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.

Site Intelligence Group/AFP Photo/Newscom
In this videograb provided by the Site Intelligence Group on April 15, then-al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri delivers a speech encouraging Muslims to rise up against both NATO and Muammar Qaddafi's forces in a newly released video apparently taped before the Western intervention in Libya.

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Several jihadist websites posted a statement Thursday announcing Ayman al-Zawahiri as Al Qaeda's new leader, taking over the terror group after Osama bin Laden was killed in an early May raid in Pakistan.

Mr. Zawahiri's reported selection is no surprise – he was widely perceived as bin Laden's heir apparent. Speculation in mid-May that Al Qaeda would choose another Al Qaeda leader, Egyptian Saif al-Adel, never materialized. According to CNN, one of the statements said that Zawahiri was chosen to honor bin Laden's legacy.

Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding in northwest Pakistan, has a $25 million price on his head from the FBI (the same amount offered for bin Laden) for his involvement in the 1998 bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. After bin Laden's death, he became the world's most-wanted terrorist.

Zawahiri has been Al Qaeda's operational leader for years – he helped plan 9/11 – but he lacks bin Laden's charisma and many Al Qaeda experts say it is unlikely he'll command the loyalty that bin Laden did, The Christian Science Monitor reported last month.

But Mr. Zawahiri, a surgeon and the scion of an upper-class Egyptian family, strikes many as haughty and droning with little of the ability Mr. bin Laden had to inspire. Irascible, he is given to fueling obscure ideological conflicts within jihadi ranks; Al Qaeda itself reportedly split into two factions before bin Laden’s death, with Zawahiri in charge of the spinoff, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Three decades ago, a member of Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad group recognized his lack of leadership, reportedly telling him, “No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader.”

Zawahiri joined Al Qaeda in 1998 and crafted the organization's strategy through several high-profile attacks and campaigns: the USS Cole bombing in 2000 in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks, and the stoking of civil war in Iraq following the US invasion.

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.

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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