When Zawahiri’s appointment as the new head of al-Qaeda was announced on June 16, it came as no surprise. Among the leaders of al-Qaeda’s six committees—military, intelligence, political, information, religious, administration and finance—Zawahiri was the most qualified to lead the world’s deadliest terrorist group. Indeed, he is an even more experienced terrorist leader than his predecessor. As Bin Laden’s deputy and the group’s main theoretician, Zawahiri has long been acknowledged as the brains of the leadership. A prolific communicator, he is a master at churning out propaganda which reaches out to the global Muslim community to support the fight. It goes without saying, as Zawahiri takes the helm he will shape the organization and influence the wider al-Qaeda-led global movement in planning, preparing and executing attacks against the United States, its friends and allies.
The official statement of al-Qaeda announcing his appointment reiterated: “We assure our brothers in Afghanistan that we are with them with our lives and with what we own, under the leadership of the Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, may Allah protect him, in pushing out and expelling the American Crusader occupation from its pure and patient country.” The statement affirmed several core al-Qaeda tenets, including its pledge to fulfill Bin Laden’s oaths and to remain under the Taliban, which has a much larger presence on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A dozen terrorist and insurgent groups from Africa to the Middle East have since pledged their allegiance to Zawahiri and reaffirmed their partnership with al-Qaeda. Among the first non-Pakistani and non-Afghan groups to express support for Zawahiri was Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen of Somalia. Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmoud Ragi said the mujahideen in Somalia are “an inseparable part of the ummah’s jihad against the Zionist Crusader invasion of the lands of Islam.” They see al-Qaeda “as the teacher” in whom they find “instructions and advice.” They prayed that Allah “lead Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri to success and to help him in his Affairs” adding, “Here we are, here we are, and we are waiting for your instructions.”
But Zawahiri likely has even larger goals. While al-Qaeda will continue as the “pioneering vanguard of the Islamic movements” (a phrase used by Dr. Azzam, al-Qaeda’s ideological father), under Zawahiri it will also seek to support the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa with the intention of penetrating and Islamizing those struggles.
Both Bin Laden and Zawahiri have demonstrated deep-rooted hatred for the West and practiced unrestrained violence, but the differences in their personalities are vast. Unlike Bin Laden, an associative thinker, the Cairo-trained medical doctor Zawahiri has more linear thought patterns. Exceptionally well traveled and well read, and ideologically and operationally savvy, Zawahiri is six years older than his predecessor. Goal-oriented, systematic, secretive and forward thinking, Zawahiri’s attributes will continue to influence the global landscape of terrorism. Whereas Bin Laden was puritanical and archaic, Zawahiri will shape al-Qaeda into a post-modern organization. A visionary, he will introduce new technology and modern management principles both to al-Qaeda and to its broader association.
BORN TO an aristocratic family in the Cairo suburb of Maadi on June 9, 1951, Zawahiri maintained his family tradition of studying medicine. But in practice he dedicated his entire life to his passion—politics; in fact, he formed an Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) cell when he was only sixteen. A decade before the birth of al-Qaeda, he had moved up the ranks to guide the EIJ, the deadliest Sunni group in the world at the time. On October 23, 1981, he was arrested as a suspect in the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was tortured and jailed for three years before he left for Saudi Arabia in 1985. He relocated to Peshawar, Pakistan in 1987, having visited the country as part of the medical team to help the Afghan mujahideen.
By August 11, 1988, al-Qaeda had been founded. Zawahiri maintained a very powerful influence over the group. There were differences in strategy: Bin Laden’s mentor Azzam wanted to fight occupiers of Muslim lands; Zawahiri was determined to use al-Qaeda reserves to mount attacks to replace “false Muslim rulers and corrupt Muslim regimes” with “pious leaders and Islamic states.” It was thus under Zawahiri’s influence that al-Qaeda evolved from a guerrilla group fighting the Soviet army to a terrorist group attacking nonmilitary targets. When Azzam was killed on November 24, 1989, Zawahiri joined his two sons in delivering the eulogy. Nonetheless, to this date many accuse “the Egyptians” of plotting Azzam’s death—an event that enabled Zawahiri to consolidate his control over Bin Laden and the assets of al-Qaeda. Since then “the Egyptians” have been the backbone of the group.
As leader of EIJ, he was not a formal member of al-Qaeda. But he influenced both groups, drawing them together in signficant ways. He started reassembling EIJ after coming to lead it in 1991, establishing a friendship with Muhammad Atef (alias Abu Hafs al-Masri) and Ali al-Rashidi (alias Abu Ubaydah al-Banshiri), both of whom became founding members and successive military chiefs of al-Qaeda. In essence, Zawahiri was staffing al-Qaeda’s most important positions with Egyptians. Throughout its life, over 50 percent of the majlis shura, the ten-member council that is the organization’s highest decision-making body, has been Egyptian. Although the bulk of al-Qaeda’s membership has been Saudi and Yemeni, the Egyptian leaders and members have been the most influential and capable. Many of them came from police, military and intelligence backgrounds. Operating out of Sudan and Yemen, EIJ relied on al-Qaeda support to mount operations in Egypt and against Egyptian targets overseas.
To spawn, sustain and shape a global movement of terror against the West, Zawahiri co-created with Bin Laden the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders on February 23,1998. Continuing in the tradition of Egyptian thinkers and writers like Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb Sayyid, Zawahiri wrote the Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, completed in September and published in October 2001. Released at a time when al-Qaeda faced its most severe threat, the book constitutes his last will and testament. Perhaps inspired by Zawahiri, Bin Laden too wrote his will soon afterwards. Zawahiri expanded the range of targets, identifying the “tools to fight Islam” used by the West as:
(1) The United Nations, (2) The friendly rulers of the Muslim peoples, (3) The multinational corporations, (4) The international communications and data exchange systems, (5) The international news agencies and satellite media channels, and (6) The international relief agencies, which are being used as a cover for espionage, proselytizing, coup planning and the transfer of weapons.
Zawahiri’s text formed the blueprint for al-Qaeda’s global campaign. After years of shaping—formally or otherwise—both EIJ and al-Qaeda, Zawahiri masterminded the merging the two and the creation of al- Qaeda al-Jihad in July 2001.
ZAWAHIRI’S WORLDVIEW has been molded by the trials and tribulations he has endured, from torture in Egypt to imprisonment in Russia to recurring losses of colleagues, friends and family. In Egypt and overseas, many who worked with him were killed or captured. Zawahiri was sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt in April 1999. His own brother Muhammed, also an active member of EIJ, was arrested in the UAE and deported to Egypt in 2000. He was released by the Egyptian state after the fall of Mubarak but rearrested afterwards.
Zawahiri’s wife Azza Ahmed Nowari and three of his six children, including his daughter Aisha, who had Down syndrome, were killed in an air strike on Afghanistan by U.S. forces in November 2001. After relocation to tribal Pakistan, Zawahiri married a woman from the Mahmund tribe in Bajaur Agency. As such, for Zawahiri, the fight is personal. He vengefully called President Bush, “the butcher of Washington” and President Obama a “house slave.”
Al-Qaeda did not collapse with Osama Bin Laden’s death. On the contrary, it paved the way for an even more lethal man to take control of the operational and ideological vanguard of the global movement. Under Zawahiri, al-Qaeda has returned with a vengeance. Although its active strength on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is but a few hundred fighters, it relies on its associated groups to conduct operations. The Tareek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), the group closest to al-Qaeda, has staged several attacks in honor of Bin Laden. Zawahiri has already commenced his campaign of relentless terror.