The appointment of Ayman Zawahiri as the new leader of al-Qaeda serves as a reminder that the terrorist group “seeks to perpetuate itself,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Zawahiri was identified as the successor to Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. commando raid in Pakistan last month, in a posting yesterday on a website frequently used by the terrorist group.
“This announcement by al-Qaeda reminds us that despite having suffered a huge loss with the killing of bin Laden -- and a number of others -- al-Qaeda seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed, and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them,” Gates said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday.
The Egyptian surgeon has been al-Qaeda’s public face for years, sending video and audio messages threatening attacks against Western targets and attempting to turn Muslim populations against their governments.
“We ask God for this to be a new era for al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman Zawahiri, an era that will purify Muslim land of every tyrant and infidel,” al-Qaeda said in its statement.
Intelligence officials have said that bin Laden, isolated by U.S. efforts to track him, had ceded operational responsibilities to Zawahiri. The U.S. government is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding in southwestern Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to White House intelligence adviser John Brennan.
Wanted for Years
It was Zawahiri who convinced a skeptical bin Laden to deploy suicide attackers against the West, persuading the al-Qaeda leader the tactic -- forbidden by the teachings of Islam on which he was raised -- is “martyrdom,” said Fawaz Gerges, author of the 2005 book “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.”
That doesn’t mean Zawahiri easily can fill bin Laden’s leadership role, Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said in a telephone interview.
“Unlike Osama bin Laden, who’s a unifying figure and a beloved figure, Ayman Zawahiri is a divisive figure to the rank and file,” he said. “He doesn’t command the same respect or the same inspiration.”
Gates offered a similar assessment yesterday. Bin Laden had a “peculiar charisma that I think Zawahiri does not have,” he said at a news conference at the Pentagon. “I’ve read that there is some suspicion within al-Qaeda of Zawahiri because he’s Egyptian,” while bin Laden was Saudi.
Alluding to the U.S. drive to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders, Gates noted: “I’m not sure it’s a position anybody should aspire to, under the circumstances.”
Zawahiri was indicted in absentia in 1999 for the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, and was considered the mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors.
He has also been blamed for the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, and the December 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt. He also took responsibility for the July 7, 2005, bombings on London’s transport system that killed 52 people, the deadliest attack in the city since World War II.
Changes sweeping the Arab world, where popular revolts against autocratic regimes have been largely led by pro-democracy activists, pose a major challenge to Zawahiri and rob him of a recruiting tool, said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who knew bin Laden.
“Al-Qaeda is in decline and Zawahiri will try to catch up with the events and to find a role in the changing Arab world,” Khashoggi said in a telephone interview yesterday. “I don’t think he can.” He said Zawahiri is the product of a “stagnation” in Egypt that has changed with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel questioned the optimism of U.S. officials who said the time it took al-Qaeda to name a successor indicated serious internal divisions. The group could have named Zawahiri immediately under its bylaws, said Riedel, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution policy research group in Washington. Instead, al-Qaeda allowed a discussion to take place over the past month on jihadist websites and online chat rooms.
“The overwhelming consensus has been Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Riedel, who coordinated Obama’s initial Afghan-Pakistan policy review in 2009, told a forum in Washington yesterday. “No candidate emerged as an alternative, despite the strenuous efforts of experts in the West, including myself, to suggest there are some other possibilities.”
Zawahiri, whose aliases include “the Doctor” and “the Teacher,” was born on June 19, 1951, along with a twin sister in Giza, Egypt, the eldest children of a couple from prominent families.
Their father, Rabie, was a pharmacology professor whose family included well-known religious scholars and medical professionals, and his maternal grandfather was the president of Cairo University and had been Egypt’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, according to Lawrence Wright, author of the 2006 book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
From an early age, Zawahiri disliked Egypt’s secular government, which he considered apostate. He and a handful of friends started a jihadist cell while he was still in high school. Their aim was to overthrow Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom they considered too Western, and set up a theocracy, Gerges said.
While he led an underground life of which his parents were unaware, Zawahiri enrolled in medical school at Cairo University, where he became a top student, specializing in surgery and graduating in 1974, Wright wrote.
A major influence on Zawahiri was Sayyid Qutb, a militant Egyptian intellectual educated in the U.S. who was executed by Nasser in 1966, the same year Zawahiri and his friends started their cell. Zawahiri’s great-uncle, Mahfouz Azzam, served as Qutb’s defense lawyer.
“I don’t think Ayman Zawahiri is qualified to lead military organizations,” Azzam, 83, said in a telephone interview yesterday from Cairo. “His strength lies in that he is a man of thought and in the political speeches with which he addresses the people.”
Disgust Toward U.S.
Qutb’s writings tell Muslims not to be beguiled by Western prosperity, call for a revival of Islamic law and culture, and express disgust at American values. Qutb wrote that as a graduate student at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley, now the University of Northern Colorado, in the late 1940s, he witnessed racism, a “primitive” U.S. obsession with sports and “seductive” American women.
Qutb’s hanging, rather than stamping out his anti-Western ideas, increased their popularity and formed “the nucleus of the modern Islamic jihad movement,” Zawahiri wrote in his own memoir.
As a surgeon in the Egyptian army -- and later in private practice -- he recruited officers to the Islamist movement to overthrow the secular Egyptian government, according to Wright.
Zawahiri was one of hundreds of Islamic militants arrested and put on trial in Egypt for conspiring in the October 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser as Egypt’s leader. The Egyptian government couldn’t prove a link, and Zawahiri was released after three years in custody.
Soviets in Afghanistan
Zawahiri left prison in Egypt and made his way to Saudi Arabia, then settled in Peshawar, Pakistan, across the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan, where mujahedeen fighters were at war with Soviet invaders.
As many as 30,000 Muslim men from 50 countries came to the region to support the mujahedeen, including bin Laden, who was recruiting fighters from an office set up with money from his family’s Saudi construction business.
Around the time the Soviets left Afghanistan, bin Laden and Zawahiri teamed up in a loose affiliation to bring jihad to the West.
The group says the American forces now in Afghanistan also will be ejected, and blames the spy agencies of Israel and the U.S. for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“We will continue to reveal the treason of those who are giving away the rights of the nation in Palestine and collaborating with the Mossad and the CIA,” al-Qaeda said in its statement yesterday.
“We will not forgo any inch of Palestine,” the group said. “We will not accept or abide by or commit to any agreement or treaty or to adopt or acknowledge any deal that will rob the Muslims of any inch of Palestine, whether it comes from the United Nations, which is controlled by the biggest of criminals, or other bodies and organizations.”