On Oct. 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated as he watched a military parade commemorating Egypt’s greatest modern military achievement, the crossing of the Suez Canal in the opening phase of the October 1973 war. It was long believed that Egyptian Army Lt. 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’s neck from atop a flatbed truck.
The 25,000 National Guard soldiers deployed to the streets of Washington to secure President Joe Biden’s inauguration got me thinking about those events in Egypt almost 40 years ago. It also got me worried that Washington hasn’t heeded the lessons nearly as well as most countries in the Middle East.
During the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol building, insurrectionists in the United States learned what their counterparts in the Middle East, and everywhere else, already knew: If you want to capture and overthrow a government, a critical part of one’s strategy should be to infiltrate the security services and the military.
They are the ones, after all, who control the guns and have the training to use them. Islambouli, Mohammed, and another accomplice, Reserve Officer Engineer Atta Hamida Rahim, were thus the perfect hit team to carry out the assassination of Sadat. And although they remain mostly unknown except among terrorism analysts, some of the all-stars of transnational jihadism have had military backgrounds. These former military and police officers made Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri—none of whom had experience in the armed forces or security services—and other extremist leaders more deadly.
The ability of security personnel to operationalize sedition is the reason why reports citing the participation of veterans, police officers, and even some current military personnel in the attack on Jan. 6 are so alarming. There is now a political movement in America engaged in an effort 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 members of law enforcement and the armed forces. It is hardly an understatement to suggest that the United States faces a more dangerous threat than it did during 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, when the issues at hand were foreign attacks on the country. Today, the United States confronts a new and troubling reality, one where the legitimacy of its own political system is questioned, through violent and coordinated means, from within.
Western analysts often refer to what leaders in the Middle East and other parts of the world do to ensure their political systems as “regime security.” At a level of abstraction, the United States has been derelict in this realm—despite ample warnings—in comparison to its partners in the Middle East. The Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand published a book in 1991 called Shirts of Steel: Anatomy of the Turkish Officer Corps, which offered an unprecedented view of how the Turkish Armed Forces vetted candidates for officer training and then indoctrinated them in the secular ways of Kemalism. Birand reported that before candidates entered the service academies and high schools, the military looked at their extended families for any 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 the ranks to ensure that the military always upheld Kemalism as the source of power, prestige, and legitimacy in the Turkish political system.
The Turkish high command’s Egyptian counterparts also vet officers for extremism before entering the military academy, though Egypt’s military establishment has taken an altogether different approach than the Turks. Rather than indoctrinating office candidates in the importance of ensuring that religion remains outside the public sphere, the Egyptians have done quite the opposite. Egypt’s commanders have emphasized both their personal devotion and the importance of the tenets of Islam to the overall mission of the armed forces. This was a way of blunting the appeal of Islamism by emphasizing that the military adhered to the principles of Islam properly, as opposed to the ways of Islamists.
None of this is to suggest that the United States needs to emulate what Turkey and Egypt have done. Rather, it is to drive home the point that America is not as different from the rest of the world as Americans like to believe.
No one seriously thought that sedition and insurrection were possible in America. After all, the United States was a shining city on a hill; it was too exceptional to have such problems. Well, here we are, and the warning signs have been there for a long time. As an FBI report noted, “White supremacist leaders and groups have historically shown an interest in infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.” That was in 2006.
Now Jan. 6 has forced Americans to recognize the double-edge quality of police and military forces in their society. They want those who control the means of violence strong and secure from infiltration in order for them to help protect the constitutional order but not so strong that they are beyond civilian control. The problem in the United States should be self-evident: Seditionists are in the ranks, and when it comes to law enforcement and the unions that represent them, 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 mount the kind of indoctrination and surveillance that authorities in the Middle East have used to prevent sedition. Yet it is not clear that U.S. politics can even bear the weight of an investigation into the neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and QAnon infiltration of its security forces given how the Trump era rendered these groups politically relevant and influential.
At the very least, the U.S. Defense Department’s decision to vet National Guard personnel assigned to Washington during the inauguration is an acknowledgment that the problem exists within the armed forces. Pursuing policies and writing new rules and regulations that give the military and law enforcement the means to identify insurrectionists and weed them out mercilessly should be the No. 1 priority for the new defense secretary and attorney general. It is true that in Turkey, preserving the Kemalist ethos within the ranks meant preserving a nondemocratic political system. The same in Egypt, where officers or would-be officers with suspect political views were removed or kept out in order to preserve an authoritarian system of government. These facts should not distract Americans from what insurrectionists understand better than others: The political order is vulnerable if the security forces are vulnerable to seditious ideas and deeds. The fate of America’s democratic system and the physical safety of Americans depend on finally waking up to the fact that they are not so exceptional after all.