Egypt’s ‘Imitation Game’: Did a secret code help beat Israel in 1973 war?

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is flanked by officials as he reviews maps of battle development in the desert of Sinai Peninsula, at his Army headquarters in Cairo, on October 15, 1973 (AP)

Over four decades after the 1973 war that saw Egyptian forces seize of the Sinai Peninsula from occupying Israeli forces in a shock offensive, the legacy of the brief conflict lives on.

One of the tales of the war known by some Egyptians is the existence of a “secret code” used by the Egyptian army that Israeli intelligence was unable to crack.

The cypher was simple yet unorthodox: using an unwritten language from one of Egypt’s ethnic minorities, the Nubians. With the system, words and commands that would have been undecipherable to even a veteran Israeli intelligence officer could be easily passed to the Egyptian battlefront.

A similar technique – using Navajo, an obscure Native American language – had been used to devastating effect three decades before by U.S. forces against the Japanese in World War II.

This week, Al Arabiya News Channel’s Arabic language website interviewed Ahmad Idriss, the Egyptian man who claimed to be behind the unusual idea over 42 years ago.

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Idriss said that he came up with the idea to employ the Nubian dialect – which existed only in verbal form – after noticing how army higher-ups were planning new secret codes after Israel continually managed to crack the Egyptian cyphers.

Idriss’ idea soon trickled up the chain of command all the way to Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, who summoned the serviceman.

A nervous Idriss then went to a security headquarters to meet Sadat.

“I was shaking when I saw him considering it’s the first time I meet an Egyptian president,” the veteran recalled. “Realizing how afraid I was, Sadat headed towards me and put his hand on my shoulder. He then sat and smiled at me and said my idea was excellent, asking how it could be implemented.”

Making a plan: Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is seen as he peers through a telescope during a visit at the frontlines to Israel, at Sinai Peninsula, on June 4, 1973.

Making a plan: Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat is seen as he peers through a telescope during a visit at the frontlines to Israel, at Sinai Peninsula, on June 4, 1973.

In response, Idriss told the president - who himself had Nubian roots - that there must be Nubian language-speaking servicemen stationed in the region in southern Egypt bordering Sudan where the ethnic group hails from.

“I told him [Sadat] that the [Nubian speaking] soldiers are present among border guards patrolling the southern region,” he said. Sadat, recalling his days as a low-ranking lieutenant in Sudan, which had then been part of Egypt, agreed. Idriss was warned by Sadat - under the fear of execution - not to reveal this military secret to anyone.

According to the veteran, the use of the Nubian language for code remained in use until 1994 and was sometimes used by Egyptian leaders in confidential documents.

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“The [Nubian] word ‘Ushrya’ was the most famous on the list of secret codes during the October War and it means attack,” Idriss said.

Questionable cypher

However, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Khalaf, a long-serving former officer who took part in the 1973 war, called into question the use of the code.

“The Nubian language is not hard to understand,” said Khalaf, who now serves as an advisor at the Nasser Military Academy in Cairo. “This is a rumor.”

According to Khalaf, one of the key factors in Egypt’s surprise attack that pushed back the seemingly all-powerful Israeli troops was a long campaign of deception – both from Egypt’s military and political sphers.

“To foil the enemy, we pretended that we were not going to war… Mossad and Israeli army intelligence understood that Egypt’s army would absolutely not go to war…we prepared, step by step, to achieve surprise,” he told Al Arabiya News.

The plan to take back Egyptian territory extended far back beyond Sadat’s own presidency, said Khalaf, who remembers in-person briefings from Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser seen making a speech in 1968. His sucessor, Anwar Sadat can be seen second from right (AP)

Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser seen making a speech in 1968. His sucessor, Anwar Sadat can be seen second from right (AP)

Soon after the disastrous Arab-Israeli war in 1967, which resulted in Egypt losing the entire Sinai Peninsula to Israel, Nasser began to envision winning back Egyptian territory.

“Three months after 1967… Abdul Nasser said to us, ‘everything Israeli has taken from us, we will bring back by force.” Six years later, and three years after Nasser’s death in 1967, Sadat set the plan in motion.

In 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter brought together Sadat and Israeli premier Menachem Begin at Camp David, which paved the way for a peace treaty between the two countries.

From left, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign one of two agreements forged at the Camp David Summit during a joint announcement at the White House, September 17, 1978.  (AP)

From left, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sign one of two agreements forged at the Camp David Summit during a joint announcement at the White House, September 17, 1978. (AP)

The resulting pact - which resulted in Israeli forces making a near-full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula five years later - continues to this day.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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