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The two men are seen in the U.S. as products of an Islamic religious fanaticism, with perhaps a strain of their own megalomania. Religious ideology is the perceived tie that binds these men and motivates them, and their thousands of followers.
Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden are usually seen in the context of the extremist group Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda is really the end of the story, not the beginning. "Look, there isn't a single factor that explains this extremism," said Talal Asad, a City University of New York anthropology professor. "One thing is to talk about the genesis of these groups," said Bernard Haykel, New York University professor of Islamic law. The other thing is to ask, 'How do they think of themselves and represent their actions, and what kind of teachings do they propagate?' "
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI WAS BORN IN 1951, IN AN Egypt on the verge of Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution, to a lineage wrapped in prestige. His grandfather had been the highest cleric in the Sunni Muslim world, Mufti of Al-Azhar University. Ayman's granduncle was the first secretary-general of the Arab League, concerned with the then emerging Palestine question and Pan-Arabism.
Home was Cairo's Al-Maadi, a plush neighborhood now known for its large American population. Ayman likely visited his father in the colonial palace that once housed Cairo University's pharmacology department. He later attended the school and became a respected pediatric surgeon. As such he would join Egypt's tiny elite, a wealthy "insider" in a country where 60 million of 70 million are "outside."
But the seed of his conversion from Cairene sophisticate to dissident cleric had been planted early. In 1966, on the cusp of Egypt's catastrophic encounter with the Israelis, 15-year-old al-Zawahiri was arrested for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group started in 1928, among other things, to rid Egypt of foreign influences. By the late 1970s, he had abandoned medicine, and had become leader of the Al-Jihad. In 1981, Al-Jihad members assassinated Anwar Sadat. Al-Zawahiri could not be directly connected to the murder, but was imprisoned and tortured, according to his uncle as reported in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat. Two years later, he recruited his followers into bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan.
Egypt's battle with its Islamic opposition has been a long one. In 1952, Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood's charismatic philosopher, had allied his group with the young Nasser. Yet by 1954, Nasser turned on the Islamists, who represented a challenge to his rule, and did so with brutality. In the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat released many Islamists, they had been slowly steeled by Nasser's ferocious jails and had become radical extremists. They emerged into a new Middle East, one that had declared Nasser's socialist, Pan-Arab experiment dead for failing to deliver the promised social justice, or unite the Arabs, or liberate Palestine. Groups like al-Zawahiri's found new patronage in Saudi Arabia, fresh from its '70s oil embargo victory and willing to spend money on anything that looked like Islam.
Osama Bin Laden's family emigrated to saudi Arabia long before the country became rich, and they were hardly patrician. His grandfather was a bricklayer, or bina'a, who lived in a small Yemeni town. "This is a very low status person in Arabian societybecause he's neither a tribesman, nor a descendant of the prophet, a saeed," said Haykel.
Osama's father, also a bina'a, left Yemen in 1920 and got his big break in construction when a British company pulled out of a major project. He became a favorite of King Saud, who knew that an immigrant with little social status would remain utterly loyal to the royal family. Osama was born in 1957 as his father was building the country's largest construction company. When his father died in a 1968 plane crash, he left millions to his sons. But what was Osama's problem with the Saudi monarchy?
"Like many immigrants, the bin Ladens tend to be hyper-nationalist to prove they belong," said Haykel. "Osama bin Laden's background is that of a Saudi citizen who fights in the name of Islam with Saudi/American backing in the '80s in Afghanistan." A year after bin Laden's 1989 return home, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He offered himself and his men for a jihad against the secular socialist Hussein, who, to bin Laden was, "a non-Muslim, an infidel," said Haykel. But the royal family said, "No, thanks." The Saudis, of course, did accept the help of the U.S.-led coalition. "This was a massive psychological blow for bin Laden," Haykel said. "His whole childhood and upbringing had been geared around the Saudi royal family and he was like a child whose glass palace shattered at that moment." And it was a disappointment bin Laden convinced many others to share.