Ayman al-Zawahiri is the likeliest choice to replace Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, though his predicament today probably gives new vigor to Shakespeare’s “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Bin Laden, after all, was killed by US commandos at his compound near the Pakistani capital following years of painstaking work tracking Al Qaeda couriers and developing new techniques to analyze intelligence.
US officials say they’re combing over a trove of fresh documents and computers found at bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound. Mr. Zawahiri, likely in a Pakistani compound of his own, must be wondering how long he’ll be able to hold down the new job.
And just as Zawahiri’s own safety is in doubt, so is the future of Al Qaeda. The fringe ideology that drives the group’s members isn’t about to die out completely. But it has just lost its charismatic, revered spokesman. Zawahiri – pedantic, irascible, and given to fueling obscure ideological conflicts within jihadi ranks – is seen as a poor substitute.
Bin Laden’s public speech was measured, friendly, and he managed to wrap himself in a saintly aura that many Muslims responded to. Zawahiri generally comes off as an angry, droning crank, and so gets little traction among any but the already converted.
But his leadership for now seems assured, even if Al Qaeda’s propaganda outlets have been silent on the killing of bin Laden so far.
Who is he?
The Egyptian doctor is the group’s main ideologue and one of the few remaining charter members of the Global Front for the Jihad against Crusaders and Jews, as he and bin Laden dubbed their enterprise in 1998. It’s no accident that he is now alone atop the US most wanted terrorist list, with a $25 million price on his head.
His jihadi pedigree is impeccable, far better in fact than bin Laden’s, who didn’t spend a day of his life in jail.
Zawahiri grew up in the wealthy Cairo suburb of Maadi, became enamored of the writings of the revolutionary Islamist Sayyid Qutb as a youth (Qutb was executed by Egypt in 1966, when Zawahiri was 15).
By the early 1970s, as he completed his medical studies at Cairo University, he was involved with an underground Islamist cell that helped form the Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
In the wake of the murder, Egypt arrested hundreds of Islamists, Zawahiri among them, and he was tortured while in prison. After his release in 1984, he made his way out of Egypt.
He soon was in Peshawar, Pakistan, one of the thousands of Arabs drawn to the region by the Afghan mujahideen’s jihad against the Soviet Union. Bin Laden was there, too, distributing cash to various Islamist groups.
The far enemy
The two soon fell into each other’s orbit. Zawahiri, a firm believer that the way to defeat “near enemies” such as the Egyptian military dictatorship or the Saudi monarchy was to attack the “far enemy” – the United States – had a strong impact on bin Laden’s own thinking.
Following the Soviet Union’s defeat, both men left Afghanistan and Pakistan for a time, and were reunited in Sudan in the early 1990s. Zawahiri was now the leader of the Islamic Jihad in exile, and he and bin Laden were effectively merging their operations.
By 1996, they’d worn out their welcome and were expelled from the Sudan, ending up in Afghanistan under the sponsorship of the Taliban’s Mullah Omar.
In 1998 their joint fatwa declaring war on the “Crusaders and the Jews” sealed the deal, and the US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that soon followed foreshadowed the murderous success of 9/11.
Wherever Zawahiri has gone he’s fed squabbling within the ranks. He fought with Abdullah Azzam, a hugely influential anti-Soviet fighter and theologian in the late 1980s over how “expansive” the global jihad should be.
Mr. Azzam believed it should be narrowly focused on lands where infidels were directly oppressing Muslims (in his view). Zawahiri wanted to not only fight the US, but all Muslim governments that cooperated with the US.
Zawahiri also urged the adoption of “takfir,” a practice by which Muslims one doesn’t agree with are declared to be apostates, and thus fair targets for the jihad. Militants like Azzam, who was assassinated in unclear circumstances in Peshawar in 1989, saw this is not only religiously unjustifiable but tactically stupid, a recipe for endless atomization and division.
More recently Zawahiri has locked horns with Sayyed Imam al-Sharif, his predecessor as head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who is serving a life sentence in Egypt.
In 2008, Mr. Sharif wrote that Zawahiri “is only good at fleeing, inciting, collecting donations, and talking to the media.” Zawahiri shot back online that Sharif, as a prisoner, was a stooge of US and Egyptian intelligence.
The whole exchange fed online debate in militant forums about Al Qaeda’s practice of targeting civilians, including large numbers of Muslim civilians, in countries like Iraq, that was on the whole unfavorable to Zawahiri.
Evidence of how politically tone-deaf Zawahiri can be? In mid-April, he issued a video tape calling for Muslims to attack all NATO members for coming to the assistance of Libya’s rebellion.
The no-fly zone NATO is imposing over Libya is hugely popular with the rebellion there, credited as it is with preventing Muammar Qaddafi’s ultimate victory. The rebellion is almost universally supported in neighboring countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where popular uprisings have recently removed their longstanding dictators, with no help or involvement whatsoever from Al Qaeda.