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The Man Behind Bin Laden: How an Egyptian doctor became a master of terror
By Lawrence Wright, New Yorker, September 8, 2002
Sep 21, 2022 - 2:46:06 PM

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Last March, a band of horsemen journeyed through the province of Paktika, in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Predator drones were circling the skies and American troops were sweeping through the mountains. The war had begun six months earlier, and by now the fighting had narrowed down to the ragged eastern edge of the country. Regional warlords had been bought off, the borders supposedly sealed. For twelve days, American and coalition forces had been bombing the nearby Shah-e-Kot Valley and systematically destroying the cave complexes in the Al Qaeda stronghold. And yet the horsemen were riding unhindered toward Pakistan.

They came to the village of a local militia commander named Gula Jan, whose long beard and black turban might have signalled that he was a Taliban sympathizer. “I saw a heavy, older man, an Arab, who wore dark glasses and had a white turban,” Jan told Ilene Prusher, of the Christian Science Monitor, four days later. “He was dressed like an Afghan, but he had a beautiful coat, and he was with two other Arabs who had masks on.” The man in the beautiful coat dismounted and began talking in a polite and humorous manner. He asked Jan and an Afghan companion about the location of American and Northern Alliance troops. “We are afraid we will encounter them,” he said. “Show us the right way.”

While the men were talking, Jan slipped away to examine a poster that had been dropped into the area by American airplanes. It showed a photograph of a man in a white turban and glasses. His face was broad and meaty, with a strong, prominent nose and full lips. His untrimmed beard was gray at the temples and ran in milky streaks below his chin. On his high forehead, framed by the swaths of his turban, was a darkened callus formed by many hours of prayerful prostration. His eyes reflected the sort of decisiveness one might expect in a medical man, but they also showed a measure of serenity that seemed oddly out of place. Jan was looking at a wanted poster for a man named Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had a price of twenty-five million dollars on his head.

Jan returned to the conversation. The man he now believed to be Zawahiri said to him, “May God bless you and keep you from the enemies of Islam. Try not to tell them where we came from and where we are going.”

There was a telephone number on the wanted poster, but Gula Jan did not have a phone. Zawahiri and the masked Arabs disappeared into the mountains.


In June of 2001, two terrorist organizations, Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, formally merged into one. The name of the new entity—Qaeda al-Jihad—reflects the long and interdependent history of these two groups. Although Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, has become the public face of Islamic terrorism, the members of Islamic Jihad and its guiding figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have provided the backbone of the larger organization’s leadership. According to officials in the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., Zawahiri has been responsible for much of the planning of the terrorist operations against the United States, from the assault on American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, and the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000, to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri were bound to discover each other among the radical Islamists who were drawn to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. For one thing, both were very much modern men. Bin Laden, who was in his early twenties, was already an international businessman; Zawahiri, six years older, was a surgeon from a notable Egyptian family. They were both members of the educated classes, intensely pious, quiet-spoken, and politically stifled by the regimes in their own countries. Each man filled a need in the other. Bin Laden, an idealist with vague political ideas, sought direction, and Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it. “Bin Laden had followers, but they weren’t organized,” recalls Essam Deraz, an Egyptian filmmaker who made several documentaries about the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. “The people with Zawahiri had extraordinary capabilities—doctors, engineers, soldiers. They had experience in secret work. They knew how to organize themselves and create cells. And they became the leaders.”

The goal of Islamic Jihad was to overthrow the civil government of Egypt and impose a theocracy that might eventually become a model for the entire Arab world; however, years of guerrilla warfare had left the group shattered and bankrupt. For Zawahiri, bin Laden was a savior—rich and generous, with nearly limitless resources, but also pliable and politically unformed. “Bin Laden had an Islamic frame of reference, but he didn’t have anything against the Arab regimes,” Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer for many of the Islamists, told me recently in Cairo. “When Ayman met bin Laden, he created a revolution inside him.”

Five miles south of the chaos of Cairo is a quiet middle-class suburb called Maadi. A consortium of Egyptian Jewish financiers, intending to create a kind of English village amid the mango and guava plantations and Bedouin settlements on the eastern bank of the Nile, began selling lots in the first decade of the twentieth century. The developers regulated everything, from the height of the garden fences to the color of the shutters on the grand villas that lined the streets. They dreamed of an Egypt that was safe and clean and orderly, and also secular and ethnically diverse—though still married to British notions of class. They planted eucalyptus trees to repel flies and mosquitoes, and gardens to perfume the air with the fragrance of roses and jasmine and bougainvillea. Many of the early settlers were British military officers and civil servants, whose wives started garden clubs and literary salons; they were followed by Jewish families, who by the end of the Second World War made up nearly a third of Maadi’s population. After the war, Maadi evolved into a community of expatriate Europeans, American businessmen and missionaries, and a certain type of Egyptian—one who spoke French at dinner and followed the cricket matches.

The center of this cosmopolitan community was the Maadi Sporting Club. Founded at a time when Egypt was occupied by the British, the club was unusual for admitting not only Jews but Egyptians. Community business was often conducted on the all-sand eighteen-hole golf course, with the Giza Pyramids and the palmy Nile as a backdrop. As high tea was served to the British in the lounge, Nubian waiters bearing icy glasses of Nescafé glided among the pashas and princesses sunbathing at the pool. In the garden were flamingos and a lily pond.

But the careful regulations could not withstand the pressure of Cairo’s burgeoning population, and in the late nineteen-sixties another Maadi took root. “We called its residents the ‘Road 9 crowd,’ ” Samir Raafat, a journalist who has written a history of the suburb, told me. “It was very much ‘them’ and ‘us.’ ” Road 9 runs beside train tracks that separate the tony side of Maadi from the baladi district—the native part of town. Here donkey carts clop along unpaved streets past fly-studded carcasses hanging in butchers’ shops, and peanut venders and yam salesmen hawk their wares. There is also, on this side of town, a narrow slice of the middle class, composed mainly of teachers and low-level bureaucrats who were drawn to the suburb by the cleaner air and the dream of crossing the tracks and being welcomed into the club.

In 1960, Dr. Rabie al-Zawahiri and his wife, Umayma, moved from Heliopolis to Maadi. Rabie and Umayma belonged to two of the most prominent families in Egypt. The Zawahiri (pronounced za-wah-iri) clan was creating a medical dynasty. Rabie was a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University, in Cairo. His brother was a highly regarded dermatologist and an expert on venereal diseases. The tradition they established continued into the next generation; a 1995 obituary in a Cairo newspaper for one of their relatives, Kashif al-Zawahiri, mentioned forty-six members of the family, thirty-one of whom were doctors or chemists or pharmacists; among the others were an ambassador, a judge, and a member of parliament.

The Zawahiri name, however, was associated above all with religion. In 1929, Rabie’s uncle Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri became the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old university in the heart of Old Cairo, which is still the center of Islamic learning in the Middle East. The leader of that institution enjoys a kind of papal status in the Muslim world, and Imam Mohammed is still remembered as one of the university’s great modernizers. Rabie’s father and grandfather were Al-Azhar scholars as well.

Umayma Azzam, Rabie’s wife, was from a clan that was equally distinguished but wealthier and also a little notorious. Her father, Dr. Abd al-Wahab Azzam, was the president of Cairo University and the founder and director of King Saud University, in Riyadh. He had also served at various times as the Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. His uncle was a founding secretary-general of the Arab League. “From the first parliament, more than a hundred and fifty years ago, there have been Azzams in government,” Umayma’s uncle Mahfouz Azzam, who is an attorney in Maadi, told me. “And we were always in the opposition.” At seventy-five, Mahfouz remains politically active: he is the vice-president of the religiously oriented Labor Party. He was a fervent Egyptian nationalist in his youth. “I was in prison when I was fifteen years old,” he said proudly. “They condemned me for making what they called a ‘coup d’état.’ ” The memory brought an ironic smile to his face. In 1945, Mahfouz was arrested again, in a roundup of militants after the assassination of Prime Minister Ahmad Mahir. “I myself was going to do what Ayman has done,” he said.

Despite their pedigrees, Rabie and Umayma settled into an apartment on Street 100, on the baladi side of the tracks. Later, they rented a duplex at No. 10, Street 154, near the train station. High society held no interest for them. At a time when public displays of religious zeal were rare—and in Maadi almost unheard of—the couple was religious but not overtly pious. Umayma went about unveiled. There were more churches than mosques in the neighborhood, and a thriving synagogue.

Children quickly filled the Zawahiri home. The first, Ayman and a twin sister, Umnya, were born on June 19, 1951. The twins were extremely bright, and were at the top of their classes all the way through medical school. A younger sister, Heba, also became a doctor. The two other children, Mohammed and Hussein, trained as architects.

Obese, bald, and slightly cross-eyed, Rabie al-Zawahiri had a reputation as a devoted and slightly distracted academic, beloved by his students and by the neighborhood children. “He knew only his laboratory,” Mahfouz Azzam told me. Zawahiri’s research occasionally took him to Czechoslovakia, at a time when few Egyptians travelled, because of currency restrictions. He always returned laden with toys for the children. He sometimes found time to take them to the movies; Omar Azzam, the son of Mahfouz and Ayman’s second cousin, says that Ayman enjoyed cartoons and Disney movies, which played three nights a week on an outdoor screen. In the summer, the family went to a beach in Alexandria. Life on a professor’s salary was constricted, especially with five ambitious children to educate. The Zawahiris never owned a car until Ayman was out of medical school. Omar Azzam remembers that Professor Zawahiri kept hens behind the house for fresh eggs and that he liked to distribute oranges to his children and their friends. “Everyone was astonished,” Omar said. “ ‘Why all these oranges?’ He’d say, ‘They’re better than vitamin-C tablets.’ He was a pharmacology expert, but he was opposed to chemicals.”

Umayma Azzam still lives in Maadi, in a comfortable apartment above several stores. She is said to be a wonderful cook, famous for her kunafa—a pastry of shredded phyllo filled with cheese and nuts and usually drenched in orange-blossom syrup. She inherited several substantial plots of farmland in Giza and the Fayyum Oasis from her father, which provide her with a modest income. Ayman and his mother share a love of literature. “She always memorized the poems that Ayman sent her,” Mahfouz Azzam told me. Mahfouz believes that although Ayman maintained the Zawahiri medical tradition, he was actually closer in temperament to his mother’s side of the family. “The Zawahiris are professors and scientists, and they hate to speak of politics,” he said. “Ayman told me that his love of medicine was probably inherited. But politics was also in his genes.”

For anyone living in Maadi in the fifties and sixties, there was one defining social standard: membership in the Maadi Sporting Club. “The whole activity of Maadi revolved around the club,” Samir Raafat, the historian of the suburb, told me one afternoon as he drove me around the neighborhood. “If you were not a member, why even live in Maadi?” The Zawahiris never joined, which meant, in Raafat’s opinion, that Ayman would always be curtained off from the center of power and status. “He wasn’t mainstream Maadi; he was totally marginal Maadi,” Raafat said. “The Zawahiris were a conservative family. You would never see them in the club, holding hands, playing bridge. We called them saidis. Literally, the word refers to someone from a district in Upper Egypt, but we use it to mean something like ‘hick.’ ”

At one end of Maadi is Victoria College, a private preparatory school built by the British. During the nineteen-sixties, it was one of the finest schools in the country, and English was still the language of instruction. “You didn’t see these buildings when I was here,” Raafat said, pointing to the high-rise apartments that have taken over Maadi in recent years. “It was all green, tennis courts and playing fields as far as you could see. We came to school in coats and ties.”

Zawahiri, however, attended the state secondary school, a modest low-slung building behind a green gate, on the opposite side of the suburb. “It was the hoodlum school, the other end of the social spectrum,” Raafat told me. The educational standards were far below those of Victoria College. “The two schools never even played sports against each other,” he said. “One was very Westernized, the other had a very limited view of the world. A lot of people will tell you that Ayman was a vulnerable young man. He grew up in a very traditional home, but the area he lived in was a cosmopolitan, secular environment. You have to blend in or totally retrench.”

Ayman’s childhood pictures show him with a round face, a wary gaze, and a flat and unsmiling mouth. He was a bookworm and hated contact sports—he thought they were “inhumane,” according to his uncle Mahfouz. From an early age, he was devout, and he often attended prayers at the Hussein Sidki Mosque, an unimposing annex of a large apartment building; the mosque was named after a famous actor who renounced his profession because it was ungodly. No doubt Ayman’s interest in religion seemed natural in a family with so many distinguished religious scholars, but it added to his image of being soft and otherworldly.

Although Ayman was an excellent student, he often seemed to be daydreaming in class. “He was a mysterious character, closed and introverted,” Zaki Mohamed Zaki, a Cairo journalist who was a classmate of his, told me. “He was extremely intelligent, and all the teachers respected him. He had a very systematic way of thinking, like that of an older guy. He could understand in five minutes what it would take other students an hour to understand. I would call him a genius.”

Once, to the family’s surprise, Ayman skipped a test, and the principal sent a note to his father. The next morning, Professor Zawahiri met with the principal and told him, “From now on, you will have the honor of being the headmaster of Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the future, you will be proud.” Indeed, that incident was never repeated. “He was perfect in everything,” Ayman’s cousin Omar told me. “In his last year in school, his twin sister used to study so much, but Ayman was not doing the same. One of our cousins said, ‘You will see the result. Ayman will get better grades than she.’ And it happened.”

Ayman often showed a playful side at home. “When he laughed, he would shake all over—yanni, it was from the heart,” Mahfouz says. But at school he held himself apart. “There were a lot of activities in the high school, but he wanted to remain isolated,” Zaki told me. “It was as if mingling with the other boys would get him too distracted. When he saw us playing rough, he’d walk away. I felt he had a big puzzle inside him—something he wanted to protect.”


In 1950, the year before Ayman al-Zawahiri was born, Sayyid Qutb, a well-known literary critic in Cairo, returned home after spending two years at Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley. He had left Cairo as a secular writer who enjoyed a sinecure in the Ministry of Education. One of his early discoveries was a young writer named Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Qutb was our friend,” Mahfouz recalled recently in Cairo. “When I was growing up, he was the first critic to recognize me.” Mahfouz, who has been unable to write since 1994, when he was stabbed and nearly killed by Islamic fundamentalists, told me that before Qutb went to America he was at odds with many of the sheikhs, who he thought were “out of date.” According to Mahfouz, Qutb saw himself as part of the modern age, and he wore his religion lightly. His great passion was Egyptian nationalism, and, perhaps because of his strident opposition to the British occupation, the Ministry of Education decided that he would be safer in America.

Qutb had studied American literature and popular culture; the United States, in contrast with the European powers, seemed to him and other Egyptian nationalists to be a friendly neutral power and a democratic ideal. In Colorado, however, Qutb encountered a postwar America unlike the one he had found in books and seen in Hollywood films. “It is astonishing to realize, despite his advanced education and his perfectionism, how primitive the American really is in his views on life,” Qutb wrote upon his return to Egypt. “His behavior reminds us of the era of the caveman. He is primitive in the way he lusts after power, ignoring ideals and manners and principles.” Qutb was impressed by the number of churches in America—there were more than twenty in Greeley alone—and yet the Americans he met seemed completely uninterested in spiritual matters. He was appalled to witness a dance in a church recreation hall, during which the minister, setting the mood for the couples, dimmed the lights and played “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” “It is difficult to differentiate between a church and any other place that is set up for entertainment, or what they call in their language, ‘fun,’ ” he wrote. The American was primitive in his art as well. “Jazz is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires,” he concluded. He even complained about his haircuts: “Whenever I go to a barber I return home and redo my hair with my own hands.”

Qutb returned to Egypt a radically changed man. In what he saw as the spiritual wasteland of America, he re-created himself as a militant Muslim, and he came back to Egypt with the vision of an Islam that would throw off the vulgar influences of the West. Islamic society had to be purified, and the only mechanism powerful enough to cleanse it was the ancient and bloody instrument of jihad. “Qutb was the most prominent theoretician of the fundamentalist movements,” Zawahiri later wrote in a brief memoir entitled “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” which first appeared in serial form, in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, in December, 2001. “Qutb said, ‘Brother push ahead, for your path is soaked in blood. Do not turn your head right or left but look only up to Heaven.’ ”

Egypt was already in the midst of a revolution. The Society of Muslim Brothers, the oldest and most influential fundamentalist group in Egypt, instigated an uprising against the British, whose lingering occupation of the Suez Canal zone enraged the nationalists. In January, 1952, in response to the British massacre of fifty Egyptian policemen, mobs organized by the Muslim Brothers in Cairo set fire to movie theatres, casinos, department stores, night clubs, and automobile showrooms, which, in their view, represented an Egypt that had tied its future to the West. At least thirty people were killed, seven hundred and fifty buildings were destroyed, and twelve thousand people were made homeless. The dream of a cosmopolitan metropolis ended, and the foreign community began to leave. In July of that year, a military junta, dominated by an Army colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, packed King Farouk onto his yacht and seized control of the government, without firing a shot. According to several fellow-conspirators who later wrote about the event, Nasser secretly promised the Brothers that he would impose Sharia—the rule of Islamic law—on the country.

A power struggle developed immediately between the leaders of the revolution, who had the Army behind them, and the Muslim Brothers, who had a large presence in the mosques. Neither faction had the popular authority to rule, but, as Nasser imposed martial law and eliminated political parties, the contest narrowed to a choice between a military society and a religious one, either of which would have been rejected by the majority of Egyptians, had they been allowed to decide.

Nasser was pleased when Sayyid Qutb, who had been one of his closest advisers and chief political ideologues, became the head of the Muslim Brothers’ magazine, Al-Ikwan al-Muslimoun. Presumably, he hoped that Qutb would enhance his standing with the Islamists and keep them from turning against the socialist and increasingly secular aims of the new government. One of the writers Qutb published was Zawahiri’s uncle Mahfouz Azzam, who was then a young lawyer. Azzam had known Qutb nearly all his life. “Sayyid Qutb was my teacher,” he told me. “He taught me Arabic in 1936 and 1937. He came daily to our house. He held seminars and gave us books for discussion. The first book he asked me to write a report on was ‘What Did the World Lose with the Decline of the Muslims?’ ”

It quickly became obvious to Nasser that Qutb and his corps of young Islamists had a different agenda for Egyptian society from his, and he shut down the magazine after only a few issues had been published. But the religious faction was not so easily controlled. The ideological war over Egypt’s future reached a climax on the night of October 26, 1954, when a member of the Brothers attempted to assassinate Nasser as he spoke before an immense crowd in Alexandria. Eight shots missed their mark. Nasser responded by having six conspirators executed immediately and arresting more than a thousand others, including Qutb. He had crushed the Brothers, once and for all, he thought.

Stories about Sayyid Qutb’s suffering in prison have formed a kind of Passion play for Islamic fundamentalists. Qutb had a high fever when he was arrested, but the state-security officers handcuffed him and took him to prison. He fainted several times on the way. For several hours, he was kept in a cell with vicious dogs, and then, during long periods of interrogation, he was beaten. His trial was overseen by three judges, one of whom was a future President of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat. In the courtroom, Qutb ripped off his shirt to display the marks of torture. The judges sentenced him to life in prison but, when Qutb’s health deteriorated further, reduced that to fifteen years. He suffered chronic bouts of angina, and it is likely that he contracted tuberculosis in the prison hospital.

One line of thinking proposes that America’s tragedy on September 11th was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human-rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri. The main target of their wrath was the secular Egyptian government, but a powerful current of anger was directed toward the West, which they saw as an enabling force behind the repressive regime. They held the West responsible for corrupting and humiliating Islamic society. Indeed, the theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the Islamists’ rage against the West. Egypt’s prisons became a factory for producing militants whose need for retribution—they called it “justice”—was all-consuming.

The hardening of Qutb’s views can be traced in his prison writings. Through friends, he managed to smuggle out, bit by bit, a manifesto entitled “Ma’alim fi al-Tariq” (“Milestones”). The manuscript circulated underground for years. It was finally published in Cairo in 1964, and was quickly banned; anyone caught with a copy could be charged with sedition.

Qutb begins, “Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice. Humanity is threatened not only by nuclear annihilation but by the absence of values. The West has lost its vitality, and Marxism has failed. At this crucial and bewildering juncture, the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived.”

Qutb divides the world into two camps—Islam and Jahiliyya. The latter, in traditional Islamic discourse, refers to a period of ignorance that existed throughout the world before the Prophet Muhammad began receiving his divine revelations, in the seventh century. For Qutb, the entire modern world, including so-called Muslim societies, is Jahiliyya. This was his most revolutionary statement—one that placed nominally Islamic governments in the crosshairs of jihad. “The Muslim community has long ago vanished from existence,” he contends. “It is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to Islamic teachings.” Humanity cannot be saved unless Muslims recapture the glory of their earliest and purest expression. “We need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country,” he writes, in order to fashion an example that will eventually lead Islam to its destiny of world dominion. “There should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri heard again and again about the greatness of Qutb’s character and the terrible things he endured in prison. The effect of these stories can be gauged by an incident that took place one day in the mid-sixties, when Ayman and his admiring younger brother Mohammed were walking home from the mosque after dawn prayers. Hussein al-Shaffei, the Vice-President of Egypt and one of the judges in the 1954 roundup of Islamists, “offered to give them a ride,” Omar Azzam recalls. “We would all have been proud to have the Vice-President give us a ride—even to be in a car! But Ayman and Mohammed refused. They said, ‘We don’t want to get this ride from a man who participated in the courts that killed Muslims.’ ”

In 1964, President Abd al-Salaam Arif of Iraq prevailed upon Nasser to grant Qutb parole, but the following year he was arrested again and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. The prosecutors built their case primarily on inflammatory passages in “Milestones,” but they also cited evidence that Qutb and the Muslim Brothers were planning to assassinate various public figures. “It was a revolutionary court, with no defense,” Mahfouz Azzam, who was Qutb’s lawyer, told me. Qutb received a death sentence. “Thank God,” he said. “I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom.” Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, and the Islamist threat in Egypt seemed to have been extinguished. “The Nasserite regime thought that the Islamic movement received a deadly blow with the execution of Sayyid Qutb and his comrades,” Zawahiri wrote in his memoir. “But the apparent surface calm concealed an immediate interaction with Sayyid Qutb’s ideas and the formation of the nucleus of the modern Islamic jihad movement in Egypt.” The same year Qutb was hanged, Zawahiri helped form an underground militant cell dedicated to replacing the secular Egyptian government with an Islamic one. He was fifteen years old.


“We were a group of students from Maadi High School and other schools,” Zawahiri testified about his days as a young radical, when he was put on trial for conspiring in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, in 1981. The members of his cell usually met in one another’s homes; sometimes they got together at a mosque and then went to a park or to a quiet spot on the tree-lined Corniche along the Nile. In the beginning, there were five members, and before long Zawahiri became the emir, or leader. “Our means didn’t match our aspirations,” he conceded in his testimony. But he never seemed to question his decision to become a revolutionary. “Bin Laden had a turning point in his life,” Omar Azzam points out, “but Ayman and his brother Mohammed were like people in school moving naturally from one grade to another. You cannot say those boys were naughty guys or playboys, then turned one hundred and eighty degrees. To be honest, if Ayman and Mohammed repeated their lives, they would live them the same way.”

Under the monarchy, before Nasser’s assumption of power, the affluent residents of Maadi had been insulated from the whims of the government. In revolutionary Egypt, they suddenly found themselves vulnerable. “The kids noticed that their parents were frightened and afraid of expressing their opinions,” Zawahiri’s former schoolmate Zaki told me. “It was a climate that encouraged underground work.” Clandestine groups like Zawahiri’s were forming all over Egypt. Made up mainly of restless or alienated students, they were small and disorganized and largely unaware of each other. Then came the 1967 war with Israel. The speed and the decisiveness of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War humiliated Muslims who had believed that God favored their cause. They lost not only their armies and territory but also faith in their leaders, in their countries, and in themselves. For many Muslims, it was as though they had been defeated by a force far larger than the tiny country of Israel, by something unfathomable—modernity itself. A newly strident voice was heard in the mosques, one that answered despair with a simple formulation: Islam is the solution.

The clandestine Islamist groups were galvanized by the war, and, as Nasser had feared, their primary target was his own, secular regime. In the terminology of jihad, the priority was to defeat the “near enemy”—that is, impure Muslim society. The “distant enemy”—the West—could wait until Islam had reformed itself. For the Islamists, this meant, at a minimum, imposing Sharia on the Egyptian legal system. Zawahiri also wanted to restore the caliphate, the rule of Islamic clerics, which had formally ended in 1924, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, but which had not exercised real power since the thirteenth century. Once the caliphate was reëstablished, Zawahiri believed, Egypt would become a rallying point for the rest of the Islamic world. He later wrote, “Then, history would make a new turn, God willing, in the opposite direction against the empire of the United States and the world’s Jewish government.”

Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970. His successor, Sadat, desperately needed to establish his political legitimacy, and he quickly set about trying to make peace with the Islamists. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a dissident sociologist at the American University in Cairo and an advocate of democratic reforms, who was recently sentenced to seven years in prison, told me last spring, “Sadat was looking around for allies. He remembers the Muslim Brothers. Where are they? In prison. He offers the Brothers a deal: in return for their political support, he’ll allow them to preach and to advocate, as long as they don’t use violence. What Sadat didn’t know is that the Islamists were split. Some of them had been inspired by Qutb. The younger, more radical ones thought that the older ones had gone soft.” Sadat emptied the prisons, without realizing the danger that the Islamists posed to his regime.

The Muslim Brothers, who were forbidden to act as a genuine political party, began colonizing professional and student unions. By 1973, a new band of young fundamentalists had appeared on campuses, first in the southern part of the country, then in Cairo. They called themselves Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya—the Islamic Group. Encouraged by Sadat’s acquiescent government, which covertly provided them with arms so that they could defend themselves against any attacks by Marxists and Nasserites, the Islamic Group, which was uncompromising in its militancy, radicalized most of Egypt’s universities. Soon it became fashionable for male students to grow beards and for female students to wear the veil.

Zawahiri claimed that by 1974 his group had grown to forty members. In April of that year, another group of young Islamist activists seized weapons from the arsenal of a military school, with the intention of marching on the Arab Socialist Union, where Sadat was preparing to address the nation’s leaders. The attempted coup d’état was very much along the lines of what Zawahiri had been advocating: rather than revolution, he favored a sudden, surgical military action, which would be far less bloody. The coup was put down, but only after a shootout that left eleven dead.

The Cairo University medical school, where Zawahiri was specializing in surgery, was boiling with Islamic activism. And yet Zawahiri’s underground life was a secret even to his family, according to a recent article in the Egyptian press, which quoted his younger sister, Heba, on the subject. It was also a secret to his friends and classmates. “Ayman never joined political activities during this period,” I was told by Dr. Essam Elerian, who was a colleague of Zawahiri’s and is now the leader of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. “He was a witness from outside.”

Zawahiri was tall and slender, and he wore a mustache that paralleled the flat lines of his mouth. His face was thin, and his hairline was in retreat. He dressed in Western clothes, usually a coat and tie. He did not completely hide his political feelings, however. In the seventies, while he was in medical school, he gave a campus tour to an American newsman, Abdallah Schleifer, who is now a professor of media studies at the American University in Cairo. A gangly, wiry-haired man who wears a goatee, a throwback to his beatnik phase in the late fifties, Schleifer was a challenging figure in Zawahiri’s life. He was brought up in a non-observant Jewish family on Long Island. He went through a Marxist period and then, during a trip to Morocco in 1962, he encountered the Sufi tradition of Islam. One meaning of the word “Islam” is to surrender, and that is what happened to Schleifer. He converted, changed his name from Marc to Abdallah, and has spent his professional life since then in the Middle East. In 1974, when Schleifer first came to Cairo, as the bureau chief for NBC News, Zawahiri’s uncle Mahfouz Azzam became a kind of sponsor for him. “Converts often get adopted, and Mahfouz was fascinating,” Schleifer told me. “To him, it was sort of a gas that an American had taken Islam. I had the feeling I was under the protection of the whole Azzam family.”

Recalling his first meeting with Zawahiri, Schleifer said, “He was scrawny and his eyeglasses were extremely prominent. He looked like a left-wing City College intellectual of thirty years earlier.” During the tour, Zawahiri proudly pointed out students who were painting posters for political demonstrations, and he boasted that the Islamist movement had found its greatest recruiting success in the university’s two most élite faculties—the medical and engineering schools. “Aren’t you impressed by that?” he said.

Schleifer replied that in the sixties those same faculties had been strongholds of the Marxist youth. The Islamist movement, he observed, was merely the latest trend in student rebellions. “I patronized him,” Schleifer remembers. “I said, ‘Listen, Ayman, I’m an ex-Marxist. When you talk, I feel like I’m back in the Party. I don’t feel as if I’m with a traditional Muslim.’ He was well bred and polite, and we parted on a friendly note. But I think he was puzzled.”

Schleifer encountered Zawahiri again at a celebration of the Eid festival, one of the holiest Muslim days of the year. “I heard they were going to have outdoor prayer in the Farouk Mosque in Maadi,” he recalls. “So I thought, Great, I’ll go pray in their lovely garden. And who do I see but Ayman and one of his brothers. They were very intense. They laid out plastic prayer mats and set up a microphone.” What was supposed to be a meditative day of chanting the Koran turned into a contest between the congregation and the Zawahiri brothers with their microphone. “I realized that they were introducing the Salafist formula, which does not recognize any Islamic traditions after the time of the Prophet,” Schleifer told me. “It was chaotic. Afterward, I went over to Zawahiri and said, ‘Ayman, this is wrong.’ He started to explain. I said, ‘I’m not going to argue with you. I’m a Sufi and you’re a Salafist. But you are making fitna’ ”—a term for stirring up trouble, which is proscribed by the Koran—“ ‘and if you want to do that you should do it in your own mosque.’ ” According to Schleifer, Zawahiri meekly responded, “You’re right, Abdallah.”

Eventually, in the late seventies, the various underground groups began to discover each other. Four of these cells, including Zawahiri’s, merged to form Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Their leader was a young man named Kamal Habib. Like Zawahiri, Habib, who had graduated in 1979 from Cairo University’s Faculty for Economics and Political Science, was the kind of driven intellectual who might have been expected to become a leader of the country but turned violently against the status quo. Arrested in 1981 on charges related to the assassination of Sadat, he was released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence. In Cairo earlier this year, Habib told me, “Most of our generation belonged to the middle or the upper-middle class. As children, we were expected to advance in conventional society, but we didn’t do what our parents dreamed for us. And this is still a puzzling issue for us. For example, Ayman finished his degree as a doctor, specializing in surgery, and set up a clinic in a duplex apartment that he shared with his parents in Maadi. Anybody else would have been happy with this. But Ayman was not happy, and this led him into trouble.”

Zawahiri graduated from medical school in 1974, then spent three years as a surgeon in the Egyptian Army, posted at a base outside Cairo. He was now in his late twenties, and it was time for him to marry. According to members of his family, he had never had a girlfriend. “Our custom is to have friends or relations suggest a spouse,” his cousin Omar told me. “If they find acceptance, they are allowed to meet once or twice, then start the engagement. It’s not a love story.” One of the possible brides suggested to Ayman was Azza Nowair, the daughter of a prominent Cairo family. Both her parents were lawyers. Azza had been born in a villa and brought up in a handsome Maadi home. In another time, she might have become a professional woman or a socialite going to parties at the Sporting Club, but at Cairo University she adopted the hijab, the headscarf that has become a badge of conservatism among Muslim women. Azza’s decision to veil herself was a shocking disavowal of her class. “Before that, she had worn the latest fashions,” her older brother, Essam, told me. “We didn’t want her to be so religious. She started to pray a lot and read the Koran. And, little by little, she changed completely.” Soon, Azza went further and put on the niqab, the veil that covers a woman’s face below the eyes. According to her brother, Azza spent whole nights reading the Koran. When he woke in the morning, he would find her sitting on the prayer mat with the Koran in her hands, fast asleep.

The niqab imposed a formidable barrier for a marriageable young woman. Because of Azza’s wealthy, distinguished family, she had many suitors, but they all insisted that she drop the veil. Azza refused. “She wanted someone who would accept her as she was,” her brother told me. “Ayman was looking for that type of person.”

At the first meeting between Azza and Ayman, according to custom Azza lifted her veil for a few minutes. “He saw her face and then he left,” Essam said. The young couple talked briefly on one other occasion after that, but it was little more than a formality. Ayman never saw his fiancée’s face again until after the marriage ceremony. He had made a favorable impression on the Nowair family, who were a little dazzled by his distinguished ancestry. “He was polite and agreeable,” Essam says. “He was very religious, and he didn’t greet women. He wouldn’t even look at a woman if she was wearing a short skirt.” He apparently never talked about politics with Azza’s family, and it’s not clear how much he revealed about his activism to her. She once confided to Omar Azzam that her greatest desire was to become a martyr.

Their wedding was held in February, 1978, at the Continental-Savoy Hotel, which had slipped from colonial grandeur into dowdy respectability. According to the wishes of the bride and groom, there was no music, and photographs were forbidden. “It was pseudo-traditional,” Schleifer recalls. “Lots of cups of coffee and no one cracking jokes.”


“My connection with Afghanistan began in the summer of 1980 by a twist of fate,” Zawahiri writes in his memoir. He was covering for another doctor at a Muslim Brothers’ clinic in Cairo, when the director of the clinic asked if Zawahiri would like to accompany him to Pakistan to tend to the Afghan refugees. Thousands were fleeing across the border as a result of the Soviet invasion, which had begun a few months earlier. Although he had recently got married, Zawahiri writes that he “immediately agreed.” He had been preoccupied with the problem of finding a secure base for jihad, which seemed practically impossible in Egypt. “The River Nile runs in its narrow valley between two deserts that have no vegetation or water,” he goes on. “Such a terrain made guerrilla warfare in Egypt impossible and, as a result, forced the inhabitants of this valley to submit to the central government and to be exploited as workers and compelled them to be recruited into its army.”

Zawahiri travelled to Peshawar with an anesthesiologist and a plastic surgeon. “We were the first three Arabs to arrive there to participate in relief work,” he writes. He spent four months in Pakistan, working for the Red Crescent Society, the Islamic arm of the Red Cross.

Peshawar sits at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, the historic concourse of invading armies since the days of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. After the British abandoned the area, in 1947, Peshawar again became a quiet farming town, and the gates to the city were closed at midnight. When Zawahiri arrived, however, it was teeming with arms merchants and opium dealers. Young men from other Muslim countries were beginning to hear the call of jihad, and they came to Peshawar, often with nothing more than a phone number in their pockets, and sometimes without even that. Their goal was to become shaheed—a martyr—and they asked only to be pointed in the direction of the war. Osama bin Laden was one of the first to arrive. He spent much of his time shuttling between Peshawar and Saudi Arabia, raising money for the cause.

The city also had to cope with the influx of uprooted and starving Afghans. By the end of 1980, there were 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan—a number that nearly doubled the following year—and almost all of them came through Peshawar, seeking shelter in nearby camps. Many of the refugees were casualties of Soviet land mines or of the intensive bombing of towns and cities. The conditions in the clinics and hospitals were appalling. Zawahiri reported home that he sometimes had to use honey to sterilize wounds.

He made several trips across the border into Afghanistan. “Tribesmen took Ayman over the border,” Omar Azzam told me. He was one of the first outsiders to witness the courage of the Afghan fighters, who were defending themselves on foot or on horseback with First World War carbines. American Stinger missiles would not be delivered until 1986, and Eastern-bloc weapons that the C.I.A. had smuggled in were not yet in the hands of the fighters. But the mujahideen already sensed that they were becoming pawns in the superpowers’ game.

That fall, Zawahiri returned to Cairo full of stories about the “miracles” that were taking place in the jihad against the Soviets. When a delegation of mujahideen leaders came to Cairo, Zawahiri took his uncle Mahfouz to the venerable Shepheard’s Hotel to meet them. The two men presented an idea that had come from Abdallah Schleifer. As the NBC bureau chief, Schleifer had been frustrated by the inability of Western news organizations to get close to the war. He said to Zawahiri, “Send me three bright young Afghans, and I’ll train them to use film, and they can start telling their story.”

When Schleifer called on Zawahiri to discuss the proposal, he was surprised by his manner. “He started off by saying that the Americans were the real enemy and had to be confronted,” Schleifer told me. “I said, ‘I don’t understand. You just came back from Afghanistan, where you’re coöperating with the Americans. Now you’re saying America is the enemy?’ ”

“Sure, we’re taking American help to fight the Russians,” Zawahiri replied. “But they’re equally evil.”

“How can you make such a comparison?” Schleifer said. “There is more freedom to practice Islam in America than here in Egypt. And in Afghanistan the Soviets closed down fifty thousand mosques!”

Schleifer recalls, “The conversation ended on a bad note. In our previous debates, it was always eye to eye, and you could break the tension with a joke. Now I felt that he wasn’t talking to me; he was addressing a mass rally of a hundred thousand people. It was all rhetoric.” Nothing came of Schleifer’s offer.

In March of 1981, Zawahiri returned to Peshawar for another tour of duty with the Red Crescent Society. This time, he cut short his stay and returned to Cairo after two months. He wrote in his memoir that he regarded the Afghan jihad as “a training course of the utmost importance to prepare the Muslim mujahideen to wage their awaited battle against the superpower that now has sole dominance over the globe, namely, the United States.”

Islamic militancy had become a devastating force throughout the Middle East. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had returned to Iran from Paris in 1979 and led the first successful Islamist takeover of a major country. When Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the exiled Shah, sought treatment for cancer in the United States, the Ayatollah incited student mobs to attack the American Embassy in Tehran. They held fifty-two Americans hostage, and the United States severed all diplomatic ties with Iran. That year, Islamic militants also attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage of the faithful, in protest against what they viewed as the ruling Saud family’s illegitimate stewardship of Islam’s holiest places.

For Muslims everywhere, Khomeini reframed the debate with the West. Instead of conceding the future of Islam to a secular, democratic model, he imposed a stunning reversal. His sermons summoned up the unyielding force of the Islam of a previous millennium in language that foreshadowed bin Laden’s revolutionary diatribes. The specific target of his anger against the West was freedom. “Yes, we are reactionaries, and you are enlightened intellectuals: you intellectuals do not want us to go back fourteen hundred years,” he said, immediately after the revolution. “You, who want freedom, freedom for everything, the freedom of parties, you who want all the freedoms, you intellectuals: freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way for the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom.” As early as the nineteen-forties, Khomeini had signalled his readiness to use terror to humiliate the perceived enemies of Islam, providing theological cover in addition to material support: “People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to Paradise, which can be opened only for holy warriors!”

This defiant turn against democratic values had been implicit in the writings of Qutb and other early Islamists, and it now shaped the Islamist agenda. The overnight transformation of a relatively wealthy, powerful modern country such as Iran into a rigid theocracy proved that the Islamists’ dream was eminently achievable, and it quickened their desire to act.

In Egypt, President Sadat called Khomeini a “lunatic madman . . . who has turned Islam into a mockery.” Sadat invited the ailing Shah to take up residence in Egypt, and he died there the following year.

In April of 1979, Egyptians voted to approve the peace treaty with Israel, which had been celebrated with a three-way handshake between President Jimmy Carter, Sadat, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, on the White House lawn a few months earlier. The referendum was such a charade—99.9 per cent of the voters reportedly approved it—that it underscored how dangerously controversial Sadat’s decision to make peace was. In response to a series of demonstrations orchestrated by the Islamists, Sadat banned all religious student associations. Reversing his position of tolerating these groups, he now declared, “Those who wish to practice Islam can go to the mosques, and those who wish to engage in politics may do so through legal institutions.” The Islamists insisted that their religion did not permit such distinctions; Islam was a total system that encompassed all of life, including law and government. Sadat went as far as to ban the niqab at universities. Many who said that he had signed his death warrant when he made peace with Israel now also characterized him as a heretic. Under Islamic law, that was an open invitation to assassination.

Zawahiri envisioned not merely the removal of the head of state but a complete overthrow of the existing order. Stealthily, he had been recruiting officers from the Egyptian military, waiting for the moment when Islamic Jihad had accumulated enough strength in men and weapons to act. His chief strategist was Aboud al-Zumar, a colonel in the intelligence branch of the Egyptian Army and a military hero of the 1973 war with Israel. Zumar’s plan was to kill the most powerful leaders of the country and capture the headquarters of the Army and the state security, the telephone-exchange building, and the radio-and-television building. From there, news of the Islamic revolution would be broadcast, unleashing—he expected—a popular uprising against secular authority all over the country. It was, Zawahiri later testified, “an elaborate artistic plan.”

One of the members of Zawahiri’s cell was a daring tank commander named Isam al-Qamari. Zawahiri, in his memoir, characterizes Qamari as “a noble person in the true sense of the word. . . . Most of the sufferings and sacrifices that he endured willingly and calmly were the result of his honorable character.” Although Zawahiri was the senior member of the Maadi cell, he often deferred to Qamari, who had a natural sense of command—a quality that Zawahiri notably lacked. “Qamari saw that something was missing in Ayman,” said Yasser al-Sirri, an alleged member of Jihad—he denies any affiliation with the group—who took refuge in London after receiving a death sentence in Egypt. “He told Ayman, ‘No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader.’ ”

According to Zawahiri’s memoir, Qamari began smuggling weapons and ammunition from Army strongholds and storing them in Zawahiri’s medical clinic in Maadi. In February of 1981, as the weapons were being transferred from the clinic to a warehouse, police arrested a man carrying a bag loaded with guns, along with maps that showed the location of all the tank emplacements in Cairo. Qamari, realizing that he would soon be implicated, dropped out of sight, but several of his officers were arrested. Zawahiri inexplicably stayed put.

The evidence gathered in these arrests alerted government officials to a new threat from the Islamist underground. That September, Sadat ordered a roundup of more than fifteen hundred people, including many prominent Egyptians—not only Islamists but also intellectuals with no religious leanings, Marxists, Coptic Christians, student leaders, and various journalists and writers. The dragnet missed Zawahiri but captured most of the other Islamic Jihad leaders. However, a military cell within the scattered ranks of Jihad had already set in motion a hastily conceived plan: a young Army recruit, Lieutenant Khaled Islambouli, had offered to kill Sadat during an appearance at a military parade.

Zawahiri later testified that he did not learn of the plan until nine o’clock on the morning of October 6, 1981, a few hours before it was scheduled to be carried out. One of the members of his cell, a pharmacist, brought him the news at his clinic. “In fact, I was astonished and shaken,” Zawahiri told interrogators. In his opinion, the action had not been properly thought through. The pharmacist proposed that they do something to help the plan succeed. “But I told him, ‘What can we do?’ ” Zawahiri told the interrogators. He said that he felt it was hopeless to try to aid the conspirators. “Do they want us to shoot up the streets and let the police detain us? We are not going to do anything.” Zawahiri went back to his patient. When he learned, a few hours later, that the military exhibition was still in progress, he assumed that the operation had failed and that everyone connected with it had been arrested.

The parade commemorated the eighth anniversary of the 1973 war. Surrounded by dignitaries, including several American diplomats, President Sadat was saluting the troops when a military vehicle veered toward the reviewing stand. Lieutenant Islambouli and three other conspirators leaped out and tossed grenades into the stand. “I have killed the Pharaoh!” Islambouli cried, after emptying the cartridge of his machine gun into the President, who stood defiantly at attention until his body was riddled with bullets.

It is still unclear why Zawahiri did not leave Egypt when the new government, headed by Hosni Mubarak, rounded up seven hundred suspected conspirators. In any event, at the end of October Zawahiri packed his belongings for another trip to Pakistan. He went to the house of some relatives to say goodbye. His brother Hussein was driving him to the airport when the police stopped them on the Nile Corniche. “They took Ayman to the Maadi police station, and he was surrounded by guards,” Omar Azzam told me. “The chief of police slapped him in the face—and Ayman slapped him back!” Omar and his father, Mahfouz, recall this incident with amazement, not only because of the recklessness of Zawahiri’s response but also because until that moment they had never seen him resort to violence. After his arrest and imprisonment, Zawahiri became known as the man who struck back.


In the twelfth century, the great Kurdish conqueror Saladin built the Citadel, a fortress on a hill above Cairo, using the labor of captured Crusaders. For seven hundred years, the fortress served as the seat of government; the structure also contained several mosques and a prison. “When the security forces brought people here, they took off their clothes, handcuffed them, blindfolded them, then started beating them with sticks and slapping them on the face,” the Islamist attorney Montasser al-Zayat, who was imprisoned with Zawahiri, told me. (He wrote a damning biography of his former friend and colleague, “Ayman al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him,” which was published in Cairo earlier this year. Under pressure from Zawahiri’s supporters, the publisher stopped printing it in July.) “Ayman was beaten all the time—every day,” Zayat said. “They sensed that he had a lot of significant information.”

Jolly and devious, Zayat is an appealingly slippery figure. He has a large belly, and he always wears a coat and tie, even in the Cairo heat. In the fundamentalist style, he keeps his hair cropped close and his beard long and untrimmed. For years, he has been the main source for information about Zawahiri and the Islamist movement, in both the Egyptian and the Western press. As we walked through the old prison, which is now part of the Police Museum, Zayat talked about his time there and recalled hearing the voices of tourists, who were always just outside the prison walls. He pointed to the stone cell where Zawahiri was held—an enclosure of perhaps four feet by eight. “I didn’t know him before we were brought here, but we were able to talk through a hole between our cells,” Zayat said. “We discussed why the operations failed. He told me that he hadn’t wanted the assassination to take place. He thought they should have waited and plucked the regime from the roots through a military coup. He was not that bloodthirsty.”

Zayat, among other witnesses, maintains that the traumatic experiences suffered by Zawahiri during his three years in prison transformed him from a relative moderate in the Islamist underground into a violent extremist. They point to what happened to his relationship with Isam al-Qamari, who had been his close friend and a man he greatly admired. Immediately after Zawahiri’s arrest, officials in the Interior Ministry began grilling him about Qamari’s whereabouts. In their relentless search for Qamari, they threw the Zawahiri family out of their house, then tore up the floors and pulled down the wallpaper looking for evidence. They also waited by the phone to see if Qamari would call. “They waited for two weeks,” Omar Azzam told me. Finally, a call came. The caller identified himself as “Dr. Isam,” and asked to meet Zawahiri. A police officer, pretending to be a family member, told “Dr. Isam” that Zawahiri was not there. According to Azzam, the caller suggested, “ ‘Have Ayman pray the magreb’ ”—the sunset prayer—“ ‘with me.’ And he named a mosque where they should meet.”

The head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit at the time, Fouad Allam, supervised the hunt for Qamari. An avuncular figure with a booming voice, he has interrogated almost every major Islamic radical since 1965, when he interrogated Sayyid Qutb. I asked Allam about Zawahiri’s manner when he talked to him. “Shy and distant,” he said. “He didn’t look at you when he talked, which is a sign of politeness in the Arab world.”

Under interrogation, Zawahiri admitted that “Dr. Isam” was actually Qamari, and he also confirmed that Qamari had supplied him with weapons. Qamari was still unaware that Zawahiri was in custody when he called the Zawahiri home and made a date for the two of them to meet at the Zawya Mosque in Embaba. The police arrested Qamari when he arrived at the mosque. In Zawahiri’s memoir, the closest he comes to confessing this betrayal is an oblique reference to the “humiliation” of imprisonment: “The toughest thing about captivity is forcing the mujahid, under the force of torture, to confess about his colleagues, to destroy his movement with his own hands, and offer his and his colleagues’ secrets to the enemy.” Qamari was given a ten-year sentence. “He received the news with his unique calmness and self-composure,” Zawahiri recalls. “He even tried to comfort me, and said, ‘I pity you for the burdens you will have to carry.’ ” Perversely, after Zawahiri testified against Qamari and thirteen others, the authorities placed the two of them in the same cell. Qamari was later killed in a shootout with the police after escaping from prison.

Zawahiri was defendant No. 113 of more than three hundred militants accused of aiding in the assassination of Sadat, and of various other crimes as well—in Zawahiri’s case, possession of a gun. Nearly every notable Islamist in Egypt was implicated in the plot. (Zawahiri’s brother Mohammed was sentenced in absentia, but the charges were later dropped. The youngest brother, Hussein, spent thirteen months in prison before the charges against him were dropped. Lieutenant Islambouli and twenty-three others were tried separately, and five of them, including Islambouli, were executed.) The defendants, some of whom were adolescents, were kept in a zoolike cage that ran across one side of a vast improvised courtroom set up in the Exhibition Grounds in Cairo, where fairs and conventions are often held. International news organizations covered the trial, and Zawahiri, who had the best command of English among the defendants, was designated as their spokesman.

Video footage that was shot during the opening day of the trial, December 4, 1982, shows the three hundred defendants, illuminated by the lights of TV cameras, chanting, praying, and calling out desperately to family members. Finally, the camera settles on Zawahiri, who stands apart from the chaos with a look of solemn, focussed intensity. Thirty-one years old, he is wearing a white robe and has a gray scarf thrown over his shoulder.

At a signal, the other prisoners fall silent, and Zawahiri cries out, “Now we want to speak to the whole world! Who are we? Who are we? Why they bring us here, and what we want to say? About the first question, we are Muslims! We are Muslims who believe in their religion! We are Muslims who believe in their religion, both in ideology and practice, and hence we tried our best to establish an Islamic state and an Islamic society!”

The other defendants chant, in Arabic, “There is no god but God!”

Zawahiri continues, in a fiercely repetitive cadence, “We are not sorry, we are not sorry for what we have done for our religion, and we have sacrificed, and we stand ready to make more sacrifices!”

The others shout, “There is no god but God!”

Zawahiri continues,”We are here—the real Islamic front and the real Islamic opposition against Zionism, Communism, and imperialism!” He pauses, then: “And now, as an answer to the second question, Why did they bring us here? They bring us here for two reasons! First, they are trying to abolish the outstanding Islamic movement . . . and, secondly, to complete the conspiracy of evacuating the area in preparation for the Zionist infiltration.”

The others cry out, “We will not sacrifice the blood of the Muslims for the Americans and the Jews!”

The prisoners pull off their shoes and raise their robes to expose the marks of torture. Zawahiri talks about the torture that took place in the “dirty Egyptian jails . . . where we suffered the severest inhuman treatment. There they kicked us, they beat us, they whipped us with electric cables, they shocked us with electricity! They shocked us with electricity! And they used the wild dogs! And they used the wild dogs! And they hung us over the edges of the doors”—here he bends over to demonstrate—“with our hands tied at the back! They arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, and the sons!”

The defendants chant, “The army of Muhammad will return, and we will defeat the Jews!”

The camera captures one particularly wild-eyed defendant in a green caftan as he extends his arms through the bars of the cage, screams, and then faints into the arms of a fellow-prisoner. Zawahiri calls out the names of several prisoners who, he says, died as a result of torture. “So where is democracy?” he shouts. “Where is freedom? Where is human rights? Where is justice? Where is justice? We will never forget! We will never forget!”

Fouad Allam, the former anti-terrorism chief, maintains that none of the prisoners were tortured. “It’s all a legend,” he told me—one designed to discredit the regime and enhance the standing of the Islamists. But Kamal Habib, who spent ten years in Egyptian prisons, and whose hands are spotted with scars from cigarette burns, maintains that Zawahiri’s tales of torture are true. “The higher you were in the organization, the more you were tortured,” he told me. “Ayman knew a number of the military officers who were directly involved in the assassination. He was subjected to severe torture.”

Zawahiri later testified in a case brought by former prisoners against the intelligence unit that conducted the prison interrogations. His allegations of torture were substantiated by forensic medical reports, which noted evidence of six injuries from assaults with “a solid instrument.” He was also supported by the testimony of one of the intelligence officers, who said that he had seen Zawahiri, “his head shaved, his dignity completely humiliated, undergoing all sorts of torture.” The officer went on to say that he had been in the interrogation room when another prisoner was brought in. The officers demanded that Zawahiri confess to complicity in the assassination plot in front of his fellow-conspirator. When the prisoner said, “How can you expect him to confess when he knows that the penalty is death?” Zawahiri reportedly replied, “The death penalty is more merciful than torture.”

While Zawahiri was in prison, he came face to face with Egypt’s best-known Islamist, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who had also been charged as a conspirator in the assassination of Sadat. A strange and forceful man, blinded by diabetes in childhood and blessed with a stirring, resonant voice, Rahman had risen in Islamist circles because of his eloquent denunciations of Nasser. After Nasser’s death, Rahman’s influence grew, especially in Upper Egypt, where he taught theology at the Asyut branch of Al-Azhar University and developed a loyal following among Islamist students. He became a spiritual adviser to Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Group, which was then on its way to becoming the largest student association in the country. Some of the young Islamists were financing their activism by shaking down shopkeepers and small-business owners, many of whom were Christians. The theology of jihad requires a fatwa—a religious ruling—to justify actions that would otherwise be considered criminal. Sheikh Omar obligingly issued fatwas that allowed attacks on Christians and the plunder of jewelry stores, on the justification that a state of war existed between Christians and Muslims.

After Sadat began rounding up fundamentalists in the mid-seventies, Rahman travelled to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, where he found a number of wealthy sponsors for his cause. In 1980, he returned to Egypt as both the spiritual adviser and the emir of the Islamic Group. In one of his first fatwas, he decreed that a heretical leader deserved to be killed by the faithful. At his trial for conspiring in the assassination of Sadat, his lawyer successfully convinced the court that, because his client had not mentioned the Egyptian President by name he was, at most, tangential to the plot. Six months after Rahman’s arrest, he was released.

Although the members of the two leading militant organizations, the Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad, shared the common goal of bringing down the Sadat government, they differed sharply in their ideology and their tactics. Sheikh Rahman preached that all humanity could embrace Islam, and he was happy to spread this message. Zawahiri profoundly disagreed. Distrustful of the masses and contemptuous of any faith other than his own stark version of Islam, he preferred to act secretly and unilaterally, until the moment his group could seize power and impose its totalitarian religious vision.

In the Cairo prison, members of the two groups had heated debates about the best way to achieve a true Islamic revolution, and they quarrelled endlessly over who was the best man to lead it. In one argument, according to Montasser al-Zayat, Zawahiri pointed out that Sharia states that the emir cannot be blind. Rahman countered that Sharia also decrees that a prisoner cannot be emir. The rivalry between the two men became extreme. Zayat claims that he tried to persuade Zawahiri to moderate his attacks on Rahman, but Zawahiri refused to back down.

Zawahiri was released in 1984, a hardened radical. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the American University sociologist, spoke with Zawahiri after his release, and noted that he may have had an overwhelming desire for revenge. “Torture does have that effect on people,” he told me. “Many who turn fanatic have suffered harsh treatment in prison. It also makes them extremely suspicious.” Torture had other, unanticipated effects on these extremely religious men. Many of them said that after being tortured they had had visions of being welcomed by saints into Paradise and of the just Islamic society that had been made possible by their martyrdom.

Ibrahim had done a study of political prisoners in Egypt in the nineteen-seventies. According to his research, most of the Islamist recruits were young men from villages who had come to one of the cities for schooling. The majority were the sons of middle-level government bureaucrats. They were ambitious and tended to be drawn to the fields of science and engineering, which accept only the most qualified students. They were not the alienated, marginalized youth that a sociologist might have expected. Instead, Ibrahim wrote, they were “model young Egyptians.” Ibrahim attributed the recruiting success of the militant Islamist groups to their emphasis on brotherhood, sharing, and spiritual support, which provided a “soft landing” for the rural migrants to the city.

Zawahiri, who had read the study in prison, disagreed, Ibrahim told me. In their conversation, Zawahiri said to him, “You have trivialized our movement by your mundane analysis. May God have mercy on you.”

Zawahiri decided to leave Egypt, worried, perhaps, about the political consequences of his testimony in the case against the intelligence unit. According to his sister Heba, who is a professor of oncology at the National Cancer Institute at Cairo University, he thought of applying for a surgery fellowship in England. Instead, he arranged to work at a medical clinic in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. At the Cairo airport, he ran into his friend Abdallah Schleifer. “Where are you going?” Schleifer asked.

“Saudi,” said Zawahiri, who appeared relaxed and happy.

The two men embraced. “Listen, Ayman,” Schleifer said. “Stay out of politics.”

“I will,” Zawahiri replied. “I will!”


Zawahiri arrived in Jidda in 1985. At thirty-four, he was a formidable figure. He had been a committed revolutionary and a member of an Islamist underground cell for more than half his life. His political skills had been honed by prison debates, and he had discovered in himself a capacity—and a hunger—for leadership. He was pious, determined, and embittered.

Osama bin Laden, who was based in Jidda, was twenty-eight and had lived a life of boundless wealth and pleasure. His family’s company, the multinational and broadly diversified Saudi Binladin Group, was one of the largest companies in the Middle East. Osama was a wan and gangly young man—he is estimated to be six feet five inches—and was by no means perceived to be the charismatic leader he would eventually become. He lacked the underground experience that Zawahiri had and, apart from his religious devotion, had few settled beliefs. But he had been radicalized by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and he had already raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the mujahideen resistance.

“You have the desert-rooted streak of bin Laden coming together with the more modern Zawahiri,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim observes. “But they were both politically disenfranchised, despite their backgrounds. There was something that resonated between these two youngsters on the neutral ground of faraway Afghanistan. There they tried to build the heavenly kingdom that they could not build in their home countries.”

In the mid-eighties, the dominant Arab in the war against the Soviets was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian theologian who had a doctorate in Islamic law from Al-Azhar University. (He is not related to the Azzam family of Zawahiri’s mother.) Azzam went on to teach at King Abdul Aziz University, in Jidda, where one of his students was Osama bin Laden. As soon as Azzam heard about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he moved to Pakistan. He became the gatekeeper of jihad and its main fund-raiser. His formula for victory was “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.”

Many of the qualities that people now attribute to bin Laden were seen earlier in Abdullah Azzam, who became his mentor. Azzam was the embodiment of the holy warrior, which, in the Muslim world, is as popular a heroic stereotype as the samurai in Japan or the Hollywood cowboy in America. His long beard was vividly black in the middle and white on either side, and whenever he talked about the war his gaze seemed to focus on some glorious interior vision. “I reached Afghanistan and could not believe my eyes,” Azzam says in a recruitment video, produced in 1988, as he holds an AK-47 rifle in his lap. “I travelled to acquaint people with jihad for years. . . . We were trying to satisfy the thirst for martyrdom. We are still in love with this.” Azzam was a frequent speaker at Muslim rallies, even in the United States, where he came to raise money, and he often appeared on Saudi television. Generous and elaborately polite, Azzam opened his home in Peshawar to many of the young men, mostly Arabs, who had heeded his fatwa for all Muslims to rally against the Soviet invader. When bin Laden first came to Peshawar, he stayed at Azzam’s guesthouse. Together, they set up the Maktab al-Khadamat, or Services Bureau, to recruit and train resistance fighters.

Peshawar had changed in the five years since Zawahiri had last been there. The city was congested and rife with corruption. Camels contended in the narrow streets with armored vehicles, pickups with oversized wheels, and late-model luxury cars. As many as two million refugees had flooded into the North-West Frontier Province, turning Peshawar, the capital, into the prime staging area for the resistance. The United States was contributing approximately two hundred and fifty million dollars a year to the war, and the Pakistani intelligence service was distributing arms to the numerous Afghan warlords, who all maintained offices in Peshawar. A new stream of American and Pakistani military advisers had arrived to train the mujahideen. Aid workers and freelance mullahs and intelligence agents from around the world had set up shop. “Peshawar was transformed into this place where whoever had no place to go went,” says Osama Rushdi, a former emir in a university branch of the Islamic Group, who is now a political refugee in Holland. “It was an environment in which a person could go from a bad place to a worse place, and eventually into despair.”

Across the Khyber Pass was the war. Many of the young Arabs who came to Peshawar prayed that their crossing would lead them to martyrdom and then to Paradise. Many were political fugitives from their own countries, and, as stateless people, they naturally turned against the very idea of a state. They saw themselves as a great borderless posse whose mission was to defend the entire Muslim people.

This army of so-called Afghan Arabs soon became legendary throughout the Islamic world. Some experts have estimated that as many as fifty thousand Arabs passed through Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets. However, Abdullah Anas, an Algerian mujahid who married one of Abdullah Azzam’s daughters, says that there were never more than three thousand Arabs in Afghanistan, and that most of them were drivers, secretaries, and cooks, not warriors. The war was fought almost entirely by the Afghans, not the Arabs, he told me. According to Hany al-Sibai, an alleged leader of Jihad (he denies it) now living in exile, there were only some five hundred Egyptians. “They were known as the thinkers and the brains,” Sibai said. “The Islamist movement started with them.”

Zawahiri’s brother Mohammed, who had loyally followed him since childhood, joined him in Peshawar. The brothers had a strong family resemblance, though Mohammed was slightly taller and thinner than Ayman. Another colleague from the underground days in Cairo, a physician named Sayyid Imam, arrived, and in 1987, according to Egyptian intelligence, the three men reorganized Islamic Jihad. They began recruiting new members from the Egyptian mujahideen. Before long, representatives of the Islamic Group appeared on the scene, and once again the old rivalry flared up. Osama Rushdi, who had known Zawahiri in prison, told me that he was shocked by the changes he found in him. In Egypt, Zawahiri had struck him as polite and modest. “Now he was very antagonistic toward others,” Rushdi recalled. “He talked badly about the other groups and wrote books against them. In discussions, he started to take things in a weird way. He would have strong opinions without any sense of logic.”

Zawahiri’s wife, Azza, set up house in Peshawar. Azza’s mother, Nabila Galal, says that she visited her daughter in Pakistan three times, the last time in 1990. “They were an unusually close family and always moved together as one unit,” she told a reporter for the Egyptian magazine Akher Saa in December, 2001. While Zawahiri was in prison after the assassination of Sadat, Nabila took care of Azza and her first child, Fatima, who was born in 1981. She visited Azza again a few years later, in Saudi Arabia, to attend the birth of Umayma, who was named after Zawahiri’s mother. “One day, I got a letter from Azza, and I felt intense pain as I read the words,” Nabila recalled. “She wrote that she was to travel to Pakistan with her husband. I wished that she would not go there, but I knew that nobody can prevent fate. She was well aware of the rights her husband held over her and her duty toward him, which is why she was to follow him to the ends of the earth.” In Pakistan, Azza gave birth to another daughter, Nabila, in 1986. A fourth daughter, Khadiga, arrived the following year, and in 1988 the Zawahiris’ only son, Mohammed, was born. Nearly ten years later, in 1997, another daughter, Aisha, arrived. “Azza and her family lived a good life in Peshawar,” her brother Essam told me. “They had a two-story villa with three or four bedrooms upstairs. One of the rooms was always available for visitors—and they had a lot of visitors. If they had money left over, they gave it to the needy. They were happy with very little.”

Unlike the other leaders of the mujahideen, Zawahiri did not pledge himself to Sheikh Abdullah Azzam when he arrived in Afghanistan; from the start, he concentrated his efforts on getting close to bin Laden. He soon succeeded in placing trusted members of Islamic Jihad in key positions around bin Laden. According to the Islamist attorney Montasser al-Zayat, “Zawahiri completely controlled bin Laden. The largest share of bin Laden’s financial support went to Zawahiri and the Jihad organization, while he supported the Islamic Group only with tiny morsels.”

Zawahiri must have recognized—perhaps even before bin Laden himself did—that the future of the Islamic movement lay with “this heaven-sent man,” as Abdullah Azzam called bin Laden. Azzam soon felt the gravitational force of Zawahiri’s influence over his protégé. “I don’t know what some people are doing here in Peshawar,” Azzam complained to his son-in-law Abdullah Anas. “They are talking against the mujahideen. They have only one point, to create fitna”—discord—“between me and these volunteers.” He singled out Zawahiri as one of the troublemakers.

The Egyptian filmmaker Essam Deraz, who worked in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988, received special permission to visit the mujahideen’s main base camp in a complex of caves in the Hindu Kush mountains known as Masaada (the Lion’s Den). “It was snowing when we arrived at the Lion’s Den,” Deraz told me. “The Arabs hated anybody with cameras, because of their concern for security, so they stopped me from entering the cave. I was with my crew, and we were standing outside in the snow until I couldn’t move my legs. Finally, one of the Arabs said that I could come in but my crew must stay out. I said, ‘Either we all come in or we all stay out.’ They disappeared and came back with Dr. Abdel Mu’iz.” (The name was Zawahiri’s nom de guerre. In Arabic, Abdel means “slave,” and Mu’iz, one of the ninety-nine names of God, means “bestower of honor.”) The man who called himself Dr. Abdel Mu’iz insisted that Deraz and his crew come into the cave, where he served them tea and bread. “He was very polite and very refined,” Deraz said. “I could tell that he was from a good background by the way he apologized for keeping us outside.” That night, Deraz slept on the floor of the cave, next to Zawahiri.

Deraz observed that bin Laden had become dependent on Zawahiri’s medical care. “Bin Laden had low blood pressure, and sometimes he would get dizzy and have to lie down,” Deraz told me. “Ayman came from Peshawar to treat him. He would give him a checkup and then leave to go fight.” Deraz recalls that, during one of the most intense battles of the war, he and the two men were huddled in a cave near Jalalabad with a group of fighters. “The bombing was very heavy,” Deraz said. “Bin Laden had his arm stretched out, and Zawahiri was preparing to give him glucose. Whenever the doctor was about to insert the needle, there was a bombing and we would all hit the ground. When the bombing stopped for a while, Zawahiri got up and set up the glucose stand, but as soon as he picked up the bottle there would be another bombing. So one person said, ‘Don’t you see? Every time you pick up the bottle, we are bombed.’ And another said, ‘In Islam, it is forbidden to be pessimistic,’ but then it happened again. So the pessimistic one got up very slowly and threw the glucose bottle out of the cave. We all laughed. Even bin Laden was laughing.”

Bin Laden’s final break with Abdullah Azzam came in a dispute over the scope of jihad. Bin Laden envisioned an all-Arab legion, which eventually could be used to wage jihad in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sheikh Abdullah strongly opposed making war against fellow-Muslims. Zawahiri undermined Azzam’s position by spreading rumors that he was a spy. “Zawahiri said he believed that Abdullah Azzam was working for the Americans,” Osama Rushdi told me. “Sheikh Abdullah was killed that same night.” On November 24, 1989, Azzam and two of his sons were blown up by a car bomb as they were driving to a mosque in Peshawar. Although no one has claimed credit for the killings, many have been blamed, including Zawahiri himself, and even bin Laden. At Azzam’s funeral, Zawahiri delivered a eulogy.


In 1989, after ten years of warfare, the Soviets gave up and pulled their forces out of Afghanistan. More than a million Afghans—eight per cent of the country’s population—had been killed, and hundreds of thousands had been maimed. Out of some thirteen million Afghans who survived the war, almost half were refugees. And yet the war against the Soviets was only the beginning of the Afghan tragedy.

After the Soviet pullout, many of the Afghan Arabs returned home or went to other countries, carrying the torch of Islamic revolution. In the Balkans, ethnic hostility among Muslims, Croats, and Serbs prompted Bosnia-Herzegovina to vote to secede from Yugoslavia; that set off a three-year war in which a hundred and fifty thousand people died. In November of 1991, the largely Muslim region of Chechnya declared its independence from Russia—an act that soon led to war. In 1992, civil war broke out in Algeria when the government cancelled elections to prevent the Islamist party from taking power; after a decade of fighting, the conflict has taken a hundred thousand lives. In Egypt, the Islamic Group launched a campaign against tourism and Western culture in general, burning and bombing theatres, bookstores, and banks, and killing Christians. “We believe in the principle of establishing Sharia, even if this means the death of all mankind,” one of the Group’s leaders later explained. And the war in Afghanistan continued, only now it was Muslims fighting Muslims for political control.

The Arabs who remained in Afghanistan were confronted with the question of jihad’s future. Toward the end of 1989, a meeting took place in the Afghan town of Khost at a mujahideen camp. A Sudanese fighter named Jamal al-Fadl was among the participants, and he later testified about the event in a New York courtroom during one of the trials connected with the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in East Africa. According to Fadl, the meeting was attended by ten men—four or five of them Egyptians, including Zawahiri. Fadl told the court that the chairman of the meeting, an Iraqi known as Abu Ayoub, proposed the formation of a new organization that would wage jihad beyond the borders of Afghanistan. There was some dispute about the name, but ultimately the new organization came to be called Al Qaeda—the Base. The alliance was conceived as a loose affiliation among individual mujahideen and established groups, and was dominated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The ultimate boss, however, was Osama bin Laden, who held the checkbook.

In 1989, he returned to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to work in the family business. The following year, Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden, who had achieved mythic status in his country because of his role in the Soviet-Afghan war, went to the royal family and offered to defend the Saudi oil fields with his mujahideen companions. The rulers decided to put their faith in an American-led coalition instead, reportedly promising bin Laden that the foreigners would leave as soon as the war was over. But American forces were still in Saudi Arabia a year after the Gulf War ended, and bin Laden felt betrayed. He returned to Afghanistan and began speaking out against the Saudi regime. He also started funding the activities of Saudi dissidents in London.

In 1992, bin Laden abruptly left Kabul for Sudan. He was reportedly in despair over the infighting among the various factions of the mujahideen and convinced that the Saudis were scheming to kill him. He arrived in Khartoum with his three wives and his fifteen children, and devoted himself to breeding Arabian horses and training police dogs. He went into business, investing heavily in Sudanese construction projects, including an airport and the country’s main highway; he also bought up the entire crop of Sudanese cotton, and he occasionally picked up the tab for the country’s oil imports. In those early days in Khartoum, bin Laden felt secure enough to walk to the mosque five times a day without his bodyguards.

Zawahiri’s relatives expected him to return to Egypt; throughout the Soviet-Afghan war and for several years afterward, he continued to pay rent on his clinic in Maadi. But he felt that it was not safe for him to return. Eventually, he followed bin Laden to Sudan. There he placed himself under the protection of the philosopher king of Islamist ideologues, Hassan al-Tourabi, a graduate of the University of London and the Sorbonne, who was instituting Sharia and trying to establish in Sudan the ideal Islamic republic that Zawahiri and bin Laden longed for in their countries. In Khartoum, Zawahiri set about reorganizing Islamic Jihad. Jamal al-Fadl said in his testimony in New York that Zawahiri gave him two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to buy a farm north of the Sudan capital, where members of Jihad could receive military training.

Among the members of Jihad who became a part of the Al Qaeda inner circle was Mohamed Atef (he was also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri). A former policeman, whose daughter eventually married one of bin Laden’s sons, Atef was placed in charge of the military wing of Al Qaeda. Another powerful figure was Mohamed Makkawi, whose nom de guerre is Seif al-Adl. He had been a colonel in the Egyptian Army’s special forces, and his contentious ambitions for a leadership role in Islamic Jihad were thwarted by an erratic and dangerous personality. A prominent Cairo lawyer who is a member of parliament characterized Makkawi to me as a “psychopath.” According to the lawyer, Makkawi suggested in 1987 that Islamic Jihad hijack a passenger jet and crash it into the Egyptian People’s Assembly. “I believe he is the father of September 11th,” the lawyer said.

One of Zawahiri’s most trusted men was in fact a double agent, named Ali Mohamed. Fluent in English, French, and German, as well as Arabic, Mohamed held both Egyptian and American citizenship. From 1986 to 1989, he served in the U.S. Army as a supply sergeant at the Special Warfare School, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was commended for his exceptional physical fitness. In 1984, Mohamed approached the C.I.A. in Cairo, and after that meeting the agency sent him to Germany. There he made contact with a Hezbollah cell, but apparently he boasted of his C.I.A. connection, and the agency cut him loose. He then began his association with Islamic Jihad. In 1989, he instructed a group of Islamic militants in Brooklyn in basic combat techniques; four years later, some of these militants bombed the World Trade Center. The same year, Mohamed talked to an F.B.I. agent in California and provided American intelligence with its first inside look at Al Qaeda; inexplicably, that interview never found its way to the F.B.I. investigators in New York. In 1994, he travelled to Khartoum to train bin Laden’s bodyguards.

Despite Zawahiri’s close ties to bin Laden, money for Jihad was always in short supply. Many of Zawahiri’s followers had families, and they all needed food and housing. A few turned to theft and shakedowns to support themselves. Zawahiri strongly disapproved of this; when members of Jihad robbed a German military attaché in Yemen, he investigated the incident and expelled those responsible. But the money problem remained. In the early nineteen-nineties, Zawahiri sent several Jihad members to Albania to work for Muslim charities. They were expected to send ten per cent of their paychecks to Jihad, but it was surely a meagre contribution. Zawahiri bristled at bin Laden’s lack of support. “The young men are willing to give up their souls, while the wealthy remain with money,” he wrote in the Islamist magazine Kalimat Haq. Bin Laden, for his part, was continually frustrated by the conflict between the two principal Egyptian organizations and was increasingly unwilling to fund either of them.

Zawahiri decided to look for money in the world center of venture capitalism—Silicon Valley. He had been to America once before, in 1989, when he paid a recruiting visit to the mujahideen’s Services Bureau branch office in Brooklyn. According to the F.B.I., he returned in the spring of 1993, this time to Santa Clara, California, where he was greeted by Ali Mohamed, the double agent. Mohamed introduced him to Dr. Ali Zaki, a gynecologist and a prominent civic leader in San Jose. Zaki disputes the F.B.I.’s date of the visit, maintaining that Zawahiri’s trip to Silicon Valley took place in 1989, a few years after President Reagan compared the mujahideen to America’s founding fathers. People at the F.B.I., however, told me that Zawahiri arrived in America shortly after the first bombing of the World Trade Center.

In any event, Zaki claims not to remember much about Zawahiri. “He came as a representative of the Red Crescent of Kuwait,” Zaki said. “I was also a physician, so they asked me to accompany him while he was here.” He met Zawahiri at the Al-Nur Mosque in Santa Clara after evening prayers, and he escorted him to mosques in Sacramento and Stockton. The two doctors spent most of their time discussing medical problems that Zawahiri encountered in Afghanistan. “We talked about the children and the farmers who were injured and were missing limbs because of all the Russian mines,” Zaki recalled. “He was a well-balanced, highly educated physician.” But financially the trip was not a success. Zaki says that, at most, the donations produced by these visits to the California mosques amounted to several hundred dollars.

Immediately after this dispiriting trip, Zawahiri began working more closely with bin Laden, and most of the Egyptian members of Islamic Jihad went on the Al Qaeda payroll. These men were not mercenaries; they were highly motivated idealists, many of whom had turned their backs on middle-class careers. Their wages were modest—about a hundred dollars a month for the average fighter, two hundred for a skilled worker. They faced a difficult choice: whether to maintain their allegiance to a bootstrap organization that was always struggling financially or to join forces with a wealthy Saudi who had long-standing ties to the oil billionaires in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, the two organizations had different goals: Islamic Jihad’s efforts were still concentrated on Egypt; bin Laden, the businessman, sought to merge all Islamic terrorist groups into a single multinational corporation, with departments devoted to everything from personnel to policymaking. Despite Jihad’s financial precariousness, many of its members were suspicious of bin Laden and had no desire to divert their efforts outside Egypt. Zawahiri viewed the alliance as a marriage of convenience. One of his chief assistants, Ahmed al-Najjar, later testified in Cairo that Zawahiri had confided to him that “joining with bin Laden [was] the only solution to keeping the Jihad organization alive.”


In 1993, bin Laden dispatched Mohamed Atef to Somalia to look for ways of attacking the American military forces that were participating in an international famine-relief effort. Bin Laden gloried in the fact that his men had trained the Somali militiamen who shot down two American helicopters in the “Black Hawk Down” incident, in October of that year, prompting President Clinton to withdraw all American soldiers from the country. “Based on the reports we received from our brothers in Somalia,” bin Laden said, “we learned that they saw the weakness, frailty, and cowardice of U.S. troops. Only eighteen U.S. troops were killed. Nonetheless, they fled in the heart of darkness.”

Sudan seemed an ideal spot from which to launch attacks on Egypt. The active coöperation of Sudan’s intelligence agency and its military forces provided a safe harbor for the militants. The long, trackless, and almost entirely unguarded border between the two countries facilitated secret movements; and ancient caravan trails provided convenient routes for smuggling weapons and explosives into Egypt on the backs of camels. Iran supplied many of the weapons, and the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah provided training in the use of explosives.

Islamic Jihad began its assault on Egypt with an attempt on the life of the Interior Minister, who was leading the crackdown on Islamic militants. In August of 1993, a bomb-laden motorcycle exploded next to the minister’s car, killing the bomber and his accomplice. “The minister escaped death, but his arm was broken,” Zawahiri writes in his memoir. “A pile of files that he kept next to him saved his life from the shrapnel.” The following November, Zawahiri’s men tried to kill Egypt’s Prime Minister with a car bomb as he was being driven past a girls’ school in Cairo. The bomb missed its target, but the explosion injured twenty-one people and killed a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Shayma Abdel-Halim, who was crushed by a door blown loose in the blast. Her death outraged Egyptians, who had seen more than two hundred and forty people killed by terrorists in the previous two years. As Shayma’s coffin was borne through the streets of Cairo people cried, “Terrorism is the enemy of God!”

Zawahiri was shaken by the popular outrage. “The unintended death of this innocent child pained us all, but we were helpless and we had to fight the government, which was against God’s Sharia and supported God’s enemies,” he notes in his memoir. He offered what amounted to blood money to the girl’s family. The Egyptian government arrested two hundred and eighty of his followers; six were eventually given a sentence of death. Zawahiri writes, “This meant that they wanted my daughter, who was two at the time, and the daughters of other colleagues, to be orphans. Who cried or cared for our daughters?”

Zawahiri was a pioneer in the use of suicide bombers, which became a signature of Jihad assassinations. The strategy broke powerful religious taboos against suicide and the murder of innocents. (For these reasons, the Islamic Group preferred to work with guns and knives.) Although Hezbollah employed truck bombers to attack the American Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, such martyrdom operations had not yet worked their way into the modern vocabulary of terror. In Palestine, suicide bombings were virtually unknown until the mid-nineties, when the Oslo accords began to unravel. Another of Zawahiri’s innovations was to tape the bomber’s vows of martyrdom on the eve of the mission.

Obsessed with secrecy, Zawahiri imposed a blind-cell structure on the Jihad organization, so that members in one group would not know the activities or personnel in another. Thus, a security breach in one cell should not compromise other units, and certainly not the entire organization. However, in 1993, Egyptian authorities arrested Jihad’s membership director, Ismail Nassir. “He had a computer containing the entire database,” Osama Rushdi, a former member of the Islamic Group, told me. “Where the member lived, which home he might be hiding in, even what names he uses with false passports.” Supplied with this information, the Egyptian security forces pulled in a thousand suspects and placed more than three hundred of them on trial in military courts on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The evidence was thin, but, then, the judicial standards weren’t very rigorous. “It was all staged,” Hisham Kassem, the publisher of the Cairo Times and the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told me. “The ones you think are dangerous, you hang. The rest, you give them life sentences.” Under Zawahiri’s leadership, Islamic Jihad had succeeded, unintentionally, in assassinating the Speaker of Parliament, in 1990—the intended target was the Interior Minister—and in killing a schoolgirl. In the process, the organization lost almost its entire Egyptian base. If Islamic Jihad was to survive, it would have to be outside Egypt.

During the early nineties, Zawahiri travelled tirelessly, setting up training camps and establishing cells. During this period, he is reported to have visited the Balkans, Austria, Dagestan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, the Philippines, and even Argentina, often using a false passport. He was particularly engaged by the war in Bosnia, because the country was home to one of the largest Islamic populations in Europe.

Both Jihad and the Islamic Group had been decimated by defections and arrests. The Group’s leader, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, had emigrated to the United States, and was arrested following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He and nine followers were convicted in 1996 of conspiring to destroy New York landmarks, including the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the Federal Building, and the United Nations headquarters.

In April of 1995, Zawahiri chaired a meeting in Khartoum attended by the remaining members of the two organizations, along with representatives of other terrorist groups. They agreed on a spectacular act: the assassination of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. It was a dangerous bet for the Islamists. The attack was carried out in June in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Mubarak was on a state visit. There was a shootout between Mubarak’s bodyguards and the assassins; two Ethiopian policemen were killed, but Mubarak escaped unharmed.

The Egyptian government responded with a furious determination to finish off Islamic Jihad. “The security forces used exemplary punishment,” Hisham Kassem told me. “They torched houses in a village because a member of Jihad had come from there. A mother would be stripped naked in front of a guy, who was told, ‘Next time we’ll rape her if your younger brother is not here.’ ” A recently instituted anti-terrorism law had made it a crime even to express sympathy for terrorist movements. Five new prisons were being built to hold political prisoners. (Human-rights organizations estimate the number of Islamists still incarcerated in Egypt at fifteen thousand; Islamists put the figure at sixty thousand. Many of the prisoners have never been charged with any specific crime, and some have simply “disappeared.”)

Zawahiri’s response to the crackdown was to blow up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. On November 19, 1995, two cars filled with explosives crashed through the embassy gates, killing the bombers and sixteen other people. Sixty were wounded. This act of mass murder was Jihad’s first success under Zawahiri’s administration. “The bomb left the embassy’s ruined building as an eloquent and clear message,” Zawahiri boasts in his memoir.

Zawahiri and bin Laden might have remained in the sanctuary of the Sudan had it not been for the determination of the Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services to kill them before they caused any more trouble. (The Saudi government stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994.) He had already survived two attempts on his life. A deranged Islamic extremist, intending to assassinate him, shot up a mosque in Khartoum and was captured as he made his way to bin Laden’s house. On another occasion, a Toyota pickup carrying four Yemeni mercenaries opened fire on bin Laden’s home and his guesthouse, where he had his office. Three of the Yemenis and two of bin Laden’s bodyguards were killed in the ensuing gunfight; the other attacker was captured and executed by the Sudanese authorities. Bin Laden, in his sometimes oblique language, told a reporter that he blamed “regimes in our Arabic region” for the assaults. Zawahiri increased bin Laden’s security, surrounding him with Egyptian bodyguards. But Zawahiri was also a target.

After the bombing of the embassy in Pakistan, Egyptian intelligence agents devised a fiendish plan. They lured an Egyptian boy, the son of one of bin Laden’s accountants, into a room, and drugged and sodomized him, photographing the scene. Yasser al-Sirri, an alleged member of Islamic Jihad who had met Zawahiri in Khartoum, told me that the Egyptian agents blackmailed the boy, who was thirteen or fourteen, into working for them, and then persuaded him to lure another boy into the intelligence network, using the same method of sexual entrapment. The agents taught the boys how to plant microphones in their own homes, a ploy that yielded valuable information, and led to the arrest of Jihad members. The agents gave the accountant’s son a suitcase filled with explosives, which he was to leave near a place where Zawahiri was expected to meet some of his colleagues. The plan failed when Sudanese intelligence agents spotted the boy in the company of Egyptian Embassy personnel. They arrested him while he was holding the suitcase.

“The Sudanese captured the other boy and put them both in jail,” Hany al-Sibai, who has become a kind of historian of the Islamist movement, told me. “Most of the Islamic groups were in Sudan, so the rumors about the story were huge. The Jihad organization considered the whole thing a scandal for them.” Zawahiri went to the Sudanese authorities and asked that the boys be temporarily released from jail so that he could interrogate them. He promised to return them safely. The Sudanese, who were now dependent on bin Laden’s financial generosity, agreed. Zawahiri convened an Islamic court, put the boys on trial for treason, convicted them, and had them executed, to make an example of them. In a characteristic gesture, he made a tape of their confessions and had it distributed as a warning to others who might betray the organization. “Many Islamists turned against Zawahiri because of this,” Yasser al-Sirri told me.

The Sudanese, furious at Zawahiri’s duplicity, and also under intense pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia to stop harboring terrorists, decided to expel Zawahiri and bin Laden and their followers. According to Hany al-Sibai, the Sudanese did not even give them time to pack. “All we did was to apply God’s Sharia,” Zawahiri complained. “If we fail to apply it to ourselves, then how can we apply it to others?” Some members of Islamic Jihad proposed that bin Laden undergo plastic surgery and sneak into Egypt, but Zawahiri said that Egypt was too dangerous. In May of 1996, bin Laden chartered a jet and took a number of his colleagues, along with his ever-growing family, to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. The expulsion from Sudan reportedly cost him three hundred million dollars in lost investments.

Zawahiri’s next movements are unclear. He was tracked by Egyptian intelligence agents in Switzerland and Sarajevo, and he allegedly sought asylum in Bulgaria. An Egyptian newspaper reported that Zawahiri had gone to live in luxury in a Swiss villa near the French border, and that he had thirty million dollars in a secret account. Zawahiri did claim on several occasions to have lived in Switzerland, but the Swiss say they have no evidence that he was ever in the country, much less that he was granted asylum. He turned up briefly in Holland, which does not have an extradition treaty with Egypt. He had talks there about establishing a satellite television channel, backed by wealthy Arabs, that would provide a fundamentalist alternative to the Al Jazeera network, which had recently been launched in Qatar. Zawahiri’s plan was to broadcast ten hours a day to Europe and the Middle East, using only male presenters. Nothing came of the idea.

A memo that Zawahiri later wrote to his colleagues—it was recovered from an Al Qaeda computer obtained by a Wall Street Journal reporter after the fall of the Taliban—reveals that in December of 1996 he was on his way to Chechnya to establish a new home base for the remnants of Islamic Jihad. “Conditions there were excellent,” he wrote in the memo. The Russians had begun to withdraw from Chechnya earlier that year after achieving a ceasefire with the rebellious region. To the Islamists, Chechnya offered an opportunity to create an Islamic republic in the Caucasus, from which they could wage jihad throughout Central Asia.

Soon after Zawahiri and two of his top lieutenants, Ahmad Salama Mabruk and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, crossed into the Russian province of Dagestan, they were arrested for entering the country illegally. The Russians discovered, among other documents, false identity papers, including a Sudanese passport that Zawahiri sometimes used. Zawahiri’s passport indicated that he had been to Yemen four times, Malaysia three times, Singapore twice, and China (probably Taiwan) once—all within the previous twenty months. At the trial, in April, 1997, Zawahiri insisted that he had come to Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” He said he was unaware that he was crossing the border illegally. The judge sentenced the three men to six months in jail. They had nearly completed the term by the time of the trial, and the following month they were released. “God blinded them to our identities,” Zawahiri boasted in the account of his trip.

Once again, his disgruntled followers chastised him for his carelessness. An e-mail from colleagues in Yemen referred to the Russia adventure as “a disaster that almost destroyed the group.” A measure of bin Laden’s feelings about Zawahiri’s mishaps was that he gave Jihad only five thousand dollars during the leader’s absence.

Jihad had been crushed in Egypt and run out of Sudan, and the organization’s hardships were having personal consequences as well. Zawahiri confided to colleagues that he had developed an ulcer. After the fiasco in Russia, Zawahiri and his family had no alternative but to join bin Laden in Jalalabad, a military center that had become the new headquarters for Al Qaeda. Islamists from all over the world were pouring into the camps that bin Laden had established in the surrounding Hindu Kush mountains.

Emboldened by the success of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, bin Laden escalated his campaign against America. In November of 1995, Al Qaeda bombed the National Guard communications center, in Riyadh, where American troops were training Saudis in surveillance methods. Five Americans were killed. Al Qaeda struck again in June of 1996, with a bombing at the Khobar Towers dormitory, in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen American servicemen. (U.S. intelligence officials suspected that Iranian extremists were responsible, but they subsequently learned that Zawahiri called bin Laden immediately afterward to congratulate him on the operation.)

Bin Laden declined to take credit, but two months later, on August 23, 1996, he issued an edict entitled “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” In this lengthy statement, published in the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, bin Laden boldly lays out his case against the Saudi ruling family and its American backers. “Everyone agrees that the shadow of a stick cannot be straightened as long as the stick is crooked,” he writes. “Hence, it is imperative to focus on attacking the main enemy.” He argues that the West deliberately divided the Muslim world into “states and mini-states,” which could be easily controlled. He declares, “There is no higher priority, after faith, than pushing back the American-Israeli alliance.” He calls upon all Muslims to participate in jihad in order to liberate Saudi Arabia and restore the dignity of the Islamic community. “In view of the enemy’s strength, fast and light forces must be used and must operate in absolute secrecy.”


In 1998, Zawahiri commissioned a study on the Jewish influence in America. As a result of the study, Islamic Jihad formally placed the United States on its list of acceptable targets. Bin Laden was sufficiently pleased to raise the organization’s annual budget from three hundred thousand dollars to five hundred thousand. “America is now controlled by the Jews, completely, as are its news, its elections, its economy, and its politics,” Zawahiri explained in the Jihad journal, Al-Mujahidoun, later that year. “It uses Israel to attack its neighbors and to slaughter those who are living peacefully there. . . . If we are a nation of martyrs—as we claim—all that we need is courage of heart and the will of killers and the belief in what we claim to be love of death for Allah’s sake. That is the key to our triumph and the beginning of their defeat. If you want to live as free people and to die in honor and be sent as martyrs, the road in front of you is clear.”

Zawahiri formally sealed his new alliance with bin Laden on February 23, 1998, when Zawahiri’s name appeared as one of the signatories on a document published in Al-Quds al-Arabi. The document announced the formation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders. “In compliance with God’s order,” the text read, “we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” Included in the alliance were jihad groups in Afghanistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, and Palestine. The document gave the West its first glimpse of the worldwide conspiracy that was beginning to form.

Many members of Islamic Jihad were wary of bin Laden’s designs on the “distant enemy.” Zawahiri called a meeting of Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan to explain the new global organization, but there was so much resistance that he threatened to resign. “The members were shocked that their leader joined without asking them,” Hany al-Sibai told me. “Only a few, who could be counted on the fingers, supported it.”

Zawahiri’s brother Mohammed, the military commander of Islamic Jihad, had long been a controversial figure in the group, and yet he remained a fixture in the hierarchy of the “company,” as the Jihad members called themselves. The two brothers had been together from their underground days. They had sometimes been at odds with each other—on one occasion, Ayman went so far as to denounce Mohammed in front of his colleagues for mismanaging the group’s meagre finances. But Mohammed was popular among many of the members, and, as deputy emir, he had run the organization whenever Ayman was travelling. According to Sibai, Mohammed refused to accept the alliance with Al Qaeda, and he left Islamic Jihad not long after the meeting in Afghanistan.

Several members of the Islamic Group tried to have Sheikh Omar named emir of the Islamic Front, but the proposal was brushed aside. Clearly, bin Laden had had enough of the fighting between the Egyptian factions. He told members of Jihad that their ineffectual operations in Egypt were too expensive, and that it was time for them to “turn their guns” on the United States and Israel. Zawahiri’s assistant Ahmed al-Najjar later told Egyptian investigators, “I myself heard bin Laden say that our main objective is now limited to one state only, the United States, and involves waging a guerrilla war against all U.S. interests, not only in the Arab region but also throughout the world.”

Since the early nineties, Egyptian authorities had felt stymied in their efforts to stamp out Islamic fundamentalists by the protection that Western governments afforded fugitives. The Egyptians complained that more than five hundred terrorists had found refuge in England, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and the United States, among other countries, on the ground that they would be subject to political persecution and perhaps torture if they were sent home. Many European governments refused to return a suspect to face a trial in which he might receive the death penalty.

But the formation of the Islamic Front and its call for a fatwa against Americans and their allies prompted a new vigilance in the West. The C.I.A., which had sporadically tried to keep track of Islamic Jihad over the years, acted quickly. In July of 1998, American agents kidnapped Ahmad Salama Mabruk and another member of Jihad outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan. Mabruk’s laptop computer turned out to contain vital information about Jihad members in Europe. The same summer, the C.I.A. moved against an Islamic Jihad cell in Tirana, Albania; the cell, with sixteen members, had been created by Mohammed al-Zawahiri in the early nineties. Albanian agents, under C.I.A. supervision, kidnapped five members of the cell, blindfolded them, interrogated them for several days, and then sent the Egyptian members to Cairo. They were put on trial with more than a hundred other suspected terrorists. Their lawyer, Hafez Abu-Saada, maintains that they were tortured. The ordeal produced twenty thousand pages of confessions, and both Zawahiri brothers were given death sentences in absentia.

On August 6th, a month after the breakup of the Albanian cell, Zawahiri sent the following declaration to a London-based Arabic paper: “We are interested in briefly telling the Americans that their message has been received and that the response, which we hope they will read carefully, is being prepared, because, with God’s help, we will write it in the language that they understand.” The following day, simultaneous suicide bombings destroyed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; two hundred and twenty-three people died and more than five thousand were injured.

It is now clear that the bombings had been planned for some time. Zawahiri’s man, the double agent Ali Mohamed, testified in New York that bin Laden had asked him to scout American, British, French, and Israeli targets in Nairobi in late 1993. “I took pictures, drew diagrams, and wrote a report,” he said. “I later went to Khartoum, where my surveillance files were reviewed by Osama bin Laden . . . and others. Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American Embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber.”

American intelligence officials were unprepared for the extent of the devastation in East Africa, and they were amazed by the skill with which the bombings were carried out. The level of planning and coördination indicated that the bombers had a new degree of sophistication, as well as a willingness to raise the stakes in terms of innocent lives. On August 20th, President Clinton ordered an attack on bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan, and also on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was thought to be manufacturing a precursor to the lethal nerve gas VX.

American warships in the region fired seventy-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan. A subsequent investigation established that the plant in Sudan was making Ibuprofen and veterinary medicines, not poison gas; the strike killed a night watchman. In Afghanistan, the attack failed to hit its main targets—bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the other Al Qaeda leaders. (The strike also missed Mohamed Atta, the alleged leader of the September 11th attacks, who was reportedly training in one of the camps.)

In the postmortems, there was speculation that the Pakistani intelligence agency had given bin Laden advance warning. However, Samuel Berger, Clinton’s national-security adviser, told me that neither the Pakistani Prime Minister nor the head of Pakistan’s Army was informed of the strikes until the missiles were in the air. Only half an hour earlier, Zawahiri had been talking on bin Laden’s satellite phone to a reporter in Pakistan. Tracking the phone was the best way U.S. intelligence agents had of determining bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s whereabouts, and if only surveillance aircraft had been positioned in the region Zawahiri’s call would have given the agents their exact location. Zawahiri later told a newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan, that he and bin Laden were safe “somewhere in Afghanistan.”

The strikes, which, in the big-chested parlance of military planners, were dubbed Operation Infinite Reach, cost American taxpayers seventy-nine million dollars, but they merely exposed the inadequacy of American intelligence. President Clinton later explained that one of the strikes had been aimed at a “gathering of key terrorist leaders,” but the meeting in question had occurred a month earlier. According to Russian intelligence sources cited in Al-Majallah, an Arabic magazine in London, bin Laden sold the Tomahawk missiles that failed to explode to China for more than ten million dollars, which he then used to finance operations in Chechnya.

The failure of Operation Infinite Reach established bin Laden as a legendary figure not just in the Muslim world but wherever America, with the clamor of its narcissistic culture and the presence of its military forces, had made itself unwelcome. When bin Laden’s voice came crackling across a radio transmission—“By the grace of God, I am alive!”—the forces of anti-Americanism had found their champion. Those who had objected to the slaughter of innocents in the embassies in East Africa, many of whom were Muslims, were cowed by the popular response to this man whose defiance of America now seemed blessed by divine favor.

The day after the strikes, Zawahiri called a reporter in Karachi, with a message: “Tell the Americans that we aren’t afraid of bombardment, threats, and acts of aggression. We suffered and survived the Soviet bombings for ten years in Afghanistan and we are ready for more sacrifices. The war has only just begun; the Americans should now await the answer.”

After years of fending off criticism of his leadership, Zawahiri resigned as the emir of Islamic Jihad in the summer of 1999. He was angry at the Jihad members who found fault with him from comfortable perches in Europe. He disdainfully called them “the hot-blooded revolutionary strugglers who have now become as cold as ice after they experienced the life of civilization and luxury, the guarantees of the new world order, the gallant ethics of civilized Europe, and the impartiality and materialism of Western civilization.” Many of his former allies, exhausted and demoralized by years of setbacks, had become advocates of an initiative by Islamist leaders imprisoned in Egypt, who had declared a unilateral ceasefire. Those who remained loyal to the movement no longer wanted to endure the primitive living conditions in Afghanistan. Yet, even as the organization was disintegrating, Zawahiri rejected any thought of negotiation with the Egyptian regime or with the West. But without his leadership Islamic Jihad was adrift, and several months after he resigned his successor relinquished the post. Zawahiri was back in charge. According to testimony given at the trial of the Albanian cell members, however, the membership of Islamic Jihad outside Egypt had diminished to forty.

Zawahiri’s continual efforts to maintain a semblance of autonomy ended in June, 2001, when Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda merged into a single entity, Qaeda al-Jihad. The name reflected the fact that the Egyptians were still in control; indeed, the nine-member leadership council includes only three non-Egyptians—most prominently, bin Laden. Within the organization, the dominance of the Egyptians has been a subject of contention, especially among the Saudis. According to an American investigator, bin Laden has tried to mollify the malcontents by explaining that he can always count on the Egyptians, since they are unable to go home without being arrested; like him, they are men without a country.

Zawahiri’s name had been in American intelligence files at least since the Soviet-Afghan war. The F.B.I. became interested in him after the Islamic Jihad bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, but at that point he was still seen as an Egyptian problem. When Zawahiri signed the alliance with bin Laden, in February, 1998, the Bureau opened a file on him. Then came the suicide bombings of the American embassies in East Africa, which were planned and executed, in large part, by Egyptian members of Al Qaeda. American intelligence agencies now realized that there was not just one leader of the organization. They began regarding Zawahiri as an equal partner with bin Laden in the planning and carrying out of the terrorist agenda. On October 12, 2000, Al Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole, one of the Navy’s most advanced destroyers, in Aden, Yemen. By now, American intelligence knew enough about Zawahiri to realize that he was in charge of the Yemen cell. He was also closely affiliated with the Saudi terrorist Tawifiq bin Atash, who is now thought to have been the planner of that operation. Moreover, the C.I.A. believes that Atash was one of the chief organizers of the September 11th attacks.

As these pieces came together, American intelligence worked more closely with its Egyptian counterparts, and the C.I.A., in conjunction with Egyptian authorities, began to target not just Zawahiri but his brothers. In November, 1999, Mohammed’s wife, Aliya, with their five children, surrendered to Egyptian authorities in Yemen, saying that her husband had abandoned them. A few months later, according to Islamist sources, Egyptian intelligence kidnapped Mohammed from the United Arab Emirates and took him back to Cairo, where he “disappeared.” Aliya allegedly told Egyptian authorities where the youngest Zawahiri brother, Hussein, could be found. Hussein had been arrested several times on suspicion of having ties to Islamic Jihad, but nothing was ever proved against him. In the late nineties, he was employed as an engineer for a Malaysian company called Multidiscovery, which was building electrical plants. According to a senior intelligence officer in the Clinton White House, American agents ordered the kidnapping of Hussein in Malaysia and flew him to Cairo, where he, too, “disappeared.” Six months later, he reemerged, in the middle of the night, wearing the same clothes in which he had been abducted.


As a man of science, Zawahiri was interested in the use of biological and chemical warfare. In a memo from April of 1999, he observed that “the destructive power of these weapons is no less than that of nuclear weapons,” and proposed that Islamic Jihad conduct research into biological and chemical agents. “Despite their extreme danger, we only became aware of them when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concern that they can be produced simply,” he noted. He pored over medical journals to research the subject, and he met with an Egyptian scientist in Afghanistan, Medhat Mursi al-Sayed, whose Jihad name was Abu Khabab. C.I.A. officials believe that Khabab prepared the explosives for the bomb that hit the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. Khabab supervised elementary tests of nerve gas; satellite photos purportedly show corpses of dogs scattered about one of the camps near Tora Bora, and Al Qaeda training videos recently acquired by CNN show that poison gas had been tested on dogs. “We knew from hundreds of different sources that Al Qaeda was interested in biological and chemical weapons,” says Richard A. Clarke, who was the Clinton Administration’s national coördinator for counterterrorism in the National Security Council and is now in charge of cybersecurity for the N.S.C. Clarke told me that in one of the camps human volunteers, wearing protective clothing, were exposed to chemicals in tests similar to ones that the U.S. Army has conducted. During the invasion of Afghanistan, American forces discovered a factory under construction, near Kandahar, that intelligence officials say was to be used for the production of anthrax. A sample of anthrax powder was reportedly found in Zawahiri’s house in Afghanistan. According to reports from Israel and Russia, bin Laden paid Chechen mobsters millions of dollars in cash and heroin to obtain radiological “suitcase” bombs left over from the Soviets. He declared in November, 2001, “We have chemical and nuclear weapons,” and vowed to use them “if America used them against us.”

According to a source in the C.I.A., American agents came close to apprehending Zawahiri a month before September 11th, when he travelled to Yemen for medical treatments. “The Egyptian intelligence service briefed us that he was in a hospital in Sanaa,” the person told me. “We sent a few people over there, and they made a colossal screwup. While our guys were conducting a surveillance of the hospital, the guards caught them with their videocameras.” The plan was compromised, and Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan.

On September 11th, Zawahiri, bin Laden, and their followers evacuated their quarters in Kandahar and fled into the mountains, where they listened to an Arabic radio station’s news flashes about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. According to a C.I.A. report about the events of that morning, at 9:53 A.M., between the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, a member of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was overheard saying that the attackers were following through on “the doctor’s program.”

On December 3rd, American bombers struck a heavily fortified complex of caves near Jalalabad. When the ground troops arrived, they discovered more than a hundred bodies, and they were able to identify eighteen of them as top Al Qaeda lieutenants. Zawahiri’s wife, Azza, and their children were also said to have been killed, but, according to the F.B.I., there is no confirming evidence of this.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw Azza after a long absence when I went to visit her in Pakistan,” Nabila Galal recalled when she heard the reports of her daughter’s death. “She was waiting for me at the airport with her three little daughters wearing hijabs. They smiled at me, and I will never forget those little children’s smiles. Could it be true they all died in the same instant? By the grace of God, we will be hastened.”

I asked Azza’s older brother, Essam, whether his mother has kept any letters from her daughter in Afghanistan. “Yes,” he said, “but she is very ill and very upset and I don’t want to cause her any more grief by bringing up this subject. She gets asthma attacks every time she thinks about what happened. I tell her that everything’s going to be fine and that, inshallah, nothing happened to my sister.”

A Northern Alliance commander announced that Zawahiri, too, had been killed in the American bombing, but there was no reliable evidence of his death, either. On December 16th, Zawahiri was quoted by a Cairo-based reporter for Al-Majallah. “We are not hiding in caves or avoiding confrontation,” he said. “Suicide is a goal that we seek.” Because Zawahiri’s remarks were dictated to the reporter by an Al Qaeda middleman, it is not possible to know if they are genuine.

There is a videotape of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri which shows them sitting on a blanket beside a mountain stream—or, in the view of some intelligence analysts, an artificial backdrop—talking about the jihad operations of September 11th. (Their comments are interspersed with scenes from a martyrdom tape of a young man named Ahmed al-Haznawy, one of the hijackers, but the footage with bin Laden and Zawahiri is thought to have been shot sometime in December.) On the tape, a pallid bin Laden says little. Zawahiri is wearing a white galabeya, a black turban, and a vest. Although the black turban may be a sign that he is in mourning for the death of his family, he appears healthy and content. “This great victory was possible only by the grace of God,” he says with quiet pride. “This was not just a human achievement—it was a holy act. These nineteen brave men who gave their lives for the cause of God will be well taken care of. God granted them the strength to do what they did. There’s no comparison between the power of these nineteen men and the power of America, and there’s no comparison between the destruction these nineteen men caused and the destruction America caused.”

This may have been Zawahiri’s last public statement. Some American intelligence officials believe that he was killed by Pakistani mercenaries as he was riding in an ambulance after being wounded by an American bomb. The killers allegedly buried him, along with other Al Qaeda fighters, in a snowbank, where he lay until spring, when Canadian troops dug up some of the remains. The skull of a corpse believed to be Zawahiri’s was sent to a laboratory at F.B.I. headquarters, in Washington. Forensic technicians compared the DNA of the skull with that of Mohammed al-Zawahiri, which is contained in a vial that the Bureau obtained from Egyptian authorities. Tests showed that the skull was not Zawahiri’s

Source:Ocnus.net 2022

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