Terror's breeding ground in the valley of the Nile

War against terrorism: The Militants
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Anyone labouring under the illusion that Egypt is ­ as the tourist brochures suggest ­ a land of belly dancers, pyramids and Nile boat trips need only glance at the FBI's files to set the record straight.

These clichés have always been only one side of this large Muslim country's spilt personality, and the facts emerging from the US atrocities provide a telling insight into the other.

President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, has done everything he can to suppress the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, but the radicals have made progress in Islamizing Egyptian society. Women wear veils more than before, while members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is illegal but tolerated, won 17 seats in elections last year.

In an effort to steal the militants' clothes, the government censors books, films and television. Three novels whose sexual content angered militants earlier this year caused a storm of protest and led to the sacking of a senior official.

Now we learn that no fewer than a third of the men on the FBI's just-released list of "most wanted terrorists" are Egyptian. Far from mere spear-carriers, living in the shadow of Mr bin Laden, this group includes some heavyweights from the world of Islamic militancy.

They are men of such apparent influence that it is possible to argue that the roots of the massacres in America lie not in Afghanistan but in the down-at-heel, yet far more Westernised, streets of Cairo.

They include Saif al-Adel, who is believed to be al-Qa'ida's highest ranking member, and its deputy leader, Mohammed Atef, a former Egyptian policeman. Mr Atef is an especially intriguing figure to the FBI. An associate of Mr bin Laden's for more than a decade, the Americans accuse him of leading the 1998 US embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, in which more than 200 people died.

He also has personal ties with Mr bin Laden: in January, his daughter married Mr bin Laden's son. US prosecutors also allege that Mr Atef, who is in his late 50s, sits on al-Qa'ida's military committee and is in charge of training new recruits in the Afghanistan camps.

The indictment in the US embassy bombings said that he travelled several times to Somalia in the early 1990s to provide "military training and assistance to Somali tribes" opposed to US intervention.

But the most important name on the list seems to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr bin Laden's right-hand man ­ literally, for he is the figure you see standing with the Saudi dissident in his videotape appearances ­ and personal physician.

More than anyone else, the soft-spoken 50-year-old doctor seems pivotal. Western secret services believe he led the way in linking these two worlds, by bringing violent Islamic militancy from Egypt ­ where it existed under permanent threat from President Hosni Mubarak's ruthless security forces ­ to take root in the stark but easier environment of Afghanistan.

An urbane man, of upper middle-class stock, he has been high on Egypt's wanted list for years ­ a fact that grates heavily with Egypt's security forces, which wonders why the doctor was allowed to go on a fundraising tour across the US in 1991.

By then, he was suspected of involvement in an array of crimes, stretching back beyond the assassination in 1981 of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, who was despised by the Islamic radicals for being the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. At the time of Sadat's death, Dr al-Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which assassinated him.

He was jailed for three years, although only on the technicality of illegal possession of a pistol. When he left jail, his ties with Afghanistan began to evolve. He moved to Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan, joining thousands of other Arabs who went to help the Afghan mujahedin (including Mohammed Atef) ­ then secretly backed by the CIA ­ fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Years later, the same veterans of the Soviet conflict ­ having by now identified the world's only remaining superpower, the US, as their Satan-in-Chief ­ would become comrades again. In February 1998, Dr al-Zawahiri is thought to have joined forces with al-Qa'ida, becoming the confidant of Mr bin Laden.

They were united under the aegis of a broad new organisation, the International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders, whose followers include an assortment of Muslim extremists ranging from Chechens ­ radicalised by years of seeing their people subjected to murderous abuse at the hands of the Russians, while the US looked the other way ­ to Afghans, Saudis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians.

By now, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad had stopped attacking targets on its home turf, although it bombed the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan and tried to bomb the US embassy in Albania. Their mission was no longer confined to nationalist issues ­ unlike the Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which carried on sending out suicide bombers in the name of freeing the Palestinians from Israel, but kept their operations "local".

It had become a sophisticated global enterprise, whose goals were conceived by articulate men whose apocalyptic vision owed nothing to a lack of formal education or brains.

Dr al-Zawahiri has both. He is a graduate of Cairo University, a master of disguise and the son of members of the Egyptian professional classes. The same is true of Mohamed Atta, the man believed to have been behind the controls of one of the aircraft that hit the World Trade Centre.

The Islamic Jihad is not the only Egyptian group of its kind to decide to take their war directly on to American soil. If the FBI is to be believed, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman's plot to attack New York was as audacious and murderous as Mr bin Laden's. The blind cleric ­ leader of the Egyptian Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) ­ has been serving a life sentence in the US since 1995 for trying to blow up landmarks in the city.

After gaining further notoriety in 1997 by killing 58 tourists in the Egyptian resort of Luxor, Gama'a al-Islamiya declared a ceasefire two years later. But this was later renounced by the sheikh from his cell. There have been some intriguing warning signs of trouble brewing. At a Cairo press conference this year, the group's spokesman said the US would "reap a bitter harvest if it continues humiliating [the sheikh]", adding that this could result in a "explosion of events targeted against US interests". He added ominously: "Sheikh Omar has many followers."

Some of these are to be found in Mr bin Laden's entourage. According to The Washington Post, the cleric's two sons joined forces with Mr bin Laden several years ago ­ although they are not directly accused of the 11 September attacks ­ bringing with them other members of Gama'a al-Islamiya.