Zawahiri: Suburban doctor to chief of al Qaeda

The Egyptian who has taken the helm of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden did not emerge from the crowded slums of Egypt's sprawling capital a militant or develop his ideas in any religious college or seminary.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2011 15:08 IST

The Egyptian who has taken the helm of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden did not emerge from the crowded slums of Egypt's sprawling capital a militant or develop his ideas in any religious college or seminary.

Instead, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri was raised in Cairo's leafy Maadi suburb where comfortable villas are a favourite among expatriates from the Western nations he rails against. He studied at Cairo University and qualified as a doctor.

The son of a pharmacology professor was not unique in his generation. Many educated youngsters were outraged at the treatment of Islamists in the 1960s when Egypt veered towards a Soviet-style one-party state under socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Thousands of people suspected of subversion were thrown into prison after show trials. One of the young Zawahiri's heroes, Muslim Brotherhood luminary Sayyid Qutb, was executed in 1966 on charges of trying to overthrow the state.

"Zawahiri is one of the many victims of the Nasser regime who had deep political grievances and a feeling of shame at Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1967. He grew up a radical," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at Durham University.

He rose to be al Qaeda's No 2 before taking over as leader after bin Laden was killed by US special forces at his Pakistan hideout on May 2, almost 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

An Islamist website, Ansar al-Mujahideen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) carried a statement on Thursday saying: "The general leadership of al Qaeda group, and after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr Ayman Zawahiri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group."

In a June 8 eulogy for bin Laden, Zawahiri promised to pursue attacks on the West, recalling the Saudi-born militant's threat that "you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the lands of the Muslims".

He called this year's Arab uprisings a disaster for Washington because, he said, they would remove Arab leaders who were the corrupt "agents of America".

He also pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, calling him "Emir of the Believers".

The pledge, which repeats one made by bin Laden in the 1990s, was seen by analysts as an attempt to shore up al Qaeda's alliance with the Taliban, which sheltered the Arab-led group until US attacks on Afghanistan in 2001 ended Taliban rule.

Western powers have demanded the Taliban cut all ties with al Qaeda.

Changed man
Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, Zawahiri was a grandson of the grand imam of Al Azhar, one of the most important mosques in the Muslim world.

As he studied for a masters in surgery in the 1970s, Zawahiri was active in a movement that later became Islamic Jihad, which aimed to expel the government and establish an Islamic state.

People who know Zawahiri disagree over whether he was destined by temperament for militancy or pushed into it as a protest against the state oppression of Egyptian Islamists.

A heavy-handed Egyptian security policy designed to weaken Islamism nudged its members further towards violent action, as young men rounded up in state security sweeps revolted against what they saw as unfair treatment.

Zawahiri was one of hundreds tried for links to the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor. He served a three-year jail term for illegal arms possession, but was acquitted of the main charges.

"Zawahiri was not given a chance to be part of politics," said his lawyer Nizar Ghorab.

"He lived during a time of great suppression of those who had religious ideas and wanted to change the political scene of oppression under Nasser and Sadat."

People who studied with Zawahiri at Cairo University's Faculty of Medicine in the 1970s describe a lively young man who went to the cinema, listened to music and joked with friends.

"When he came out of prison he was a completely different person," said a doctor who studied with Zawahiri and declined to be named.

Others say what tipped Zawahiri into political violence was Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and Sadat's peace treaty with Israel the same year.

"There was an evolution in his mentality," said Anani. "People like Zawahiri saw no way to achieve their goals except to changing the regime by force."

Zawahiri's nephew Abdel Rahman al-Zawahiri, 26, an accountant, said: "I do not think that what drove my uncle to choose the path he chose resulted from his years in prison or the torture he experienced. He is a thinker and he had an idea and ideology".

On his release, Zawahiri went to Pakistan where he worked with the Red Crescent treating Islamist mujahideen guerrillas wounded in Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

"In his childhood and as a young man he was cheerful and had a sense of humour," said Zawahiri's uncle, Mahfouz Azzam.

"His years spent along the border as a war surgeon during the war in Afghanistan changed his views about how change and resistance can happen."

"Known and respected" Zawahiri family
Taking over the leadership of Jihad in Egypt in 1993, Zawahiri was a main figure in a violent campaign in the mid-1990s to set up a purist Islamic state, when more than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced Zawahiri to death in absentia. By then he had swapped his comfortable suburban background for the spartan life of a holy warrior.

John Brennan, counter-terrorism adviser to US President Barack Obama, said on Tuesday that Zawahiri, who was al Qaeda's chief organiser under bin Laden, was believed to be living in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and was being hunted.

A doorman in the street in Cairo's Maadi district where Zawahiri's brother lives said the Zawahiri family owns a hotel in the neighbourhood. The family is "known and respected", he said. "They are always cheerful and sociable and very generous."

Starbucks and Costa coffee shops have become popular haunts for residents of Maadi. The shops cater for the many Americans and other expatriates who live there, selling imported Oreo biscuits, Dr Pepper drinks and microwave popcorn packets.

Many of the US expatriates work for American oil companies or at the US embassy, the largest permanently staffed US mission, testimony to US ties and a $1.3 billion-a-year military aid programme agreed after the peace deal with Israel.

Sadat signed the peace deal and his successor Hosni Mubarak built on the alliance during three decades in office that came to an end on Feb. 11 this year in a popular uprising.

Al Qaeda, which inveighed against Western-backed Arab autocrats, was nowhere in sight in those protests. Instead the rallies were led by youths, many with a broadly secular agenda and who used Twitter and Facebook to rally the crowds.

Zawahiri's sister was among those who massed in Cairo's central Tahrir Square.

"The peaceful revolutions in the Arab world are a huge defeat for Al Qaeda and its ideas," said Durham analyst Anani.

First Published: Jun 16, 2011 15:06 IST