(A note to readers: I am fully aware that Arabic names are challenging to read, pronounce and remember. “Zawahiri” does not roll off the tongue like “Stalin” or “Hitler”. But today’s global enemies are no longer European, and if our men and women in uniform have the courage to take on these enemies in the field, the least we can do is persevere with learning the names of those who would do us harm.)
Is al-Qaeda still a threat? Osama bin Laden is dead, many of those connected with him have been killed or are on the run. President Obama says the networks have been “decimated” and terrorists “are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks”. This month and next, we will be looking at the two most important figures on the other end of the War on Terror — one old, one new.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long time #2 man, has since been promoted to the head of the organization. Where did he come from? Where is he today?
Zawahiri was born in 1951 in Cairo, Egypt, into a family that was considered “upper middle class”. Ayman’s father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, came from a large family of doctors and scholars and was himself a surgeon and medical professor. Rather than the stereotypical “oppressed” terrorist, Zawahiri lived in a world of privilege.
Ayman excelled in school and graduated from Cairo University in 1974. While there, he loved poetry and disliked sports, which he thought were violent and inhumane. By the age of 14, Zawahiri had joined the Muslim Brotherhood and his group of friends joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a terrorist organization founded in the 1970s to replace the Egyptian government with an Islamic state. In 1981, Zawahiri was one of hundreds arrested following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He was tortured by the Egyptian police and revealed the hiding place of Essam al-Qamari, a key member of the EIJ, which led to al-Qamari’s arrest and execution.
Zawahiri first met Osama bin Laden in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1986 but they were on separate paths. He rose to the leadership of the EIJ in 1991, and took the group in new directions. Dr. Marc Sageman, a CIA operative, said that under the new leadership “the EIJ became a free-floating network without any real ties to its original society or to its surrounding society.” Under Zawahiri, the EIJ spread to other countries, including Sudan. This spread was less than successful with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright summarizing that, “In Zawahiri’s hands, al-Jihad had splintered into angry and homeless gangs.”
In August 1993, EIJ unsuccessfully attempted to kill the Egyptian Interior Minister, Hasan Al Alfi, who was leading a crackdown on Islamic militants. In November, EIJ made another bombing attempt, this time to kill Egypt’s prime minister, Atef Sidqi. The car bomb exploded close to a girls’ school in Cairo as the minister was passing. Sidqi was unhurt, but the explosion injured twenty-one people and killed a young schoolgirl.
In June 1995, they attempted to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while he was in Ethiopia for a conference of the Organization of African Unity. The attack was foiled by a malfunctioning grenade launcher and Mubarak’s bulletproof limousine. On November 19 that year, EIJ bombed the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan killing sixteen people and wounding sixty. The attack served as a prototype for future attacks by its sister organization al-Qaeda, such as the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Africa.
Zawahiri wrote the 1998 fatwa entitled “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” calling for the killing of Americans and their allies, both civilian and military, which was signed by representatives of several jihadi organizations. Following this announcement, EIJ merged with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in 1998, with Zawahiri becoming bin Laden’s personal adviser and physician. Pakistani author and journalist Hamid Mir has referred to him as the “real brains” of al-Qaeda, while Egyptian journalist Faraj Ismail claims that it was Zawahiri “who got Osama to focus not only on the Afghan jihad, but regime change in the Arab world.”
In 1999, the Egyptian courts lumped the various assassination attempts and other terrorist activities of the 1990s into one maxi-trial known as the “Returnees from Albania” case. Zawahiri was tried in absentia and sentenced to death, effectively banning him from Egypt.
On October 10, 2001, following 9/11, Zawahiri appeared on the initial list of the FBI’s top 22 Most Wanted Terrorists, which was released to the public by President Bush. As of August 2013, eleven of those first listed are still at large, which is no great track record.
Over the next decade, Zawahiri never slowed down. First, he published the book “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner” outlining al-Qaeda’s ideology. In September 2005, he claimed responsibility for the London public transit bombings (known as 7/7) and dismissed the American efforts in Afghanistan as useless. By December 2007, Zawahiri was implicated in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A spokesman for the terrorists called Bhutto “the most precious American asset”.
On April 30, 2009, the State Department reported that Zawahiri had emerged as al-Qaeda’s operational and strategic commander and that bin Laden was only the ideological figurehead of the organization. In December 2009, Zawahiri renewed calls to establish an Islamic state in Israel and urged his followers to “seek jihad against Jews” and their supporters. He also called for jihad against America and the West, and labeled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as the “brothers of Satan”.
As of May 2, 2011, he became the leader of al-Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden. He has been seen as more intelligent than his predecessor, but not as charismatic.
This summer has seen a resurgence of Zawahiri’s importance. The US government’s decision to close more than twenty diplomatic facilities was based in part on intercepted communications between Zawahiri and more than twenty operatives, including Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Another operative was asked — and agreed — to die in a suicide attack.
On August 17, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, our subject’s younger brother, was arrested at a checkpoint in Egypt. While he may not be a member of al-Qaeda himself, his official Facebook page was littered with al-Qaeda statements and posts praising his older brother. He subscribes to the philosophy of Salafist jihadism, a lesser-known Muslim extremist position. Both Zawahiris have opposed the military coup that took down Egyptian President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Zawahiri released a statement on the coup: “Crusaders and secularists and the Americanized army have converged with Gulf money and American plotting to topple Mohamed Morsi’s government.”
Presently, the Rewards for Justice Program of the U.S. Department of State is offering a reward of up to $25 million dollars for information about his location. This offer, going for over a decade, has not seemed to convince anyone to give the man up.
Next month we will look at Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the strongest terror affiliate in the world, and the most likely to launch the next big attack.