Arab elite warms to Al Qaeda leaders

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

Mahfouz Azzam is a prominent Egyptian lawyer who proudly describes himself as an uncle and godfather to Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Mr. Azzam has seen the Al Qaeda videos and listened to the calls for war against the United States. But from his plush office 37 floors above the Nile, he insists "Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have never confessed that they have committed any crime. I challenge the CIA or anyone to prove that they have confessed. They did say that they were pleased with the events of Sept. 11th because they thought maybe it would shock the US into changing its anti-Islamic policies."

Azzam's attitude toward the Al Qaeda leadership, say terrorist experts, is part of a disturbing and growing phenomenon prevalent in intellectual and Islamist circles from Cairo to Riyadh.

In many Arab states nearly 11 months after the September attacks in the United States, there is a steady trend toward historical revisionism that promotes Al Qaeda leaders as the "good guys" and US officials as the "bad guys" in an ethics and morality public relations war that is far from over.

Azzam, who holds the power of attorney for Mr. Zawahiri, slams his fist on the desk, and sounds almost as if he's endorsing the views that led to the killing of innocent civilians on Sept. 11. "Any American civilian who serves against our cause [to liberate Islamic lands] – defends, helps, or pays money against us – should be punished," he says.

So powerful are the forces backing Al Qaeda, that one of the organization's top critics in Egypt agreed this month to remove his book "Ayman Al-Zawahiri, As I Knew Him" from store shelves until a time when Zawahiri is in a position to respond directly to the criticism.

In his book, published earlier this year, Montasser al Zayyat pulled no punches in lambasting Zawahiri as being an Islamic leader both out of touch with Egyptian Islamists and misguided in violently attacking the US. The author's influence in Islamic circles in Egypt and the Middle East is substantial, and he has gained a reputation over the past two decades as a staunch legal defender of accused Islamic militants.

He charged in his paperback that Zawahiri – tortured at the hands of the government and forced to betray Islamist colleagues in the early 1980s – had fled the country and sought recklessly to regain his role as an Islamist leader by, among other things, masterminding attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Pressured to keep quiet

But Mr. al Zayyat's criticism is now muted, due, he admits, to the pressure from Zawahiri's supporters in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

"All these groups, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said you should wait until conditions improve for Ayman," he says, sitting in a swivel chair across from his young daughter in his central Cairo office. He says he wasn't "physically" threatened to pull the book. "I agree that, at the moment, Ayman has limited means of contacting the outside world. If conditions become better, if President George Bush is removed from office, that could change, and there may be an easier way for him to communicate."

Zayyat describes his "old friend" Zawahiri as a stubborn and determined man, driven by a sense that the "wrongs" committed against pure Islam and its followers have to be righted.

Zawahiri's uncle, Azzam, says, however, that Mr. bin Laden's right-hand man began his professional career as a "marvelous, intelligent, and very good doctor;" a modest man who never sought aggrandizement.

As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from the age of 16, Zawahiri began to play a highly secretive role in helping to recruit Islamic dissidents from within the Egyptian military. It was his strategy of trying to change the world from the inside out.

It may have been his interest in this behind-the-scenes work that led Zawahiri to the idea of training Al Qaeda "sleeper cells" in Afghan training camps who would stealthily disperse themselves across the Middle East, the US, and Europe.

Zawahiri's new book

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."

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."

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