Egyptian eye surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, seen as the brains behind the global network, was yesterday declared successor to assassinated Osama Bin Laden.
He was named in an internet statement that said: “The general leadership of al-Qaeda group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group.”
He had been the al-Qaeda No 2 – but experts said the fact six weeks had passed since Bin Laden was killed in his Pakistan bolthole by US Navy Seals might signal there had been a power struggle.
Zawahiri, who has a calloused patch of darkened skin on his forehead from constant praying, is thought to have finally fought off challenges from younger bloodthirsty fanatics despite being seen as an “armchair general”.
He has already made it clear he will try to continue deadly attacks – and it is feared he will want to stamp his mark with a terror “spectacular”.
In a 28-minute video eulogy for Bin Laden, he vowed last week: “We will pursue the jihad until we expel the invaders from Muslim lands.”
He warned al-Qaeda was preparing to mount an attack on the scale of 9/11.
Who Is Ayman al-Zawahiri?
Like many of al-Qaeda’s leaders, Zawahiri had a comfortable middle-class upbringing.
He was born into a family of well-to-do doctors and scholars in Cairo. His grandfather was the grand imam of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East. An uncle was the first secretary-general of the Arab League.
Zawahiri excelled at school and enjoyed poetry – but loathed “violent” sport. Then at 15 he was arrested for being in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
In 1974 he graduated from Cairo University’s medical school, where his father was a professor. Four years later he obtained a masters in surgery and wed a philosophy student.
He joined Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In 1981 he was among hundreds of militants rounded up after president Anwar Sadat was shot dead for signing a peace deal with Israel. He was convicted of possessing firearms and beaten during his three-year sentence
Meeting With Bin Laden and His Role in the Network.
On his release he left for Saudi Arabia, where he met Bin Laden. He became his right-hand man when he founded al-Qaeda in 1988.
Bin Laden was seen as the charismatic frontman and spiritual leader, while Zawahiri acted as his mentor and strategic planner. He spent time in Bulgaria, Denmark, Switzerland, the Balkans, Austria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and the Philippines.
He was blamed for planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six people, the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor, Egypt, and the 1998 blasts at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya which killed 224.
Zawahiri – whose aliases include The Teacher and The Doctor, and who has been dubbed Dr Death – was also seen by some as the “operational brains” behind the 9/11 attacks.
His wife and three of his seven children were reported to have been killed by US bombing in Afghanistan. But he escaped and is thought to have disappeared into the tribal-belt Mountains on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. He appeared in videos attempting to radicalize Muslims around the world.
In 2005 he praised the 7/7 London bombings, which left 56 dead – calling England “one of the severest enemies of Islam”.
Experts are now split over what effect, if any, Zawahiri will have on the al-Qaeda terror network.
Fawaz Gerges, of the London School of Economics, said al-Qaeda was “on the run” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while elsewhere they were “pitted in a fierce local struggle for survival”. In Washington, a senior US official said: “Unlike many of al-Qaeda’s top members, Zawahiri has not had combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a ‘soft’ image.”
He said he had not “demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills” and his appointment could trigger “dissention” within the group.
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed the appointment, saying it was “certainly neither surprising nor does it change facts”.
He added: “Al-Qaeda’s ideology is bankrupt. Peaceful movements for change are the future for the region. Al-Qaeda is the past.”
Others warned Zawahiri would dig al-Qaeda’s claws deeper into nations rocked by the “Arab Spring” rebellions, while widening the group’s appeal in the Islamic world to boost its political clout.
Norman Benotman, a senior analyst at the London-based Quilliam think tank, said: “It is surprising that al-Qaeda took such a long time to announce Zawahiri.
“This is a sign that there may have been disputes and conflicts within al-Qaeda that Zawahiri needed to resolve.
“Zawahiri’s first step as leader will be to try to decontaminate the group’s reputation in the Muslim world. Zawahiri’s first priority will be to restore the al-Qaeda brand.”