Meet the New Boss

The intelligence community believes that al-Qaeda’s Number Two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will probably succeed his old chum Osama bin Laden as the official head of the organization.  (And when I say “chum,” I do mean chum.  Bon appétit, sharks of the Arabian Sea!)

Zawahiri is a sixty-year-old Egyptian who got into al-Qaeda by founding a Muslim Brotherhood cell called Egyptian Islamic Jihad.  This name suggests he was unaware that the Muslim Brotherhood is a secular organization, as recently explained by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. 

Zawahiri’s group merged with al-Qaeda sometime around 1998.  In that same year, he wrote that “if we are a nation of martyrs, as we claim, all that we need is courage of heart and the will of killers and the belief in what we claim to be love of death for God’s sake.”  His group launched terrorist attacks from the Sudan into Egypt that killed, among many other people, the speaker of the Egyptian parliament and a 12-year-old girl.  Zawahiri said he felt really bad about killing the little girl, “but we were helpless and we had to fight this government, which was against God’s Sharia and supported God’s enemies.”  You can see why bin Laden thought he might be management material.

Zawahiri’s background includes both secular and religious education.  His father was a professor of pharmacology at Cairo University, while his grandfather was the grand imam of al-Azhar University.  Zawahiri himself is a trained physician who served as a surgeon in the Egyptian Army for several years in the 1970s.  During the Eighties, he offered his medical services to the Afghan resistance against Soviet Union forces.  That’s where he met wealthy Saudi and future Navy SEAL bullet sponge Osama bin Laden.

The United States formally indicted Zawahiri for his role in the August 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.  You may recall these attacks from the horribly bungled civilian trial of Ahmed Ghailani in New York City last year, in which the terrorist was acquitted of 224 murder charges because he was subjected to the same “coercive interrogation” techniques that allowed us to hunt down bin Laden.  Ghailani was ultimately convicted on only a single count of “conspiracy to destroy government buildings.”  Hopefully Zawahiri spends more time thinking about what happened to bin Laden.

Zawahiri reportedly has a very different leadership style from the emotional and charismatic bin Laden.  Steve Coll, a journalist who focuses on al-Qaeda and bin Laden, calls Zawahiri “unappealing as a leader” and says he has a record of “alienating his colleagues, and fighting over dogma, even within the Islamist movement.  And as a communicator, he is less effective.  His books are turgid and dogmatic.”  That doesn’t stop Western politicians from getting their books on the best seller lists, but the al-Qaeda crew evidently wants a little more sizzle with their steak.

On the other hand, Tawfiq Hamid, a reformed militant who knew Zawahiri back in his Muslim Brotherhood days, said he’s “much more powerful as a leader” than bin Laden, and “much more organized.”  He’s thought to be a key figure in al-Qaeda’s attempts to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  A New York Times profile says “Experts in Cairo describe Mr. Zawahri as delivering to Al Qaeda the complementary and essential skills of a shrewd intelligence and years of expertise. Many counter-terrorism officials believe that he was more instrumental in the tactical planning of the September 11 attacks than Bin Laden himself.”

It’s not certain that Zawahiri will take over as al-Qaeda’s leader.  In fact, the FBI has not yet decided who will be the new #1 Most Wanted Terrorist, now that Osama bin Laden’s photo has that delightful red ”DECEASED” bar.  The intelligence community isn’t sure where he might be hiding.  Well, they weren’t sure until last Sunday.  Who knows what they’re pulling out of bin Laden’s hard drives?  I like to think al-Qaeda’s heir apparent spent the last couple of days dressed in a burka and huddled under a blanket in the back of a Land Rover, sobbing every time he heard the sound of helicopter blades.