred to the United States? It's the only place that I know of that's getting bombed from the air with almost impunity.

I think it is a policy that does fuel anti-Americanism, and the perception that the U.S. pursues aggressive policies towards the Arab world. Whether that's correct or not is not the issue. But in actual fact, it does add to that element. But I would again draw the distinction between rising anti-Americanism in terms of people opposing your policy -- quite seriously -- and these same people supporting terrorism. There's a strong distinction. ... There's a huge line in the sand -- not a thin line in the sand. I think you have a desert between people who have problems with U.S. policy in the Middle East and those who would take it to the point where this justifies what a terrorist would do. I think one needs to deal with this perception problem that you have in the Middle East if you want to have sustained support for whatever efforts you want to make in the Middle East. But that does not mean that this community supports the terrorists.

... Some people believe that the reason why these terrorist acts take place is they want us to react -- or over-react, if there's such a thing in this case -- in such a way as to make them more popular with this sentiment of anti-Americanism.

That's a very valid point, but let me just simply make one point. If you look at where terrorists are operating today, where they've acted, and where they exist, they exist and have acted outside the Arab world. Their bases for operation, their activities have been ... are today essentially outside the Arab world, because Arab governments have been tough with them, and because Arab communities do not support what they're doing. ...

But with all due respect ... reading recently that some of the hijackers involved in the World Trade Center just recently traveled through the UAE, and had Saudi papers in certain cases. The people who attacked the Cole operated in Yemen. Today's paper says that Mr. al-Zawahiri has been in Egypt on occasion in the last five years. We have the perception at least here in our news reports that they do operate in some fashion or another in the region as well as outside the region.

No, I disagree with you. ... Al-Zawahiri hasn't been in Egypt at least for five years. And we've been trying to get him out of Europe for that period of time. He's been traveling in Europe, and ... I assume he's been to Afghanistan as well. What you call terrorist bases, what the international community considers to be terrorist bases -- areas where they train and recruit are not in the Arab world. ...

I can't believe that there isn't an official in the Egyptian government today who's been around for a while who's saying, "You see those people, if they had just sent us the blind sheik and everybody else back who we wanted back, this probably wouldn't have happened?"

Let's look forward rather than backwards and work together in a considerate, serious manner, taking all of the issues into account. Egypt will be at the forefront of that effort, looking at this issue with determination, but in a very cautious and considerate manner.

No wonder you're a diplomat. (Laughter)

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