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Keeping Al-Qaeda in His Grip
Al-Zawahiri Presses Ideology, Deepens Rifts Among Islamic Radicals

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 16, 2006

CAIRO -- In January 2003, one of the two most wanted men in the world couldn't contain his frustration. From a hiding place probably somewhere in South Asia, he tapped out two lengthy e-mails to a fellow Egyptian who'd been criticizing him in public.

"I beg you, don't stop the Muslim souls who trust your opinions from joining the jihad against the Americans," wrote Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al-Qaeda. He fired off the message even though it risked exposing him.

"Let's put it this way: Tensions had been building up between us for a long time," explained the e-mail's recipient, Montasser el-Zayat, a Cairo lawyer who shared a prison cell with Zawahiri in the 1980s and provided this account. "He always thinks he is right, even if he is alone."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zawahiri has broadcast his views to the world relentlessly. Despite a $25 million price on his head, he has published memoirs, given interviews and recorded a dozen speeches that find their way to the Internet and television. Video of a speech was posted Thursday on a Web site.

Zawahiri's visibility, eclipsing Osama bin Laden's, reminds al-Qaeda's enemies that the network is capable of more attacks. But a closer look at his speeches and writings, and interviews with several longtime associates in radical Islamic circles, suggest another motive: fear of losing his ideological grip over a revolutionary movement he has nurtured for 40 years.

The success of the Sept. 11 hijackings temporarily united al-Qaeda's feuding factions under the leadership of bin Laden and Zawahiri. But now long-standing ideological and tactical disputes have resurfaced, according to analysts and former Zawahiri associates.

The schisms are reflected in Zawahiri's many speeches, in which he has attempted to assert influence over a host of seemingly unrelated issues: the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, elections in Egypt, oil production in Saudi Arabia and obscure questions of Muslim theology.

He is risking his credibility among Islamic radicals by speaking out on so many subjects, according to Osama Rushdi, an Egyptian who spent three years in a Cairo prison with Zawahiri in the 1980s and now lives in exile in Britain.

"He's trying to stay in control and give the impression that he's behind everything in the Middle East and everywhere else, fighting against the Americans in Iraq and against Britain in Europe," Rushdi said in an interview. "He is trying to take responsibility as a leader for what is going on in Iraq. But he knows, and everyone knows, that that is not true, that he has nothing to do with anything in Iraq."

Al-Qaeda was founded as a decentralized coalition of Islamic extremists. That structure has complicated efforts by intelligence services to penetrate the network. But the lack of clear chains of command also can make it difficult for leaders to maintain control.

Terrorism analysts said that with the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda unleashed events that are now largely outside of its control. With Zawahiri and bin Laden in hiding, most likely in Pakistan, new leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq have emerged as potential rivals who follow their own script. Others have launched attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, sometimes in the name of al-Qaeda but usually as independent operators with their own agendas.

"What they've started has taken on a momentum of its own," said Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Obviously, this is a global movement. And it has global support, and it can't be controlled centrally as much as perhaps they'd like it to be. It's almost as if Zawahiri doesn't want to be left behind. They don't want the events on the ground to supersede them."

Promoting Ideology

On March 4, President Bush was wrapping up a visit to Pakistan, where two months earlier a CIA drone had staged a missile strike in a failed attempt to kill Zawahiri. Shortly before the president's departure, Zawahiri provided another taunting reminder of his elusiveness. In a videotape aired by the al-Jazeera satellite television network, the 54-year-old Egyptian surgeon once again blasted the U.S. military and political presence in the Middle East.

But the bulk of his lecture was aimed at another radical Islamic movement: Hamas, which swept to victory in the Jan. 25 elections in the Palestinian territories. Zawahiri congratulated Hamas on its political success, but he also offered a stern warning: Avoid the temptation to work with "secular" Palestinian legislators, and never compromise on efforts to establish strict Islamic law, or sharia.

"Power is not an end in itself. Real power is application of sharia on earth," he said. "Entering the same parliament as the lay people, recognizing their legitimacy and the accords they have signed is contrary to Islam."

The lecture echoed comments made by Zawahiri on Jan. 6, when he ripped the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood for taking part in last year's elections in his native Egypt, where the al-Qaeda figure got his start in radical Islamic politics as a teenager and medical student.

The Brotherhood, he said, was "duped, provoked and used" by the United States. Zawahiri and other radicals have argued that taking part in Western-style elections is incompatible with Islam -- democracy, he has said, is an assault on God's right to rule.

With groundbreaking elections taking place in Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and even Saudi Arabia, Zawahiri and his ideological allies fear that popular sentiment in the Middle East could be turning against their goal of establishing a united caliphate to rule over the world's entire Muslim population, many al-Qaeda experts contend.

Kamal Habib is a former leader of the radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the network that Zawahiri joined as a young doctor. After serving a decade in prison for attempting to overthrow the Egyptian government, Habib has embraced nonviolence and is considered an authority on militant Islam.

In an interview in Cairo, he noted that Zawahiri's video messages have recently delved into the subjects of freedom and democracy. "The Arab world has witnessed change over the last year or two that is almost equivalent to the amount of change that occurred over the previous two decades," Habib said in an interview in Cairo. "He can't remain isolated from these changes. He has to respond to them."

Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical militant Islamic groups that Zawahiri has criticized generally have been reluctant to respond in public. But Hany el-Sibaai, another Egyptian exile in Britain who has known Zawahiri for years, predicts a change if the United States leaves Iraq.

"After America withdraws its troops, I think the debate will break into the open, said Sibaai, who leads the al-Maqreze Center for Historical Studies in London. "It will be, 'Why did you do this? Why did you go that way?' "

Some of the sharpest tactical differences within al-Qaeda have come to a head in Iraq.

According to intelligence officials in the Middle East and Europe, a growing rivalry has developed between Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq. Although Zawahiri has been reduced to launching rhetorical attacks from hideouts, Zarqawi has gained notoriety and respect among jihadists as an aggressive commander who continues to defy the U.S. military.

Zarqawi pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda two years ago, but analysts and officials suspect that their alliance is a marriage of convenience. Before the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi kept his distance from the group, operating his own training camps. He has also held different strategic objectives: the overthrow of the monarchy in his native Jordan and war against Israel, neither of which have been priorities for al-Qaeda.

"There's nothing in common between these two guys," said Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They were two different people from different places with a different history. I have my doubts about whether the two guys are really with the same organization."

In October, U.S. intelligence officials released a letter they said was written by Zawahiri to his "gracious brother" Zarqawi. Some independent analysts have questioned its authenticity and have charged the U.S. government with inflating al-Qaeda's role in Iraq for political reasons. Several former Zawahiri associates interviewed for this article said they believe the letter is genuine and accurately reflects some of al-Qaeda's internal conflicts.

In the letter dated July 9, 2005, Zawahiri warned Zarqawi that gory tactics that had made him famous in Iraq -- the videotaped beheadings of hostages and bombings of Shiite holy sites -- risked alienating ordinary Muslims. Although the Egyptian said he agreed such acts were religiously justified, sustaining public support was more important. His advice: Kill hostages by gunshot instead, and concentrate attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers," wrote Zawahiri, who like Zarqawi is a Sunni Muslim. "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And this media battle is a race for the hearts and minds of our people."

Enemies Near and Far

If subsequent events are any indication, Zarqawi's response to the advice has been mixed. The number of decapitations has declined, and there is evidence that Zarqawi has taken a lower profile to give Iraqi insurgents a more visible leadership role.

At the same time, attacks on Shiite mosques have increased. In November, his organization asserted responsibility for coordinated suicide bombings that killed 60 people at two hotels in Amman, Jordan, half of them members of a wedding party.

Public reaction was as Zawahiri predicted: More than 100,000 Jordanians took to the streets, the largest mass protests in the Muslim world against an al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attack.

About the same time, Zawahiri produced another videotape, although it did not surface publicly until this week, posted on a radical Islamic Web site.

Perhaps mindful of reports of internal dissension, Zawahiri defended the Jordanian insurgent as "my beloved brother" and urged Muslims to rally behind him. "I have lived with him up close and seen nothing but good from him," Zawahiri said. "The Islamic nation must support the heroic holy warriors in Iraq, who are fighting on the very front line for the dignity of Islam."

Zawahiri's sensitivity to public opinion can be traced to his days as chief of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Its target since the 1960s was what it calls "the near enemy," the Egyptian government, which they consider corrupt and un-Islamic.

In 1993, group members trying to assassinate an Egyptian official accidentally killed an 11-year-old girl. An angry public response, combined with a renewed government crackdown on radicals, severely weakened the network.

This and other setbacks helped drive Zawahiri into exile in Afghanistan. "His organization inside Egypt was almost completely eliminated," said Kamal Habib, the former Islamic Jihad leader, who abandoned the group after he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 1998, Zawahiri sought to rescue Islamic Jihad by creating a formal alliance with bin Laden's nascent al-Qaeda network called the International Islamic Front Against Crusaders and Jews. The new target would be "the far enemy," the United States and other Western powers seen as protectors of secular Arab governments.

The decision sparked a rebellion in the ranks of Islamic Jihad. Zawahiri had failed to consult with other senior members of the group before ordering a drastic shift in its core mission.

"Many people said, 'Why would I want to fight the White House and Tony Blair?' " said Yasser al-Sirri, another Egyptian exile in London who has known Zawahiri for more than a decade. "But it was his only choice then, to be allied with bin Laden. He hadn't been successful in Egypt because he had made mistakes and surrounded himself with the wrong people. They were always fighting and arguing among themselves."

The internal feuding continued even as the new al-Qaeda under Zawahiri and bin Laden gained prominence for sponsoring the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years later. E-mails recovered from an al-Qaeda computer in Kabul after the invasion of Afghanistan show a steady stream of bitter message traffic between Zawahiri and his followers during this period, with running arguments over money, ideology and authority.

The Sept. 11 plot's success brought the squabbling to a temporary halt. But Zawahiri seems to have realized that the feuding would eventually resume and challenge his ideological authority, said el-Zayat, the lawyer who reported receiving in 2003 the admonishing e-mails from the al-Qaeda theoretician. Intelligence analysts said they believe the e-mails are genuine but that it is impossible to confirm with certainty that Zawahiri was the author.

"I'm sure he has the vision to bring the network back together, but I don't think he will be able to do that," Zayat said. "He hasn't changed. It's as if I'm listening to him in a prison cell in 1981. Except for some white hair, he is the same."

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