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Arab elite warms to Al Qaeda leaders

Al Qaeda biographer stops sales of book because it's too critical.

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In his own book, "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," (apparently penned in or near the caves of Tora Bora last autumn and published in December as a series in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, an Arabic- language newspaper in London) Zawahiri describes his role as an educator and someone determined to help young Muslims see the enemy in his true colors: "In the training camps and on the battlefronts, our Muslim youths have developed a broad awareness and a fuller realization of the conspiracy that is being weaved against them. They developed an understanding based on Shari'ah of the enemies of Islam, the renegades, and their collaborators."

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Zayyat says that during a trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, he was approached by several other supporters of Al Qaeda and scolded for his criticism. "I hadn't really realized how popular these two men [bin Laden and Zawahiri] had become."

Earlier this month, Zayyat posted a statement on several Islamic Internet sites titled: "An Explanation and an Apology." He writes: "I have high respect and appreciation for brother Al-Zawahiri. I respect his opinions and his thoughtful visions. The depth of my love for him is sufficient to overcome any crisis in my relationship with him."

Zawahiri is widely considered by Western terrorist experts to be the "brains behind Osama bin Laden," the man who helped bin Laden formulate his principles for a "holy war." In 1997, Zayyat helped to gain assurances from leading Egyptian militant groups that they would discontinue violent attacks in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, Zawahiri, who leads Al-Jihad, one of the country's two largest militant groups, signed a pact with bin Laden calling for armed operations against the US and Israel, a stance that contradicted his own earlier calls to first complete the overthrow of the regime in Egypt before taking on new targets.

Playing the Palestinian card

Stanley Bedlington, a US-based counterterrorism expert, says that the Al Qaeda strategy to embrace the Palestinian issue and highlight the US and Israel as enemies has worked to the group's favor in the Middle East since Sept.11.

"With tensions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue still on the rise, there is little room for moderation in the Arab world," he says. "The Al Qaeda appeal to this broader base of Arab public opinion, which began in 1998, has been successful as far as I can see. There is, unfortunately, a growing disconnect between moderate Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, which are toeing the US line, and a growing well-stream of internal hatred against both the US and these governments."

Zawahiri's support in Egypt is mostly limited to intellectual and Islamist circles. His colleague-in-arms, bin Laden, has a much greater man-in-the-street appeal in the country's many impoverished districts.

Zayyat says, however, that Zawahiri's support is growing. "The number of people who like him has been on the rise," he says. "It is largely a matter of the mystique that surrounds the man. Indeed, the US, by attacking him so often, is indirectly succeeding to make him a greater hero."

While Egyptian authorities keep a tight lid on public displays of appreciation for Al Qaeda, Zawahiri's name is now dropped in teahouse conversations, and he is more often discussed on the pages of some clandestine Islamist publications.

Some of Zawahiri's strongest advocates in Cairo live in the posh neighborhood of Maadi where the Egyptian doctor was born into a wealthy and prominent family. His grandfather was the first secretary general of the Arab League and his father is a respected professor of medicine.

Lawyer Azzam says that his relative, Zawahiri, whom he defended in 1981 against charges that he was involved in a conspiracy to kill Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, has never sought fame, but, rather, was born with the "qualities of a great man."

He says that Zawahiri's neighbors and extended family still long for the day he will return home.

"Millions of Muslims in the world are proud of his words and they all have the same cause which is the liberation of Palestine," he insists. "Muslims feel that the US is an aggressive country – a superpower without morality."