On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was murdered while watching a military parade commemorating Egypt’s greatest modern military achievement, the crossing of the Suez Canal in the opening phase of the war in October 1973. It has long been believed that Egyptian Army Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli was Sadat’s assassin, but the fatal shot likely came from the gun of Sgt. Hussein Abbas Mohammed, who hit the Egyptian President in the neck on a pickup truck.
The 25,000 National Guard soldiers who were stationed on the streets of Washington to secure the inauguration of President Joe Biden made me reflect on these events in Egypt almost 40 years ago. It also worried me that Washington wasn’t paying nearly as much attention to the lessons as most of the Middle Eastern countries.
During the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, insurgents in the U.S. learned what their counterparts in the Middle East and everywhere else already knew: If you’re looking to capture and overthrow a government, a critical part of your strategy should be security services and infiltrate the military.
After all, it is they who control the weapons and are trained to use them. Islambouli, Mohammed and another accomplice, the engineer of reserve officer Atta Hamida Rahim, were the perfect hit team to carry out the assassination of Sadat. And although they are unknown except for terrorists, some of the stars of transnational jihadism come from military backgrounds. These former military and police officers made Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri – none of whom had experience with the armed forces or security services – and other extremist leaders more deadly.
The security personnel’s ability to operationalize riot is why reports citing the participation of veterans, police officers and even some current military personnel in the January 6 attack are so alarming. In America there is now a political movement seeking to overthrow the constitutional order, and among the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of those willing to rise up and use force against the government are law enforcement and armed forces. It is hardly an understatement to say that the United States faces a more dangerous threat than it did during 9/11 or Pearl Harbor when it came to foreign attacks on the land. Today the United States is facing a new and disturbing reality in which the legitimacy of its own political system is being challenged from within by violent and coordinated means.
Western analysts often refer to what leaders in the Middle East and other parts of the world are doing to maintain their political systems as “regime security”. At an abstraction level, the United States has – despite numerous warnings – lapsed in this area compared to its partners in the Middle East. Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand published a book in 1991 called Shirts of Steel: Anatomy of the Turkish Officer Corps, which provided an unprecedented overview of how the Turkish armed forces screened candidates for officer training and then indoctrinated them in secular Kemalist fashion. Birand reported that before candidates entered the service academies and high schools, the military examined their extended families for signs of “reactionaryism” – that is, Islamism – or “separatism”, which was another way of saying Kurdish nationalism. Then there was the ongoing surveillance of the officer corps and ranks to ensure that the military upheld Kemalism as a source of power, prestige and legitimacy in the Turkish political system.
The Egyptian colleagues in the Turkish high command also examine officers for extremism before entering the military academy, although the Egyptian military has taken a completely different approach than the Turks. Instead of indoctrinating candidates for office to ensure that the religion stays out of the public eye, the Egyptians did just the opposite. Egypt’s commanders have emphasized both their personal devotion and the importance of the principles of Islam for the overall mission of the armed forces. This was one way to tone down the appeal of Islamism by emphasizing that the military properly followed the principles of Islam as opposed to the methods of Islamists.
None of this suggests that the United States should emulate what Turkey and Egypt did. Rather, it’s about driving home the point that America isn’t as different from the rest of the world as Americans like to think.
Nobody seriously believed that turmoil and insurrection were possible in America. After all, the United States was a shining city on a hill; It was too extraordinary to have problems like this. Well here we are and the warning signs have been around for a long time. An FBI report reads: “White supremacist leaders and groups have shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel in the past.” That was in 2006.
Now January 6th has forced Americans to recognize the dual quality of the police and the armed forces in their society. They want those who control the means of violence to be strong and protected from infiltration so that they can help protect the constitutional order, but not so strong that they evade civilian control. The problem in the United States should go without saying: Seditionists are in the ranks, and when it comes to law enforcement and the unions they represent, they are beyond the means of effective civilian control. The question is what to do about it. It goes without saying that the United States could never and should never carry out the kind of indoctrination and surveillance that authorities have used to prevent turmoil in the Middle East. However, it is not clear whether US politics can bear the weight of an investigation into the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and QAnon infiltration of their security forces, given how the Trump era made these groups politically relevant and influential.
At the very least, the US Department of Defense’s decision to review the National Guard personnel posted to Washington during the inauguration is confirmation that the problem is within the armed forces. Following policies and writing new rules and regulations that will allow the military and law enforcement agencies to identify insurgents and mercilessly weed them out should be a top priority for the new Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. It is true that in Turkey maintaining the Kemalist ethos in the ranks meant maintaining a non-democratic political system. The same is true of Egypt, where officers or prospective officers with suspicious political views have been removed or withheld in order to maintain an authoritarian system of government. These facts should not distract Americans from what insurgents understand better than others: the political order is fragile when the security forces are susceptible to seditious ideas and actions. The fate of America’s democratic system and the physical security of Americans depend on finally waking up to the fact that they are not so extraordinary after all.