Over the years, the Egyptian surgeon has gained notoriety for his no-holds-barred rhetoric. In November 2008, he called President Obama a “house Negro” who was a stooge of Israel. He also doesn’t spare other jihadist leaders from his hectoring. “He always thinks he is right, even if he is alone,” Montasser el-Zayat, an Islamist lawyer in Cairo who has known Zawahiri for 30 years, said in a 2006 interview.
Zawahiri’s books and speeches are circulated widely by al-Qaeda sympathizers, who discuss and annotate them as a source of guidance and inspiration, said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Internet traffic from jihadist Web sites.
Since bin Laden’s death, there has been relatively little discussion in Islamist chat rooms about Zawahiri’s fitness to replace bin Laden, Katz said.
“The jihadists do not obsess over who is the number one or number two leader of a particular group,” Katz said. “In fact, it is not clear if bin Laden needs to be replaced with an official number one leader, as this type of structure is not necessarily needed for a decentralized organization such as al-Qaeda.”
Zawahiri was born into a prominent, well-educated Egyptian family. His relatives included a founding member of the Arab League and a chief imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, the historic center of Islamic learning in the Arab world.
As a teenager, however, Zawahiri quickly embraced the radical politics that came to define his life. After Egypt’s disastrous loss to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, he and other university student conspirators began plotting for the day when they could replace Egypt’s secular regime with a theocracy.
After President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Zawahiri and hundreds of other Islamists were rounded up. According to his account and those of other prisoners, he was tortured, which further hardened his resolve to topple the government.
He went into exile after his release from prison, moving to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan and eventually Afghanistan. He was leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group seeking to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And he bonded with bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi six years his junior who shared his commitment to jihad.
Although the two formed a close partnership, he waited until July 2001 to merge his group — which by then was bereft of money and lacking in followers — with al-Qaeda. Two months later, al-Qaeda launched its attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In its 500-page report on the plot, the Sept. 11 Commission mentioned Zawahiri only a handful of times, focusing on the role played by bin Laden and other operatives. Analysts, however, said that Zawahiri’s influence on the group should not be minimized.
“He has always run al-Qaeda. He was there at every strategic juncture,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor and counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. government. He said it was Zawahiri and other Egyptian jihadists who possessed the skills and experience to transform an Afghan guerrilla movement into an international terrorist organization.
“He may not be as charismatic as bin Laden, but he is an extremely devout and faithful Muslim who is also very learned and capable, and that’s what counts,” Hoffman said. “We’re used to thinking in John F. Kennedy terms, but they’re thinking about leaders who have religious gravitas as well as leadership capabilities, which Zawahiri does have.”
In his home country, however, Zawahiri, 59, is increasingly seen as an irrelevant relic of a prior age.
For decades, he insisted that violence and terrorism were the only way to bring about political change in Arab countries. The mostly peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have proved him wrong and drowned out his message, analysts said.
Amr al-Shobaki, a professor at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said al-Qaeda enjoyed a brief period of popular Arab support after the Sept. 11 attacks. But that dwindled rapidly after it resumed terrorist plots in predominantly Muslim countries.
“Al-Qaeda, through its violent operations in the Arab states and all over the world, has lost all sympathy,” Shobaki said said. “At one time, al-Qaeda and also al-Zawahiri were representing the voice of the disappointed Arab people. But now, with the public realization that the people can bring about change, there is no sympathy for him at all.”
Staff writer Greg Miller in Washington, special correspondent Haitham Tabei in Cairo and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.