Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 19, 2004

A physician who became ideological leader for al-Qaeda
"If he is captured, it is a major, major blow," said one expert.
Zawahiri's anti-Western views go far back.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief deputy in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, was introduced to religious fanaticism at an early age and adopted anti-Western ideology as an adult, with a fury that shook the world.

Now 52, he grew up in a prominent Cairo family and trained as a surgeon before becoming head of Egypt's most dangerous Islamic terrorist organization. When he merged operations with bin Laden in 1998, he became al-Qaeda's strategic and ideological leader, as well as bin Laden's personal physician.

His death or capture would constitute a serious setback for al-Qaeda, say terrorism experts.

"Zawahiri is the strategic architect of al-Qaeda, though not necessarily the operational director," said Kenneth Katzman, the Middle Eastern specialist for the Congressional Research Service. "If he is captured, it is a major, major blow to what we know of as al-Qaeda."

His demise would leave bin Laden the sole leader with global reach in an organization that has become increasingly decentralized since Sept. 11, 2001.

It probably would not halt acts of terrorism, which experts say appear to be organized locally rather than directed by a hierarchy. But taking out such a key player would boost the fight against terrorism, said Daniel L. Byman, assistant professor in Georgetown University's security studies program.

"It would have great symbolic value," Byman said. "It would give a real sense of accomplishment to the war on terror."

Zawahiri was implicated in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat and indicted in New York in 1999 in connection with the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, which killed more than 200. The U.S. government posted a $25 million reward for him.

Zawahiri, whose father was a respected doctor and whose grandfather was an imam at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, was 15 when he joined Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's oldest Islamist group. He graduated from Cairo University's prestigious Faculty of Medicine in 1974.

In the mid-1980s, he left Egypt after spending three years in prison in connection with Sadat's assassination and, like bin Laden, fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan alongside Muslim guerrillas.

In 1993, he took command of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, which waged a violent campaign to establish a pure Islamic state. In 1998, his faction broke away and merged with al-Qaeda, joining the growing international movement to link various Islamist groups.

Among his loyalists was Mohammed Atef, a fellow Egyptian who U.S. officials say would later mastermind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Zawahiri was hiding in Afghanistan during the 2001 U.S. military campaign that followed the terror attacks, and his wife and three daughters were reported by wire services at the time to have been killed by U.S. bombs. He escaped to the rugged mountainous areas along the border with Pakistan and is believed to have been there ever since, protected by tribal Pashtuns.

Al-Qaeda has lost much of its leadership since Sept. 11. Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian who took over as operational leader after Atef's death, was captured in March 2002. Suspected Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh was taken a year after the attacks. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda's alleged number three, was captured last March.

Through it all, Zawahiri continued to spread his message on tapes, including an audiotape broadcast last month on Arabic TV stations that taunted President Bush and threatened more attacks on the United States.

His arrest or death, though significant, would not doom a movement that has taken on a life of its own.

"It's a major step forward," said Byman, the Georgetown terrorism expert, of the possibility. "But this is an organization that has very successfully replaced leaders in the past. Think of it as a big corporation with a lot of leaders waiting in the wings." home page   
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