- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

CAIRO Osama bin Laden has cash, men and the kind of personality around which religious sects are built.

But it's a surgeon from Cairo who is thought to have the experience and ideological commitment to keep the world's most feared terror group operating.

Ayman Zawahri, who hails from a middle-class family of doctors and scholars, is second only to bin Laden in the hierarchy of an international alliance set up in 1998 with the aim of killing Americans and destroying U.S. interests wherever they may be.

The United States has called bin Laden the prime suspect in last week's horrific suicide attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Both bin Laden and Zawahri are believed to be living in Afghanistan.

Zawahri, 50, is the leader of Jihad, a secretive militant group that is blamed for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat during a Cairo military parade. The group takes its name from the Arabic for "holy war."

He has been a fixture in Egypt's Muslim militant scene since 1966 when, as a 15-year-old, he was arrested and later freed for his membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's oldest fundamentalist Muslim group.

"Al-Zawahri's experience is much wider than even bin Laden's," said Dia'a Rashwan, one of Egypt's top specialists on militants. "His name came up in virtually every case involving Muslim groups since the 1970s."

A 1974 graduate of Cairo University's medical school, Zawahri obtained a master's degree in surgery four years later. His father, who died in 1995, was a pharmacology professor at the same school. His grandfather, Rabia'a l-Zawahri, was the grand imam of Cairo's al-Azhar, University, mainstream Islam's main seat of learning.

Ayman Zawahri wrote several books on Islamic movements, the best known of which is "The Bitter Harvest," a critical assessment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

"He is the chief ideologue in the bin Laden group," said Mr. Rashwan. "Both he and bin Laden have combat experience, but it is [Zawahri] who has the intellectual edge."

Zawahri is the most senior in a brigade of several hundred Egyptians thought working under bin Laden's leadership in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden, Zawahri and the other Egyptians are among the militant Muslims from the world over who went to Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight invading Russian troops. When the Soviet Red Army pulled out in 1989 and the pro-Moscow government fell three years later, many of the militants stayed on in Afghanistan.

Besides Mr. Sadat's slaying, Zawahri's Jihad also is blamed for several assassination attempts against other senior Egyptian politicians during a Muslim insurgency in the 1990s, including former Prime Minister Atef Sedki. It also claimed responsibility for the 1996 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Zawahri was tried along with scores of Jihad members for their part in Mr. Sadat's assassination. He was convicted and served a three-year sentence for illegal possession of arms. After his release, he left for Saudi Arabia. In 1999, he was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian court for activities linked to Jihad.

He left Saudi Arabia soon after arriving there, first heading to Peshawar, Pakistan, and later to neighboring Afghanistan.

Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian journalist who closely monitors Muslim groups, said Zawahri re-established Jihad in Afghanistan in 1990 after the group was dealt a severe blow in the aftermath of Mr. Sadat's assassination.

"No one ever really talks to him," said Mr. Salah, who writes for the respected London-based daily Al Hayat. "He would be touring camps in Afghanistan and delivering sermons, then just be on his way."

Jihad, said Mr. Rashwan, doesn't rely on popular support and specializes on assassinations. Membership, he said, is subjected to strict criteria.

Zawahri now heads only a faction of Jihad following disagreements with other leaders of the group over his February 1998 pact with bin Laden's al Qaeda group, two Pakistani groups and one from Bangladesh to create the International Front for Fighting Jews and Crusades.

Targeting Americans and U.S. interests as a declared aim was likely to draw unwelcome interest and the wrath of a superpower, the Jihad leaders who split with Zawahri argued.

Of the estimated 3,000 active members of the front in Afghanistan, about 1,000 are thought to be Egyptians, said Mr. Salah. Others put the number at dozens or several hundred at most.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide