People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 29

July 17, 2011


New Qaeda Chief


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE announcement in the third week of June that the 60 year old Ayman al Zawahri has taken over as the leader of al Qaeda did not come as a surprise.  Zawahri, a qualified Egyptian surgeon has been the second in command of al Qaeda since its formation in the late eighties. He was reputed to be the real tactician when Osama bin Laden was the titular leader of the group.


Many terror experts have described Zawahri as bin Laden’s intellectual mentor. “Ayman is to bin Laden what a brain is to a body”, said a prominent Egyptian lawyer, Montasser al-Zayat. The videos and tapes of Zawahri that were released after the events of September 11, 2001, were taken as seriously as the ones issued by his nominal boss, bin Laden. Zawahri is believed to be “the operational brains” behind the September 11 attacks. Since 2001, all his tapes urge Muslims to strike at the commercial interests of the West and its allies, which in his worldview included many pro-American Arab states and countries like India which have struck a close strategic relationship with the West. In recent years, Kashmir too has frequently figured in his speeches. 


The Obama administration has tried to play down the news about the new al Qaeda leader. US counter-terrorism officials are trying to give the impression that they are actually welcoming the new developments within the depleted Qaeda ranks. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates weighed in by remarking that Zawahri lacked the “peculiar charisma” of bin Laden. Gates claimed that bin Laden was a more hands on leader than Zawahri. Gates added that Zawahri’s Egyptian nationality would also limit his appeal among fellow militants. The defence secretary however conceded that the al Qaeda, despite its “huge losses” remains a threat to American interests.




Egypt is the most populous Arab country and the radical ferment in the region had its epicentre there. Zawahri himself became radicalised as a teenager when he joined the fight against the American backed authoritarian government of Anwar Sadat. He was imprisoned and tortured by Egyptian government at a young age. At a mass trial of militants, a young and unrepentant al Zawahri told the Court— “We are here - the real Islamic front and the real Islamic opposition against Zionism, Communism and Imperialism”.


 After his release he left Egypt to wage “jihad” against the Communists in Afghanistan. Ironically, his long cherished goal of overthrowing the regime of Hosni Mubarak was achieved through means he detested. As the leader of the second biggest Egyptian militant grouping, “Islamic Jihad”, Zawahri is said to have had orchestrated the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor. Zawahri was sentenced to death by an Egyptian military court in absentia. After the Luxor incident, Egyptian public opinion had turned against the militant groups. The so called “Arab Spring” has left the al Qaeda as a bystander as the caravan of democratic change moved along.


Zawahri seems to have taken into account the new realities on the ground. In recent speeches, for the first time he had positive things to say about the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, who have been targeted in recent months by extremists. In another speech, he praised the Hamas leadership. Till recently, the al Qaeda was extremely critical of Hamas, mainly for participating in elections and for its close ties with Iran and Syria.


American intelligence officials and experts are of the opinion that Zawahri’s so called “abrasive personality” coupled with his long years in isolation, would make him a weak leader. Zawahri, according to American intelligence agencies, is said to be hiding out in the Pakistani tribal areas, adjacent to the border with Afghanistan. Incessant American drone attacks have made life for the militants in the tribal areas extremely difficult and have disrupted communications links. American Intelligence estimates last year put the number of active al Qaida operatives in Afghanistan in double digits. Obama administration officials are now saying that the negligible al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will allow for the speedier withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.


The Qaeda may be on the defensive in South Asia but its affiliates in West Asia and Africa have been gaining ground. In Yemen, the continuing civil strife has helped the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One indication of this is the sharp escalation in the drone attacks launched by the US in the region from the beginning of June. In North Africa and the Horn of Africa, American instigated wars have helped the Qaeda affiliates like the al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQM) and the al Shabab in Somalia to grow. In Libya, former Qaeda supporters are getting help from the US in the ongoing efforts to bring down their nemesis, Muammar al Gaddafi. American drones in Libya are being used to target government officials including Gaddafi. The Libyan government was the first government to seek an international warrant of arrest against bin Laden.     


Zawahri himself, according to reports, has narrowly escaped American drone and missile attacks. In one such attack in December, 2001, Zawahri is said to have lost his wife and several of his children. In his last video taped speech released on June 8, Zawahri in his trade mark white turban and a rifle by his side, warned the West that it faces a “jihadist renaissance” and that preparations are on to stage an attack that would rival that of September 11. But he also called on al Qaeda and its affiliates to desist from blowing up public places and acts of mindless violence. Zawahri also had words of encouragement for the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world. At the same time, he urged the “crowds of Muslim Ummah in Pakistan to revolt against the mercenary soldiers and the bribed politicians who control the fate of the people”.


Zawahri had played a key role in the formation of the Pakistani Taliban after the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by the Pakistani army in 2007. In his messages, the recurring theme was that the Pakistani government was an agent of the West and needs to be overthrown. Pakistani Intelligence experts have said Zawahri used to frequently meet with Pakistani militant leaders and advice them about tactics.


The Obama administration despite its recent rhetoric running down Zawahri’s leadership capabilities, is taking the al Qaeda threats seriously. Zawahri already has a $25 million bounty on his head. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar comes next with a $10 million reward for his capture or death. But the Afghan Taliban is now being coerced into talks by a dual campaign of relentless bombing and diplomatic manoeuvres. The UN Security Council has already de-linked the Afghan Taliban from the al Qaeda and is moving ahead to remove sanctions on prominent Taliban leaders. Killing Mullah Omar does not seem to be the priority of the Obama administration at this juncture. 




Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, reacting to the news of Zawahri formally taking over the leadership of the al Qaeda, said that the US would “seek to capture and kill” Zawahri in the same way the US succeeded “to capture and kill-and succeed in killing—bin Laden”. The Obama administration’s determination to quickly eliminate the new al Qaeda chief once again puts Pakistan in the spotlight. Washington has been demanding that the Pakistani government cooperate fully this time. Osama’s safe house in Abbotabad, adjacent to a military cantonment and near the capital Islamabad, has left the Pakistani government red faced. American officials are openly alleging that influential sections of the Pakistani Intelligence community had protected the Qaeda leader. Recently, American officials alleged that the militants were tipped off on several occasions by the ISI on impending American attacks.


Zawahri had once described the Pakistani army as “the hunting dogs of the crusaders”. He has also repeatedly warned that Washington’s ultimate aim is to gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. There are al Qaida sympathisers within the Pakistani army and the popular mood in Pakistan is anyway vehemently anti-American. The Pakistani government, already seething from the blatant violations of its territorial sovereignty by the Americans during the operation that captured and killed bin Laden, has announced that it would no longer allow breaches of its territorial integrity by the American military. The Pakistani interior minister, Rahman Mallik, said recently that “CIA agents” would no longer be allowed to operate inside his country. The American media has reported that the Pakistani government has arrested four of its military officers for collaborating with American intelligence in the Abbotabad raid.


There are clear indications that under the leadership of Zawahri, the main focus of the jihadist groups will be on South and West Asia. In his June 8 speech, most of the emphasis was on waging “jihad” against the governments of Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Zawahri is also known to be in close contact with Ilyas Kashmiri of the HUJI which along with the LeT, has been busy targeting Kashmir and was responsible for the heinous Mumbai terror attack of November 2008. There is no conclusive evidence yet to show that Kashmiri was killed in a US drone attack in May in the Waziristan region  Under Zawahri’s overall leadership, spectacular terror attacks on targets worldwide is however still very much on the agenda. Zawahri was credited with planning the attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar as Salaam. In a speech delivered on February 2009, Zawahri had said that the “entire world is our field against the targets of the Zionist crusade”, adding that it was not for “the enemy to impose on us the field, time and the way in which we fight”.