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Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker: “On September 11th, Zawahiri, bin Laden, and their followers evacuated their quarters in Kandahar and fled into the mountains, where they listened to an Arabic radio station's news flashes about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. According to a C.I.A. report about the events of that morning, at 9:53 A.M., between the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, a member of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was overheard saying that the attackers were following through on "the doctor's program." [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 16, 2002]

“On December 3rd, American bombers struck a heavily fortified complex of caves near Jalalabad. When the ground troops arrived, they discovered more than a hundred bodies, and they were able to identify eighteen of them as top Al Qaeda lieutenants. Zawahiri's wife, Azza, and their children were also said to have been killed, but, according to the F.B.I., there is no confirming evidence of this. "I'll never forget the first time I saw Azza after a long absence when I went to visit her in Pakistan," Nabila Galal recalled when she heard the reports of her daughter's death. "She was waiting for me at the airport with her three little daughters wearing hijabs. They smiled at me, and I will never forget those little children's smiles. Could it be true they all died in the same instant? By the grace of God, we will be hastened." I asked Azza's older brother, Essam, whether his mother has kept any letters from her daughter in Afghanistan. "Yes," he said, "but she is very ill and very upset and I don't want to cause her any more grief by bringing up this subject. She gets asthma attacks every time she thinks about what happened. I tell her that everything's going to be fine and that, inshallah, nothing happened to my sister." [Ibid]

“A Northern Alliance commander announced that Zawahiri, too, had been killed in the American bombing, but there was no reliable evidence of his death, either. On December 16th, Zawahiri was quoted by a Cairo-based reporter for Al-Majallah. "We are not hiding in caves or avoiding confrontation," he said. "Suicide is a goal that we seek." Because Zawahiri's remarks were dictated to the reporter by an Al Qaeda middleman, it is not possible to know if they are genuine. There is a videotape of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri which shows them sitting on a blanket beside a mountain stream---or, in the view of some intelligence analysts, an artificial backdrop---talking about the jihad operations of September 11th. (Their comments are interspersed with scenes from a martyrdom tape of a young man named Ahmed al-Haznawy, one of the hijackers, but the footage with bin Laden and Zawahiri is thought to have been shot sometime in December.) On the tape, a pallid bin Laden says little. Zawahiri is wearing a white galabeya, a black turban, and a vest. Although the black turban may be a sign that he is in mourning for the death of his family, he appears healthy and content. "This great victory was possible only by the grace of God," he says with quiet pride. "This was not just a human achievement---it was a holy act. These nineteen brave men who gave their lives for the cause of God will be well taken care of. God granted them the strength to do what they did. There's no comparison between the power of these nineteen men and the power of America, and there's no comparison between the destruction these nineteen men caused and the destruction America caused." [Ibid]

Al-Zawahiri’s Escape from Afghanistan in 2002 After the American Invasion

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U.S air strikes on Al-Qaida caves
In March 2002, Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “a band of horsemen journeyed through the province of Paktika, in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Predator drones were circling the skies and American troops were sweeping through the mountains. The war had begun six months earlier, and by now the fighting had narrowed down to the ragged eastern edge of the country. Regional warlords had been bought off, the borders supposedly sealed. For twelve days, American and coalition forces had been bombing the nearby Shah-e-Kot Valley and systematically destroying the cave complexes in the Al Qaeda stronghold. And yet the horsemen were riding unhindered toward Pakistan. [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 16, 2002]

“They came to the village of a local militia commander named Gula Jan, whose long beard and black turban might have signalled that he was a Taliban sympathizer. "I saw a heavy, older man, an Arab, who wore dark glasses and had a white turban," Jan told Ilene Prusher, of the Christian Science Monitor, four days later. "He was dressed like an Afghan, but he had a beautiful coat, and he was with two other Arabs who had masks on." The man in the beautiful coat dismounted and began talking in a polite and humorous manner. He asked Jan and an Afghan companion about the location of American and Northern Alliance troops. "We are afraid we will encounter them," he said. "Show us the right way." [Ibid]

Navy SEALS checking Al-Qaida cave
“While the men were talking, Jan slipped away to examine a poster that had been dropped into the area by American airplanes. It showed a photograph of a man in a white turban and glasses. His face was broad and meaty, with a strong, prominent nose and full lips. His untrimmed beard was gray at the temples and ran in milky streaks below his chin. On his high forehead, framed by the swaths of his turban, was a darkened callus formed by many hours of prayerful prostration. His eyes reflected the sort of decisiveness one might expect in a medical man, but they also showed a measure of serenity that seemed oddly out of place. Jan was looking at a wanted poster for a man named Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had a price of twenty-five million dollars on his head. [Ibid]

“Jan returned to the conversation. The man he now believed to be Zawahiri said to him, "May God bless you and keep you from the enemies of Islam. Try not to tell them where we came from and where we are going." There was a telephone number on the wanted poster, but Gula Jan did not have a phone. Zawahiri and the masked Arabs disappeared into the mountains.” [Ibid]

Al-Zawahiri Takes Control of Al-Qaida After September 11th

After September 11th Zawahiri has worked to rebuild Al-Qaida’s leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border tribal areas. Since then Al Qaeda has inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London. Bruce Hoffman wrote in the Washington Post: “Zawahiri charted a way forward for al-Qaeda in late 2001, when it was widely believed to be on the brink of annihilation. Despite the deaths of his wife and only son in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan..he did not repine. Even while on the run from CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces and the Afghan Northern Alliance, he came up with an uncompromisingly bellicose yet crystal-clear blueprint for al-Qaeda's revival. [Source: Bruce Hoffman, Washington Post, September 9, 2007]

As Osama bin Laden retreated into hiding Zawahiri more and more became the front man for Al-Qaida. Peter Bergen wrote in Time in 2006: “In the past year or so, al-Zawahiri, 54, has increasingly become the public face and voice of al-Qaeda while bin Laden has ceded the spotlight to his deputy.It was al-Zawahiri who wrote a letter to al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, gently suggesting that he stop his habit of beheading hostages because it was turning off many Muslims. In recent months al-Zarqawi has stopped the beheadings. Following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden released more than 15 audio- and videotapes. But recently he has sharply cut back, releasing only two tapes since December 2004, apparently fearing the U.S. could locate him by tracing back a tape's chain of custody. Meanwhile, al-Zawahiri has released seven tapes. His high profile may account for the Jan. 13 U.S. missile strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border aimed at killing him. The attack killed four al-Qaeda members but not al-Zawahiri, who appeared on videotape two weeks later, taunting President Bush and defiantly proclaiming himself alive. [Source: Peter Bergen, Time, April 30, 2006]

In a treatise, published in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Alsharq al-Awsat in December 2001 and titled "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," Zawahiri described Islam as being attacked on all sides by the predatory and corrupt Western world and argued "there is no solution without jihad." He called for: 1) The need to inflict maximum casualties on the opponent, no matter how much time and effort such operations take, for this is the language understood by the West. 2) The need to concentrate on martyrdom operations as the most successful way to inflict damage and the least costly in casualties to the mujaheddin.[Source: Bruce Hoffman, Washington Post, September 9, 2007. Hoffman is a professor of security studies at Georgetown University]

Hoffman wrote in the Washington Post: “The U.S. invasion of Iraq presented al-Qaeda with the opportunity to put his arguments into practice. As long ago as the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri had explained al-Qaeda's strategy in response to what he was already decrying as a repressive U.S.-led occupation. "We thank God," he declared in September 2003, "for appeasing us with the dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death." Sure enough, what U.S. military commanders had optimistically described four years ago as the jihadist "magnet" or "flytrap" designed to capture al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq was having precisely the opposite effect, according to Zawahiri's plan: It was enmeshing the U.S. military in a debilitating war of attrition.” [Ibid]

Peter Bergen wrote in the Washington Post, Zawahiri wrote in his autobiography that al-Qaeda’s most important goal was to seize control of significant territory somewhere in the Muslim world. He explained that “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances.” He may have a chance to achieve it, but given his personal shortcomings, questionable leadership skills and deteriorating institutional brand, there is little reason to suppose that Zawahiri will be able to do so---even in the failing Yemeni state. [Source:Peter Bergen, Washington Post , June 17, 2011]

Zawahiri, Jews and the Brains Behind Al-Qaida

Some think Al-Zawahiri is real brains behind Al-Qaida. Bruce Hoffman wrote in the Washington Post: “He may lack bin Laden's charisma, but Zawahiri is the superior strategist. It was he who, more than a decade ago, defined al-Qaeda's strategy in terms of "far" and "near" enemies. The United States is the "far enemy" whose defeat, he argued, was an essential prerequisite to the elimination of the "near enemy" -- the corrupt and authoritarian anti-Islamic regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia that could not remain in power without U.S. support. Zawahiri's strategic vision set off the chain of events that led to 9/11. [Source: Bruce Hoffman, Washington Post, September 9, 2007]

Peter Bergen disagrees. He wrote in the Washington Post: “In making the most important strategic shift in al-Qaeda’s history---identifying the United States as its key enemy, rather than Middle Eastern regimes---bin Laden brushed aside Zawahiri’s obsessive focus on overthrowing the Egyptian government. Noman Benotman, a Libyan militant who has spent considerable time talking with both of al-Qaeda’s leaders, told me in an interview that “Osama influenced Zawahiri with his idea: Forget about the “near enemy”; the main enemy is the Americans.” Bin Laden also kept Zawahiri in the dark for years about al-Qaeda’s most important operation---the planning for the 9/11 attacks---cluing in his deputy only during the summer of 2001. [Source: Peter Bergen, Washington Post, May 6, 2011]

Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker: “In 1998, Zawahiri commissioned a study on the Jewish influence in America. As a result of the study, Islamic Jihad formally placed the United States on its list of acceptable targets. Bin Laden was sufficiently pleased to raise the organization's annual budget from three hundred thousand dollars to five hundred thousand. "America is now controlled by the Jews, completely, as are its news, its elections, its economy, and its politics," Zawahiri explained in the Jihad journal, Al-Mujahidoun, later that year. "It uses Israel to attack its neighbors and to slaughter those who are living peacefully there. . . . If we are a nation of martyrs---as we claim---all that we need is courage of heart and the will of killers and the belief in what we claim to be love of death for Allah's sake. That is the key to our triumph and the beginning of their defeat. If you want to live as free people and to die in honor and be sent as martyrs, the road in front of you is clear." [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 16, 2002]

In a 2001 treatise, Zawahiri set down the long-term strategy for the jihadi movement---to inflict "as many casualties as possible" on the Americans. "Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task," he wrote. "Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar." Al-Zawahiri's hatred for Americans became more persona after September 11th: His wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks. [Source: AP]

Al-Zawahiri and the Media

Craig Whitlock wrote in the Washington Post: “In contrast to the charismatic bin Laden, who speaks in poetic Arabic and projects the image of a statesman, Zawahiri is an uncompromising pedant who tailors his messages to other radicals. He defends al-Qaeda's brutal tactics unflinchingly, justifying the killing of civilians by invoking a greater struggle against nonbelievers and corrupt Arab regimes. "He resonates with the militants because he gives them tightly constructed Islamist arguments," S. Abdallah Schleifer, a former NBC News bureau chief in Cairo who has known Zawahiri and his family for decades, told the Washington Post. "He's offering them a patterned, ideological take on life." [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, June 24, 2008]

“Some U.S. officials and analysts have questioned whether Zawahiri has become overexposed and whether his message is losing its bite. They point to surveys showing a plunge in public support for al-Qaeda, particularly in countries where the network has organized attacks against Muslim civilians, such as Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia. But others warn against underestimating Zawahiri's skill at keeping the debate focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, a subject that strikes a chord with millions of Muslims, even those otherwise unsympathetic to al-Qaeda.” [Ibid]

Perhaps his most effective video, they said, is an 80-minute documentary released in September 2007 titled "The Power of Truth." In the film, Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda leaders offer a long narrative of alleged offenses by the U.S. government against Muslims, using video excerpts of U.S. leaders and commentators to bolster their argument. "It's beautifully crafted propaganda, and it's a huge problem for us," said Jarret Brachman, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "You're left shaking your head and saying, 'Yeah, I guess they're right.' "

Videos and Tapes by Al-Zawahiri After September 11th

Every few months Zawahiri released a video or an audio tape with some kind of jihadist or anti-American rant, often encourging Muslims to kill Americans. He also took the time to criticize elections in the Palestinian territories and mock Bush and Obama. Blaming the Jews for a host of problems and explaining how they controlled everything were topic close to his heart.

Zawahiri issued more tapes after September 11th than Osama bin Laden. Between January 2007 and June 2008 Zawahiri, appeared in 20 different videos and audio tapes, according to IntelCenter, a terrorism research firm. As was the case with bin Laden messages to the world Zawahiri’s video and audio tapes were usually first broadcast on the Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya and dated by intelligence experts using events mentioned in the tapes and given voice analysis to determine their authenticity.

Zawahiri spoke out on a wide range of issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, soil in Saudi Arabia, the shortcomings of democracy, America’s devious plans, and the fine points of the Muslim religion. Some feel by releasing so many tapes and offering his views on so many topics he was trying to usurp Osama bin Laden’s leadership of Al-Qaida or at least play the role of a hands-on leader while bin Laden was its spiritual figurehead.

Zawahiri made his share of threats. In May 2003, he called for a repeat of the September 11th attacks and singled out Norway for some reason as a target for attacks. In September 2003, he urged Pakistanis to overthrow Pakistan leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf for his support of the United States (this was followed up by two assassination attempts of Musharraf). When the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the Danish cartoon controversy surfaced he used them opportunities to slam the West..

In one tape al-Zawahiri referred to U.S. President Obama as a “house Negro,” an insult for a black subservient to whites. After Obama was elected al-Zawahiri taunted him, saying: “Be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands of them...America has put on a new face but its heart is full of hate.”

Zawahiri’s Internet Question and Answer Session on Al-Qaida Violence

In December 2007 Zawahiri and his handlers took the unprecedented step of soliciting questions from anyone over the Internet; the al-Qaeda leader answered them four months later. Karen DeYoung, wrote in the Washington Post: Zawahiri invited questions from followers around the world in what amounted to an Internet chat. Responses to 90 questions were posted in the first of what al-Qaeda said were two installments. In addition to a 103-minute video of Zawahiri speaking, transcripts were posted in Arabic and English. [Source: By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, April 3 2008]

One questioner identified as Mudarris Jughrafiya [Geography Teacher] asked: “Excuse me, Mr. Zawahiri, but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency’s blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be Jihad? I challenge you and your organization to do that in Tel Aviv. Why have you---to this day---not carried out any strike in Israel? Or is it easier to kill Muslims in the markets? Maybe it is necessary [for you] to take some geography lessons, because your maps only show the Muslims? states.” [Source: Jihad Watch, April 3, 2008]

Zawahiri’s answer: My reply to Mudarris Jughrafiya is that we haven’t killed the innocents, not in Baghdad, nor in Morocco, nor in Algeria, nor anywhere else. And if there is any innocent who was killed in the Mujahideen’s operations, then it was either an unintentional error, or out of necessity as in cases of al-Tatarrus [taking of human shields by the enemy]. I explained in detail the ruling concerning al-Tatarrus in the book The Healing of the Believers’ Chests and in the eighth chapter of the book The Exoneration, and the brother Abu Yahya al-Libi has a book called Al-Tatarrus in Contemporary Jihad. [Ibid]

“I would like to clarify to the brother questioner,” Zawahiri continued, “that we don’t kill innocents: in fact, we fight those who kill innocents. Those who kill innocents are the Americans, the Jews, the Russians and the French and their agents. Were we insane killers of innocents as the questioner claims, it would be possible for us to kill thousands of them in the crowded markets, but we are confronting the enemies of the Muslim Ummah and targeting them, and it may be the case that during this, an innocent might fall unintentionally or unavoidably, and the Mujahideen have warned repeatedly the Muslims in general that they are in a war with the senior criminals---the Americans and Jews and their allies and agents---and that they must keep away from the places where these enemies gather....The Crusader-Jewish propaganda claims that the Mujahideen kill the innocent, but the Muslim Ummah knows who its enemy is and who defends it.” [Ibid]

On the issue of not attacking Israel directly Zawahiri said: “Hasn’t the questioner heard that [al-Qaeda] struck the Jews in Jerba, Tunisia, and struck the Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya, in their hotel, then fired two missiles at the El Al airliner carrying a number of them. Zawahiri went on to ask whether al-Qaeda had to do everything. “Why does the questioner focus on how al-Qaeda in particular must strike in Israel, while he didn’t request---for example---the Jihadist organizations in Palestine to come to the aid of their brothers in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq? If this is [because] of his good opinion of al-Qaeda and that it must strike Islam’s enemies everywhere, then we thank him for his good opinion.” [Source: Washington Post, April 3 2008]

When asked how saw events in Egypt, his native country, answered that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is clearly trying to “bequeath” his rule to his own son: “What is important isn’t to ask about stopping the bequeathal or not stopping it, but rather, is to liberate the countries from the American Crusader hegemony, among the symptoms of which is Mubarak’s regime. . . . I have deposited my family in the care of Allah, whose deposits are not lost, and I ask you to convey my Salaam and prayers.” [Ibid]

Zawahiri responded testily to a number of questions, including about his own media exposure. Question: “Don’t you agree . . . that the frequency of your appearances on the satellite channels confirms . . . that you are no more than a sonic phenomenon who loves to show off and be famous?” Answer: “I tell the noble brother: leave my intention alone, because only Allah knows it. . . . I ask [the questioner] in turn that he be open-minded . . . that he not interfere in people’s intentions, because only Allah knows them, and second, that he occupy himself with lofty matters and abandon gossip.” [Ibid]

Peter Bergen wrote in the Washington Post: The exchanges “only confirmed Zawahiri’s shortcomings, especially compared with his predecessor. Far from being the inspiring orator that bin Laden was, Zawahiri is much more like the pedantic and long-winded uncle who insists on regaling the family at Thanksgiving dinner with accounts of his arcane disputes with obscure enemies no one else cares about. Not only is Zawahiri a black hole of charisma, he is an ineffective leader who is not well-regarded or well-liked even by the various jihadist groups from his native Egypt. And his half-dozen public disquisitions... about the events of the Arab Spring have been greeted by a well-deserved collective yawn in the Middle East. [Source: Peter Bergen, Washington Post , June 17, 2011]

Attempts to Capture and Kill Zawahiri

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Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker: According to a source in the C.I.A., American agents came close to apprehending Zawahiri a month before September 11th, when he travelled to Yemen for medical treatments. "The Egyptian intelligence service briefed us that he was in a hospital in Sanaa," the person told me. "We sent a few people over there, and they made a colossal screwup. While our guys were conducting a surveillance of the hospital, the guards caught them with their videocameras." The plan was compromised, and Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan. [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 16, 2002]

In 1996 “Zawahiri and two of his top lieutenants, Ahmad Salama Mabruk and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, crossed into the Russian province of Dagestan, they were arrested for entering the country illegally. The Russians discovered, among other documents, false identity papers, including a Sudanese passport that Zawahiri sometimes used. Zawahiri's passport indicated that he had been to Yemen four times, Malaysia three times, Singapore twice, and China (probably Taiwan) once---all within the previous twenty months. At the trial, in April, 1997, Zawahiri insisted that he had come to Russia "to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods." He said he was unaware that he was crossing the border illegally. The judge sentenced the three men to six months in jail. They had nearly completed the term by the time of the trial, and the following month they were released. "God blinded them to our identities," Zawahiri boasted in the account of his trip. [Ibid]

There were reports that Dr. Al-Zawahiri’s died in a U.S. bombing raid in 2002 but these turned out to be untrue. The CIA came close to capturing Zawahiri him in 2003 and killing him in 2004 and 2006---all three times in Pakistan. In December 2009, the CIA thought it was again close only to be tricked by a double agent who blew himself up, killing seven agency employees and wounding six more in Khost, Afghanistan.

In January 2006, a house in Damadola---a remote Pakistani village near the Afghanistan border, where a high-level Al-Qaida meeting was reportedly taking place---was struck with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. Zawahri was thought to be at the meeting. He was the primary target. But he wasn’t there. Thirteen villagers were killed. Among the Al-Qaida members that were killed were four or five top lieutenants, including: 1) Abdul Rahman Al-Magrebhi, an al-Zawahiri son in law and Al-Qaida PR man; 2) Abu Ubayda al-Misri, an Al-Qaida commander in Afghanistan; and 3) Khalid Habib, an Al-Qaida operations chief tied to attacks on American troops and the two assassination attempts of Pakistan President Musharaf. Some regarded Khalid Habib as the No. 3 man in Al-Qaida. Midhat Mursi al-Sayid, an explosives and chemical weapons expert with a $5 million price on his head, was initially reported killed but that turned out not to be true. Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets to protest the attack, including more than 1,000 in Peshawar, to protest the killing of the civilians.

Aborted Plan to Kill Zawahiri in 2005 Using Parasailing SEALs

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“In late 2005, Newsweek reported, “the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command came up with intelligence that gave them "80 percent confidence" that either Zawahiri, bin Laden's longtime sidekick, or another of bin Laden's highest-ranking lieutenants would be attending a meeting in a small compound just inside Pakistan along its northern border with Afghanistan. "This was the best intelligence picture we had ever seen" about a so-called HVT [High-Value Target], said a former intelligence official who was involved in the operation. [Source: Newsweek, Reported by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Zahid Hussain in Islamabad; Rod Nordland in Tora Bora; Mark Hosenball, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Eve Conant in Washington; Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Roya Wolverson in New York. Written by Evan Thomas. September 3, 2007]

“The spooks and Special Operations Forces planned an airborne commando raid that could have been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Some 30 U.S. Navy SEALs were to be flown by C-130 transport planes, under cover of darkness, to a spot high above the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, about 30 to 40 miles away from the target. The SEALs would jump from the plane and use parasails---motorized hang gliders---to fly through the night sky, across the mountains, to a secret staging point close to the compound. They would attack the target and capture Zawahiri or whatever other HVTs were on the premises, killing them only if necessary. The SEALs would then spirit their captives away to another staging point, where two CH-53 helicopters awaited to airlift them back to Afghanistan. [Ibid]

“The plan was enthusiastically endorsed by the then CIA Director Porter Goss and JSOC Commander Stanley McChrystal, who was a major at the time. But when the Pentagon's civilian leadership, including Rumsfeld and his principal intelligence adviser, Under Secretary Steve Cambone, pored over the plan, they began raising questions. Was the intelligence good enough to justify the risk to U.S. troops and the possible blowback on Musharraf if the mission went bad? "Can't you get the confidence up to 100 percent?" Pentagon officials asked their CIA counterparts, eliciting frustrated eye-rolling in return, according to the former intelligence officer interviewed by NEWSWEEK. According to a former Defense official close to Rumsfeld, a familiar Pentagon planning maxim had already kicked in: the more uncertain the intelligence, the more precautions the military wants to take. The top brass was asking, were two helicopters really sufficient to extract the SEALs? What if one was shot down or had mechanical problems? Images of the failed 1980 Iranian hostage-rescue mission came to mind. Or Rangers fighting their way through Mogadishu to rescue trapped commandos in the 1993 fiasco known as Blackhawk Down. In order to bolster the rescue part of the plan, JSOC proposed sending in teams of Army Rangers to add security. As discussions continued, the size of the Ranger team grew to 150, about five times the size of the initial commando force. [Ibid]

“To Rumsfeld, the operations began to seem more and more like an invasion of Pakistan. Musharraf would have to be consulted, or at least informed. But did that mean his unreliable intelligence service, the ISI, would leak the plan to Al Qaeda? The official close to Rumsfeld says that the SecDef became increasingly wary as he weighed potential risk against reward. But time was of the essence. The C-130s were circling over the border, the SEALs were ready to jump, while Rumsfeld was still deliberating with the top brass. CIA Director Goss went to the Pentagon to implore him to go ahead. At the last minute Rumsfeld called off the raid. "Believe me, if this had been easy and there were certainty, we'd have done this," says the former Rumsfeld adviser. "There just wasn't certainty." [Ibid]

Zawahiri Becomes Al-Qaida Leader After Osama bin Laden’s Death

After Osama bin Laden’s death Zawahiri seemed like the most likely person to become head of Al-Qaida but there were some doubts. An official announcement was slow in coming. In mid June about six weeks after Osama bin Laden was killed Al-Qaida issued a statement posted on militant websites that read: “The general command of Al Qaeda, after completing consultations, decided that the sheik doctor Abu Mohammed Ayman al-Zawahiri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group." [Source: AP, June 16, 2011]

In a videotape released a few days earlier Zawahiri warned that America faced an international community of Muslims that seek to destroy it. "Today, praise God, America is not facing an individual, a group or a faction," he said, wearing a white robe and turban with an assault rifle leaned on a wall behind him. "It is facing a nation that is in revolt, having risen from its lethargy to a renaissance of jihad." Al-Zawahiri praised bin Laden and criticized the U.S. for burying him at sea after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in a raid on his house in Pakistan. "He went to his God as a martyr, the man who terrified America while alive and terrifies it in death, so much so that they trembled at the idea of his having a tomb," he said. [Ibid]

AP reported: The statement announcing his succession was filled with the terror network's usual rhetoric, vowing to continue the fight against what it called "conquering infidels, led by America and its stooge Israel, who attack the homes of Islam." The Al Qaeda statement also stated the group's support for the “Arab Spring” popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. It vowed never to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and to support what it called the struggle of the Afghan people under the leadership of Taliban commander Mullah Omar against American occupation. "We support the uprisings of oppressed Muslim nations in the face of corrupt and oppressive tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Morocco and we encourage them along with the rest of the Muslim people to continue the struggle until all the corrupt oppressive regimes imposed by the west are removed," it said.

Peter Bergen wrote in the Washington Post: “Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates “al-Qaeda in Iraq, the North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s al-Shabab--- all pledged allegiance to bin Laden when they became part of the network. And while al-Qaeda in Iraq swore loyalty to Zawahiri in a May 9 statement, the others may not agree to shift their fealty to him. [Source: Peter Bergen, Washington Post , June 17, 2011]

Zawahiri as Al-Qaida Leader

Greg Miller wrote in the Washington Post: “U.S. officials said that Zawahiri is a more pragmatic leader than his predecessor, with a firmer grasp of the ground-level difficulties faced by the organization’s estimated few hundred remaining followers in Pakistan. With no merger partners or other prospects for a short-term infusion, Zawahiri appears to have settled on a strategy of buying time. In his latest video message, he appeals to followers for continued loyalty by calling more attention to bin Laden’s magnetism than any of his own leadership attributes. [Source: Greg Miller, Washington Post, November 22, 2011]

In the 30-minute recording, titled “Days with the Imam,” Zawahiri---who has been described as an abrasive figure lacking his predecessor’s charisma---recounts his experiences with bin Laden in a message that is more nostalgic than militant in tone. U.S. officials said the video may reflect Zawahiri’s awareness of his own shortcomings. “If he has an accurate measure of his own popularity, he would realize he’s the wrong man for the job,” said the senior U.S. counterterrorism official. “Most of the organization has complained about him.”

For that reason, much of the pressure of rebuilding may fall to his lieutenant, Libi, who is considered a more dynamic figure, a religious scholar who escaped from U.S. detention before beginning his rapid rise through al-Qaeda’s depleted ranks. Although Zawahiri and Libi have long been top targets of the CIA, the agency’s pursuit has intensified as other names have been crossed off the agency’s kill list. Among them was Atiyah abd al-Rahman, who communicated regularly with bin Laden, rose to No. 2 in the organization and served as its day-to-day operational chief until he was killed in an August drone strike.

Reuters reported: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Zawahri does not have the "peculiar charisma" and operational experience of bin Laden. But Gates and other U.S. officials said al Qaeda remains a threat despite losing bin Laden. "We should be mindful that ... al Qaeda seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements to those that have been killed and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them," Gates told reporters. [Source: Sara Anabtawi, Reuters. June 16, 2011]

Daniel Markey, South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, described Zawahri as a "more divisive leader" compared with bin Laden's more "spiritual" profile. "Zawahri comes across as the more politically minded," and his background from Egypt means he had different relationships within the organization, he told Reuters. "There was a reason why he was number two. He is a lesser figure," Markey said. "However, in terms of being every bit as militant and eager to demonstrate al Qaeda's continued significance as a terrorist organization, we should expect that. And if anything, I would imagine that he would be inclined to demonstrate that al Qaeda is still alive and kicking."

"He is an able person," Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location. "We have been cooperating with al Qaeda in the past and that cooperation will continue in future," he told Reuters. "So I think he's (Zawahri's) got some challenges but I think it's a reminder that they are still out there and we still need to keep after them," he said.

Challenges for Al-Zawahiri as Al-Qaida Leader

Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: “Zawahiri's record suggests he will struggle.” He is “famously disputatious and tone-deaf...His record is one of alienating his colleagues, fighting over dogma, even within the Islamist movement. And as a communicator, he is less effective. His books are turgid and dogmatic...Bin Laden was a gentle and strong communicator, if somewhat incoherent in his thinking. Zawhri is dogmatic and argumentative.” [Source: Steve Coll, The New Yorker May 2, 2011]

William Maclean, an analyst at Reuters, wrote: Zawahri's apparently prickly temperament and Egyptian background could make it hard to mediate between the Egyptians who have dominated the upper reaches of the central al Qaeda group and other militants, including nationals of Arab, Asian, African and European countries as well as of the United States. Al Qaeda's leadership has struggled with internal disputes at times, and some arguments over strategy and ideology have been marked by strains based on nationality, historians say. Of particular interest will be Zawahri's relationship to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, led by a Yemeni and has many Saudis in its ranks. Many are believed to have felt close to bin Laden, who had Yemeni ancestry. [Source: William Maclean, Reuters, June 16, 2011]

"Not a particularly inspiring figure, and one who lacks bin Laden's cachet, it is no certainty that Zawahri can effectively serve as the 'new logo' of al Qaeda," former CIA operations officer John J. LeBeau told Reuters. "As well, despite the announced succession, it is entirely possible that elements within al Qaeda are unhappy with this choice and may militate against it, one way or another." Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism specialist at IHS Jane's in London, said, "Zawahri is supposedly not much liked in the movement, while there has been speculation that his leadership could be undermined because he is not from ... Saudi Arabia."

“Zawahri may also be challenged by the task of shoring up alliances between the core al Qaeda group,” Maclean wrote, “which is believed to be based mostly in Pakistan, and local Pakistani militant allies in the Asian country's remote northern tribal regions. These ties are seen as critical to the leadership's ability to remain hidden because the Pakistan groups have the firepower, funds and local contacts to keep their foriegn hosts secure.”

Fawz Gerges, an al Qaeda expert at the London School of Economics, said no one matched "the stature and charisma of bin Laden, a unifying and beloved figure within the organisation... Zawahri is divisive and prickly, an intellectual giant among the remaining figures in al-Qaeda but not a rallying figure. He is no force-multiplier."

Not everyone agrees that Zawahri is unsuited to be leader.Australian scholar, Leah Farrall, a leading authority on al Qaeda, said Zawahri had been widely respected for his role as the second-in-command "despite his somewhat sharp personality". "He is certainly viewed as being experienced and this is important. Al Qaeda does not select leaders on whether they are necessarily the most popular, but on how effectively they do their jobs."

Zawahri must also do all he can to ensure security for the group's senior figures, who are believed to be at increased risk of detection and capture as a result of the capture of intelligence at bin Laden's house. Ideology may also prove a challenge. In his recent statements, Zawahri has take pains to praise the Arab revolts, going so far as to recall his participation in civilian street protests early in his own life against what he called Western-dominated rule in Egypt.It is an unorthodox statement for a militant who has long argued that violence was the only answer to Western dominance. Some analysts say a foretaste of al Qaeda's future plotting may have come in a video posted online on June 2 by several senior al Qaeda figures calling on followers to stage their "individual" acts of violence against the West.

Jarrett Brachman, a leading U.S. analyst on al Qaeda who advises the U.S. government, told Reuters that bin Laden's death offered an opening now for several men to rise to prominence. "I think Ayman al-Zawhiri will take over the reins in the short term," he told Reuters. "But I doubt anyone has confidence in his leadership skills, and I imagine others will want the fame, and the gory glory, of running the movement." [Source: William Maclean, Reuters, May 3, 2011]

The London-based intelligence consultancy Exclusive Analysis forecast "a self-destructive battle for succession" within al-Qaeda, which has never had to manage a succession in its top leadership since it was founded in about 1988. It said the group's audacious Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was the best placed ally to take over strategic leadership and attack planning after mounting bold and technically sophisticated plots against the West.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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