Portrait of a Jihadist: The First Generation
One night in 1999 during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, a time of fasting and abstinence, I found myself in Syedeh Zeinab, a historic, run-down, and always crowded neighborhood of Cairo. I was headed for a late-night meeting with a man named Kamal el-Said Habib. I knew him only by reputation. Many of those concerned about events in the Middle East did. He was the former leader of a wing within al-Jihad, “armed struggle,” a paramilitary organization that had played a pivotal role in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Al-Jihad’s goals were chillingly straightforward: to decapitate Egypt’s secular state, one of the oldest in the world, and replace it with an Islamic polity based exclusively on shariah, or Islamic religious law. Kamal was a key figure in the first generation of Muslim militants, who in the 1970s had planted the seeds of jihad throughout Muslim lands. If I wanted to locate the starting point of the jihadist movement, I needed to find Kamal el-Said Habib.
My own journey into jihadism thus began on that trip, two years before September 11 and everything that has followed it. “Jihadist” and “jihadism” had not quite yet entered the vocabulary of ordinary Americans, but I was determined to find out more about what was happening outside of most Western perspectives. However, once I had finally managed to arrange a meeting with Kamal, his friends and associates cautioned me. The man I would encounter, they said, was no longer the firebrand who once had dedicated his life to turning the world upside down. He and his generation had learned the hard way what happened when you tried to Islamize society through force. The bloodshed that had resulted was horrific; there were executions and lengthy prison sentences (Kamal had spent ten years in an Egyptian prison); families were destroyed. He and other former “warriors of God,” had now, I was told, reassessed their old ways. They were charting a new course, one committed not to violent revolution but to political persuasion and da’wa, or religious calling. They were older now. They were wiser.
What I hoped to learn from Kamal was how deeply this reinvention had taken hold. I found myself fascinated by his story, for it seemed simultaneously a reflection of and contradiction of what was happening in the Arab world.
Kamal was born to a lower-middle-class family in Deemshalt, a large village with a population of thirty thousand located in Markaz Dikranis, in the Daqahlyya province in the Nile delta, sixty or so miles north of Cairo. His father traded in agricultural products, catering to the needs of the villagers who depended on seasonal agriculture for their livings. Kamal graduated from Cairo University in 1979 at the top of his class, with a degree in political science. Of his nine brothers and sisters, Kamal’s future seemed the most assured. Charismatic and ambitious, he could have trained to become an academic, a writer, or a lawyer, rising above the comfortable though fairly modest standard of living of his parents and grandparents. But neither money nor the allure of ascending the ladder in jahili, “un-Islamic,” institutions appealed to him. When he was called up for military service, he rejected the rank of a junior officer, preferring to remain a simple soldier. His goal was to replace jahiliya with hakimiya, “God’s sovereignty,” to bring an end to Egypt’s moral and social decline.
By the time he graduated, Kamal and other Islamic activists were prepared to rise up in arms against kufr, “unbelief,” and from the late 1970s until the end of the 1990s they waged an all-out struggle. They saw themselves as a vanguard that would restore Islam as a complete way of life. Thanks to Kamal’s al-Jihad, renamed Tanzim al-Jihad, and al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, the largest jihadist organization in the Muslim world, a devastating war took place inside Egypt between 1992 and 1997. Though little recognized by the outside world, it caused billions of dollars in damage to the economy and resulted in thousands of deaths. By the end of the 1990s the war was over; the Egyptian government had won. Security services in Egypt and Algeria had killed as many as ten thousand militants. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned, their families and sympathizers fired from their jobs and denied even the most minimal social support. Their mosques, bookstores, publishing offices, and papers had been closed. Most conceded defeat and declared a unilateral “ceasefire,” a code word for surrender. Throughout the 1990s Kamal was a voice of moderation, calling on his brethren and former colleagues to lay down their arms and negotiate with the local authorities.
A determined minority chose to keep fighting. But rather than continue their resistance against the entrenched Arab governments, Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, took the fight outside Egypt. Bin Laden and Zawahiri declared war against the world’s last remaining superpower, the United States, and its allies, focusing upon the “the head of the snake,” the “Great Satan” itself, with the hope of resurrecting militant jihadism among the rank and file. Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda was therefore at odds with Kamal and with the great majority of jihadists, who had by then rejected violence as a means of gaining political power. The jihadist civil war had started, one that would spread throughout the Muslim world and determine the future of the entire movement. It is not by happenstance that it all started in Egypt. With seventy million people the most populous Arab state and the Muslim world’s cultural and intellectual epicenter, Egypt was the birthplace of the modern jihadist movement, and remains to this day the best place to understand its complexities and locate its fault lines. The movement’s founding fathers were almost entirely Egyptian, as were the authors of many of its defining documents. At its height, al-Jama’a al-Islamiya’s membership was estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Along with Zawahiri, Egyptians—Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri and Mohammed Atef (also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri)—had founded Al Qaeda with bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s shura, “ruling council,” which constituted bin Laden’s inner circle, was dominated by Egyptians, who supplied organizational skills and military expertise.
Egypt is also home to the first mainstream Islamist organization, Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a school teacher turned ideologue. Initially, al-Banna, whose outlook was permeated with the teachings of Sufism—a philosophical, mystical, and inner-directed school of Muslim thought—intended the Brotherhood to be a youth organization aimed at moral and social reform through education and propaganda. However, it soon evolved into the largest political opposition group in Egypt. Al-Banna, a student of Rashid Rida, a well-known early-twentieth century Egyptian Islamic reformer, called for the revival and reformation of Islam and the restoration