The 'cave man' and Al Qaeda
A Pakistani journalist who repeatedly interviewed bin Laden says he's not the terror group's main force.
As Osama bin Laden's hand-picked biographer, Hamid Mir says it's about time to set the record straight on America's public enemy No. 1.Skip to next paragraph
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Sure, Mr. bin Laden is a Muslim hero, a veteran of the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But he is just the front man of Al Qaeda, according to Mr. Mir, a Pakistani journalist who was invited by bin Laden to conduct marathon interviews at secret hideouts in 1997 and '98. The real brains of the outfit stand in bin Laden's six-foot five-inch shadow, Mir says, specifically, Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri, often identified as a top lieutenant.
"The modern world is fighting a cave man," says Mir, sitting in the corner office of Daily Ausuf, the Urdu-language newspaper that he edits in Islamabad. "Osama is a person who says, 'If I have to fight, I'll fight in the mountains like I fought against the Soviets.' He'll pack an AK-47, a kilogram of grenades, a kilogram of explosives, and a donkey to carry them all to a cave.
"Zawahiri has a different kind of experience," Mir says. "He is not interested in fighting in the mountains. He is thinking more internationally, involved in militancy inside Egypt. He was behind the terrorist attacks on tourists [the 1997 attack in Luxor left 58 dead]. He is the person who can do the things that happened on Sept. 11."
Figuring out who is the right-hand man of the Al Qaeda terrorist network and who is simply "the man" could mean the difference between ending the war on terrorism and prolonging it for years. Even if US and British commandos manage to find bin Laden's cave in the windswept moonscape of Afghanistan, many experts on Islamic terrorist groups say there are plenty of experienced, motivated fighters who could carry on the work. Besides Dr. Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian radical group Islamic Jihad, they include:
Asad and Ahmad Abdel Rahman, advisers to bin Laden in Afghanistan. They are sons of influential Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the US for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Imad Mughniyeh, a member of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israeli intelligence experts suspect him of involvement in numerous attacks, including the 1983 truck bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 300. Jane's Defense Weekly reported recently that in the six months prior to the Sept. 11 attack, Mr. Mughniyeh was in touch with Al Qaeda operatives.
But none of these men is thought to have the sheer intellectual and persuasive influence of Zawahiri. The son of a Cairo doctor, he became swept up in a branch of political Islam in 1966 at age 15, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that viewed the secular Egyptian government as run by infidels.
"People usually start in their 20s," says Mohammed Salah, an expert on Islamic political and militant groups for Al-Hayat, an international Arabic-language paper published in London. For Zawahiri, "working so young with these groups allowed him to develop a very organizational brain, which was able to create sophisticated organizations."