From The Chicago Tribune,
Al Qaeda architect's influence raises fear
Bin Laden adviser considered brains behind holy war
By E.A. Torriero and Michael Martinez
Tribune staff reporters
Published November 18, 2001
CAIRO -- The elusive Egyptian doctor might be hiding in a fortified
cave or on the run from American bombs and forces in Afghanistan. He
could be mingling among Westerners in Europe under an assumed name and
in disguise, or among his native Egyptians sipping coffee and tea.
Osama bin Laden may be the public face of global Islamic terrorism,
but Ayman al-Zawahiri, a trained surgeon being hunted around the
world, is its architect.
As the investigation proceeds into the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks in
the United States, al-Zawahiri is emerging as a figure considered to
be as powerful as--if not more powerful than--bin Laden, Western
intelligence sources say.
With another top bin Laden deputy, Mohammed Atef, confirmed dead on
Saturday, al-Zawahiri's leadership becomes even more crucial,
intelligence authorities say. Capturing or eliminating bin Laden
probably would do little to halt Al Qaeda's terrorist activities if
al-Zawahiri remains firmly at the helm, they say.
"I really think he is the most dangerous figure," said Yonah
Alexander, director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism
Studies in Washington. "He was tested in the field. He was tested in
prison. He is a fugitive. He comes with credentials that bin Laden
Before American air strikes sent them fleeing, al-Zawahiri, 50, often
was pictured at bin Laden's side, a portrait of a trusted lieutenant
and elder adviser. Outside the limelight, however, al-Zawahiri is the
brain trust and chief of daily operations in Al Qaeda, say Egyptian
analysts who have followed his violent career.
Al-Zawahiri has surfaced publicly once since the U.S. bombings in
Afghanistan began, sitting with an assault rifle to his right while he
was videotaped reading an anti-American statement. The recording was
transmitted by satellite to a pan-Arab television station last
It is not known when or where the tape was made, but al-Zawahiri
appeared to be countering a Nov. 7 speech by President Bush.
"Let America describe us as [terrorists] as it wants, the truth
remains," he said in clipped sentences while hinting at more terrorist
acts against America. "Its campaign will be a failure, God willing."
Al-Zawahiri's role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon remains unclear. Officially, international intelligence
authorities rank him as "the second most-wanted man in the world"
after bin Laden.
But bin Laden takes many of his cues from al-Zawahiri, according to
intelligence experts inside and outside the Arab world.
In the Muslim war camps of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, al-Zawahiri
indoctrinated the younger bin Laden into deeper Muslim militancy,
eventually steered him away from Arab targets and toward destroying
American interests, and taught him how to build a terrorist network,
"No one has more influence on bin Laden than Zawahiri," said Mohamed
Salah, the Islamic affairs correspondent and expert on Egyptian
terrorism for the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper, based in London. "The
way bin Laden thinks and acts comes directly from being close to
Led model for Al Qaeda
Leading the resurrection of a dormant, violent Islamic cause in Egypt
from exile abroad, al-Zawahiri directed a terrorist hub in Egypt in
the 1990s that became a model for the formation of Al Qaeda, according
to intelligence authorities and reports of testimonies from dozens of
militants brought to trial in the late 1990s in Cairo.
Using a false identity, al-Zawahiri gave orders, raised money and
approved plans to try to destabilize Egypt's moderate government. From
Denmark and Switzerland, he directed a network of some 1,200
radicals--many of whom had fought with al-Zawahiri in the war against
the Soviets in Afghanistan. For much of the 1990s, the radicals
attacked police and politicians, plotted assassinations and planted
bombs, Egyptian authorities say.
Al-Zawahiri leaned heavily on help from his connections who were
allies in Afghanistan. Bin Laden, a Saudi exile who settled in Sudan,
provided arms and money transported by camels to Egypt on a remote
trail known as the "40-day road," according to military court reports
that are usually not made public in Egypt.
Radical Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who taught in central Egypt and still
has hundreds of devoted followers there, issued spiritual battle cries
from America, including from a New York jail cell while on trial for
his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, say some former
colleagues in Egypt.
Several dozen transplanted Egyptians in Europe and the United States
served as financial transfer agents, sent coded messages by telephone
and e-mail, acted as go-betweens in weapons deals, harbored radicals
who learned to fly at U.S. flight schools and were couriers for the
movement, according to reports of confessions in Egyptian courts.
Al-Zawahiri oversaw it all and even traveled to the U.S. to raise
funds, a few suspects reportedly testified.
In the 1990s, their moniker was al-Jihad. In a massive and violent
crackdown, Egyptian forces crushed al-Jihad by decade's end, arresting
thousands and forcing hundreds of others to flee Egypt.
Today, dozens of those who escaped abroad are the backbone of Al
Qaeda, or The Base, Egyptian authorities say. Al-Zawahiri, learning
from al-Jihad's successes and failures in Egypt, has adopted similar
techniques in directing Al Qaeda's campaign against the U.S.
"If you want to understand how Al Qaeda runs today, look at how
Zawahiri led al-Jihad," said a senior Egyptian official in Cairo,
where al-Zawahiri is listed as Egypt's most wanted fugitive.
Said to be in hiding
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, considered almost inseparable before Sept.
11, reportedly are hiding in different camps in Afghanistan or
elsewhere and are likely on the run, recent intelligence reports
suggest. His face nearly hidden by a scraggly beard, al-Zawahiri
appeared with bin Laden on pan-Arab television as the U.S. offensive
against Afghanistan began in early October.
"I could barely recognize him," said Fouad Allam, a former
high-ranking Egyptian anti-terrorism official who interrogated
al-Zawahiri in the 1980s. "He was far more angry and far different
than I remember. He was always of a part of a holy cause. Now he seems
to be the holy cause."
Al-Zawahiri was born in suburban Giza, near the pyramids, to a wealthy
Muslim family with ties to Egypt's elite. His father was a
pharmacology professor at Cairo University. His family has strong ties
to Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old institution of conservative Muslim
Al-Zawahiri grew up in a country split between staunch Muslims who
resisted the increasingly secular government and those who welcomed
As a teenager, al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed
group pushing for a pan-Arab Muslim state. Its members were arrested,
beaten and sometimes executed. Egyptian security officials began their
first files on him when he was 16.
In 1981, Egyptian radicals disguised as soldiers assassinated
President Anwar Sadat, who resisted running Egypt under Islamic law
and allowed the violent crackdown on Muslim militants.
Al-Zawahiri, while on the edge of the movement, was one of thousands
of Muslim radicals rounded up. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison
on a minor weapons possession charge. In the Citadel, a dank prison
that dates to medieval times, he met fellow radical Montasser al-Zayat
in an adjoining cell. They became friends, sharing ideals and plotting
to oust Egypt's secular leadership.
"He had a quiet charisma," al-Zayat said. "He believed strongly in his
After prison, al-Zayat became a lawyer, defending Muslim radicals.
Al-Zawahiri opened a medical clinic in the suburb of Maadi that today
is the center of Cairo's American expatriate life.
The Muslim movement beckoned al-Zawahiri. He left Egypt in 1985 to
join Arabs flocking to the Afghan front to join the war against the
Soviet Union. In 1986, after a brief return to Cairo, al-Zawahiri left
Egypt and reportedly has not been back since. His family, which shuns
interviews, says only that they have had no contact with him since
Al-Zawahiri roamed the conservative Muslim world, crystallizing his
radicalism in Saudi Arabia, where he became enamored of the teachings
of Rahman, who left central Egypt to teach in the strict Saudi
religious environment. Rahman arrived in the United States in July
1990 to spread his brand of Muslim fundamentalism.
Much in common
In 1989, after returning to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri met bin Laden.
They had much in common, including wealthy backgrounds and a zeal for
the fundamentalist Muslim cause.
Al-Zawahiri, by then convinced that the only way to Muslim victory was
through violent overthrow of moderate Arab regimes, became a mentor to
bin Laden, al-Zayat said.
"He became bin Laden's teacher, shaping his mind toward the idea" of
holy war, said al-Zayat, who a decade later defended his friend in a
military court in Cairo that sentenced al-Zawahiri to death in
absentia for terrorist acts inside Egypt. "Bin Laden transformed then,
and that was the basis for Al Qaeda."
When the Afghan war ended, al-Zawahiri became a nomad. He used aliases
and sometimes adopted disguises. He used fake passports to settle
alternately in Pakistan, Sudan and Europe. Reports surfaced that he
was fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He also was in California raising funds under the pretense of
soliciting for Muslim charities, according to Egyptian court
Mainly, though, Egyptian authorities say he was running a resurrected
al-Jihad from abroad.
Al-Jihad took responsibility for failed assassination attempts against
Egypt's Interior Minister Hassan Alfi in August 1993 and Prime
Minister Atef Sedki in November 1993. It claimed to be behind the 1995
bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Then, after militant attacks killed 58 foreign tourists and four
Egyptians in November 1997 in Luxor, al-Jihad imploded. Even longtime
true believers, like al-Zayat, were disgusted by the attacks on
foreigners and renounced violence.
Still, al-Zawahiri had global designs for al-Jihad. He set his sights
on American targets, which he figured were far more vulnerable.
In 1999, al-Zawahiri signed al-Jihad's name to a regional Muslim
declaration forming the "International Islamic Front to Combat Jews
and Crusaders," a group organized by bin Laden.
Al-Zawahiri's remaining followers in Egypt saw his ploy as
self-promotion and dangerous to the well-being of militant Muslims in
They formally severed ties with him, and al-Jihad died in Egypt as its
last remaining members not in jail went underground.
Meanwhile, al-Zawahiri, back in Afghanistan, summoned a band of more
than two dozen al-Jihad foot soldiers from Egypt. In the last few
years, the bin Laden network, led by al-Zawahiri, has been linked to
the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS
Cole in Yemen and September's terrorist attacks, U.S. investigators
Americans are mistaken to think "that if bin Laden goes, then the
entire Al Qaeda collapses and there is no charismatic leader," said
Alexander, the U.S. terrorism expert.
Al-Zawahiri "proved himself over the decades," he said. "We're going
to hear more from him in the coming months."
Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune