Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource August 10, 2022

The founding head of al-Qaeda is dead. But radicalism continues to thrive in Egypt.

By Shahira Amin

When US President Joe Biden announced the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al- Zawahiri on August 1, his family members in Cairo received news of his demise with shock and dismay. 

The family—who has lived next door to me in the residential Cairo neighborhood of Maadi for more than twenty years—insisted that they have had no contact with Zawahiri since the mid-eighties. The Zawahiri family is now mourning quietly, recognizing that any public display of grief over Zawahiri’s death can provoke unwarranted harassment from security agencies.

While Zawahiri’s death is indeed a win for the Biden administration, Zawahiri and the international terrorist group he led had ceased to be a security threat to the United States long before his death. During his eleven-year tenure at the helm of al-Qaeda, following Osama bin Laden’s assassination by US Special Forces in Pakistan in 2011, Zawahiri had done little more than wag his finger, issuing empty threats that caused him to be ridiculed within extremist circles. He had clearly become irrelevant, losing control over jihadist affiliates and groups like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.       

As al-Qaeda’s co-founder and chief strategist, Zawahiri is believed to have masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States as well as other terrorist attacks elsewhere that targeted Americans.

Egypt’s reaction

Not surprisingly, news of the long overdue killing of Zawahiri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists whose whereabouts had long remained a mystery, has been received with elation and relief in the United States.  

However, that has not been the case in Zawahiri’s native Egypt, where the response to news of his death at the hands of the US Central Intelligence Agency has been fairly subdued, limited only to reactions from a handful of social media activists. 

Some critics condemned the US usage of drones as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty, while others suggested that it was a means by the Biden administration to deflect attention from economic woes and other domestic challenges. 

Unlike Saudi Arabia, which led the official response, issuing a Foreign Ministry statement welcoming the killing of Zawahiri, Egypt has chosen to remain silent. Over a week after the news broke, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has yet to issue an official statement on the killing of the Egyptian-born physician-turned-militant.  

The silence is bewildering considering that Zawahiri was accused of involvement in the 1981 killing of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Additionally, he was implicated in several terrorist attacks meant to overthrow the “un-Islamic” Hosni Mubarak regime, including the 1997 Luxor massacre—Egypt’s deadliest terror attack—that left sixty-two people—mostly tourists—dead, and a 1993 car bombing targeting then-Prime Minister Atef Sedki (who escaped unscathed), which killed a schoolgirl and injured at least nine people.

Zawahiri was detained twice in Egypt for his ideology: once, at the age of fifteen for joining the Muslim Brotherhood and, a second time, on suspicion of his implication in the assassination of Sadat in 1981 at the hands of Islamic Jihad. His detention and torture while in prison are probably what led to his radicalization.        

Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, has so far been the sole institution to publicly react to the news, releasing a statement published on its Facebook page, predicting internal tumult within al-Qaeda and the further weakening of the terrorist organization following Zawahiri’s death. 

“In addition to liquidating terrorist leaders, US counter-terrorism efforts should, in parallel, target extremist thinking and seek to eliminate the sources and social, economic, and political causes of fundamentalism,” suggested Al Azhar.

The statement is ironic coming from an institution whose clerics have been accused by Egypt’s liberals of spreading fundamentalism in the predominantly-Muslim society. Ahmed El Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar has, on several occasions, been publicly rebuked by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his intransigence in implementing the latter’s proposals to “reform” Islam.  

Despite the irony, Al Azhar’s suggestion shouldn’t be overlooked by the Biden administration. Instead of trying to eliminate the terrorist threat by assassinating a has-been like Zawahiri or dismantling an obsolete terror group like al-Qaeda, the Biden administration should shift its focus to combatting the spread of extremist ideas. 

Shifting to extremist ideology 

Discrimination against Coptic Christians remains systematic and widespread in Egypt. Blasphemy convictions against those perceived to have insulted Islam are also on the rise in the conservative society. It is clear that Sisi’s security crackdown and the unprecedented level of repression have only served to fuel radicalization—particularly among youth. Egypt’s overcrowded prisons, where torture is reportedly rampant, are becoming recruiting grounds for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in much the same way that US prisons in Iraq became training camps for ISIS jihadists following the US invasion.

While Cairo says it needs the $1.3 billion it receives annually as foreign assistance from the United States mostly for counter-terrorism efforts in the restive Sinai Peninsula, the US would do well to offer Egyptian security forces training and guidance on effective counter-insurgency tactics rather than arming them with more weapons. 

Use of excessive force and heavy-handed practices, such as the demolition of homes of North Sinai residents and the latter’s forced evictions, have alienated the local population, whose support is key to achieving victory against ISIS militants waging an insurgency that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police since 2013.  

Counter-terrorism collaboration with Egypt should aim at transforming the country’s dysfunctional education system through teachers’ training and modernizing school curricula; school textbooks need to be revised to ensure that they do not contain narratives that glorify jihadists or incite violence. 

Equally important is the media content, which often contains hate speech against minorities and those with opposing or unconventional views.  

Engaging faith leaders in the fight against extremism is also vital. The training of preachers can make a huge difference, enabling Al Azhar clerics to use their sermons to preach tolerance and inclusion instead of promoting extremist ideas and violence.     

Meanwhile, the diminishing space for freedom of expression and freedom of speech is another cause for US concern. Hundreds of websites are blocked and dozens of social media users have been jailed for critical posts published on their Facebook and other social media accounts. The stifling of free expression and continued detention of the so-called “Tik Tok girl” on absurd charges of human trafficking is just one of the flagrant examples of draconian policies that need to be reversed.

Ensuring that human rights and democratic principles—guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution—are respected can go a long way in safeguarding society against the influence of extremist forces.  

Moreover, the Biden administration should capitalize on the opportunity of the ongoing national dialogue to press for the release of political prisoners. While dozens of detainees have been granted amnesty in recent months thanks to the reactivation of the presidential pardon committee, the number of those released is a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated sixty thousand prisoners languishing behind bars, putting them at risk of radicalization, as discussed before.  

Finally, the United States should ensure that the bulk of USAID, which is part of the foreign aid package to Egypt, goes to improving the lives of underprivileged Egyptians. The surge in food prices triggered by the Ukraine war is taking its toll on Egyptians, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. With one-third of Egyptians living below the poverty line, the risks of political and social unrest—and religious fanaticism—are growing. There is no question that destitution and lack of economic opportunities drive people to despair, rendering them easy targets for extremist recruitment.       

Rather than worry about the unlikely prospect of al-Qaeda rebuilding under a Zawahiri successor to wage new attacks against the United States—the current trend among jihadist groups is to focus on local fights, which have proven to be more profitable and less costly for them than striking distant enemies—the Biden administration should rethink its policy with countries in the Middle East and North Africa to come up with effective measures to fight extremist ideology and tackle the root causes of terrorism. The founding head of al-Qaeda is no longer, but it’s important not to forget that the terrorists that carried out 9/11 were born, raised, and radicalized in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.   

Shahira Amin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and an independent journalist based in Cairo. A former contributor to CNN’s Inside Africa, Amin has been covering the development in post-revolution Egypt for several outlets including Index on Censorship and Al-Monitor. Follow her on Twitter @sherryamin13.

Further reading

Image: FILE PHOTO: Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian linked to the al Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in an image supplied by Dawn newspaper November 10, 2001. Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Handout via REUTERS