Now that Ayman Zawahiri has assumed leadership of al-Qaeda, it is important to end the widespread perception that he is a dour intellectual who is disconnected from young, would-be jihadists. The fact is, Zawahiri is a wily, dangerous and imposing leader who should be considered no less of a threat—and perhaps even more so—than his predecessor.
Zawahiri, preaching from an Egyptian prison cell 30 years ago
Like Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Zawahiri has jihadi bona fides and served in the Afghan war against the Soviets, primarily as a physician. Moreover, Zawahiri's imprisonment and torture after the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad, which he headed, seems to have hardened him more than bin Laden. From his prison cell he memorably delivered a passionate speech—in English no less. Seeing a video of it dispels any notion that he is an uncharismatic leader.
Even so, focusing on charisma is misleading. Although charisma has its place in leadership positions in Islam, knowledge demands greater authority. After all, the guardians of Islam are called ulema—literally, "those who know." And compared with bin Laden, Zawahiri is certainly more knowledgeable. He has long been seen as the group's theoretician, and thus commands great respect.
Because I have always believed that Zawahiri was key to understanding al-Qaeda's worldview, when I compiled The Al Qaeda Reader in 2007, I included more of his writings than bin Laden's, specifically Zawahiri's three long treatises.
According to his own words, Zawahiri insists that Muslims must always harbor enmity for "infidels," or non-Muslims, particularly Jews and Christians. He advocates that Muslims feign friendship with infidels whenever it is advantageous: "We grin to the faces of some peoples, while our hearts curse them." He is a great proponent and articulator of the "superiority" of martyrdom/suicide operations and despises democracy because it creates "equality between the citizenry," allows freedom of religion and abolishes "man's domination over woman."
Zawahiri's views may be best summed up by the following passage:
Warfare against infidels, loyalty to the believers, and jihad in the path of Allah: Such is a course of action that all who are vigilant for the triumph of Islam should vie in, giving and sacrificing in the cause of liberating the lands of the Muslims, making Islam supreme in its own land, and then spreading it around the world.
Indeed, what makes Zawahiri so dangerous is his harsh and relentless dedication to jihad. Although many Islamist organizations have learned that violence isn't the best vehicle to power, Zawahiri has a long history of being a staunch upholder of the popular jihadist slogan "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues."
He wrote a long book in the early 1990s, Al Hisad Al Murr ("The Bitter Harvest"), condemning Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for taking the nonviolent course to power and actually participating in elections. It's worth noting, in retrospect, that the Brotherhood's approach has been more successful at achieving political influence.
Al Qaeda's longtime theoretician and staunch advocate of jihad takes the helm
Likewise, Zawahiri is primarily responsible for redirecting the jihadists' terror attacks from Middle East targets to the U.S. in order to foment a mass conflagration between the West and Islamists—an all or nothing strategy.
Will his severity turn off aspiring jihadists, as some analysts suggest? Perhaps. But it will make those who remain that much more committed and lethal. Moreover, numbers don't matter much when it comes to engaging in terrorism: the Sept. 11 attacks were committed by 19 jihadists.
Finally, when it comes to questioning the popularity, charisma or even efficacy of Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's new leader himself once made a relevant point. Asked about the status of bin Laden and other jihadists, Zawahiri waxed philosophically:
Jihad in the path of Allah is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between truth and falsehood, until Allah Almighty inherits the Earth and those who live in it. Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden—may Allah protect them from all evil—are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of jihad, while the struggle between truth (Islam) and falsehood (non-Islam) transcends time.
As independent jihadists increasingly take action into their own hands—whether the would-be shoe bomber and Christmas bomber, the Madrid and London bombers, or Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood army base attack—we must acknowledge that the doctrine of jihad, the idea itself, is more dangerous than the jihadists who come and go, including bin Laden and Zawahiri himself.
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum, editor/translator of The Al Qaeda Reader, and author of the al-Qaeda entry for the World Almanac of Islamism. The opinions expressed are his own.