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