The Zawahiri Factor

Originally published in Daily Times on Sunday June 19, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

A rather belated but widely speculated announcement of Zawahiri’s ascension to the terror throne hit the counter-terrorism amphitheatre last week. The announcement came about around six weeks after the killing of former al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in an operation by the US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad on May 2. While the delay in appointing the new terror chief was being seen as meaningful for the changing internal dynamics of the al Qaeda terror network, the internal rifts within its structure also came to international attention when Al-Adel was reported to have been nominated as the new head. Now that the announcement has been made, key questions that emerge are: how would the al Qaeda strategy be changed, how would it impact the counter-terrorism efforts and what the policy forecast should be accordingly?

Hailing from an educated and noted family of Egypt, Zawahiri, a surgeon by profession, became influenced by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb when he was brutally tortured and hanged in 1966. Zawahiri’s writings and sermons thereafter picture the deep influence of Sayyid Qutb. Another event that changed Zawahiri’s life was his years in jail in the early 1980s as a key suspect in Sadat’s assassination. He turned to Afghanistan in 1986 and was in a position of starting his jihadi agenda from there in 1987. This was the year when he travelled to Pakistan and met a young and rich Arab — Osama bin Laden — waging jihad against the ‘infidels’, the definitions of which were still ambiguous in Osama’s mind.

The ‘dishonest’ and ‘manipulative’ Zawahiri, as he was described later by his rivals within the jihadi movement, soon dragged Osama out of the influence of his mentor Abdullah Azzam. Azzam enjoyed great influence on Osama and was known for his comparatively non-violent strategic aptitude. Moreover, Azzam used to oppose turning the jihad against the Arab states, an agenda that was at loggerheads with Zawahiri’s fixation with the Egyptian regime. Zawahiri soon felt he would need money for his agenda and Osama could only finance it if taken out of the clutches of Azzam. To further this, Zawahiri went to the extent that he spread the rumour that Azzam was a US agent within the jihadi movement, which was the reason why he would pursue a policy of non-violence.

The paths of Azzam and Osama were finally separated in 1988 as a consequence of the intrigues crafted by Zawahiri. This was the year when Osama laid the foundation of al Qaeda. In 1989, Azzam was killed in a bomb explosion. The link to Azzam’s assassination was often traced to Zawahiri, though no material evidence of the same could be seen to date. Zawahiri’s credentials of intrigue and betrayal are, however, not limited to this. In the 1980s while he was in an Egyptian jail, he allegedly leaked the information about his mentor and aide, Essam Al-Qamari, who was later arrested but escaped only to be killed in a gun battle with the police.

Within al Qaeda, Zawahiri has never been an unquestioned leader like Osama was. Osama seldom spoke publicly or among the aides on strategy and operations. He was more of a chairman of the board of directors who would normally listen to the deliberations among his lieutenants on any new idea followed by his ‘yes’ to it. Zawahiri, on the contrary, would talk about strategy with the next tier and would often develop disagreements. Most of the opposition to Zawahiri also came from his arrogant countenance towards any idea, opinion and view that contradicted his own. One example of this was seen in 1999 when he had to throw away his title of emir after getting isolated by the inner brass of Islamic Jihad (the organisation he founded before joining Osama) mainly because of the fact that most of the Islamic Jihad leaders would opt for non-violent jihad.

Zawahiri, who was previously inclined to adopt the strategy of attacking regimes, especially the one in Egypt and the Saudis, got influenced by the jailed leadership of the Islamic Group. Islamic jihadists struggling against Middle Eastern regimes came to recognise the futility of direct confrontation with the Muslim states. Their conclusion was confronting the larger enemy that was Israel, and even beyond that, the US would be more meaningful in realising global jihad. Zawahiri followed the same but abandoned the Islamic Group’s new strategy of letting go of violent means.

Among his personal disadvantages compared to Osama are not only superficial ones like non-eloquence, arrogance, being uncharismatic, etc. What differentiates him from bin Laden is rather deeper. The level of orthodoxy and rigidity that Zawahiri brought to the polemics of al Qaeda (or Qaedat al-Jihad) were unprecedented. Having said that, he was also cognizant of the expansiveness of his battle — the global jihad. That triggered his famous work based on the formula of Al Wala’ Wal Bara (loyalty and disavowal) first theorised by Sulayman Ibn-Abdullah who was the grandson of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahab — the founder of Wahabiism, the most obdurate faction of puritanical Islam.

According to Zawahiri’s interpretation of Al Wala’ Wal Bara, he would proclaim and preach an all-inclusive battle against a larger enemy — the USA and Israel. In this battle, he would have no qualms in including those he would consider out of the global nation of believers — the Shiites and other Ahl al-Kitâb (people of the book). This view was later fiercely opposed by a third tier al Qaeda leader Zarqawi, who would strongly pursue his anti-Shiite agenda with powerful backing within the group. Zarqawi was later killed in 2006 by US forces with rumours that appeared briefly in the media that his killing became possible after tips from none other than Zawahiri who had faced a challenge to his strategic leadership from Zarqawi. One would hear the same allegations against Zawahiri for tipping off Osama’s presence in Abbottabad.

The fact that the announcement of Zawahiri’s leadership did not come before the (unconfirmed) death of Ilyas Kashmiri — another promising regional leader of al Qaeda — is rather meaningful. A contender for the second tier leadership, Ilyas was not the only one with ambitions for this coveted organisational position. Moreover, Ilyas, for his closeness with the authorities in Pakistan, is also suspected of helping Zawahiri betray Osama. If that is so, the overwhelming possibility is that Zawahiri, in complete coherence with his track record, might have betrayed Ilyas as well. This now triggers a rat race for the second tier position not only in the region but also in the Middle Eastern network of al Qaeda.

One would not be so wrong in speculating fiercer attacks on most difficult western targets, US supply routes as well as Pakistani targets in the coming months. The race for the slot of the ‘deputy’ would make many regional warheads act more violently than they would have normally in order to get noticed and qualify for the coveted positions within the terrorist organisational structure. This could be countered with ‘intelligent’ intelligence and building on the differences among so many factions within al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, but only if “we” really want to overcome them. Letting them run loose would mean total chaos, particularly in Pakistan.