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Sadat's unrepentant killer aims for political future

By Ivan Watson and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
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Freed killer defiant
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aboud el Zomor released in March for his role in killing President Anwar Sadat
  • He is unapologetic about the killing but says Mubarak's subsequent rule was worse
  • He was released after nearly 30 years in jail in the aftermath of Egypt's revolution
  • Zomor now plans to form his own political party to compete in elections

Zomor, Egypt (CNN) -- Aboud el Zomor watched the revolution in Tahrir Square with envy from his jail cell on a smuggled television.

Thirty years ago, he and a group of conspirators plotted an Islamic Revolution to overthrow the Egyptian government.

On October 6 1981, four of his associates succeeded in assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in a hail of gunfire during a military parade in Cairo. Zomor, an Egyptian intelligence officer gone rogue, was convicted for his role in the murder.

Three decades later, in his first interview with a U.S. television news organization since his recent release from prison, Zomor was unapologetic about killing Sadat.

But he announced he had renounced violent jihad and wanted to take advantage of the new atmosphere of freedom in Egypt to form a political party to compete in upcoming elections.

Sadat's assassination took place in Cairo during a military parade celebrating the anniversary of Egypt's 1973 war with Israel. In 1979, Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel that won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the fury of many Arabs who accused him of betraying their cause.

On the day of the assassination, Sadat watched from a pavilion, dressed in a blue military uniform. He was seated next to his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, as well as senior military commanders, government officials and foreign diplomats.

Egypt's reaction to Mubarak's detention
Sadat was more merciful. Sadat's time was much better than Mubarak's time
--Zomor's verdict on Egypt's past leaders
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As the crowd looked up when fighter planes roared overhead, flying in formation trailing clouds of colored smoke, the assassins struck.

Four soldiers emerged from a passing truck, hurling grenades and advancing towards the pavilion, firing automatic weapons. Dozens of people were wounded and killed. Bullets riddled the body of the Egyptian president.

Within hours the man who led Egypt to war and later peace with Israel was pronounced dead.

"Our role was related to assisting but not decision-making," Zomor recalled, in his interview with CNN. "All that we did, our role, is that we had ammunition that we sent to [the assassins]."

Zomor insisted the main plotter of the attack was an army officer named Khaled El Islambouly. Islambouly, the lead gunmen, was captured and executed.

"The idea was just to change and provide an alternative leader who could save Egypt from a crisis of the political dead-end we lived in then," Zomor explained. "I intended complete change, not just the murder of Sadat."

Before the attack, Zomor had been an officer in Egyptian intelligence. But he went rogue over objections to Sadat's peace treaty with Israel.

Zomor said a fatwa, or religious edict by a radical Islamist cleric, helped justify killing Sadat.

"Indeed, Sadat made some mistakes which gave a group of scholars a chance to take a decision with this fatwa," Zomor said, dressed in a robe and wearing the long bushy beard that identifies him with the fundamentalist Salafist branch of Islam.

"That old picture is now not present anymore because there is a lot of freedom and everyone can now get their rights in society."

Zomor's release from prison last month was made possible by the pro-democracy street protests that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak on February 11.

During nearly 30 years as president, Mubarak cracked down brutally on Islamist groups. Years after completing his prison sentence, Zomor remained in jail.

Surprisingly, some of Anwar Sadat's surviving relatives were among those who publicly lobbied for Zomor's release.

The slain president's nephew, Talat Sadat, argued Zomor should be released as a matter of principle, to prove Egypt followed the rule of law.

"He spent his time in prison. It's ok, he must go," Sadat said in a recent interview with CNN.

But Sadat, who is a lawyer and former member of parliament, said he was appalled at the hero's welcome Zomor and his cousin Tarek received when they emerged from prison.

Cheering crowds of thousands hoisted Zomor on their shoulders. In his family's hometown near Cairo, which is also called Zomor, a banner still hangs across the main street, congratulating the released convict and calling him "General."

"Of course he's a hero," said a Zomor resident named Mohamed Ali Ethman. "He fought against oppression and took action." "He was against Sadat and Sadat signing the Camp David agreement [with Israel]," said Ahmed Zomor, a distant cousin. "He was against Sadat going to Israel. So he's a hero."

"He thinks that he's a hero? A hero for what?" bellowed Talat Sadat, in response. "For killing Sadat?! This is not a hero!"

Today, the pavilion where Sadat was gunned down still stands in Cairo. It is located directly across a busy highway from Egypt's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Sadat's final resting place.

Sadat's assassin and his surviving relatives seem to agree on one thing -- their hatred of Mubarak.

In 2006, Talat Sadat spent nine months in prison after he appeared on Egyptian television and accused Mubarak and other senior military commanders of being part of a much larger conspiracy to kill his uncle.

And last month, one of Anwar Sadat's daughters, Roaya, filed a case in court accusing Mubarak of complicity in the plot to kill his predecessor.

Talat Sadat is calling for an international tribunal to re-examine his uncle's murder. He would like it modeled on the one that is now investigating the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik el Hariri.

Talat Sadat, an aspiring politician often digresses into much broader conspiracy theories. He argues, for example, that the CIA and Israel played leading roles in organizing the attack.

After nearly 30 years in prison, Aboud el Zomor is now a free man. He was released along with more than 100 other imprisoned Islamists, including the brother of al Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who has since been re-arrested.

The closest Zomor comes to apologizing for his role in the Sadat assassination, was his concession that it unwittingly led to the much harsher Mubarak era.

"Sadat was more merciful," Zomor said. "Sadat's time was much better than Mubarak's time."

Zomor also marveled at how Egypt's "January 25" revolution succeeded peacefully where his own violent revolt had failed.

"There was no mechanism to pressure the ruler [in 1981] like there was during the January 25th revolution," Zomor said.

"In that time, if there were peaceful protests the regime was able to crush them and destroy them because there was no huge presence of media like Al Jazeera and CNN to report on human rights."

Now, Zomor insisted he has abandoned violent jihad in favor of the principles of democracy.

The former leader of the group Islamic Jihad, said he plans to form a political party and compete in Egypt's next parliamentary elections.

"The January 25th revolution opened up for us new possibilities for change," Zomor concluded.

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