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Document Friday: Mubarak, al-Bashir, al-Zawahiri, and bin Laden. The 1995 Assassination Attempt in Addis Ababa

February 4, 2011

"As you see, I look sound and safe and fine."

It’s been pretty tough for me to find a juicy US government doc on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Seems like the USG has done a pretty fair job of obscuring its relationship with one of the longest-standing and most repressive autocrats in the Middle East (who is also the current guarantor of Egypt’s “iron-clad” peace agreement with Israel).  But one interesting event keeps popping up.  It’s the intriguing story –a story including Omar al-Bashir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden– of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s 26 June 1995 assassination attempt of President Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here’s the best I could cobble together from a CIA report on its activities, a CRS report on “Africa and the War on Terrorism,” documents from the United Nations Security Council, wire reports, and The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.

From a 1 January 1997 CIA Annual Report on Intelligence Community Activities.

On 25 June 1995, Mubarak traveled to Addis Ababa for a summit of the Organization of African Unity and was targeted for assassination by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and closely affiliated with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. EIJ had been planning the attack for more than a year.  Several of the would-be assassins even married Ethiopian women, ostensibly to blend into their surroundings.  Al Zawahiri gave his assassins a “pep rally” before the attack and even traveled to Ethiopia to inspect the site of the assassination (see The Looming Tower 213 and 214).

As Mubarak’s motorcade drove to the summit it was ambushed by nine assassins.  According to the Egyptian president, “Suddenly I found a blue van blocking the road and somebody jumped to the ground. A machine gun started. . . . I realized there were bullets coming at our car…I saw those who shot at me.”  He accused them of likely being of Sudanese origin, noting that, “I can’t tell you exactly what nationality they were, but they didn’t look like Ethiopians or blacks.”

Two assassins shot at Mubarak from a jeep in front of the President’s vehicle.  Additional assassins shot from rooftops.  Fortunately for Mubarak, the bullets did not penetrate his bulletproof windows.  Five of the assassins were killed by Mubarak’s Egyptian bodyguards.  Two Ethiopian police officers were killed, and the Palestinian Ambassador to Ethiopia was shot in the leg.

Mubarak and Sadat. Kindred Spirits?

Mubarak immediately ordered his driver to return the car to the airport and then flew back to Egypt, where he recounted the assassination attempt (which would come to be the third of six(!) attempts on his life) at an airport press conference.  He explained to reporters, “As you see, I look sound and safe and fine. I am a believer, and I have always thought that God is protecting me.”  He also implicated Sudan in the attack, stating it was “very possible, very possible.”  A very calm disposition, considering the fate of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat (you can see Mubarak at 58 seconds).  Lawrence Wright argues in The Looming Tower that Mubarak probably saved his own life by ordering his driver to return to the airport.  A second ambush was planned further down the road.

American intelligence also determined that Sudan was complicit in the assassination attempt.  The US labeled Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and the country provided a safe haven for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.  The president of Sudan was the notorious Omar al-Bashir, who still serves as president despite having been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur and South Sudan.  A UN Security Counsel report stated that all of the weapons used in the assassination were flown into Ethiopia by Sudan Airways and that the terrorists had Sudanese passports. Bashir expelled bin Laden in 1996 and now works closely with the US on terrorism issues.

Moustafa Hamza. Now in an Egyptian Prison.

It was eventually determined that 11 members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad orchestrated the attack.  Nine members were sent to Ethiopia to carry out the attack while two of the planners stayed in Sudan.  Egyptian security forces killed five of the assassins and captured three (who were later executed by the Ethiopian government).  One assailant was able to escape back to Sudan.  Allegedly, Moustafa Hamza planned the assassination.

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, the New York Times editorialized that Mr. Mubarak was both “valuable and vulnerable.”  The paper lauded Mubarak as an a key ally to the US.  It also –in effect– correctly predicted that Mubarak’s subsequent repression of Islamist extremists and others (as well as “Cairo’s corrupt and self-perpetuating military autocracy”) would eventually lead to his downfall.

But when President Mubarak relinquishes his grasp on power, it will be in response to his people’s demands, not an assassin’s bullet.  His exit from power will be –in many ways– a final rebuke to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden.

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