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.
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."
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.
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.