The world’s two most sought after men have traveled a long road from being sons of privilege to mujahideen veterans of the Afghan war against the soviets to being hunted down in caves by satellites, helicopters, daisy cutters, and cameras. The emir, Osama Bin Laden, and his lieutenant and vaunted successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have shared a zeal that has brought the world to their door. Their different stories may shed light on why their capture or death may not end the threat.
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 society—because 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.
At the same time it was becoming clear that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were largely dependent on Western nations and institutions for survival, and neither had made a real acknowledgement of political opposition. Combine this with the fact that almost all non-oil-producing Arab countries have staggering unemployment, and the resulting anger is predictable.
Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said, “You see a sense of desperation and hopelessness among people who think, ‘I’m going to be unemployed for my entire life.’ ” Many Islamic groups sought to ease this load, but others saw an opportunity.
So they provided clothes, food, services, and a message to the urban poor and to students in bursting public universities. “Human designed systems,” said Sayyid Qutb in a thinly veiled stab at socialism and capitalism, caused “human suffering.” The path of Islam, he said, “is easy and lenient.” Sadat’s assassin put it more succinctly. “I am Khalid al-Islambouli!” he is reported to have shouted while spraying Sadat and everyone around him with bullets. “I have killed Pharaoh!”
Haykel claims that the extremist ideology is rooted in Islam’s Salafi movement, “which is literal in its interpretation of the scriptures, which rejects the entire medieval legacy of interpretation, and which only draws on one or two figures from the whole corpus of Islamic law and theology,” he said. But Salafiyya (from the Arabic words translating as “the venerable forefathers”) describes a wide range of minority Islamic movements: from those who struggled to bring Islam and liberal Western democracy closer together, to those who would install Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East. It also includes figures as divergent as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Qutb and Mohammed Abdou, a 19th-century Egyptian humanist. But though Haykel allows that the extremists “are as much a threat to the Arab world as they are to the West,” he simply calls for regimes to stop funding “this type of Salafism” and “teaching that all the problems of the Muslim world have to do with outsiders.”
“I don’t agree with that,” said Talal Asad. “It doesn’t relate specifically to Islam. The ideological component has to be understood and [the extremists] are infused, but what exactly are they infused with? If there is something intrinsic in Salafi ideology, then you would expect, if not everybody who is a Salafi to be a potential terrorist, then at least all terrorists to be of Salafi origin. Religion takes that form due to various contingent circumstances, which [include] the CIA’s various policies in the Middle East, the Saudi government not wanting to offend Americans, etcetera.” And U.S. involvement in the Arab world has not been of the simple pro-democracy, human rights sort, especially when it comes to Islamic political parties.
“The Islamists present a utopian vision,” Haykel said. No Islamic group has achieved significant power in an Arab country, so their theories on governance remain largely untested. “The only way that it can burst is if they come to power and show that they don’t have the answers to the fundamental questions facing society,” he said.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have seized on the desperation of the Arab world, cloaked their edenic “solution” in faith, and set a massive trap in the wreckage near Wall Street. Bombing Afghanistan to hell might feel like catharsis, but the threat is elsewhere, and it won’t go away with the emir and his lieutenant.