Ayman al-Zawahiri: How will he shape Al Qaeda?
Al Qaeda's former No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen worldwide as the top leader of Al Qaeda. But he may lack the charismatic Osama bin Laden's ability to rally followers.
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The two soon fell into each other’s orbit. Zawahiri, a firm believer that the way to defeat “near enemies” such as the Egyptian military dictatorship or the Saudi monarchy was to attack the “far enemy” – the United States – had a strong impact on bin Laden’s own thinking.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Ayman al-Zawahiri: Al Qaeda's new leader
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Following the Soviet Union’s defeat, both men left Afghanistan and Pakistan for a time, and were reunited in Sudan in the early 1990s. Zawahiri was now the leader of the Islamic Jihad in exile, and he and bin Laden were effectively merging their operations.
In 1998 their joint fatwa declaring war on the “Crusaders and the Jews” sealed the deal, and the US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that soon followed foreshadowed the murderous success of 9/11.
Wherever Zawahiri has gone he’s fed squabbling within the ranks. He fought with Abdullah Azzam, a hugely influential anti-Soviet fighter and theologian in the late 1980s over how “expansive” the global jihad should be.
Mr. Azzam believed it should be narrowly focused on lands where infidels were directly oppressing Muslims (in his view). Zawahiri wanted to not only fight the US, but all Muslim governments that cooperated with the US.
Zawahiri also urged the adoption of “takfir,” a practice by which Muslims one doesn’t agree with are declared to be apostates, and thus fair targets for the jihad. Militants like Azzam, who was assassinated in unclear circumstances in Peshawar in 1989, saw this is not only religiously unjustifiable but tactically stupid, a recipe for endless atomization and division.
In 2008, Mr. Sharif wrote that Zawahiri “is only good at fleeing, inciting, collecting donations, and talking to the media." Zawahiri shot back online that Sharif, as a prisoner, was a stooge of US and Egyptian intelligence.
The whole exchange fed online debate in militant forums about Al Qaeda’s practice of targeting civilians, including large numbers of Muslim civilians, in countries like Iraq, that was on the whole unfavorable to Zawahiri.
The no-fly zone NATO is imposing over Libya is hugely popular with the rebellion there, credited as it is with preventing Muammar Qaddafi’s ultimate victory. The rebellion is almost universally supported in neighboring countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where popular uprisings have recently removed their longstanding dictators, with no help or involvement whatsoever from Al Qaeda.