hide captionAyman al-Zawahiri stands behind bars in an Egyptian court in 1982 during his trial as one of the alleged masterminds of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Ayman al-Zawahiri stands behind bars in an Egyptian court in 1982 during his trial as one of the alleged masterminds of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Thirty years ago, political violence in Egypt helped give birth to a movement that later became al-Qaida.
The man who would become al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was accused of helping to assassinate Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. Zawahiri was sentenced to three years in an Egyptian prison.
But the terrorist movement that got its start in the early days of the Mubarak regime also has been caught off guard by the revolution now under way in Egypt. And the mass protests against authoritarian governments in the Middle East may not end up helping al-Qaida.
Zawahiri In Egypt
Zawahiri made his world debut in an Egyptian courtroom. Early news footage captured Zawahiri shouting to the media covering the trial of Islamists accused of assassinating Sadat.
"We want to speak to the whole world. ... Who are we? We are Muslims. We are Muslims," Zawahiri chanted.
Zawahiri was implicated in the assassination — he allegedly helped smuggle in weapons that were used in the attack. And during the trial, he became the international spokesman for the group because he spoke English.
From a cage in the back of the courtroom, Zawahiri talked about the torture he and other prisoners suffered at the hands of Egyptian jailers.
"We suffered the severest inhuman treatment," he said. "They kicked us, they beat us."
Zawahiri talks about being beaten with electric cables, electrocution — and being attacked by dogs.
One of the world's foremost experts on Zawahiri is Lawrence Wright, who wrote a Pulitzer-Prize winning book about al-Qaida called The Looming Tower. It opens in Egypt.
"The key to Zawahiri's thinking was that the prisons were a great debating society," Wright says during an HBO special that grew out of his book. "You had all these radicals inside who were debating policies, and to understand Egyptian prisons is to understand the root of Islamic terror."
Which is why it is important to put what is happening in Egypt now in context.
Egyptians As A Force Of Their Own
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says prison time in Egypt not only set Zawahiri against the regime there, but also against the United States.
And he eventually passed those radical ideas on to Osama bin Laden, when they first met in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, at some level, Egypt helped create the terrorism problem the U.S. is fighting now.
Nelson says Egypt is once again playing a pivotal role — but a different kind.
"It is not an Islamist revolution, where we are doing this because of the al-Qaida narrative, because we want to get back at the West and undermine apostate regimes," he says. "They are doing this because they want jobs and they want to care and tend to their families — and that is inconsistent with al-Qaida's stock narrative."
The stock narrative that says the West is at war with Islam? Nelson suggests it is more complicated than that.
"This is a very interesting and crucial time for al-Qaida," Nelson says. "What it demonstrates is that the people in Egypt and the people in Tunisia and in other places do not need al-Qaida to bring about change in their country, and they don't need a third party to come in and facilitate violent action to bring down these governments."
Nelson says that while some people are criticizing the Obama administration for not seeing these demonstrations coming, he doesn't think al-Qaida was prepared for them either.