A leader in the shadows

From Bin Laden to al-Zawahiri: The story of al-Qaeda’s rise

By Jihâd Gillon

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Posted on May 7, 2021 10:03

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-05-04T17-05-08.690Z © Osama bin Laden (left) stands next to Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Visual News/Getty Images/AFP
Osama bin Laden (left) stands next to Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Visual News/Getty Images/AFP

10 years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Egypt’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded him as head of al-Qaeda, was for a long time the leading ideologist of this jihadist international organisation, despite being seen as much less charistmatic.

At an age when people are just beginning to think about their future, 15-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri established a clandestine Muslim Brotherhood cell in his high school.

Zawahiri was not one of those people whose commitment stemmed more from a need for recognition than from real convictions. Throughout his life, he travelled around the world setting up cells. He also founded and led Al Qaeda, which – at the height of its power – served as an umbrella organisation for all the major terrorist groups.

Currently holed up somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zawahiri is now just a gray-haired old man who is regularly given up for dead and mocked by part of the jihadist sphere. Yet the latter owes him a lot.

Sayyid Qutb’s corpse dangled at the end of a rope on 29 August 1966. The Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue was executed on the orders of Egypt’s former president Nasser. The very same day al-Zawahiri, a high school student at the time, decided to take up Islamism.

Small steps VS violence

For the majority of his generation, Qutb’s death sentence was considered a significant historical event. It marked the beginning of a deep schism within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was divided between members who supported violence and others who were in favour of political “small steps.” The latter grouped around the old Brotherhood guard, embodied by Hassan al-Hudaybi and Omar Telmassani, which – faced with Nasserite repression – was anxious to offer the government pledges of moderation.

This compromise was unacceptable to Zawahiri, who admired Qutb’s work and who experienced prison and torture for the first time in the 1960s, alongside this charismatic ideologue. “The torture that the youngest detainees undergo gives rise to the idea of takfir, excommunication. Neither their torturers nor the rulers who command these torturers, nor the people who do not revolt against these unjust rulers, can be Muslims in their eyes.” (Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and Pharaoh). This broadened conception of takfir broke down the theoretical barriers to religious-based violence.

Respected guru

The older segment of the Brotherhood movement believed that the islamisation of society should start from below, while the others, who saw themselves as an Islamic avant-garde, wanted to follow Qutb’s recommendations on destabilising and overthrowing the region’s impious regimes.

Radical Islamism was thus born and Zawahiri was one of its most respected gurus for nearly 40 years.

It was he, rather than Osama Bin Laden, who really defined Al Qaeda’s strategy. “Bin Laden had Islamist references, but had nothing against the various Arab regimes. When Ayman met Bin Laden, he sparked a real revolution in him,” says Montasser al-Zayat, Zawahiri’s former Egyptian lawyer.

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