General Omar Suleiman is already one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs. And in time, says David Blair, he could well be Hosni Mubarak's successor as leader of Egypt
Among the first to receive the news of the terrorist attack in Cairo would have been a spymaster of 23 years standing who has quietly become one of the Middle East's most significant figures. General Omar Suleiman, the director of Egypt's intelligence service, is virtually unknown outside his home country, yet he is one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs – and an expert in solving intractable problems.
All of the Middle East's most delicate issues land on his desk in Cairo. At present, he is trying to broker a ceasefire in Gaza, requiring him to win the trust of both Israel and Hamas. These implacable enemies refuse to talk to each other, but they both deal with Gen Suleiman.
During a single week this month, Gen Suleiman juggled the "Gaza file" with diplomatic missions to Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
He is also a crucial figure in what no one any longer calls the global "war on terrorism". The tall, slightly stooping man, who favours navy blue suits and has an iron grey moustache in the style of a 1940s British colonel, is an expert on defeating violent Islamist extremism; he is probably the only serving intelligence chief who can claim to have come close to achieving this in his own country.
Soon, Gen Suleiman may emerge from the shadows and become Egypt's new leader.
President Hosni Mubarak, who has dominated the Arab world's largest country for almost 28 years, will turn 81 in May. He trusts hardly anyone and relies on a tiny circle of loyalists.
Gen Suleiman is by far the most significant member of this privileged handful.
A western diplomat in Cairo rated his "influence, power and access" as simply "incredible". Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian commentator who helped found the country's first independent daily newspaper, called him "the second most powerful man after Mubarak" and said he was the only serious contender for the top job.
Gen Suleiman is also a valued partner of the British government. Any British minister passing through Cairo will always ask to see him.
His department, the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS), maintains close links with MI6 and has particular expertise in counter-terrorism. The diplomat described the organisation as "impressive" and "well-resourced", commanding a "big foreign presence through their embassies overseas".
Much of this turns on the personality of Gen Suleiman himself.
His life story is entwined with the battle against Islamist extremism, which, in turn, has an intimate connection with Egypt. The thinkers who gave birth to the modern strain of fundamentalism, notably Sayid Qutb, were Egyptian, and the key political force behind this ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged in Cairo's tea houses.
Gen Suleiman was born in 1935 in Qena, a poor town on the Nile in Upper Egypt. Joining the army offered escape from poverty and the 19-year-old Omar Suleiman arrived at Cairo's Military Academy in 1954.
When Gen Suleiman was 21, Gamal Abdel Nasser struck at the last pillar of British control by nationalising the Suez Canal Company in 1956. He would certainly have been a serving officer during the episode we know as the Suez Crisis and he later fought in the wars of 1967 and 1973.
When Mr Mubarak became president in 1981, Gen Suleiman was a successful army officer, but there was no sign that he would achieve national prominence. His rise began in 1986 when he became deputy head of military intelligence, a job that brought him into direct contact with Mr Mubarak.
By the time he was made director of EGIS, in 1993, two Islamist groups, the Gama'a Islamiya and al-Jihad, were conducting a campaign of bombings and assassinations.
In 1995, the extremists came within an ace of killing Mr Mubarak when 11 assassins opened fire on his limousine in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The original plan had been to use a normal, soft-skinned vehicle. But the previous day, Gen Suleiman had insisted on flying an armoured car to Ethiopia. This undoubtedly saved Mr Mubarak's life. As the bullets ricocheted off the protected vehicle, Gen Suleiman was sitting beside his president. This searing experience forged the bond of trust between them.
The attempt on Mr Mubarak's life showed the seriousness of the terrorist threat. Yet within three years, the security forces had managed to cripple both of Egypt's main extremist groups. How this happened is still controversial. Critics point to brutal methods, notably torture inside Egypt's prisons. But officials stress a programme to rehabilitate Islamist fighters. Whatever the explanation, Egypt's experience in the 1990s is one of the few recent cases when an Islamist insurgency was crushed.
Gen Suleiman would not claim all the credit: the State Security Directorate, Egypt's MI5, was more directly involved. But Gen Suleiman is the only serving intelligence chief who has personally taken apart an Islamist insurgency.
He may soon carry this experience to Egypt's presidency and, if so, his many allies in the West will doubtless cheer his accession.
Yet Gen Suleiman has no experience of managing an economy, let alone running schools or hospitals. A man whose only expertise is in diplomacy, intelligence and counter-terrorism is somehow judged to be qualified to lead a desperately poor country. Gen Suleiman's rise is a sobering sign of the world's priorities.
By David Blair
The Daily TELEGRAPH