For many Americans, Saudi Arabia is the country most closely linked to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, and for good reason. Osama bin Laden, then al-Qaeda’s leader, was a Saudi national and hailed from one of the country’s most prominent families. Of the nineteen young men who carried out the hijackings, fifteen were from Saudi Arabia. Yet, attention on the roles of Saudis obscures the prominence of Egyptians in the 9/11 plot and in transnational extremism more broadly.
Egypt’s 9/11 Architects
Other than bin Laden, Americans may remember the name Mohamed Atta. The Egyptian urban planner from Giza led the four teams that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. There is also a long roster of Egyptians who have played roles as leaders, planners, logisticians, pamphleteers, and intellectuals of al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements dating back decades.
Birthplace of a Movement
All of these men—only Ayman al-Zawahiri and presumably Saif al-Adel are still alive—were descendants of an earlier generation of Egyptian Islamists who split from the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in the 1960s and embraced the messages of Sayyid Qutb, another Egyptian. In his major works In the Shadow of the Qur’an and Milestones Along the Way, Qutb made the case that Muslims were living in jahiliya, a state of ignorance or impiety that marked societies before God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. The central feature of this state of ignorance was that man-made laws superseded God’s laws. To Qutb, his followers, and their followers, this situation needed to be rectified to forge an Islamic society. Among the tools for achieving this goal were preaching, persuasion, and violence. In Qutb’s moral universe, Muslims had a responsibility to take up arms to establish God’s sovereignty on Earth.
Zawahiri, a physician who led Egyptian Islamic Jihad, or al-Jihad, and served time in prison for his alleged role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, would join forces with bin Laden in the late 1990s. Zawahiri was less a spiritual influence on bin Laden than an operational one. At this time, al-Qaeda was essentially a combination of Zawahiri’s al-Jihad, Arabs who joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and bin Laden’s ability to raise funds. The strong contingent of Egyptians applied organizational know-how, financial expertise, and military experience to wage a violent jihad against leaders whom the fighters considered to be un-Islamic and their patrons, especially the United States.
State of Repression
Among analysts and policymakers, there are generally two streams of thought on why Egypt has produced so many extremists. The first posits that repression, which to varying degrees has been a common feature of Egyptian politics since the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser (early 1950s to 1970), tends to radicalize primarily young men who bear the brunt of the state’s violence when members of society seek redress for their grievances. The second associates extremism with a specific ideology, notably Qutb’s vision for the establishment of Islamic society. It is fair to say that the combination of both in Egypt produced a generation of some of the most notorious extremists.
When Egyptian authorities were fighting a low-level Islamist insurgency in the mid-1990s, they used a variety of tactics to deal with the problem, including deradicalization and propaganda to discredit extremist ideologies. More recently, they have relied almost exclusively on repression, stubbornly refusing to recognize the partial link between state coercion and radicalization. This is a problem with the Egyptian authorities’ current approach to the “Sinai Province,” a branch of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that is waging a violent campaign in the North Sinai Governorate that has occasionally spilled over into the Nile Valley. There is no doubt an ideological component that is appealing to the group’s members, but repression of the population in the northern Sinai also plays a role in recruitment.
Other than Zawahiri, there are currently few Egyptians among the ranks of extremist leaders. But the ingredients are there for more to emerge. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi oversees an environment of profound repression, and space for political opposition has been closed off. Egyptian prisons, which have been zones of radicalization in the past, are packed with the regime’s opponents. The Muslim Brotherhood has been a primary target of the security services, but there are tens of thousands of political prisoners of varying worldviews and outlooks. Given the combination of state violence and coercion, as well as the persistence of extremist ideologies, there is the potential for new versions of extremist ideas and groups to emerge in Egypt.
Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphic for this article.