March 13, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 127

Radical Islamist Profiles (3): Ayman Muhammad Rabi' Al-Zawahiri: The Making of an Arch Terrorist

March 13, 2003 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 127

The following report appeared in the winter 2002 edition of the journal "Terrorism and Political Violence."[1] It was authored by Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli, senior analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.


Few individuals have had a more central role in articulating and practicing terrorism than Ayman Al-Zawahiri.[2] Though born into the Egyptian aristocracy and trained as a surgeon, this gifted individual has always been attracted to the most extreme forms of Islam. In 1998 he brought his Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization into a union with the forces of Osama bin Laden, known as Al-Qa'ida (the base), in the effort to create a globalized network of terror whose capacities were demonstrated on September 11, 2001, as well as in the earlier destruction of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and in the damage inflicted on the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden.


Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a surgeon by profession, is the head of the Egyptian "Islamic Jihad" and second in command of the Al-Qa'ida organization. He is the intellectual and ideological force behind it and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thoughtin London, says Al-Zawahiri "is their ideologue…His ideas negate the existence of common ground with other Islamist groups."[3]

Following the air attacks by the United States on the Al-Qa'ida bases in Afghanistan, and fearing that he might be killed, Al-Zawahiri was able to smuggle to England a short manuscript detailing the evolution and the travails of the Islamic Jihad and his association with the Islamist movements in Egypt and, ultimately, with bin Laden. The book, titled "Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet," with the subtitle "Reflections into the Jihad Movement," was serialized in the London-based, Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat between December 2-12, 2001.[4] In addition, "a combination of happenstance and the opportunism of war" allowed a reporter of the Wall Street Journal to acquire for $1100 in Kabul Al-Qa'ida computers left behind following the escape of their operators. The reporter was able to download hundreds of files regarding the organization, particularly concerning Al-Zawahiri's internal correspondence and mode of operation.[5]

Al- Zawahiri – An Extremist Sui Generis

The Formative Years

Most rank-and-file members of the terrorist movement in Egypt, the Islamic Jihad, come from a peasant stock or from the slums of the Egypt's large cities, mired in poverty and driven by despair. Ayman Al-Zawahiri does not fall into a typical category of Egyptian extremists-- socially, economically or intellectually.[6] He comes from a distinguished family that seems never to have faced social or economic hardships; many of its members would be considered part of the elite in any society.

Al-Zawahiri's family has its roots in the Harbi tribe from Zawahir, a small town in Saudi Arabia, located in the "Badr" area where the first battle between Prophet Muhammad and the infidels was fought and won by the Prophet.[7] Ayman Al-Zawahiri's great grandfather, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Zawahiri came to Egypt in the 1860s and settled in the city of Tanta in the Nile Delta where a mosque still bears his name. His grandfather, Sheikh Al-Ahmadi Al-Zawahiri was the Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. His father, Muhammad Rabi' Al-Zawahiri was a professor of pharmacology at Ein Shams University who passed away in 1995. His maternal grandfather, Abd Al-Wahab Azzam, was a professor of oriental literature and president of Cairo University as well as the Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and was so known for his piety that he was referred to as "the devout ambassador." His grandfather's brother, Abd Al-Rahman Azzam [pasha], became the first Secretary General of the Arab League.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri was born on 1 June 1951, in Cairo's Al-Ma'adi neighborhood. After graduating in 1968 from the Al Ma'adi secondary school he enrolled in the medical college of Cairo University and graduated, cum laude, in 1974, with an MD degree. He received a master's degree in surgery in 1978 and was married in 1979 to Izzat Ahmad Nuwair who had graduated from Cairo University with a degree in philosophy but who met the criteria of "a devout wife." Al-Zawahiri's wife bore him one daughter in Cairo and at least three other daughters and a son elsewhere, but no information on his children is available.[8] He has two brothers -- Hassan, who studied engineering and lives outside Egypt, and Muhammad, who followed Ayman's path to Jihad and is reported to have vanished in Afghanistan.[9]

Becoming Islamist

At a young age, Al-Zawahiri began reading Islamist literature by such authors as Sayyid Qutb, abu Alaa Al Mawdudi and Hassan Al Nadwya. Sayyid Qutb was one of the spiritual leaders of Islamic religious groups, especially the violent Jihad groups. While other Islamists at the time, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, were looking to change their societies from within, Qutb was an influence on Zawahiri and others like him, "to launch something wider."[10] But like most Islamists before him and after, Qutb's world views, defined in his book "Ma'alim 'Ala Al-Tariq (Signposts on the Road), published in 1957, was predicated on a perfect dichotomy between believers and infidels, between Shari'a (Islamic law) and the law of the infidels, between tradition and decadence and between violent change and sham legitimacy. To quote Qutb himself, "In the world there is only one party, the party of Allah; all of the others are parties of Satan and rebellion. Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of rebellion." In his book, Al-Zawahiri asserts that the Jihad movement had begun its march against the government in the mid-1960s when the Nasserite regime confined to prison 17,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood and hanged Sayyed Qutb, the leading thinker of the movement at the time.

At the age 15, Zawahiri joined "Jam'iyat Ansar al-Sunnah Al-Muhammadiyya," (The Association of the Followers of Muhammad's Path);[11] a "Salafi" (Islamic fundamentalist) movement led by Sheikh Mustafa Al-Fiqqi, but soon left it to join the Jihad movement. By the age of 16, he was an active member of a Jihad cell headed by Sa'id Tantawi. Tantawi trained Al-Zawahiri to assemble explosives and to use guns. In 1974, the group split because the group declared Tantawi's brother as kafir (infidel) because he fought under the banner of kuffar or infidels which characterized the Egyptian army. In 1975, after the split, Tantawi went to Germany (and is said to have disappeared) and Ayman took over the leadership of the cell. He immediately organized a military wing under Issam Al-Qamari, an active officer in the Egyptian army at the time (Al-Qamari became Al-Zawahiri's closest friend and ally. In his book, Al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him, lawyer Muntasir Al-Zayyat maintains that under torture of the Egyptian police, following his arrest in connection with the murder of President Sadat, Al-Zawahiri revealed the hiding place of Al-Qamari which led to his arrest and eventual execution). Al-Zawahiri's extreme caution and secretive nature spared him the attention of police. To aid their secrecy the group avoided growing beards like most Islamists, and hence they were known as "the shaven beards."

The Radicalization of Al-Zawahiri

The defeat of Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967 has further radicalized Al-Zawahiri and his generation. As he points out in his memoirs:

"The most important event that influenced the Jihad movement in Egypt was the "Naksa" (or "the Setback") of 1967. The idol, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, fell. His followers tried to portray him to the people as if he was the eternal leader who could never be defeated. The tyrant leader who used to threaten and pledge in his speeches to wipe out his enemies turned into a winded man chasing a peaceful solution to save at least a little face."

Abd Al-Nasser was consumed by termites and he fell on his face amid the panic of his followers. The Jihad movement got stronger, realizing that the enemy was nothing but an idol created by the propaganda machine and the tyrannical campaigns against innocent people. The Nasserist movement was knocked out when Gamal Abd Al-Nasser died three years after "the Setback" and after the destruction of the legend about the Arab nationalist leader who will throw Israel into the sea.

Abd Al-Nasser's crowded funeral was nothing but evidence of the coma that the Egyptian people were living through. It was the farewell for a leader that the Egyptians soon replaced with a new leader who took them to another direction and started to sell them a new illusion.[12]

At the age of 24, Al-Zawahiri's intellectual development was greatly enhanced by Dr. Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian, who came to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University. His studies at Al-Azhar convinced Azzam of the role of Islamic Jihad as the solution to social and political problems. Azzam would become the spiritual leader of the movement of Arab and Muslim volunteers to the Jihad in Afghanistan, and the spiritual father of Osama bin Laden. (Azzam was blown up with his two sons in their car in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989, and their murder has remained unsolved).[13]

Al-Zawahiri's advancement in the Jihad movement was relatively rapid. In a recent book by Muhammad Salah on The Afghani Arab Journey to Jihad, the author considers Al-Zawahiri as a distinctive phenomenon. Not only was Zawahiri's background different from most radical Islamists but also his rapid rise to the top and his "heavy-weight impact on the thoughts of the various Islamic movements, in general, and on the Jihad Movement, in particular, was phenomenal."[14] Indeed, by the early 1970s, barely 20 years old, Al-Zawahiri had obtained the rank of "amir" (or leader of a group or front) when he was implicated in the murder of President Anwar al-Sadat.[15]

Sadat's Legacy and the Rise of Religious Extremism

When Anwar Al-Sadat had become President of Egypt upon the death of Gamal Abd Al-Nasser in September 1970, he envisioned Egypt as "The State of Science and Faith." After years of suppression by Nasser, Muslim organizations, in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, were permitted, indeed encouraged, by Sadat to operate openly. In the words of Al-Zawahiri, "Sadat let the genie [the Jihad movement] out of the bottle." This was also "a time of political change from the Russian era to the American era" in the political life of Egypt.[16]

Sadat himself was either a former member or sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he had a soft spot for them. In fact, during the Sadat reign, Egypt underwent a process of clericalization, as measured by the number of hours devoted to religious programs in the official Egyptian media, particularly Egyptian television. In 1963, religious programming on television did not exceed 2.3% of televised time but it rapidly increased to 8.97% in 1973 and to 9.54% in 1980. In terms of programming hours, televised religious programs increased from 528 hours in 1973 to 754 hours in 1980/81 or to an average of about two hours a day. On Sadat's orders, the five daily Muslim prayers were televised live.[17]

By the time the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood began emerging from long imprisonments imposed by the Nasser regime, many of them were now in their 50s and had lost touch with the Egyptian street, particularly with its young generation. In fact, the younger Islamists had already been drawn to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose book, Ma'alim 'ala Al-Tariq (referred to earlier), which was outlawed in Egypt, has become a primer for all radical Islamic movements. Sadat, who considered the Nasserites and the leftists as his principal enemies, overlooked the looming danger from the Islamic extremist movements that were advocating the violent overthrow of the regime and the establishment of a new regime founded on fundamental Islamic principles. These radical Islamic movements, operating under Sadat's benevolence, would soon consume him. The Islamist movement itself lived to regret the assassination of Sadat which unleashed a severe reprisal against them. In the words of Al-Zawahiri:

"After Sadat's assassination the torture started again, to write a new bloody chapter of the history of the Islamic movement in Egypt. The torture was brutal this time. Bones were broken, skin was removed, bodies were electrocuted and souls were killed, and they were so despicable in their methods. They used to arrest women, make sexual assaults, call men with women's names, withhold food and water and ban visits. And still this wheel is still turning until today…The Egyptian army turned its back toward Israel and directed its weapon against its people."[18]

Although not directly involved in the planning for the assassination of Sadat (whom he characterizes as an American agent) Al-Zawahiri alleges that the attempt on Sadat's life was part of a larger plot to liquidate as many of Egyptian leaders as possible. In reality, no one but Sadat was assassinated. Al-Zawahiri also relates the attempt to assassinate President Husni Mubarak on his way to perform the Eid prayers in a mosque. The presidential motorcade took a different route and the attempt had failed.[19]

Al-Zawahiri Shifts His Vision and Activity Abroad

Al-Zawahiri's association with Afghanistan, which eventually led to his alliance with bin Laden, started a little over a year before his arrest in connection with the assassination of Sadat. While holding a temporary job in Al Sayyeda Zaynab clinic, operated by the Muslim Brotherhood in one of Cairo's poor areas, Al-Zawahiri was asked about going to Afghanistan to take part in a relief project. He found the request "a golden opportunity to get to know closely the field of Jihad, which could be a base for Jihad in Egypt and the Arab world, the heart of the Islamic world where real battle for Islam exists."[20]

He spent the next 4 months in Peshawar, Pakistan. For him, this experience was providential because it opened his eyes to the wealth of opportunities for Jihad action in Afghanistan. His previous attempt to find a base for a Jihad movement in Egypt was not successful because, he says, "the Nile Valley falls between two vast deserts without vegetation or water which renders the area unsuitable for guerilla warfare, and which also made the Egyptian people submit to the central authority."

Al-Zawahiri completed his prison term at the end of 1984. In his memoirs he writes that for personal reason he was unable to leave Egypt until 1986 to rejoin the jihad in Afghanistan. Thus, in 1986, he left Egypt for Saudi Arabia under a contract with Ibn Al-Nafis Hospital. However, he would soon depart to Pakistan to join the thousands of so-called Arab Afghans who flocked to Peshawar to help the Afghan Mujahedeen fight the war against the Soviet Union. In his second trip to Peshawar, he worked as a surgeon in the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Hospital. Eventually, he would go to the war zone for three months at a time to perform surgeries on wounded fighters, often with primitive tools and rudimentary medicines. At the same time, he opened the "Islamic Jihad" bureau in Peshawar to serve both as a liaison point for new Mujahedeen and a recruitment agency. Peshawar itself was both a gateway city and staging ground for the Mujahedeen.

In Afghanistan, Al-Zawahiri would find the perfect place for his Jihad movement to gain "operational, military, political and organizational" experience. In Afghanistan, Muslim youth fought a war "to liberate a Muslim country under purely Muslim banners." For him, this was a significant matter because everywhere else wars were fought under "nationalist banners mingled with Islam and sometimes even with leftist and communist banners." The case of Palestine, he says, is a good example where banners got mingled and where the nationalists allied themselves with the devil and lost Palestine. For Al-Zawahiri, when wars are fought not under pure Islamic banners but rather under mixed banners, the boundaries between the loyalists and the enemies get confused in the eyes of the Muslim youth. Is it, he asks, the external enemy who occupies the land of Islam or the internal enemy who prevents the rule of Islam and "spreads debauchery and decay under the banner of progress, freedom, nationalism and liberation?" In Afghanistan, the picture was very clear: "a Muslim people fighting [a Jihad] under the banner of Islam against an infidel external enemy supported by corrupt internal system." He went on to write:

The most important thing about the battle in Afghanistan was that it destroyed the illusion of the superpower in the minds of the young Muslim Mujahedeen. The Soviet Union, the power with the largest land forces in the world, was destroyed and scattered, running away from Afghanistan before the eyes of the Muslim youth. This Jihad was a training course for Muslim youth for the future battle anticipated with the superpower which is the sole leader in the world now, America.[21]

The Struggle with Competing Islamist Groups

In 1988, three leaders of the Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya, which was in disagreement with Al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad, arrived in Peshawar from Egypt, headed by Muhammad Shawqi Al-Islambuli, the brother of Sadat's assassin, Khaled Al-Islambuli, to challenge Al-Zawahiri. The Al-Islambuli's group was funded by Saudi Arabia. Soon conflict erupted between these two extremist groups, the Jama'a and the Islamic Jihad, particularly with the publication of a magazine called "Al-Murabitoon" by Al-Jama'a, and another magazine, Al-Fath by Al-Zawahiri. Al-Murabitoon accused Al-Zawahiri of depositing in his Swiss bank account money he had collected to support the Mujahedeen. He was also accused of selling arms provided by bin Laden and using the proceeds to buy gold nuggets. In the face of these accusations, some relief agencies decided to cut off their aid to Al-Zawahiri, and the need for funds forced him to seek assistance from Iran. This move further alienated the Gulf countries, particularly, Saudi Arabia which henceforth channeled all its aid to Al-Jama'a. By the time the Soviet Union started pulling out of Afghanistan in 1992 the conflict between the two groups reached the stage of mutual accusation of Takfir, or apostasy, and individual acts of assassination. Al-Zawahiri emerged the winner from this conflict, largely because of bin Laden's support and because of the murder of Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual leader of bin Laden.

Militant Jihad: the New Paramount Ideology

In Peshawar, Al-Zawahiri drew a strict distinction between his movement, the Islamic Jihad, and other competing Islamist movements; for example, Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiya and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In his book, Al-Hisad Al-Murr (The Bitter Harvest) Al-Zawahiri articulates his violence-driven and inherently anti-democratic instincts. He sees democracy as a new religion that must be destroyed by war. He accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of sacrificing Allah's ultimate authority by accepting the notion that the people are the ultimate source of authority. He condemns the Brotherhood for renouncing Jihad as a means to establish the Islamic State. He is equally virulent in his criticism of the Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiya for renouncing violence and for upholding the concept of constitutional authority. He condemns the Jama'a for taking advantage of the Muslim youth's enthusiasm which "it keeps in its refrigerators as soon as the young people have joined its movement or seek to direct them toward conferences and elections (rather than toward Jihad)."[22]

Al-Zawahiri takes his criticism a step further by characterizing the Muslim Brotherhood as "kuffar" (infidels.) Their adherence to democracy to achieve their political goals means giving the legislature rights that belong to Allah. Thus, he who supports democracy is, by definition, infidel. "For he who legislates anything for human beings," writes Al-Zawahiri, "would establish himself as their god." Since democracy is founded on the principle of political sovereignty, which becomes the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, whoever accepts democracy is an infidel. He deplores the Muslim Brotherhood for mobilizing the masses of youth "to the ballot box" instead of mobilizing them to the ranks of Jihad. He criticizes the Brotherhood for extending bridges of understanding to the authorities that rule them. These bridges become part of a package or a quid pro quo: the rulers allow the Brotherhood a degree of freedom to spread their beliefs and the Brotherhood acknowledges the legitimacy of the regime. For him, those who have been endorsing this philosophy cannot be trusted even if they were to split from the Brotherhood. Their minds are forever polluted and set in stone.

Al-Zawahiri draws attention to the enormous financial wealth of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. This "material prosperity," he argues, is the result of the Brotherhood's leaders who escaped Nasser's oppression and took over regional and international banks and businesses. Joining the Brotherhood, says Al-Zawahiri, guarantees the young recruits the means of making a living and, hence, their activities are driven more by materialistic than spiritual considerations.[23]

In his memoirs, "Knights under the Banner of the Prophet" Al-Zawahiri responds to the criticism leveled against him for his strident condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood. While he concedes that, as a human being, he may have erred in some details, he still considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a movement that grows organizationally but commits suicide ideologically and politically. One of the most visible aspects in the political suicide is their support of the election of President Mubarak in 1987. He goes on to use a medical metaphor to makes his point:

It is not expected of the physician to tell the patient that your brain is healthy and your heart is healthy and your kidneys are healthy and your other body parts are in good shape except your stomach which has a cancer. It is incumbent on the physician to tell the patient that his life is in danger from a serious disease and it is incumbent on the patient to start treatment quickly or he will face ruin.[24]

The Merger of the Jihad and Al-Qa'ida

While the ideological war with Al-Zawahiri's rivals was ongoing, the relationship between him, as the head of the Egyptian Jihad organization, and bin Laden, as the head of the Al-Qa'ida, strengthened. The two have agreed that the Islamic Jihad should retain its identity as an essentially Egyptian organization while the Al-Qa'ida was to remain a multi-national organization and, in time, it became the melting pot of the "Afghan Arabs", or volunteers to the Mujahedeen ranks.

At the end of this war in 1990, Al-Zawahiri may have preferred to stay in Afghanistan but the new mujahedeen government in Kabul, under Burhan Al-Din Rabbani, sought to get rid of the "Afghan Arabs," Al-Zawahiri thus looked for a reliable base to reorganize and, thus, he followed bin Laden to Sudan. Always security-conscious and secretive, to throw up a false trail he announced on his way to Sudan, that he was granted political asylum in Switzerland and when he returned to Afghanistan after three years in Sudan, he announced that he had selected Bulgaria as the country of asylum.

The New Base in Sudan

In 1989, a new Islamic Front, led by Dr. Hassan Turabi, took over power in Sudan and instituted a new Islamist regime which favored Islamic fundamentalist movements everywhere. It was a perfect environment for bin Laden and Al-Zawahri to establish bases in the country. Farms were purchased and converted into military training basis for four years, between 1992 and 1996.[25]

Bin Laden invested heavily in Sudan which was undergoing a severe economic crisis. His investments bought him and Al-Zawahiri a secure refuge and a number of their key followers. Al Zawahiri had become concerned that Sudan, under international pressure, might betray them for financial gains as it did in the case of Carlos (the Venezuelan Marxist terrorist). The two of them looked for a new base of operation and found themselves welcomed only by the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, Al-Zawahiri first went to Yemen where he established three boot camps—Badr, Al-Qadisiyya, and Maraqesha—which attracted volunteers from Egypt, Sudan, Afghanistan and even from some sub-Saharan African countries. The volunteers who were called "Talai' Al-Fath" (the Vanguards of Victory) received training in guerilla warfare, including sabotage activities.

From Yemen Al-Zawahiri was involved in a number of terrorist initiatives. In 1994, he organized an attempt to murder the Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sidqi in Cairo, but the attempt failed. He followed that attempt with another one to blow up a bus carrying Israeli tourists to the famous old bazaar in Cairo, Khan al-Khalili, at the height of the tourist season. This attempt also failed but resulted in the arrest of 107 suspects. Al-Zawahiri was successful, however, in blowing up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, for allegedly gathering information on the Jihad Movement. In his memoirs, Al-Zawahiri explains this event:

"We had to react to the Egyptian government's expansion of its campaign against Egyptian fundamentalists outside the country. So we decided to target a painful goal for all the parties of this evil alliance. After studying the situation we decided to assign a group to react to this and we assigned their targets, first bombing the American embassy in Islamabad and if that wasn't easy, then one of the American targets in Islamabad. If that didn't work, then the target should be bombing a Western embassy famous for its historic hatred for Muslims, and if not that, then the Egyptian embassy. Our extensive and detailed surveillance found that targeting the American Embassy was beyond the abilities of the assigned group, so we decided to study one of the American targets in Islamabad, and we discovered it has few American employees and most of the victims would be Pakistani. We also discovered that targeting the other Western embassies was beyond the abilities of the assigned group, so we settled on targeting the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, which was not only running a campaign for chasing Arabs in Pakistan but also spying on the Arab Mujahedeen…later, Pakistani security found in the ruins of the embassy evidence revealing the cooperation between India and Egypt in espionage."

"A short time before the bombing the embassy the assigned group asked our permission. They told us they could strike both the Egyptian and American Embassies if we gave them extra money. We had already provided them with all that we had and we couldn't collect more money. So the group focused on bombing the Egyptian embassy. The rubble of the embassy left a clear message to the Egyptian government."[26]

Terrorism Against American Embassies in East Africa

Al-Zawahiri's biggest success was sending his and Al-Qaida's volunteers to Somalia to fight the American presence in that country and eventually causing the U.S. to withdraw. His volunteers fought under the command of a young Egyptian man, Ali Al-Rashidi, also known as Abu-Ubaida Al-Banshiri. From Somalia, Al-Banshiri was sent to Kenya to establish a base of operations for terrorist activities against the United States in East Africa. Al-Banshiri drowned in an alleged accident in Lake Victoria. After a period of uncertainty, Al-Banshiri was replaced by another Egyptian, Subhi Abu Sitta, also known as Abu Hafas Al-Masri who was responsible for organizing the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-Es-Salaam. In a final incarnation, Subhi Abu Sitta became Muhammad Atef, who was to become the field commander of Al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. One of Abu Sitta's daughters married bin Laden's son, Muhammad, in January 2001. An American bomb killed Abu Sitta/Atef in Kabul in November 2001.

Toward the end of 1994 and early 1995 attempts were made by Al-Zawahiri, under the guidance of bin Laden, to coordinate the activities of the various Islamic terrorist movements to carry out sabotage activities against the United States in order to break its 'hegemony' in the Middle East. Meetings were held in Tehran, Khartoum and Cyprus (city unknown) with the participation of Imad Fadhia al-Mughniyah (of Hezbollah, wanted by the U.S. for murdering an American passenger on a commercial airliner and dumping his body on Beirut airport's tarmac), Fathi Al-Shiqaqi (of Palestinian Islamic Jihad), Musa Abu Marzuq (of Hamas), in addition to Sheikh Abd Al-Majid Al-Zindani from Yemen as well as representatives from the Nahdha Movement in Tunisia, and Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya of Pakistan. In the last meeting, held in Khartoum in April 1995, Al-Zawahiri laid down three fundamental directions for the next stage of the struggle: first, increase the effectiveness of the Islamic networks in London and New York, particularly in Brooklyn; second, increase the effectiveness of the Islamic militias in the Balkans; and third, provide greater support to the armed Islamic groups in Somalia and Ethiopia.

The conferees agreed to establish a high-level coordinating body of the armed Islamic movements comprising Al-Zawahiri, Imad Fadhia Al-Mughniyah and Ahmad Salem. In less than a month, this body met in Cyprus and agreed to increase the number of volunteers to Bosnia and to ask Al-Zawahiri to visit the U.S. to see first hand the modus operandi of the Islamic networks there. Al-Zawahiri visited the U.S. in 1996 and helped raise a considerable amount of money for "the widows and orphans" of Afghanistan.[27]

Upon reestablishing themselves in Afghanistan in 1996, the two leaders bin Laden and Zawahiri began articulating the position of Al-Qa'ida vis-à-vis the United States. They concluded that America was the Number One enemy of Muslims everywhere and that its support of some Arab regimes, mainly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, has been responsible for the failed efforts to topple those regimes. It was at the end of 1997 that bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri declared war on Americans everywhere, after an initial statement of war in 1996 against the American presence in the region only. Afterwards, the objectives were expanded. On 23 February 1998 bin Laden issued a declaration announcing the creation of "The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders [Christians]." A Fatwa (edict) accompanied the declaration by bin Laden that "the killing of Americans –military and civilians—and the looting of their properties is a duty for Muslims everywhere." In addition to bin Laden, the declaration was signed by Al-Zawahiri as leader of Jama'at al-Jihad and by Rifa'i Taha, the man in charge of the Advisory Council of the Islamic Movement in Egypt. From this union between Al-Qa'ida and the Egyptian Jihad group "grew an apocalyptic vision that in many ways resonates more of Al-Zawahiri's than of bin Laden's"[28]

Soon after that, the group would establish a travel office in Egypt to facilitate the transport of volunteers to join the Al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. The travel office was headed by Ismail Nasser Al-Din, who had spent 15 years in prison for terrorist activities in Egypt. His new title would become "Muhandis Tasfeer" or travel agent/facilitator. Egypt was only too happy to see her Islamic fundamentalists leave for the war in Afghanistan, hoping that they would be killed or at least would not return to Egypt. Many of these volunteers were trapped in places like Kunduz, Mazar Al-Sharif, and Tora Bora, not to be heard from again.

Trip to Chechnya and Prison in Russia

The looting of Al-Zawahiri's computer after his escape from Kabul and its subsequent sale to a reporter of the Wall Street Journal have added enormously to our knowledge about Al-Zawahiri's previously unknown activities. One such activity was his attempt to smuggle himself into Chechnya, his arrest by the Russian security police, his trial and subsequent release. This story is revealing and worth telling.

In the early morning hours of 1 December 1996, Al-Zawahiri, disguised as Mr. Amin with two operatives on fake Sudanese passports and a Chechen guide tried to cross the Chechen boarder in an attempt to establish a base in that territory. He was arrested at the boarder with his advanced communications equipment and a large sum of money in different denominations. During his trial in April, 1997, "he lied fluently and prayed frequently." The judge had to call several recesses because of the "defendants' disruptive piety." When asked about the purpose of his visit he responded that "they wanted to find out the price for leather, medicine and other goods." The Russian security policy which confiscated Al-Zawahiri's computer at the time of his arrest had failed to read its Arabic content. Lacking other evidence, the Russian judge let them go free. Documents found on Al-Zawahiri by the Russians included "a visa application for Taiwan; a bank card from Hong Kong; details of a bank account in Guangdong, China; a receipt for a computer modem bought in Dubai; a copy of a Malaysian company's registration certificate that listed Dr. Zawahiri under an alias, as a director; and details of an account in a bank in St. Louis, Mo."[29]

Al-Zawahiri Summarizes His Achievements

In the introduction to his autobiography, Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, Al-Zawahiri writes:

"I wrote this book to convey the message to our generation and the generations to come. Due to these worrying circumstances and unsettled conditions I may not be able to write later. And I expect it will not be published by a publisher and distributed by a distributor. This book is an attempt to revive the consciousness of the Islamic nation, to tell them about their duties and how important these duties are and how the new crusaders hate Muslims and the importance of understanding the difference between our enemies and our friends."

"This book is a warning for the evil powers targeting our nation that your defeat draws nearer daily and we are taking step after step to retaliate against you and that your fight with the [Islamic] nation is doomed to defeat and all your efforts will come to nothing but merely postpone the inevitable victory of our nation."

"The battle has become international after all the powers of blasphemy united against the Mujahideen. I wanted to show in this book some of the details of this epic and to warn readers of this book that hidden enemies and their wolves and foxes are on the road and you should be wary of them."[30]

In the book, Al-Zawahiri provides his version of the political situation in Egypt today. He says that there are two competing powers in the country – an official power and a popular power. The first is supported by America, the West, Israel and the majority of the Arab rulers. The second depends on Allah alone. It is spreading widely and is allying with the Jihad movements from Chechnya in the north to Somalia in the south and from Turkmenistan in the East to Morocco in the West. The hostility between the two powers arises from the attempt by the first power "to drive Islam out of all spheres of life by force, tyranny and forged elections." But despite all of this, Al-Zawahiri lists "the harvest" of the Jihad movement in the years between 1966 and 2000:

•The spread of the movement, particularly among the youth.

•The confrontation with the enemies of Islam "to the last drop of its blood".

•The continuing sacrifice of tens of thousands of Muslims-- injured, arrested and killed.

•The internationalization of the struggle against Islam after America has become convinced that the Egyptian regime cannot, by itself, stand up to the fundamentalist movement.

•The continuation of the battle. The Islamist movement is either in an attack mode or in the preparation for an attack.

•The Islamist movement has been able to articulate its principles based on the Koran and the religious scholars.

On the negative side, Al-Zawahiri lists the following difficulties:

•Poor planning and preparation for Jihad activities. Despite successes, such as the assassination of Sadat, the movement should avoid randomized actions.

•The lack of populist sermons... Most sermons are directed at the educated people. Given the restrictions on spreading the call for the Jihad it is particularly important to address the masses.

•The reluctance of some movement leaders to continue armed confrontation. As an example, Al-Zawahiri mentions the decision by the Al-Jama'ah Al-Islamiyyah in Egypt in 1997 to suspend all armed action against the regime.

On balance, Al-Zawahiri concedes that the movement has failed to establish an Islamic regime in Egypt.

Suicide Operations – The Most Effective Way of Harming the Opponent

In the last chapter of his book, Al-Zawahari examines the future of the Islamic movement in the world, in general, and in Egypt, in particular, and reaches the following conclusions:

The internationalization of the battle: The enemies of Islam have mastered the following instrument to fight it: (1) the United Nations; (2) the loyal rulers of the Islamic peoples; (3) the multinational corporations; (4) the international communications networks; (5) the international news agencies and media networks; and (6) the international relief agencies which are used for "spying, proselytizing, planning coups and transferring weapons."

Against this alliance, stands the Islamist alliance comprising of the Islamist movements in the entire Islamic world. These movements are growing outside the new world order, under the banner of Jihad for the sake of Allah, freed from Western imperialist domination and from the apostate countries of America, Russia and Israel.

Also, against this alliance, stands the Islamist alliance of Jihad movements in the various Islamic countries and in the two countries that were "liberated in the name of Jihad for the sake of Allah (Afghanistan and Chechnya.)" This alliance, while "still in its infancy," is growing rapidly and multiplying. It is a new force "outside the new international order, and liberated from the domineering Western enslavement":

[There is] No solution but through the Jihad. This awareness is spreading amongst the new community of Islamists. What stand behind this spread of the new awareness is the viciousness "of the new crusade and Jewish war which treats the Islamic nation at utmost contempt." Al-Zawahiri calls on the Islamic movement to acquire the qualities of steadfastness, perseverance, patience and adherence to principles. The leadership must serve as an example.

Al-Zawahiri warns that "the victory of the struggle of the Islamic movement against the international alliance will not be accomplished without acquiring an Islamist base in the heart of the Islamic world." He acknowledges that the creation of an Islamic state in the heart of the Islamic world is not an easy target to be achieved, or soon. However, it is the aspiration of the Islamic community to restore the caliphate and renew its vanished glory.

Al-Zawahiri is prepared, however, to sacrifice his call for perseverance and steadfastness in favor of self-preservation. What happens, he asks, if the movement's membership or its plans were discovered and its existence was in danger, and what if its resources were confiscated? "The answer in my view," asserts Al-Zawahri, "is that for the movement to withdraw as much as it can to a safe place and carry the war against the Americans and the Jews in their homes and against their bodies." When that occurs, "the masters in Washington and Tel-Aviv" will blame their agent-regimes for their failure to deter these attacks and force them to wage a war against the Muslims which would turn the war into a war against the infidels. He concludes with a vision of conflict on a world scale:

"The Crusader-Jewish alliance under the leadership of America will not permit any Muslim power to govern in any of the Islamic countries. It will mobilize all its resources to strike at the (Islamic power) in order to remove it from governing…The alliance will wage a war worldwide…We have to prepare ourselves for a battle not only in one region but a battle that will include both the internal enemy [ruling government] and the external Crusader-Jewish enemy."[31]

Bin Laden Talks about September 11th

After the events of 11 September, Al-Qa'ida jumped on the Palestinian bandwagon to appeal to the Arab masses. In a video statement on Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden, with Zawahiri at his side, all but admitted his responsibility for the terrorist attacks on September 11th by praising the perpetrators as martyrs. After claiming that "Here is America struck by Allah the Almighty in one of her vital organs," he went on to state that "Allah has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May Allah bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven…" Palestine was next. In bin Laden's words: "In these days, Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine, in Ramallah, Rafah, and Beit Jala and many other parts of the land of Islam, and we do not hear anyone raising his voice or reacting. But when the sword fell upon America after 80 years, hypocrisy raised its head up high bemoaning those killers who toyed with the blood, honor and sanctities of Muslims."[32]

Next, it was Al-Zawahiri's turn to speak on al-Jazeera T.V. On November 9, 2001, he had this to say: "Bush lies to his people when he claims to have destroyed the Al-Qa'ida group and broken the ranks of the Taliban. The whole world laughs at his lies." He went on to assert that "our Jihad, with the help of Allah, will continue until we liberate our holy places from the American-Jewish aggression in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world." He concluded his speech by promising more blows to America.[33] In a recent interview with the Pakistani newspaper "Jang" Al-Zawahiri is quoted as saying that "Tel-Aviv is our next target."[34]

Islamists Respond to Al-Zawahiri's Memoir

Taking issue with Al-Zawahiri's criticism of personalities and events associated with this movement, the lawyer for the Islamic movement in Egypt, Muntasir Al-Zayyat, wrote a rebuttal in a book titled "Al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him" which was serialized in the other London-based, Saudi newspaper, Al-Hayat, from January 10-17, 2002.

Although his response is mostly polemical, Al-Zayyat provides considerable insights on three issues: first, the primary motivation for Zawahiri's departure for Afghanistan; second, operational failures; and, third, the influence of the bin Laden-Al-Zawahiri alliance on the Islamic movement in Egypt in particular and on Islam, in general.

The Departure for Afghanistan

In his memoirs, Al-Zawahiri maintains that his departure for Afghanistan was entirely driven by his desire to take advantage of a situation which offered a great opportunity for Jihad. While Al-Zayyat does not fully challenge this assertion he argues strongly that one reason for Al-Zawahiri's desire for a quick exit from Egypt had to do with the information he had given to the police which led to the arrest of his close friend, Issam Al-Qamari. The police investigation minutes, quoted by Al-Zayyat, suggest that Al-Zawahiri arranged to meet his friend at a location surrounded by security personnel so that Al-Qamari could be arrested without bloodshed. By contrast, in his memoirs Al-Zawahari draws a fantastic picture of great heroism shown by Al-Qamari and a small group of his comrades who were hiding in a workshop. When the police tried to break into the hiding place Al-Qamari, according to Al-Zawahiri, lobbed hand grenades and opened fire from automatic weapons causing a lot of fatalities and confusion among the police. Al-Qamari was chased by the police in the narrow lanes of the poor Cairo neighborhood lobbing hand grenades at his pursuers. The battle went on for hours until Al-Qamari's ammunition was exhausted. Al-Zawahiri's story sounds like a sheer fantasy.[35]

Al-Zayyat suggests that Al-Zawahiri has failed in most of his undertakings. The following are some illustrations:

Complete Military/Operational Failure. All the operations against "the symbols of the Egyptian government had failed." Al-Zayyat mentions the failed attempts on the lives of the Minister of Interior, Hassan Al-Alfi, and the former Prime Minister Atef Sidqi. The last attempt was a public relations disaster because it resulted in the death of a young schoolgirl who happened to be in the vicinity where the attempted assassination was to take place. The murder of the little girl was a public relations disaster for the Islamist movement in Egypt and resulted in the arrest of many of its members. In his own memoirs Al-Zawahri admits to the murder of the little girl and adopts a legalistic stand. According to the Shari'a [Islamic law], he says, when a Muslim kills another Muslim inadvertently the family of the victim is entitled to a form of compensation and the girl's family was compensated accordingly.

Serious Organizational Dysfunction. The worst manifestation of organizational dysfunction was the arrest of a group of activists who tried to steal a military truck to be used in the transportation of weapons and explosives. The operation failed but resulted in the arrest of 800 of the Jihad's members. Al-Zayyat also refers to the stationing of the Islamic Jihad members in Yemen and Sudan and Al-Zawahiri's failure to find the resources to sustain their families.

The Arrest of Leadership Elements of the Islamic Jihad. This was the result of the arrest of one of Al-Zawahiri's closest aides with a computer disc listing all the members of the Islamic Jihad worldwide. It resulted in the arrest and sentencing by the military tribunal of 108 members of the organization.

The Implications of Al-Zawahiri's alliance with bin Laden. The friendship between Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden affected the thinking of the two men. Al-Zawahiri was able to convince bin Laden to discard relief efforts in favor of Jihad against the oppressive rulers, primarily in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and to turn the evacuation of American forces from Saudi Arabia into a cardinal objective of the struggle against the infidels. Bin Laden was able to convince Al-Zawahiri to discontinue the military operations inside Egypt and, instead, focus on the common enemies America and Israel. This required a shift in ideological priorities in Al-Zawahiri's agenda from fighting the immediate enemy to fighting the distant enemy.

An even more lethal criticism of Al-Zawahiri was recently made by Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It refers to Al-Zahahiri group's efforts to turn Egypt into "an Islamic base through which they exercise control over the Arab and Muslim world." Al-Azhar decried Al-Zawahiri's attempt to create a new Khalifate similar to the one they created in Afghanistan (Mulla Omar, the leader of Taliban, was referred to as Khalif Omar). Looking at the groups bloody past, Al-Azhar refers to the murder of tourists, terrorizing the people and killing a child." Al-Zawahiri;s group, in short, is "a misguided group outside the book of Allah and his messenger."[36]

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] As published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 1-22.

[2] For more from MEMRI's Radical Islamist Profiles series, please see:

Radical Islamist Profiles (1): London-Abu Hamza Al-Masri: Radical Islamist Profiles (1): London - Abu Hamza Al-Masri -

Radical Islamist Profiles (2): Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad - London: Radical Islamist Profiles (2): Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad -

[3], "Hate Club," November 12, 2001.

[4]A commentator in the same newspaper speculated that, by the "Knights," the author was referring to the leaders of the Islamist movements and a response to the "Knights of the Holy Grail" which characterized the Christian Crusaders in the Middle Ages.

[5]The Wall Street Journal, January 14 and 16, 2002.

[6]The Arab world often uses the term mutashaddid (extremist) rather than irhabi (terrorist).

[7]Some Egyptian reporters suggest that the family roots may extend as far back as Omar ibn-Al-Khattab, the second Muslim Khalifa.

[8]Until his final departure from Egypt in 1985, Al Zawahiri lived at No. 10, 154th street, in al-Ma'adi where he was born and had lived. Al-Zawahiri's mother and niece still live in that house. According to the head of the Center for Islamic Studies in London, Mrs. Al-Zawahiri and his only son, Muhammad, were killed in Kandahar; Al-Hayat, 11 Dec., 2001. Al-Zawahiri, in an alleged telephone interview with Al-Majallah (December 16-22, 2001) denied that.

[9]As best as can be ascertained, Al-Zawahiri has had no contacts with his family, including his mother, in Egypt, because of his desire to maintain anonymity as a leader of an underground movement and with a death sentence meted out on him by the Supreme Security Court in Egypt.

[10]Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2001.

11 This was a religious-ideological movement which swept many organizations into the original and fundamental principles of Islam.

[12]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 4, 2001.

[13]An Egyptian magazine speculates that he was killed by Israeli agents to prevent him from taking his beliefs in Jihad to the Palestinian territory. This would appear to be far-fetched because the Islamic Jihad has already existed in the area. See Akher Sa'a, October 17, 2001.

[14]Al-Hayat, Nov 18, 2001.

[15]An interview with Zawahiri's great uncle and lawyer, Mahfuz Azzam in Akher Sa'aa, 17 Oct., 2001.

[16]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 4, 2001.

[17]"Documents from the years of jihad," Al-Hayat, October 17, 2001.

[18]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 5, 2001.

[19]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 7, 2002.

[20]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 3, 2001.

[21]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 3, 2001.

[22]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 10, 2001.

[23]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 10, 2001.

[24]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 10, 2001.

[25]The activities of bin Laden/Zawahiri in Sudan and their eventual conflict with Turabi on strategy is documented in Al-Hayat, March 12, 2002.

[26]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 3, 2001.

[27]Rose Al-Yusuf, October 19, 2001.

[28]Jane's Intelligence Review, October 3, 2001.

[29]The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002.

[30]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 2, 2001.

[31]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 12, 2001.

[32]Translation by Middle East Economic Survey, October 15, 2001.

[33]Al-Hayat, November 11, 2001.

[34]Quoted in Al-Hayat, November 21, 2001.

[35]Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 6, 2001.

[36], April 18, 2002.

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