CAIRO — With Osama bin Laden dead, U.S. authorities are training their sights on his top deputy, an Egyptian surgeon-turned-jihadist whose tactical acumen will be tested as al-Qaida struggles to regroup.
The U.S. government has a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahri, 59, who’s presumed to be bin Laden’s successor — though al-Qaida has yet to make a public announcement since U.S. Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan early Monday and shot bin Laden dead.
Political analysts say Zawahri faces his biggest challenge yet: finding a way to restore al-Qaida’s relevance to Muslim causes while at the same time evading capture as the FBI’s new most-wanted terrorist.
Most students of militant groups believe Zawahri has been the de facto leader of al-Qaida for the last several years while the bigger target — bin Laden — was on the run.
“Bin Laden was the symbol and the more charismatic figure, but Ayman Zawahri was the executive and the real leader,” said Hossam Tammam, an Egyptian university professor who studies militant groups and has written extensively on the subject. “He was the deeper and more effective leader of al-Qaida and, if nothing exceptional like his death or severe illness happens, Zawahri will head the network.”
Zawahri, whose militancy was hardened in brutal Egyptian prisons, comes across as dour and charmless in his many videos and audiotapes of the past several years. But what Zawahri lacks in the charm department, he makes up for with a nimble mind that’s helped al-Qaida evolve into a global franchise operation with self-proclaimed members acting independently or with little direction from the official leadership.
Zawahri was only 15 when he formed his first underground cell devoted to overthrowing the government and creating an Islamist state, according to an exhaustive account of his early life in Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”
From an early age, according to Wright, Zawahri demonstrated “personal fearlessness, his self-righteousness, and his total conviction of the truth of his own beliefs — headstrong qualities that would invariably be associated with him and that would propel him into conflict with nearly everyone he would meet.”
Zawahri was among the militants imprisoned in connection with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. After his release, Zawahri participated in the Egyptian Islamist uprising of the 1990s, which the now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak crushed. Zawahri moved to Pakistan, where in about 1998 his exiled militant group Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined forces with bin Laden in what would become al-Qaida.
U.S. authorities say he helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
Zawahri already has tried to latch on to the momentum of the Arab uprisings, releasing an audio and video series of his musings on the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The series had a clunky title, “A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” and by the time the videos were smuggled out of Zawahri’s hiding place and uploaded to the Internet, much of the content sounded passe in the Twitter-fast revolutions.
Zawahri also didn’t win many new followers by railing against the very idea of democracy, a goal for hundreds of thousands of Arab protesters. Democracy, Zawahri said in a recent recording, “means that sovereignty is to the desires of the majority, without committing to any quality, value or creed. A democratic state can only be secular,” meaning nonreligious.
“Bin Laden was the symbol and the more charismatic figure, but Ayman Zawahri was the executive and the real leader.”