Special Section: Terrorist Attacks on America
Updated: February 2008
Other Names Used
Founder & Founding Date
Area of Operations
Mohammed Abd al-Salam Farraj
Many of the ideas put forward in "al-Faridah al-Gha'ibah", however, were not new to existing militant Islamist thinking. Farraj borrowed heavily from the work of two men in particular: the medieval Hanbali jurist Ahmed Ibn Taymiyya, and the prominent Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb. Ibn Taymiyya, who witnessed the demise of the Abbasid dynasty in the 13th century following the Mongol invasion, attributed the decline of Muslim military might to society's perceived deviation from "authentic" Islam. In Taymiyya's view, social and political ills can only be solved through the purification of Islam. His principal contribution to the ideology of al-Jihad, however, came with the issuing of a fatwa (legal ruling) that set a precedent for the practice of takfir (excommunication). Although the Mongol rulers converted to Islam in 1295 AD, their failure to implement the shari'a, according to Taymiyya, made them kufar (apostates). Moreover, Taymiyyah also viewed violent jihad against these apostates as the sixth pillar of Islam and a personal duty for every able-bodied Muslim.
Sayyid Qutb, a prominent and radical member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966, paved the way both for al-Jihad and for the modern day jihadist movement as a whole. Qutb's ideology marked a radical break with the incrementalist approach of Egyptian Islamists who sought to establish an Islamic state through da'wa (proselyzation) and participation in the political system. Qutb characterized modern Egyptian society as jahiliyya (pre-Islamic Arabia), a time of ignorance and unbelief. According to Qutb, the destruction of the jahili order was "an imperative that all Muslims must strive to implement or impose immediately." Violent jihad was not only Qutb's preferred means for achieving this end, but (like Ibn Taymiyya) a duty that was incumbent on all believers. He justified this position by arguing that while Egyptians were overwhelmingly Muslim, the fact that Egypt's leaders ruled by 'heretical' secular laws (akham al-kufr), and not by Shari'a law rendered them apostates. Therefore, armed struggle was necessary to bring down the government, and those who refused to participate in the jihad were also deemed apostates, and subject to takfir. Like Qutb, Farraj believed that the "extermination" of Egypt's rulers was the first priority. While acknowledging the perceived malevolence of the infidel West, he maintained that "to fight an enemy who is near is more important than to fight an enemy who is far."
Col. Abbud Abd el-Latif al-Zumor
A number of political developments precipitated al-Jihad's decision to take radical action in the fall of 1981, culminating in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Saddat. For a number of years members of al-Jihad had been outraged by Saddat's failure to keep his earlier promises to implement the shari'a. A 1979 law granting women more civil rights further earned Saddat the ire of Islamists. Finally, Saddat's visit to Israel and subsequent signing of the Camp David accord in 1978 bolstered his image as a villainous "apostate" worthy of death among militant Islamists.
On September 2, 1981, Egyptian president Anwar Saddat issued a decree calling for the arrest of 1,536 Islamist militants for "undermining the unity of the nation and its security." Mohammed al-Islambouli (Khalid al-Islambouli's brother) was among those listed, as well as a large number of Islamist ulema including Karam Zuhdi, the founder of al-Jama'a al-Islamiya.
Lt. Khalid al-Islambouli
The plan to assassinate Saddat was initially proposed to Farraj by Khalid al-Islambouli in late September 1981. Khalid al-Islambouli had been put in command of an armored transport vehicle that was to take part in a military parade commemorating Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 War, and he saw this as a rare opportunity to get close to Saddat. The details of the operation, and its feasibility, were discussed and agreed upon by the leaders of al-Jihad during a meeting held on September 26, 1981. Col. al-Zumor opposed the timing of the Saddat assassination for practical considerations. He argued that the group was not yet ready to instigate a full blown revolt against the government and that more time was necessary to recruit additional members. However, al-Zumor's objections were overruled by the majlis ideologues.
On October 6, 1981, as al-Islambouli's vehicle approached Saddat's reviewing stand, he and his accomplices opened fire and advanced toward the president. As Saddat fell, al-Islambouli reportedly shouted "I have killed Pharaoh!" Despite the immense impact of the assassination, killing Saddat was intended to constitute only one element in a larger multi-pronged strategy. The entire operation planned by al-Zumor included seizing control of the Army's operation room and the Central Security headquarters, along with the Radio and Television and Telephone Exchange buildings, where a communiqué would be broadcast announcing the beginning of the "Islamic Revolution." According to al-Zumor's plan, on the same day as the attacks were occurring in Cairo, the Upper Egyptian branch of al-Jihad would establish military control over the city of Asyut in central Egypt, from where they would advance north. The uprising in Asyut, however, did not occur for another two days and was quickly, and violently, suppressed by government security forces. Al-Zumor's elaborate plan had failed.
The assassination of Anwar Saddat
Throughout the middle and late 1980s, al-Jihad was characterized by a division of loyalty between al-Zumor and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence among the group's members had grown dramatically during his time in jail. Al-Zumor retained symbolic leadership, while his deputy, Magdi Salem, exercised de facto control from outside prison. After being acquitted of having been involved in the assassination plot and released from jail in 1984, al-Zawahiri pushed to unify the remaining members of al-Jihad and continue the group's struggle against the Egyptian government. He did not remain in Egypt for long, however, moving to Saudi Arabia for a brief period and then on to Peshawar, Pakistan in 1986. In Peshawar he worked with Abdullah Azzam in facilitating the recruitment, training, and deployment of the Arab mujahideen to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. It was also at this time that he established a personal and professional relationship with Usama bin Ladin. In 1987 he declared the formation of Tanzim al-Jihad, or the "Jihad Group," appointing his close friend, Dr. al-Sayyid Imam Abdel Azeez, as amir. Over the next two years al-Zawahiri succeeded in recruiting many of the Egyptian jihadis loyal to al-Zumor, who were then sent to gain military experience in Afghanistan. 
Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri
Al-Zawahiri's decision to reinvigorate the Islamist revolution coincided with the escalation of violence being carried out by a revitalized al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya. While al-Jama'a focused their attacks on symbols of Western influence and tourist sites—which al-Zawahiri viewed as "politically counterproductive"—Tanzim al-Jihad reinitiated armed operations against the Egyptian "apostate" government in 1992, focusing on targeted assassinations of high profile political figures. Three assassination attempts on Egyptian officials are known to be the work of Tanzim; the targets of those attempts were the information minister in April 1993, a former interior minister in August 1993, and a former prime minister in December 1993.
Tanzim's network based in Egypt was decimated by President Mubarak's heavy handed response to militant Islamist groups. Tanzim was dealt a catastrophic blow in October 1993, when authorities seized a computer that held the identities of the vast majority of Tanzim's cadres; the same operation also resulted in the arrest of Ahmed Salama Mabruk, Zawahiri's second-in-command. Furthermore, although a minority of Egyptians had been sympathetic to militant Islamists in the 1970s, any popular support for the violent activities of these groups had evaporated by the mid-1990s. The "unintended" killing of a schoolgirl named Shayma during the attempted assassination of former Prime Minister Atef Sidqi in December 1993, in particular, galvanized public condemnation of al-Jihad. Following this killing, Al-Zawahiri made a concerted effort to distance himself from the operation that killed Shayma, and the general moral of al-Jihad's members appeared to have been negatively impacted by the killing. The absence of a sympathetic base, combined with financial difficulties and operational blunders, prompted al-Zawahiri to issue an internal memo in 1995 instructing his deputies to suspend armed operations in Egypt.
[Note: For al-Jihad activities post 1995, please see the al-Qa'ida profile]
While al-Jihad upheld a relatively non-selective, "open door" policy toward new members, sensitive information was only given to those who had undergone extensive observation and testing. In total, five or six cells operated in the Cairo area, with the Upper Egyptian members maintaining clandestine groups alongside al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya's pre-existing network.
Abbud Abd el-Latif al-Zumor grew up in the Imbaba district of Giza, Egypt, where he was born in 1946. A successful student in school, al-Zumor joined the military, where he became a war hero for his service during the 1973 war with Israel. During his involvement in al-Jihad, al-Zumor was a colonel in the intelligence branch of the Egyptian army.
Khalid al-Islambouli was born in Mallwai (a small town outside of Minya) in 1958. He was from a religious and highly-regarded family. His father worked as a legal consultant, while his uncle was a retired judge. A good student, his high baccalaureate marks entitled him to enter medical school. He joined the military instead to become a pilot. After graduating from the Military Academy with honors, Khalid joined al-Jihad in early 1981.
Ayman al-Zawahiri was born in 1951 in Cairo, Egypt. One of his grandfathers was a rector of al-Azhar, the center of Sunni Islamic scholarship in the Arab world, and the other president of Cairo University. Al-Zawahiri was "studious and introverted as a boy," and was described as "tender and soft-hearted" by his schoolteachers. However, he was also a militant Islamist from a young age. After the 1966 hanging of Sayyid Qutb, al-Zawahiri formed an underground jihadist cell at the age of fifteen. In 1974 he graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University. Al-Zawahiri had an office in the wealthy Cairo neighborhood, Maadi, where he practiced medicine prior to, and during, his involvement in Farraj's al-Jihad.
Prepared by Sammy Salama and Joe-Ryan Bergoch