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Ayman Al-Zawahiri: Bin Laden's Right-Hand Man

Aired November 3, 2001 - 07:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: He's the man who has Osama bin Laden's ear.


PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM EXPERT: He's his closest adviser, has worked with bin Laden for a long time. They've known each other since 1987.


ANNOUNCER: A 50-year-old surgeon from Egypt.




ANNOUNCER: Accused of plotting and planning violence for decades, a man who has declared war on America.

A profile of a man the U.S. government believes played a key role in the September 11 attacks, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.


MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ayman al- Zawahiri is usually seen at Osama bin Laden's side, his ally, his confidant. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri has a price on his head. He's been targeted not just for his role in the September 11 attacks. He's also been indicted for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

BERGEN: Ayman al-Zawahiri is effectively bin Laden's number two.

BOETTCHER: Like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri comes from a privileged background. The al-Zawahiri family lives in a well-off suburb of Cairo. One grandfather was a renowned Muslim scholar, his father, a prominent doctor. There is even an Al-Zawahiri Street.

Mahfouz Azzam is Ayman al-Zawahiri's uncle. He describes his nephew as a quiet boy who read a lot, was a star student. He says Ayman was always calm, relaxed, and deeply religious. AZZAM: He was known as a good Muslim keen to pray at the mosque and to read and to think and to have his own decisions. He can know what is the right and what is wrong in what he reads.

BOETTCHER: Ayman al-Zawahiri's political involvement began during the reign of President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1960s.

(on camera): Al-Zawahiri was a medical student in his teens when he joined Al-Jihad. It was one of the many groups opposing the regime, instead favoring an Islamic state.

(voice-over): After Nasser's death, Anwar Sadat took power. First Sadat fought Israel, then, in the late '70s, he began to make peace with the Jewish state.

At home, agitation against Sadat increased. Like Ayman al- Zawahiri, Kamal Habib was a Muslim activist. He advocated violence against the Sadat regime.

KAMAL HABIB, ISLAMIC ACTIVIST (through translator): We thought at the time that the goal to apply the laws of Islam can't be achieved with ways other than violence.

BOETTCHER: In October 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. The actual assassins were tried and convicted in a military court, but there was a second trial. Al-Zawahiri, along with Kamal Habib and 300 other activists, was rounded up and tried on conspiracy charges.

Because al-Zawahiri was fluent in English, he became a spokesman when the international media was allowed to interview the group.


AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: We want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Who are we? Why did 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, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) proud feeling, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and ideology and practice.


BOETTCHER: The court would eventually find that al-Zawahiri did not participate in the assassination plot. Nevertheless, al-Zawahiri harshly condemned Sadat for corruption and for making peace with Israel.


AL-ZAWAHIRI: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) prosperity (UNINTELLIGIBLE) declared by the stupid agent Anwar Sadat. (shouts in Arabic)

UNIDENTIFIED MALES: (shout in Arabic)




BOETTCHER: Al-Zawahiri also told reporters that the detainees had been tortured.


AL-ZAWAHIRI: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they kicked us, they beated us, they whipped us with the electric cable, they shocked us with electricity. They shocked us with electricity, and they used their wild dogs -- and they used their wild dogs, and they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) us over the edges of the dogs with our hands tied at the back.


BOETTCHER: Kamal Habib confirms that torture was commonplace, and it was brutal.

HABIB: The methods of torture are known to everyone. Honestly, I prefer not to talk about it. But back then, it was on a very large scale.

BOETTCHER: Until he got to prison, al-Zawahiri was, by all accounts, not a leader in his group, which was known as Al-Jihad.

HABIB : Ayman al-Zawahiri had a minor role. There were many who followed the Jihad organization belief and didn't contribute in a direct way. And Ayman was one of them.

BOETTCHER: But journalist Mohammed Salah says the interview with the international media showed that after 14 months in prison, al- Zawahiri was emerging in the top ranks of the militants.

MOHAMMED SALAH, "AL-HAYAT" NEWSPAPER (through translator): Because of Ayman al-Zawahiri's charisma, he was able to speak on behalf of his colleagues and express opinions on their behalf.

BOETTCHER: General Fouad Allam interrogated al-Zawahiri when he was in prison. He says he was struck by the young doctor's demeanor.

GEN. FOUAD ALLAM (RET.), EGYPTIAN SECURITY SERVICES (through translator): He was a very normal person. He was very decent, very calm, and above all this, shy.

BOETTCHER: Others would call this something else, not shyness but a passion for secrecy that would be, along with his leadership skills, one of al-Zawahiri's hallmarks.

When we return, Ayman al-Zawahiri takes up the Afghan cause and meets the man who would become America's public enemy number one.




BOETTCHER: They came from all over the world to Afghanistan to defend their religion, Islam. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late '70s, young Muslims came to make a jihad, a holy war, against communism. Osama bin Laden answered the call. So did Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He had graduated from medical school in 1974 and was practicing as a surgeon when he made his first trip to Afghanistan in 1979. His uncle says he went there to offer his medical services.

AZZAM: He went to Afghanistan, to Peshawar, Pakistan. He worked there in the Red Cross hospital.

BOETTCHER: Most of his colleagues were still in prison back in Egypt, so Afghanistan was, ironically, a safe place to be for men like al-Zawahiri, says Dia'a Rashwan.

DIA'A RASHWAN, AL-AHRAM CENTER: It was a paradise and a secure place for this runaway, from their own government. And this -- and at the same time, you can make your jihad.

BOETTCHER: Al-Zawahiri not only tended to the wounded, he also established a base for Egyptians coming to fight and reestablished Al- Jihad. But he let someone else run the group, says reporter Mohammed Salah, while remaining behind the scenes.

SALAH: It is said that Ayman al-Zawahiri was always away from the spotlight. He didn't like to be in the picture. He didn't talk to the media. He didn't give statements with his name.

BOETTCHER: But coming to Afghanistan to make a jihad took its toll on Ayman al-Zawahiri and the other men, who came to be known as the Afghan Arabs.

HABIB: I believe those people who went to Afghanistan started thinking differently than those who stayed in prisons. I believe Afghanistan changed them to what I call the militarization of Islamic thought.

BOETTCHER: The holy war against the Soviets ended in victory, but there was no place for Ayman al-Zawahiri or many of the Afghan Arabs to go.

(on camera): Faced with increasing terrorist threat from Islamic groups, the Egyptian government considered the Afghan Arabs too dangerous to allow them to return here.

AZZAM: If a man practice his religion and it is one of the five pillars in our Islam is jihad, if a man practices his religion, these governments consider him a criminal.

BOETTCHER: Ayman al-Zawahiri first met Osama bin Laden in Peshawar during the late '80s. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri became increasingly close, linked first by their common cause in fighting the Soviets. SALAH: The relationship between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri was very close, because they started together very early during the uprising of Afghanis. So for sure, there was a lot of collaboration and funding that Osama bin Laden provided to Al-Jihad.

BOETTCHER: Al-Zawahiri spent much of his time in the next few years traveling in secret, organizing networks, says Salah. He went to Yemen, and in 1995, using an alias, he even visited California on a secret trip to raise money for Al-Jihad.

Information about the California visit came from this man, Ali Mohammed, a former Egyptian and American Army officer who helped arrange the visit. Mohammed testified about al-Zawahiri's visit when he pleaded guilty earlier this year in the embassy bombing trial.

Ayman al-Zawahiri's group, Al-Jihad, targeted the Egyptian government during the '90s. It was accused of trying to assassinate the prime minister and the interior minister. Then in 1995, it blew up the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. According to one Egyptian magazine, Ayman al-Zawahiri used money raised on his U.S. trip to help fund the embassy bombing.

When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, Ayman al-Zawahiri declares war on the United States.




BOETTCHER: Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged from the shadows in 1998 as leader of Al-Jihad. He co-signed, along with Osama bin Laden, a fatwa, a declaration that announced the formation of the World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders.

It criticized the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, the embargo against Iraq, and Israel's control of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The fatwa said, "The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim."

While some see the goal of an international jihad as bin Laden's influence on Ayman al-Zawahiri, Peter Bergen thinks that Ayman al- Zawahiri in turn affected Osama bin Laden.

BERGEN: Ayman al-Zawahiri's influence on bin Laden has been profound, according to a number of people who know both Zawahiri and bin Laden, he's influenced his thinking to become more radical, more anti-American, and also more violent.

BOETTCHER: Some in Egypt believe Ayman al-Zawahiri's anger at the United States was due to what many Afghan Arabs felt was their betrayal by the CIA, which helped fund the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and then abandoned its support as the country slipped into tribal anarchy. But there may have been a more immediate reason for Ayman al- Zawahiri's anger. After an alleged plot against U.S. interests in Albania was thwarted, a number of Al-Jihad members were rounded up and sent back to Egypt to face trial.

Then on August 4, "Al-Hayat" newspaper received a fax from Al- Jihad. It said, "We should like to inform the Americans that, in short, their message has been received, and that they should read carefully the reply that will, with God's help, be written in the language that they understand."

Three days later, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked by suicide bombers driving trucks.

BERGEN: The significance of the fax that was sent to the Egyptian newspaper by Ayman al-Zawahiri's Jihad group is that it indicated the Jihad group knew there was something in the offing. The reason they knew there was something in the offing was because they were intimately involved in the U.S. embassy bombings attack.

BOETTCHER: Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden would both be indicted, charged with masterminding those attacks.

BERGEN: The relationship between Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda is essentially that they're the same organization. They've cooperated for many, many years. The U.S. government says they effectively merged in '98, but really they merged long before that.

BOETTCHER: Right before the U.S. struck back with cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda training camps, al-Zawahiri called a Pakistani journalist, denied that bin Laden was behind the attacks, but warned of more to come.

"Al-Hayat"'s Mohammed Salah says it is important to understand Ayman al-Zawahiri's mindset, which Salah believes was shaped by the Afghan struggle.

SALAH: For the most part, he does what he believes in. For example, we consider that the bombing of embassies is a terrorist act against the religion and simply against nature. He considers that this act serves the goals he's after.

BOETTCHER: To Ayman al-Zawahiri's uncle, this is an inconceivable view of his nephew. He remembers him as someone dedicated to saving lives, not taking them.

AZZAM: This is a false accusation. I say to you, he's a genius doctor. That means that what he knows is to practice as a doctor.

BOETTCHER: In 1999, Egypt tried the Al-Jihad members who had been extradited from Albania. Ayman al-Zawahiri and one of his brothers, Mohammed, were also tried in absentia and given the death penalty.

They remained in Afghanistan, where Mohammed Salah says Ayman al- Zawahiri's expertise was crucial to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. SALAH: Osama bin Laden wasn't an organized man, meaning he didn't have an organization. He hasn't practiced secret operations in his country. He didn't create a network or participate in weapons training, recruiting individuals. This kind of operation and experience Ayman al-Zawahiri had since he was 16.

BOETTCHER: U.S. government sources believe that Ayman al- Zawahiri was a key player in the attacks on Washington and New York, one of those who actually planned and oversaw the operation. Mohammed Salah says the attacks certainly have the hallmark of an al-Zawahiri operation.

SALAH: The protection of secrecy and the recruiting of individuals with a clean history, those who don't have any violent records, this is very similar to what happened to the attacks in New York and Washington. Most of the people didn't have any relationship to Afghanistan, nor to any violent groups in their own countries.

BOETTCHER: Since September 11, Ayman al-Zawahiri has raised his public profile, appearing twice in videos obtained by Arabic television station Al-Jazeera. He even delivers a blistering denunciation of the U.S.


AL-ZAWAHIRI (through translator): If your government is leading you to another lost battle, where you would lose your towns and your money.


BOETTCHER: To Mohammed Salah, who has interviewed Ayman al- Zawahiri, such a public appearance runs counter to al-Zawahiri's clandestine nature.

SALAH: In fact, I believe that the appearance of Ayman al- Zawahiri was the big surprise. I think his appearance was a message, and his words carried another message. His appearance was a message saying that this is an alliance, and Osama bin Laden is not alone. And it is not only al-Qaeda, but there is another organization, so the possible targets for the U.S. do not just stop at one organization.

BOETTCHER: Mahfouz Azzam thinks he knows the message his nephew intended to deliver.

AZZAM: He asked the American people that they have to ask their government to think about their policy, its policy, in the Arab and Muslim world. And he was reflecting the millions and millions and millions of the people in the Arab and Muslim world.

BOETTCHER: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have claimed Islam as the basis of their incitements against the U.S., urging all Muslims to embark on a jihad. But the mufti of Egypt, the country's ranking Muslim cleric, rejects that notion, saying both men misuse Islam. NASR FARID WASSEL, MUFTI OF EGYPT (through translator): We say what has been broadcast by bin Laden and those who are with him does not represent Islam or Muslims. And we disapprove it completely.

BOETTCHER: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are now actively being hunted by coalition forces.

(on camera): Those who have studied Ayman al-Zawahiri warn not to underestimate him, especially after the bombings of the American embassies in Africa, the attack on the U.S.S. "Cole," and the events on September 11.

SALAH: Probably they are working on a hit that we don't know of. It could be today, it could be tomorrow, or after three years.


AL-ZAWAHIRI: We want to speak to the whole world.


BOETTCHER: It has been almost two decades since Ayman al- Zawahiri said he wanted the whole world to hear his message. Now, it seems, the whole world is listening.


AL-ZAWAHIRI: We are Muslims. We are Muslims who believe in their religion...






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