AL-QA'IDA'S ZAWAHIRI, BIGGER THREAT THAN OSAMA?
By Raymond Ibrahim
Like Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Zawahiri has jihadi bona fides and served in the Afghan war against the Soviets, primarily as a physician. Moreover, Zawahiri's imprisonment and torture after the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad, which he headed, seems to have hardened him more than bin Laden. From his prison cell he memorably delivered a passionate speech — in English, no less. Seeing a video of it dispels any notion that he is an uncharismatic leader.
Even so, focusing on charisma is misleading. Although charisma has its place in leadership positions in Islam, knowledge demands greater authority. After all, the guardians of Islam are called ulema — literally, "those who know." And compared with bin Laden, Zawahiri is certainly more knowledgeable. He has long been seen as the al-Qa'ida's theoretician, and thus commands great respect.
Because I have always believed that Zawahiri was key to understanding al-Qa'ida's worldview, when I compiled The Al-Qa'ida Reader in 2007, I included more of his writings than bin Laden's, specifically Zawahiri's three long treatises.
Zawahiri's views may be best summed up by the following passage:
He wrote a long book in the early 1990s, Al Hisad Al Murr (The Bitter Harvest), condemning Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for taking the nonviolent course to power and actually participating in elections. It's worth noting, in retrospect, that the Brotherhood's approach has been more successful at achieving political influence.
Likewise, Zawahiri is primarily responsible for redirecting the jihadists' terror attacks from Middle East targets to the U.S.A. in order to foment a mass conflagration between the West and Islamists — an all or nothing strategy.
Finally, when it comes to questioning the popularity, charisma or even efficacy of Zawahiri, al-Qa'ida's new leader himself once made a relevant point. Asked about the status of bin Laden and other jihadists, Zawahiri waxed philosophically:
As independent jihadists increasingly take action into their own hands — whether the would-be shoe bomber and Christmas bomber, the Madrid and London bombers, or Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood army base attack — we must acknowledge that the doctrine of jihad, the idea itself, is more dangerous than the jihadists who come and go, including bin Laden and Zawahiri themselves.
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Raymond Ibrahim, a historian of Islam, Islamism and the Middle East, is the Associate Director of the Middle East Forum, a guest lecturer at the National Defense Intelligence College, author of the Al-Qa'ida entry for the World Almanac of Islamism, and the editor/translator of The Al-Qa'ida Reader, a collection of tranlations of key texts and documents of the Islamist movement. Ibrahim's translations of the religious texts and political propaganda comprising this collection help readers comprehend the origins, development, history, and serious danger of the Islamist war doctrines of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Founders of Al-Qa'ida and implacable enemies of the U.S.A. and the West.
The foregoing article by Raymond Ibrahim was originally published in Bloomberg, June 19, 2011, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (URL: http://www.meforum.org/2971/al-qaeda-zawahiri-bigger-threat-than- osama)
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