Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Osama bin Laden: High Priest of Terror

Right Hand Man

While much of the world's attention has been focused on bin Laden, one man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to be bin Laden's principle adviser and tactician.  Originally described by CNN as "a bespectacled physician from a prominent Egyptian family," he is now one of the world's most wanted terrorists.  According to Simon Reeve, author of "The New Jackals," al-Zawahiri has used many aliases including Abu Muhammad, Abu Fatima, Muhammad Ibrahim, Abu Abdallah, Abu al-Mu'iz, The Doctor, The Teacher, Nur, Ustaz, Abu Mohammed, Abu Mohammed Nur al-Deen and Abdel Muaz.

He was born in Cairo on June 19, 1951.  Like bin Laden, his family were well to do and lived a privileged lifestyle in an upper-class suburb.  His father was a prominent physician and his grandfathers were well-respected scholars.  Mahfouz Azzam, al-Zawahiri's uncle, described his nephew as "a quiet, studious and deeply religious child."

While studying during the 1960's, al-Zawahiri became involved in the Islamic fundamentalist movement and joined a terrorist group called "The Muslim Brotherhood," which, according to  Jane's Intelligence Review, was "founded in the 1920s and still active in the 1960s."  

After graduating from medical school, he became a licensed physician and worked as a surgeon before making his first trip to Afghanistan in 1979.  

Three years later, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists for "attempting to make peace with Israel."  al-Zawahiri was one of the people rounded up and charged for his alleged involvement and, although acquitted, he was convicted on an unrelated weapons charge and sent to prison for three years.

By the time of his release he had become a leading militant with strong following and even became the ad hoc "spokesman for imprisoned Islamic terrorists."   He took control of what was left of the Islamic Jihad and built it into a formidable unit.   These militant activities soon came under the scrutiny of the Egyptian government and he was forced to move his power base to Afghanistan.

It was during this time that al-Zawahiri allegedly met bin Laden and, finding much in common, the two soon forged a friendship and a strong alliance.   According to the Center for Defense Information, al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad and bin Laden's al Qaeda remained separate entities until 2001 when they were "formally merged."

The pair became prominent in 1998 when they formed the "World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders," an organization who's principle goals were "to eliminate all U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, the U.N. embargo against Iraq and Israel's control of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem." 

As part of their deadly alliance, they also issued a fatwa, (declaration), stating: "The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim."

Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden were later indicted for "allegedly masterminding the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998."   

While his many roles have become somewhat blurred, it is alleged that he was principally a fundraiser who traveled as far afield as California to collect for the cause.  

Al Zawahiri forensic photos progression
Al Zawahiri forensic photos progression

Traveling under one of his many aliases, al Zawahiri's movements were often directed by Ali Mohammed, a senior al Qaeda agent, member of both the Egyptian and U.S. armies, and an FBI informant.  This was an influential mix for someone who was also alleged to be bin Laden's director of security.

In 1991, al Zawahiri released a book titled Bitter Harvest, a rambling diatribe in which he describes the "failures" of his predecessors to advance the Islamic cause and attempts to justify the mayhem and murder committed under the general guise of jihad.

A second book, Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, allegedly written in an Afghani cave while under heavy bombardment from U.S. forces, attempts to justify his own life as a terrorist and includes the following:

"I have written this book for an additional reason, namely, to fulfill the duty entrusted to me towards our generation and future generations. Perhaps I will not be able to write afterwards in the midst of these worrying circumstances and changing conditions. I expect that no publisher will publish it and no distributor will distribute it.

"(Jihadists) possess a quality that their enemies cannot hope to acquire. They are the people who most eloquently bear witness to their God's power, Who has given them a strength drawn from His Own strength, until they have turned from a scattered few who possess little and know little, into a power that is feared and that threatens the stability of the new world order.

"The Arab and Western media are responsible for distorting the image of the Arab Afghans (volunteer Arab fighters who traveled to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s) by portraying them as obsessed half-mad people who have rebelled against the United States that once trained and financed them."

Many terrorism experts, including CNN's Patrick Bergen, consider al Zawahiri more dangerous than bin Laden.   He is "sort of the brains of the operation," Bergen said.

He has the reputation of being both intellectually and ideologically superior to his partner in crime and, according to The New Yorker, al Zawahiri "helped inspire the relatively recent formation of a terrorist group among the traditionally moderate Kurds, who were among America's few allies in the war against Iraq.

While analysts believe that bin Laden has the following and provided a large percentage of the funds that went towards the emergence of Al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri is credited by the same experts as being "the intellect and ideological driving force behind the organization."

It was he, they argue, who successfully merged al-Jihad with three other groups, including bin Laden's own forces, for the purpose of taking the fight inside the USA.  

According to Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on Islamic militants, al-Zawahiri's has a great deal more experience than Bin Laden and has been linked in some way to every Muslim group since the 1970s.

Forensic enhanced photo of how Al Zawahiri may look
Forensic enhanced photo of how Al Zawahiri may look

Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for al-Zawahiri alleging that he "masterminded several terrorist operations in Egypt" and accuses him of "criminal complicity and management for the purpose of committing premeditated murders."

Since September 11, al-Zawahiri has appeared in two videos screened by the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, in which he vehemently attacks the United States.  

It was also al-Zawahiri who rang a Pakistani paper following U.S. cruise missile attacks on al Qaeda hideouts.   "The war has started," he told a reporter, "The Americans should wait for an answer … Tell the Americans that we are not afraid of the bombardment, threats and acts of aggression. We suffered and survived Soviet bombings for 10 years in Afghanistan, and we are ready for more sacrifice."

Many terrorism experts now believe that if bin Laden were to be captured or killed, it would be al-Zawahiri who would take over.

At present, al Zawahiri is thought to be hiding in the mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same area where bin Laden is said to be.


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