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The 'cave man' and Al Qaeda

A Pakistani journalist who repeatedly interviewed bin Laden says he's not the terror group's main force.

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It was in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1985, that Zawahiri and bin Laden first met. Both were involved in recruiting and training Muslims to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

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Mir, the Pakistani journalist, says he noticed bin Laden's reliance on the older Zawahiri during extensive interviews about the fatwa, or religious edict, issued by the two men in February 1998. Mir disagreed strongly with the fatwa, which stated that "to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

How could a Muslim call for the killing of innocent people, Mir asked, when the prophet Muhammad forbade Muslims from killing innocent civilians?

The question took bin Laden by surprise. He called for books and commentaries on the Koran, Islam's holy book, and studied them for half an hour. Then he consulted in Arabic with his colleagues, listening in particular to Zawahiri. Finally, bin Laden spoke: "You see, when the innocent people of Palestine were killed by American-made weapons used by Israeli troops who are supported by American taxpayers, your innocent American friends were silent at that time," Mir recalls bin Laden saying. "Their silence proves their guilt."

Even after numerous arguments by bin Laden, Mir wasn't convinced. Bin Laden was gifted at political oratory, Mir says, but his religious knowledge was shallow. "If bin Laden had to give a speech at one of these rallies of people where people shout Osama's name and call for jihad, the crowd would be sorely disappointed," says Mir.

For this and other reasons, Mir says he came to the conclusion that it is Zawahiri, not bin Laden, who has the organizational and mental skills to run Al Qaeda.

Other observers disagree, however, and say that although Zawahiri might have a lot of tactical experience, the idea of a global jihad has been bin Laden's for more than 20 years, while Zawahiri is a comparatively recent convert.

"Ayman al-Zawahiri from the beginning was as all the other ordinary Islamists," says Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "He had his own project to establish an Islamic state here in Egypt, but over the last three years, he has gone closer to the Osama bin Laden theory. It means to fight the enemies of Islam, the Americans and Israelis, but not to build an Islamic state."

"For me it's very clear who is affected by the other," he says. "It's Zawahiri who has changed."

Jamal Ismail, a correspondent for Abu Dhabi Television who has met bin Laden in Peshawar, agrees that he has what it takes to run Al Qaeda. "Mentally he has it, psychologically he has it, financially he has it," says Mr. Ismail. "Even before he came to Afghanistan in 1984, he was talking about jihad, saying we are fighting here in Afghanistan, but our biggest enemy is Israel and the United States."

Staff writer Ilene Prusher in Cairo contributed to this report.