Islamic militant cells and Sadat’s assassination

Islamic militant cells and Sadat’s assassination

Youssef H. Aboul-Enein

President Anwar Sadat selected Egyptian historian and journalist Mousa Sabry to be his official biographer, who received access to Sadat’s papers, archives, and declassified information. After Sadat’s murder on 6 October 1981 during the 8th anniversary of the 1973 Yom-Kippur War, Sabry researched Egyptian presidential archives, interviewed investigators, and poured through thousands of pages of the 1981 Jihad Trial transcripts. (1) The result of Sabry’s research is perhaps the most important book written about Sadat–Al-Sadat Al-Haqiqa Wa Al-Astura (Sadat, the truth and his legacy). (2) Sabry also had the rare opportunity of recording Sadat’s secret meetings, including the 1972-1973 strategic discussions with higher security council on the need to wage war to enable the Sinai’s return to Egypt and to open the Suez Canal.

Since becoming president in 1970, Sadat had lived in fear of being assassinated. He spent his first year thwarting a coup attempt by Ali Sabry (no relation to the author), who thought Sadat was only a temporary substitute for President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Traveling to Israel for peace talks in November 1977 made Sadat even more of a target for assassination. Sadat’s security agents revealed that 14 different groups wanted Sadat killed, including Palestinian factions; Marxist organizations, inside and outside Egypt; and the rejectionist governments of Libya, South Yemen, Iran, and Syria, who abhorred Sadat’s decision to have peace talks with Israel. Between 1977 and 1981, security forces foiled 38 attempts to kill Sadat or his ministers and thwarted a coup attempt in Egypt.

Sabry describes four assassination attempts that were eerily similar to the tactics of Ahmed Ramzi Youssef (presently serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and shoe bomber Richard Reid. Those tactics included immersing plastic and cotton explosive chemicals to mold bombs to place inside shoes and radios.

On 1 May 1981, a Palestinian carrying a cassette radio device packed with five kilograms of explosives attempted to detonate the device after entering the Egyptian radio and television headquarters where Sadat was giving a speech. In 1979, a Lebanese terrorist attempted to assassinate Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali with an attache case filled with explosives. In late 1979, an Iranian who had been trained to make bombs was apprehended. He was carrying plans designed to create chaos by blowing up gas stations and fuel tankers in and around Cairo.

The accounts of assassination attempts against Sadat include one that those guarding Sadat considered the most dangerous. In September 1981, the Libyans began Operation Kennedy. Libyan intelligence recruited an Egyptian professional and recent college graduate working in Libya to work for them. He was trained in sharpshooting and became proficient in using a single-shot, bolt-action rifle with a scope. He was flown to Rome to receive further details of the mission. The bolt-action rifle and scope arrived in Rome hidden in the dashboard of a Flat Model 132, along with poisoned-tipped bullets, rifle parts, and pistols hidden in the vehicle’s undercarriage. The Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) and Ministry of Interior had learned of the plan and had followed the assassin from the moment Libyan Intelligence approached him. The plot was quickly neutralized.

Guarding Sadat was a challenge because of his feelings of fatalism and his unwillingness to change his itinerary. He even rode in a small car to the Cairo section of Agoozah to enroll his grandson in school. The Egyptian Interior Ministry received bits and pieces of information about a plot to kill Sadat during a visit to Mansoora. The plot turned out to be the final purchase of weapons for the coup that was to follow Sadat’s 6 October 1981 assassination.

1981-1984 Jihad Trials

Studying the 1980 Jihad Trial transcripts is an important step toward understanding the jihadist cell that murdered Sadat. The cell had its roots within the military. The transcripts, which number in the millions of pages, reveal that the Egyptian government (intelligence, presidential guard, and interior ministry) had no knowledge of cell formation in Northern and Southern Egypt. Beginning in early 1980, mass disruption and chaos fomented under the cover of which it could assassinate Sadat.

The cell had weapons caches throughout Egypt and had established revolutionary cells in most districts of the country. It is incredible that Egyptian security missed detecting such a massive undertaking.

Assassination of Sadat

Sadat’s assassination, in front of his entire Army, took less that 35 seconds. Egyptian forensic experts have timed the bullets that killed Sadat at 735 meters per second at a distance of less than 15 meters.

The day Sadat was killed, he had four layers of security: personal bodyguards, who were within 15 meters of Sadat; the Republican (Presidential) Guard, a military unit of commandos selected to guard the president, which was stationed outside the 15 meters; the Ministry of Interior and Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazy), which provided rooftop surveillance and roadside security for Sadat’s motorcade; and other civilian police and military guards. Despite this redundant security, the assassins were able to get within 15 meters of Sadat.

Parade military units were selected from all over Egypt when conducting the annual parade commemorating the Yom-Kippur War. The units gathered at the central staging area in Cairo and were under the command of an overall commander-in-charge. To ensure that military units participating in the parade were unarmed, Egypt’s Department of Military Intelligence’s (DMI) required that all live ammunition be surrendered and accounted for, and firing pins were to be removed and secured in an armory. The DMI chief and the Central Military District (CMD) chief were making their annual pilgrimages to Mecca when Sadat was killed.

Cairo and Giza DMI and CMD officials pointed fingers at each other over the firing-pin controversy. Although required, there was no indication that either had ridden in the parade. It is debatable, however, whether the security guards could have reacted as quickly as the assassins. And, as fate would have it, Sadat asked the only armed guard between him and the assassins to sit down to observe the parade.

Trial documents reveal that Sadat’s 150-man Republican Guard, the National Counter-Terrorism Squad, was newly trained, and this was their first job securing a military parade. They positioned themselves in a circle around the reviewing stand instead of beside the president, making it impossible for them to respond to a frontal assault.

All eyes had been fixed on the sky watching the Egyptian air force conduct acrobatics and fly-bys as the five assassins ran toward the reviewing stand, throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons at Sadat. Sadat was sitting exactly parallel and aligned with the tomb of the unknown solider and, thinking the soldiers were giving him a military tribute, stood up, giving the killers a clear shot. The first shot was fatal, severing a main artery when it entered Sadat’s chest. Other bullets penetrated his neck and ribs. His last words were “Mish Maaqool, Mish Maaqool” (impossible, impossible).

Sabry’s account differs from that given by Maadi hospital, which reported that Sadat was hit by five bullets and died from severe nervous shock, internal bleeding, and damage to his left lung. Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu-Ghazallah, along with two others who lunged to shield the president were hit by stray bullets.

Mamduh Salim, a member of Sadat’s political party, instinctively grabbed Vice President Hosni Mubarak’s arm and yelled to members of the cabinet and diplomatic corps to get down. By shielding Mubarak, Salim ensured a peaceful transition of government.

The security team wounded three of the assassins. A fourth escaped but was caught minutes later. The guard assigned to the U.S. ambassador shot at the assailants, and after a brief gun battle, the assassins were overcome. One was killed; others taken prisoner.

Sadat’s killing took the entire Egyptian security organization by surprise, and it was assumed a large military coup would follow. The guards conducted an immediate sweep for explosives and ordered all units that had participated in the military parade to the Central Military District Headquarters to be garrisoned. Ismailiah-Suez Road was closed off, and the Republican Guards and the interior security forces were sent to Cairo to guard radio and television stations.

Senior interior and military officers believed they needed to stimulate a populist uprising, so within hours they deployed troops to–

* The Cairo radio and television headquarters.

* The radio broadcast towers in the Mukatam Hills.

* The homes and offices of ministers.

* The National Assembly offices.

* Giza Governorship Offices.

* Mobile communication vans.

* The Central Command Center, in which the Republican Guard coordinated all deployed forces.

The Minister of Interior immediately executed “Plan 100,” a meticulous plan involving securing Cairo and ordering Egypt’s police forces to take on a martial posture.

Inside the Assassins’ Minds

Why was Sadat assassinated? Sabry used court transcripts and investigative documentation to profile Sadat’s assassins and major instigators of the plot. The interrogation and trial of the assassins lasted from 1981 to 1984. One benefit was the copious amount of interview and transcript material that was made public.

Abdul-Salam Abdul-Al. Abdul-Al, an officer in Egyptian Air Defense, was 28-years old in 1981. During his interrogation he said he thought Egyptian society was in a state of munkar (decadence). He saw Sadat as the manifestation of Islamic regression and decided he had to kill him. He discussed how he became aware of Egyptian society’s obsession with consumerism, the consumption of alcohol, and an accumulation of interest. He said women who took to the hijab were scorned and that religious scholars who preached the truth were jailed.

Abdul-Al was happy with the results of the 1979 Iranian revolution, where the mullahs toppled the American-supported Shah. However, he felt that the Shiite revolution needed a Sunni counterweight and argued that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was discrediting the Islamic faith. The creation of an Islamic government in Egypt would balance the religious influence of Iran. He translated Abd al-Halim bin Taymiyyah’s 13th-century writings, which stated that the Tartars had declared themselves Muslims and pledged to rule with Islamic law but, instead, applied their own indigenous Yasiq laws. (3) They built mosques and Islamic schools while also suppressing Islamic thought.

Abdul-Al’s stint in the armed forces gave him the time, interaction, and ability to develop his theories about Islam. He met like-minded soldiers who believed they were serving an infidel government, and they felt their guilt feelings had to be purged. They could use their combat skills to foment a violent revolution. They used verses from the Quran and prophet Muhammad’s writings to apply Muhammad’s war of self-preservation against those who were trying to destroy his teachings. The group applied Muhammad’s writings out of context to condemn Sadat and his regime.

During his interrogation, Abdul-Al revealed that no inspection of firing pins or rounds had been conducted the day of the parade, making it incredibly simple to bring a loaded weapon to the pass and review. The only inspection that had been conducted was a random one by the Republican Guard of the 333d Brigade after the afternoon prayers, which was hours before the parade was to begin. The interrogation ended with Abdul-Al describing how he fired on Sadat at a 20-degree angle. He did not aim but opened up on full automatic in the general direction of the VIP reviewing stand.

Atta Tayel Hameeda. Hameeda, a combat engineer and Alexandria University mechanical engineering graduate, was 26 years old in 1981. Like Abdul-Al, he espoused justification for Sadat’s killing because he felt Sadat was not ruling according to Islamic law. He compared Sadat to a pharaoh who had gone astray and believed he was a living God. Hameeda believed Sadat and the Egyptian government were attempting to secularize society and separate God from the state because Egypt’s National Assembly used democracy as a mandate to ignore what was allowed under God’s laws. Discos, the use of alcohol, and movies were examples of how the people’s will had overtaken God’s law in the legislature. His strict, fundamentalist view of Islam was even stricter than what the Prophet Muhammad practiced in Medina in 622.

Hameeda’s desire was not only to kill Sadat, but to also kill Interior Minister Nabawy Ismail so Hameeda could establish an Islamic government. When asked if killing the president was enough to establish an Islamic government, he responded that he acted on God’s orders and that God alone was responsible for establishing and ruling an Islamic government. (4)

When interrogators cited verses from the Quran about tolerance, Hameeda responded with other verses he felt supported his right to kill Sadat. Hameeda was steeped in Salafist-Wahabi doctrine. When asked what books influenced him, he named the major Islamic texts, including Ibn Katheer, Al-Qurtoobi, Ibn Al-Qaim Al-Jawzeea, and Ibn Taymiyah, all of which purported that Islamic purification had to be undertaken through violence. (5)

Hussein Abbas Muhammad. Muhammad, a sergeant in the civil defense force, was the only assassin captured away from the reviewing stand. He was 28 years old. None of the assassins referred to Sadat by name. They called him the oppressor, the pharaoh, or the president. Muhammad began his interrogation by stating that he was a martyr for killing the oppressor. When asked to describe in detail how he executed the crime, he responded that he objected to the word “crime” and that he preferred the word “killing” of the Zalim (oppressor).

Unlike the others, Muhammad was robotic when he explained that his target was Sadat, and he felt no remorse about shooting anyone who got in his way. He justified killing Sadat because he believed Sadat, with his Central Security Services, had waged war on the Muslims. He said Sadat had referred to women’s hijabs as tents and that Sadat had raided many mosques arresting those within. He said Sadat had arrested women and attempted to separate religion from state.

Unlike those who had read Islamic radical commentaries, Muhammad had been influenced by clerics he had heard on cassette tapes and through appearances in Cairo mosques. He held in reverence the clerics who were imprisoned because of their ideals, including Sheikhs Al-Mehlawi, Salamah, Al-Badry, Kishk, Saleh, Al-Samawy, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Omar Al-Tilmissany. He revealed that 1st Lieutenant Khalid Islambooli had been the team leader.

Khalid Mohammed Shawky Islambooli. Islambooli, a 24-year-old Egyptian Army 1st Lieutenant, was not initially scheduled to participate in the 6 October parade, but on 23 September, his executive officer Major Makram Abdul-Al assigned him to attend. Islambooli had 13 days to plan the assassination. His advantage was that he had participated in the 1979 and 1980 6 October parades. He knew the parade’s procedures, was under no suspicion, and was considered reliable because of his participation in previous reviews.

Islambooli’s religious justification to strike at the Egyptian government for its ungodly policies and decadence came from cleric Ali Muhammad Abdul-Salam. (6) Islambooli had also been reading Al-Mawdudi, Bin Taymiyyah, and pamphlets on jihad. He drew comparisons between democracy and the Yasig laws of the Tartars as being man-made laws that were overshadowing God’s laws.

Islambooli delineated between mosques that he felt were Al-Ukhwa mosques and those be considered brethren. When asked how he knew which mosque was a brethren one, he said it was simple–by the way they dressed. They wore ankle length shirts, beards, and prayers were etched on their faces. Islambooli indicated that Abdul-Salam’s ministry guided him toward martyrdom and that his transformation took 18 months.

Like his followers, Islambooli saw Sadat as an infidel who had abandoned divine law and oppressed the people. When confronted with the fact that Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to introduce a constitutional amendment requiting Islamic law to be the source of all legislation, Islambooli dismissed this as a political charade.

When asked about his firing pin, he stated that the evening before the military parade his battalion leader verbally warned everyone to remove their firing pins and give them to their company leaders. Islambooli carried out the order and collected the firing pins, however, the collection procedures were not followed and Islambooli kept the pins.

Lieutenant Colonel Mamdouh Mihrim Husni Abu Jebel. Abu Jebel, of the 2d Egyptian Army Engineers, declared that he converted to Islamic militancy in the 1970s. He had read many of the same works as the others and had listened to the same sermons by fiery and politicized clerics. Abu Jebel became involved with Mohammed Adel Salam Faraj, a fellow officer who led a failed revolt against Sadat at the Military Technical Academy. Faraj was well known for his book Al-Farida Al-Ghaiba (The missing obligation), which became the manual for organizing armed Islamic militant vanguards. (7)

Mohammed Adel Salam Faraj. Faraj was found guilty of leading an insurrection and being part of the assassination plot. The assassination planning took place at Faraj’s home, and it was Faraj who told Abu Jebel and Abdul-Latif (Abood) Al-Zummur that military and security personnel were to be recruited before civilians.

Islamic militant cells, directed by Faraj and Al-Zummur, did not exceed seven persons per cell. A cell leader would be in contact with a central planner. Assassination and overthrow cells were developed in the Cairo districts of Shubra, Abdeen, Quba Bridge, and Alexandria. The cells had recruited a handful of sailors into the workshops, and the Egyptian Navy was prepared to smuggle terrorists out of Alexandria. Three hundred persons connected with the cells were discovered in Cairo, Asyut, and El-Minia, and major concentrations of Al-Jihad cells were located in the Cairo slums of Bulaq.

Lieutenant Colonel Abdul-Latif (Abood) Al-Zummur. Al-Zummur, an Egyptian Military Intelligence officer, was 35 years old. His reason for killing Sadat was part of a bigger plan to create an uprising in Egypt’s capital and three other major cities. He told investigators that he had met Faraj in August 1980 and had spent a year immersed in ideological discussions and readings to define his position on (violent) jihad. Faraj had given him a copy of his booklet, “The Missing Obligation,” and they discussed the mechanics of how to foment a violent revolution within the Egyptian military. (8) Although Al-Zummur was steeped in ideology, he was a tactical planner at heart.

Al-Zummur’s confession showed a detailed level of sophisticated planning. To ensure a successful coup attempt, the plan included several key locations including the buildings of the Ministry of Defense, Cairo Television and Radio stations, the Central Security headquarters, and the Ministry of Interior.

Al-Zummur explained how killing the minister of the interior, the defense and foreign affairs minister, and the head of Central Security would send the command and control structure into chaos. He indicated that killing Sadat while he was in the reviewing stand was vital because Sadat would be surrounded by his key ministers and officials whose deaths would disable the Egyptian government. He also advocated the simultaneous killing of communist leader Khalid Moihiddin to eliminate any chance for a leftist takeover. Al-Zummur had planned to inform the public of a new Islamic government in Egypt during the chaos.

Al-Zummur formed a majlis alshura consisting of himself, Al-Maghribi, and Faraj. Their tasks were to be divided as follows:

* Faraj would handle recruitment through ideology.

* Al-Maghribi would handle the training of recruits in topography, martial arts, security procedures, and weapons training.

* Al-Zummur would handle popular uprising tactics and the targeting of key leaders for assassination.

The terrorists robbed Coptic Christian jewelers to help finance their operations. Al-Zummur monitored the movement of politically active communists and Christian leaders because he was concerned that they would use the chaos to foment a separate insurgency. Cleric Omar Abdul Rahman (in U.S. custody since 1993 for the World Trade Center bombing) was responsible for issuing the fatwa (religious sanction) that allowed the attack on Coptic Christian jewelers and authorized the killing of Egyptian political leaders.

Al-Zummur, who was using non-commissioned officers sympathetic to his cause, detailed his plans of a raid on the armory at Al-Maza Air Base. He told of a plan to set in motion an elaborate media campaign by using underground pamphlets and audio cassette tapes to announce the coming of an Islamic revolt.

Following Sadat’s assassinations, the following items were found in Al-Zummur’s apartment:

* Codebooks used to send encrypted communications to various cells throughout Egypt.

* A copy of Khomeini’s 1963 book, Islamic Governance. (9)

* Press clippings that detailed the movements of Egypt’s major National Democratic Party figures, which enabled him to predict the movement of Egyptian parliamentarians and ministers.

* A listing of noncommissioned officers and 1st lieutenants, who Al-Zummur could use as operatives or rely on to carry out unquestioned orders.

* Eleven cassette tapes of Islamic clerical speeches by Abdul-Hameed Kishk and Salah Abu Ismail.

* Twenty-three texts on Islamic fundamentalist theories by Islamic militant ideologues.

* A copy of Mao Tse Tsung’s book on guerrilla warfare.

* Pamphlets fomenting violent revolutions and civil disorder.

* Texts on martial arts.

* A collection of Israeli, Soviet-made, and local weapons.

Religious Clashes

In June 1981, government forces cracked down on Christian and Muslim violence. The assassins saw the religious clashes as a sign that they were to violently overthrow the government and to reestablish the Lord’s laws. Faraj viewed Egypt’s Christians as plotting to establish a separate state in the Southern Egyptian province of Qina and looked on their collection plates was a means of financing their vision. To him Christian evangelism was a threat to Islam. He labeled any Muslim who did not agree with his vision as a munafiqoon (hypocrite).

Today, Faraj’s book still offers important ideology, as does the works of Sayyid Qutb, Bin Taymiyyah, and al-Qaeda ideologues. Ayman A1-Zawahiri’s volumes on 21st-Century Islamic militancy are discredited by fellow Arabs and Muslims as a perverted and intolerant version of Islamic history.

The transcripts offer the means, methods, and ways in which militants have created armed terrorists cells. Although the Islamists failed in their coup attempt in Egypt, they are persistent and will try again.


(1.) The transcripts tell much about the Islamic militant mindset and should be analyzed by militant and law enforcement officials who are fighting the war on terrorism.

(2.) Mousa Sabry. Al-Sadat Al-Haqiqa Wa Al-Astura (Sadat, the truth and his legacy) (Cairo: Modern Egyptian Library, 1985).

(3.) Taqi Bin Taymiyyah’s Al-Siyasa Al-Sharriyah (The Perfect Polity) is a central focus of Wahhabism and also the core ideology of Islamic militant groups including al-Qaeda. The text excommunicates those Muslims who are not ruling according to God’s Laws and stipulates that it is up to the religious establishment to determine who is worthy of ruling Muslims.

(4.) The term “Islamic government” is a nebulous concept. The words of Muhammad and the Quran offer little in telling Muslims how they should govern themselves. On Muhammad’s death, the Muslims reverted to the pre-Islamic concept of the caliphate, in which elders gathered and a consensus was reached among tribes on a singular leader. Many Muslims confuse the yearning for fair. honest, and representative governance with Islamic government What many want is a ruler who rules with morals and not one that oppresses, robs the nation of resources, or neglects the social welfare of the population.

(5.) Publishing information not available.

(6.) The idea of condemning Egyptian society and government as being in a state of apostasy was articulated in the early 1960s by radical Egyptian theorist Sayid Qutb who was hanged by Nasser in 1966 and whose booklet Maa’lim fee AI-Tareeq (Guideposts along the road) is a staple of Islamic militant theory today.

(7.) See Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, “Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen: The Muslim Brotherhood,” Military Review (Jul-Aug 2003): 26-31, for more information.

(8.) Mohammed Adel Salam Faraj, Al-Farida Al-Ghaiba (The missing obligation) (publisher unknown).

(9.) Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Governance (publisher not given).

Lieutenant Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, Military Sealift Command, U.S. Navy, is a Middle East-North Africa Foreign Area Officer. He received a B.B.A. from the University of Mississippi, an M.B.A. and M.H.S.A from the University of Arkansas, and an M.S. from the Joint Military Intelligence College. He works at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He has served in various positions in the continental United States, Bosnia, Liberia, and the Middle East.


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