Extremists Blamed for Sadat Killing

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"Extremists Blamed for Sadat Killing"

Newspaper article

By: David B. Ottaway

Date: October 8, 1981

Source: "Extremist Blamed for Sadat Killing," as published by the Washington Post.

About the Author: David B. Ottaway joined the Washington Post in 1971. He served for over twenty years as a national security reporter and foreign correspondent in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, before moving to the Post's investigative unit in 1994.


Mohammad Anwar El-Sadat, born on December 25, 1918, joined Gamal Abdel Nasser in forming the Egyptian Association of Free Officers in 1938. The organization later helped bring down King Farouk and put Nasser into power. Upon Nasser's death, Sadat succeeded him as President of Egypt in October 1970. More moderate than Nasser and popular with the masses, Sadat became the first Arab leader to risk his political career by talking directly with Israeli officials. In 1977, Sadat participated in the Camp David accords that recognized the State of Israel. Two years later, Sadat angered much of the Arab world by signing a peace treaty with Israel. On October 6, 1981, he died along with ten others in an attack by Muslim religious fundamentalists.

Anwar Sadat and the other members of the Egyptian Association of Free Officers joined with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow King Farouk of Egypt in 1954. Conflict then broke out between the Brotherhood and the secular, modernizing military junta led by Nasser. When an October 23, 1954 assassination of Nasser by the Brotherhood failed, Nasser executed six Brotherhood leaders, jailed 4,000 followers, and banned the organization. Sadat, who held a number of posts in Nasser's government before succeeding him as President of Egypt, pardoned Brotherhood members upon taking office and allowed the organization to participate in elections.

By the late 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood had become the largest legal source of opposition to Sadat's free trade and investment policies as well as to his policy of seeking peace with Israel. In 1977, Egypt had become the first Arab state to recognize Israel when Sadat signed the Camp David accords. For his efforts to establish peace in the Middle East, Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1979, Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel that called for the gradual return of the Sinai to Egypt. Instead of pacifying Muslim fundamentalists by acquiring the Sinai, Sadat angered them by negotiating with the Jews. Many in the Arab word condemned Sadat, especially after Israel delayed cooperating in a resolution of the Palestinian problem.

In the last month of his life, Sadat took sudden action against opposition elements in Egypt. He spoke publicly of a plot to undermine his government or take his life, planned by Muslim fundamentalists, and ordered the arrest of about 1,500 people.

On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat participated in a public review of the Egyptian armed forces on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Suddenly, a vehicle veered out of the marching column and uniformed men stormed the platform where Sadat and his colleagues and guests stood. The soldiers threw hand grenades and fired machine guns into the audience. In the wake of the violence, there were thirty-eight wounded and eleven dead, including Sadat.


Egypt's defense minister said today that an "isolated" group of four men led by a Moslem extremist soldier carried out yesterday's bloody assassination of President Anwar Sadat at a suburban Cairo parade ground.

As the government moved swiftly to carry out an orderly transfer of power, Defense Minister Abdel Hamlim Abu Ghazala, wearing bandages on his right arm and left ear from the attack, told the National Assembly that the men who cut down Sadat with automatic weapons fire had acted on their own, without outside help.

"There was no coup," he told the National Assembly in a trembling voice. "It is an individual group and they are not even related to any other group or country."

Abu Ghazala said only four persons were involved in the shooting, but many eyewitnesses reported seeing at least eight, not including the driver of the truck carrying the men. The attackers, dressed as soldiers, were part of a military parade being viewed by Sadat and other dignitaries.

"One of the soldiers was a Moslem fanatic, and he did it. That's all," said Abu Ghazala.

Western diplomatic sources lent credence to reports circulating widely in the capital that the assailants were Moslem extremists belonging to the secret organization known as Takfir wa Hijra (Repentant and Holy Flight), which was involved in earlier terrorist activities against the Sadat regime.

"They the authorities are increasingly convinced, not just from guessing but interrogation that this is the group," one source said.

In addition to having a strong presence among Egyptian youth and on campuses here, Takfir wa Hijra is known to have some following within the Egyptian military, although the exact extent of its support has never been clear. Today, unofficial Egyptian sources and Western diplomats echoed the assertion of U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. that the group was "centered, not exclusively, in certain military units."

Ghazala, however, sought to downplay in his remarks to the assembly any implication that high-level elements within the Army were involved in the assassination. And though the assailants were clearly influential enough to gain access to the parade and ammunition for their weapons, the absence of additional movements toward a coup indicated that they did not have the power to direct the bulk of the Army.

Reuter quoted Abu Ghazala as telling Egyptian reporters 2nd Lt. Khaled Attallah led the assassins, having given his assigned men a vacation and recruited in their place two civilians with past military service plus another officer on inactive reserve.

While investigations of the assassins continued, National Assembly Speaker Sufi Abu Taleb was formally sworn in as interim president of the republic and the assembly overwhelmingly voted to endorse the ruling party's nomination of Vice President Hosni Mubarak as Sadat's permanent successor. An official statement said a national referendum would be held next Tuesday to approve the decision. Thus, if all goes according to schedule, Mubarak, 52, will take over by the middle of next week as the third president of Egypt's republic since the overthrow of the monarchy here in 1952.

At the same time, the government set the state funeral for the slain president at noon Saturday amid announcements that among those attending the ceremony will be Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford, and Richard M. Nixon, and a delegation of the Reagan administration headed by Haig.

The plans of three former U.S. presidents to attend the funeral underlined Sadat's importance in the balance of power in the Middle East and the global implications of the quick barrage of grenades and gunfire that killed him.

Both Egyptian officials and Western diplomatic sources said the government's main objective in the present crisis was to carry out a calm transfer of authority and maintain the appearance of order, stability and continuity of policy in the face of widespread concern abroad about the nation's future direction.

Those same diplomatic sources said there was no evidence so far that the assassination team, which launched its attack from a military truck passing in front of the reviewing stand where Sadat and much of the rest of the Egyptian power elite was seated, intended to wipe out the entire leadership or overthrow the political system built by Sadat over the past 11 years.

However, many officials around Sadat were struck by the fire, and reports about the number of killed and injured continued to vary throughout the day. By late tonight, the government had still not provided an official list.

The number of those believed to be dead dropped from nine to eight or seven with the news that Fawzi Abdel Hafez, Sadat's private secretary, had not died as first reported and that the North Korean ambassador, one of a number of foreigners hit in the spray of bullets from the assailants' guns, was still alive.

The death toll may still rise, however, as a number of the roughly 30 wounded persons are still in critical condition.

Initial reports yesterday had indicated that another Islamic fundamentalist group, the Moslem Brotherhood, was probably connected to the assassination. Both the Brotherhood and Takfir wa Hijra were prime targets of Sadat's massive crackdown on religious extremists and opposition elements last month, in which more than 1,500 persons were arrested.

Egyptian and Western diplomatic sources ruled out the likelihood today that a third group, based abroad and led by dissident retired Army chief of staff Saadeddin Shazli, was responsible for the shooting. Yesterday, anonymous Arabs calling Western news agencies in Beirut claimed the assassination had been carried out by Shazli's group, which is backed by Libya and Syria and has been referred to by several names, including the Egyptian National Front and the Organization for the Liberation of Egypt.

Local press reports said security authorities have captured three or four of the assailants and had killed one or two others.

One report said three of the six were military officers and that one of them, a major, had had a brother arrested in the crackdown on Moslem extremists last month.

Western diplomats and analysts continued to puzzle today over the absence so far of any major public demonstration of grief over Sadat's assassination, in contrast to the dramatic displays that greeted the death of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in September 1970.

The day began at 5 a.m. with chanting from the Koran blaring through loudspeakers at the city's mosques, and incense sellers wandered from cafe to cafe, trailing thick fumes But the incense was meant to purify the air for an upcoming religious holiday, not commemorate Sadat's funeral, and Egyptians interviewed in the street, while expressing shock and dismay at what had happened, seemed too confused or uncertain to react more demonstratively.

Dassim Khatib, owner of a pharmacy in downtown Cairo, called the "accident" absolutely terrible. "The streets are calm," he said, "but everyone is listening and talking about what is going to happen next."

Everywhere today in this sprawling Nile Valley city of twelve million, people could be seen huddled around in small groups, looking at the often spectacular pictures of the assassination in the local press. Faces were somber and sometimes tense, but few tears were being shed.

In fact, only in the National Assembly, where deputies gave emotional eulogies to the slain president, was there any real sign of emotion over Sadat's death. Many deputies had tears in their eyes.

Elsewhere, business was very much as usual. The markets and butcher shops were filled with customers busy preparing for the four-day Moslem holiday of Id Al Adha. Banks were open, and there was no change in exchange rates, official or black-market, despite the jittery reaction on world currency markets.

At the fashionable Gezirah, a playground of the Egyptian middle class where Sadat had much support, there was an enormous crowd of people going about their business as usual.

Western diplomats were at a loss to explain the relative lack of reaction, but some ascribed it to general numbness, the upcoming holiday or simply uncertainty about what was going to happen next.

"Sadat was clearly out in front in a lot of things he was doing," said one diplomat, referring to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and economic liberalization measures.


Although the Muslim Brotherhood received initial blame for the attack on Sadat, Islamic Jihad or Munazzamat al Jihad, carried out the assassination. This Sunni Muslim terrorist group, with several thousand dedicated members, has been active in Egypt since the 1970s and is an offshoot of Tahrir al Islami, which broke off from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad is not directly connected with the Shiite Muslim Islamic Jihad of Lebanon (Hezbollah) or the Islamic Jihad in the Hijaz that targets the Saudi Arabia monarchy, but it has cooperated with Islamic Jihad of Palestine. The Egyptian Jihad seeks the overthrow of the Egyptian government and the replacement of this government with an Islamic state. Based in Cairo, the group reportedly has sympathizers and possible cells in the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

The assassination of Sadat by Islamic Jihad was intended to derail the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. To a large extent, Islamic Jihad succeeded. Sadat's death dramatically slowed momentum toward peace in the Middle East. The Sadat killing also demonstrated that secular states could not weaken Islamic fundamentalist groups by cooperating with them. Islamic fundamentalist organizations were subsequently seen as powerful and dangerous forces. The next significant steps toward peace in the region would not occur for another decade.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Islamic Jihad continued to concentrate its attacks on high-level, high-profile Egyptian government officials, including cabinet ministers. It claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi in August 1993 and of Prime Minister Atef Sedky in November 1993. Islamic Jihad then shifted its focus to the United States, in retaliation for American assistance in the capture of Islamic Jihad members in Albania, Azerbaijan, and the United Kingdom.



Finkelstone, Joseph. Anwar Sadat: Visionary Who Dared. Portland: Frank Cass 1996.

Guenena, Nemet. The "Jihad": An Islamic Alternative in Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1986.

Heikal, Mohammed. Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat. London: André Deutsch, 1983.

Audio and Visual Media

ABC News. The Assassination of Anwar Sadat. MPI Home Video, 1989.