New al Qaeda chief Zawahri renews devotion to holy war
Osama bin Laden's Egyptian-born lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, has been named the new head of al Qaeda. An obvious successor to Osama bin Laden, Zawahri has vowed to pursue the group’s holy war against the West and its allies.
The new face of global terrorism has a beard, thick-rimmed glasses, and a bump on his forehead. Ayman al-Zawahri was named head of the Islamist militant network al Qaeda on Thursday, according to a statement published on Islamist Web sites.
The 59-year-old Egyptian will succeed Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US operation in Pakistan on May 2. Since the death of America’s public enemy No. 1, Zawahri has become the world’s most wanted man -- the US State Department has had a 25-million-dollar price tag on his head since 1998.
As soon as the matter of bin Laden’s succession arose, terrorism specialists were almost unanimous in predicting that Zawahri would be the logical choice. Al Qaeda’s co-founder and second-in-command, Zawahri was also the group’s mastermind, its principal spokesperson and a close friend of bin Laden. According to journalist and writer Mohamed Sifaoui, who is a specialist in terrorist movements, Zawahri “is very respected in the Islamo-terrorist milieu”.
The new al Qaeda chief’s experience helps explain his prestige within terrorist circles. Born into a bourgeois Cairo family, Zawahri was a surgeon before joining the Muslim Brotherhood at age 15. His role in helping to organise the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat earned him three years behind bars, after which he travelled to Saudi Arabia, the United States and finally Pakistan in the mid-1980s.
Zawahri met bin Laden for the first time in Pakistan during the guerrilla war against the Soviets in neighbouring Afghanistan. They soon parted ways, and Zawahri left to live in Europe in the early 1990s and then moved to Russia, where he recruited militants to fight in Chechnya (an act that landed him in a Russian prison for six months).
Bin Laden’s right-hand man
In 1998, Zawahri met up with bin Laden once again when the group he was leading at the time, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, joined forces with al Qaeda. His name was quickly added to a US black list for having supported attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. He also received a death sentence in Egypt for having planned several attacks, especially one that killed 62 people (of which 58 were foreign tourists) in Luxor in 1997. In the meantime, Zawahri was getting closer to bin Laden, becoming his close confidante and personal doctor (he oversaw treatment for bin Laden’s chronic kidney condition).
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Zawahri has been in hiding. But that has not prevented the media from talking about him from time to time, as when he published messages on the Web in which he slammed Pakistani authorities, the United States, Israel, the UN, several Arab regimes and many European countries, including France. In a video dated June 8, Zawahri renewed his allegiance to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban.
The statement released by al Qaeda on Thursday said the group would continue its holy war under Zawahri's guidance. And the change in leadership might signal that potential targets should be increasingly on their guard. Sifaoui says that global terrorism’s new leader “will absolutely want to put his particular stamp on the job by leading a major terrorist operation”.