What Anwar Sadat’s murder 40 years ago meant for the Middle East

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat acknowledges applause during a Joint Session of Congress in which U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 18, 1978. Library of Congress/Warren K. Leffler/Handout via REUTERS

Forty years ago, on October 6, 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist terrorists in Cairo. I was then the Egypt analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had just published an internal paper on the prospects for succession if Sadat was killed, which I judged to be likely given the deep opposition to his unilateral peace deal with Israel. Sadat’s death set in train the disastrous road to the war in Lebanon in 1982, the creation of Hezbollah, and the seeds of al-Qaida.

Sadat enjoyed celebrating the anniversary of the start of the Ramadan War (or Yom Kippur War) every October, reliving the day — October 6, 1973 — that Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal. He was “the hero of the crossing.” Earlier in life he was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s right-hand man. He and Nasser had led Egypt into a disastrous war in Yemen in the 1960s, a quagmire where Cairo was bogged down when it stumbled into the catastrophe of the 1967 war with Israel. In 1973, Sadat and the Egyptian military had redeemed both themselves and Egypt.

He was an unpredictable leader, deliberately and thoughtfully so. His famous 1977 speech offering to visit Jerusalem was dismissed as a rhetorical flourish by the CIA in the President’s Daily Brief the next morning; a week later Sadat was in Jerusalem. He made peace with Israel at Camp David with the stellar support of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. But for most Arabs he had betrayed the Palestinian cause at the Maryland summit meeting and was considered a traitor and an outcast by 1981.

My paper predicted a smooth and uncomplicated transition to Hosni Mubarak, then vice president, which is precisely what happened. The new director of the CIA, Bill Casey, had it reprinted and distributed all over Washington to call attention to the CIA’s prescient analysis. He wanted to distract attention from the fact that the Agency was responsible for training Sadat’s bodyguards.

A few weeks later Israel’s then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon asked his military intelligence experts how Mubarak would react to an invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army, intended to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization and drive the Syrian army out of north Lebanon. Their response, as I have written previously, was that Mubarak would do little or nothing. Sadat would have reacted differently, they noted, probably renouncing the peace treaty to clear his reputation. He was certain to respond forcefully to an invasion that many believed was only possible because he had removed the threat of war from Egypt.

Assured by the intelligence assessment, Sharon embarked on the disastrous June 1982 invasion that led to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps massacre in September, the April 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy that killed 63 people including seven CIA officers, and the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut airport that killed 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers. The invasion also led to the creation by Iran of Hezbollah, which ultimately drove the Israelis out of even the most southern part of Lebanon in 2000. President Ronald Reagan withdrew the Marines after the bombing of the Marine barracks and Syria and Iran were triumphant.

In the description of his former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, Mubarak was a “stabilizer” who “maybe because of his experiences with Sadat… shied away from grand policy schemes.” He was passive during Operation Peace for Galilee.

On the fringe of the assassination plot in 1981 was a prominent Egyptian doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri who was arrested in the police sweeps after Sadat’s murder. Because of his language skills and demeanor, Zawahiri became the spokesperson for the plotters in prison. Released for lack of evidence, Zawahiri has been on the run ever since.

As Osama bin Laden’s deputy and eventual successor, Zawahiri has been the leading ideologue of al-Qaida since its birth. He articulated its goal as being to destroy America’s will to support Israel. He was also at the center of the triple agent plot that killed seven CIA officers and a Jordanian in 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan. He surfaced last month with an audiotape celebrating a new book in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a safe bet he will be back in Kabul sooner or later.