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.