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Terrorism & Security

Ayman al-Zawahiri: Who is Al Qaeda's new leader?

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's operational leader for many years, will succeed Osama bin Laden as the terror group's new chief.

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Zawahiri grew up in a Cairo suburb and was drawn to radical Islam through the writings of Islamist Sayyid Qutb, according to the Monitor. He trained to be a doctor at Cairo University, but became involved with an underground Islamist cell that formed the group Islamic Jihad, responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Zawahiri, who was a leader of Islamic Jihad, was swept up in mass arrests following Mr. Sadat's deaths and was imprisoned. When he was released in 1984, he fled to Pakistan to join Afghanistan's mujahideen, and soon after encountered bin Laden for the first time.

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Zawahiri's philosophy – that "the way to defeat near enemies" such as the Saudi monarchy was to attack the "far enemy" of the US – influenced bin Laden's own thinking, but Zawahiri's obsession with fighting the US caused discord within the ranks of Al Qaeda.

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's belief in takfir has also proven divisive. Al Qaeda often used takfir – dubbing someone who disagrees with you an apostate – as a justification for jihadi suicide attacks. Many others in Al Qaeda saw takfir as lacking religious justification and possessing the potential to divide the organization.

According to Bloomberg, Zawahiri's urging was behind bin Laden's decision to use suicide attackers. He convinced bin Laden those who participated in suicide attacks would be considered martyrs.

In the statement announcing his selection, Al Qaeda also vowed to continue its jihad against the "apostate invaders … with their head being crusader America and its servant Israel," and reiterated that it would not recognize the "so-called" State of Israel nor accept any agreement that recognizes it, Agence France-Presse reports.

Al Qaeda – a Sunni extremist organization – also repeated its support for the uprisings throughout the region, although the Shiite-led uprising in Bahrain was absent from its declaration of support.

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