Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Al Qaeda has named its second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri to succeed its slain founder and chief Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by US Special Forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in a raid on 2 May, 2011.
The jihadist group issued a statement posted on an Islamist website stating that “the general command of Al Qaeda announces, after consultations, the appointment of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri as head of the group.’ The statement went on to say that “we seek with the aid of God to call for the religion of truth and incite our nation to fight…by carrying out jihad against the apostate invaders…that is led by the crusader America, and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them” adding that Al Qaeda would continue to fight “until all invading armies leave the lands of Islam.”
However just who is Ayman al-Zawahiri?
Ayman al-Zawahiri was born on 19 June, 1951, to a prominent middle-class Cairo family of doctors and scholars. The son of a pharmacology professor, al-Zawahiri was reportedly an intense and studious youth who went on to study medicine at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, becoming a surgeon.
Al-Zawahiri was reportedly involved in Islamist activism from a young age, being involved in the formation of au underground cell which aimed to overthrow the Egyptian government in 1966. Al-Zawahiri’s cell gradually merged with other Islamist cells to form the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group that was responsible for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Following the death of Sadat, hundreds of Egyptian Islamists were arrested, including al-Zawahiri himself. Al-Zawahiri was reportedly tortured by the Egyptian authorities; he served a three-year hail term for illegal arms possession, but was acquitted of the main charges laid against him.
Following his release from prison, al-Zawahiri left Egypt, traveling to Peshawar, Pakistan where he worked in a Red Cross hospital treating wounded refugees. It was here that al-Zawahiri began to reconstruct the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group [EIJ] that had been decimated by the crackdown on extremist Islamists carried out by President Sadat prior to his assassination, as well as the mass arrests that occurred following his death. In 1991, al-Zawahiri formally took over as head of the EIJ, which until then had been nominally led by imprisoned leader Abud al-Zumar.
This period was a critical time in al-Zawahiri’s life, for it also saw a strong change, or indeed radicalization, of al-Zawahiri’s ideology and beliefs. Until this point, al-Zawahiri had focused on national objectives, namely overthrowing the Egyptian government; however he retreated from this viewpoint, embracing the concept of takfirism [the practice of declaring somebody an apostate] and international Islamism. It was also during this period that al-Zawahiri first encountered Osama Bin Laden.
The EIJ carried out several terrorist operations under al-Zawahiri’s leadership, including an attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995, killing 17. Al-Zawahiri also helped to organize the November 1997 Luxor Massacre killing 58 foreign tourists. Al-Zawahiri was sentenced to death in absentia in 1999 by an Egyptian military tribunal for his extremist activities.
On 23 February, 1998, al-Zawahiri issued a joint fatwa with Osama Bin Laden entitled “World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders”, effectively setting up what later became known as the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Many believe that al-Zawahiri, not Bin Laden, was responsible for writing this fatwa. The EIJ merged with Al Qaeda, with Bin Laden being appointed as Emir, and al-Zawahiri as his deputy.
Al Qaeda first came to the attention of the wider world following the 1998 United States embassy bombings on 7 August 1998. Hundreds of people were killed in simultaneous truck bomb explosions at the United States embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. This attack set the template for subsequent Al Qaeda operations, namely large-scale attacks designed to hit multiple targets and cause widespread panic. The FBI placed Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri on its Ten Most Wanted list following this attack.
Al Qaeda also hit the headlines following the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 in the Yemeni port of Aden, which resulted in the deaths of 17 American sailors. However the September 11 attacks were by far Al Qaeda’s most deadly operation, although it is unknown what, if any, role al-Zawahiri played in their planning and preparation. It was this attack, which saw hijacked airliners being crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon, and which resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,000 people that ultimately precipitated the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri – along with Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership – went into hiding. Al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts are still unknown, but he is generally thought to be hiding out in the Pakistani tribal area.
Although al-Zawahiri is not generally thought to be as charismatic as Osama Bin Laden, some believe that he may prove to be as effective a leader as the Al Qaeda founder. Egyptian Islamist lawyer, Montasser el-Zayet, who was jailed with al-Zawahiri, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “I believe that al-Zawahiri was the brains behind Bin Laden.” Whilst Egyptian Islamist and director of the London-based “Al-Maqrizi Center”, Dr. Hani al-Sibai told Asharq Al-Awsat that al-Zawahiri is “the eldest of the remaining Al Qaeda leadership, and the most committed to jihadist operation, and he is one of the founders of this organization.”
Al-Zawahiri has written a number of books, including “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner” which outlines Al Qaeda’s ideology, as well as “Bitter Harvest”, “Loyalty and Disloyalty”, “The Black Book”, and “Allaying the Anger in the Believers.”
Al-Zawahiri has continued to make audio and video statements whilst in hiding, condemning former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as Queen Elizabeth II and England as being “the severest enemies of Islam.” He referred to former US President George W. Bush as being “a curse on your own nation”, whilst later referring to his successor, US President Barack Obama, as being a “house negro.” On 8 June 2011, al-Zawahiri issued his first video message since the death of Osama Bin Laden, warning that Bin Laden would continue to “terrify” the US from beyond the grave. He said “the Sheikh [Bin Laden] has departed, may God have mercy on him, as a martyr, and we must on his path of jihad to expel the invaders from the land of Muslims and to purify it from injustice.” He added “Today, and thanks be to God, America is not facing an individual or a group…but a rebelling nation which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadist renaissance challenging it wherever it is.”