By Christopher Harper
My 9/11 story started 20 years before the attack on the World Trade Center.
On Sept. 11, 1981, President Anwar Sadat expelled me from Egypt because I reported about his troubles with Islamic fundamentalists.
After he signed a peace treaty with Israel, Sadat faced various threats from his fellow Arabs, but the most serious one came from the mosques in Egypt.
Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the “blind sheik,” issued a fatwa against Sadat, who imprisoned about 1,500 of the sheik’s followers from a group known as Al-Jama’s al-Islamiyya, or “The Islamic Group.”
As a reporter for ABC News in Cairo, I interviewed some of Abdel-Rahman’s followers, who began widespread demonstrations after the arrests in September 1981. At a news conference shortly after that, Sadat told me, “If this were not a democracy, I would have you shot!”
The next day, I was ushered to the airport, where I boarded an Egyptian Air flight to Rome. I was the only passenger.
Less than a month later, Sadat died in an assassination carried out by Islamic fundamentalists.
The Egyptians arrested a lot of bad guys but eventually left them go free. Among the Islamists jailed after the Sadat assassination was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a confidante and colleague of the blind sheik. Together, he and Abdel-Rahman, who spent three years in Egyptian jails, spread the beliefs to the prisoners of what would become al-Qaeda.
Although many of al-Qaeda’s followers came from the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan, many more came from the prisoners held for the assassination plot against Sadat.
Al-Zawahiri received a three-year sentence for dealing in weapons and left prison in 1984. As a top leader in a key Islamist terrorist organization in Egypt, al-Zawahiri eventually joined forces with bin Laden and served as the second-in-command of al-Qaeda. He rose to head the organization when bin Laden was killed in 2011.
After Abdel-Rahman was found not guilty in the trials that accompanied the investigations into the attack on Sadat, the sheik made his way to Afghanistan, where he became a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden. In 1990, Abdel-Rahman set up shop at a mosque in New Jersey. There, he helped plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center for which he was convicted and spent the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.
I saw the 1993 attack as a significant escalation of radical Islam, and I tried to convince my bosses at ABC News to create an investigative team to look at the bombing. “Only four people died,” the executive producer of 20/20 told me. That disconnect between my analysis and that of ABC started me thinking that it was time to leave journalism, which I did a few months later.
As it turned out, the organizer of the 1993 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was so frustrated by the mission’s failure that he became obsessed with trying again. That’s one of the reasons he chose the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I often wondered if it would have done any good if ABC had backed my desire to investigate the 1993 bombing.
So, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” At least my little piece of the story.