Paul Vallely: Wounded al-Qa'ida will lash out more

Weakened by the death of Bin Laden, whose successor is a ruthless killer, the organisation is newly fired up by grievances

Share
Related Topics

If you want to see why torture doesn't work, you need look no further than Ayman al-Zawahiri who was regularly beaten in the jails of the US-backed regime in Egypt two decades ago. There, he claimed, he and his fellow prisoners were kicked, hit, hung over doors, whipped with cables, given electric shocks and had wild dogs loosed upon them. Zawahiri was a dedicated Islamist when he went into jail. By the time he came out he had been hardened into the fanatical and violent terrorist who has just succeeded Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qa'ida.

That was not the only triumph of the torturers. Using techniques which led Zawahiri to say to a fellow prisoner "the death penalty is more merciful than torture", they beat out of him information about a comrade who was then also arrested. Zawahiri felt so humiliated by being made to "destroy his movement with his own hands" and "offer colleagues' secrets to the enemy" that, guilt-ridden, he fled the country determined to avenge the betrayal that had been forced upon him. He moved to Saudi Arabia. There he met Bin Laden.

The differences between the two men offer clues on how global terrorism is may now develop. Both came from privileged backgrounds, but where the Bin Ladens were extremely wealthy from their $5bn construction business, allowing Osama bin Laden to bring vast sums of money to the al-Qa'ida cause, the Zawahiri family was known for a combination of medicine and religious scholarship.

Though Ayman al-Zawahiri grew up in a cosmopolitan part of Egypt he became deeply religious – so much so that the centre of his forehead bears a darkened callus formed by his many hours of prayerful prostration. He trained as an eye surgeon. He did not stay in Saudi long, but travelled to the northern border regions of Pakistan to work in a Red Crescent hospital treating Afghan refugees, driven from their home by the a Soviet army of occupation.

But while the Russians were the enemy, the Egyptian doctor returned to Saudi bristling with the conviction that the Americans, who were arming the Afghan mujahideen, would prove the long-term foe because of their arrogant ideology and economic dominance. Democracy, he concluded, was a form of "polytheism".

The grievances of Bin Laden, by contrast, were much more direct. When the two men met, Bin Laden, then 28, had lived a life of untrammelled wealth and pleasure, with a personal fortune of about £250m. But he had been radicalised by the suffering of Afghan Muslims and had raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the mujahideen resistance. He was concerned at the plight of the Palestinians and outraged that Saudi Arabia – home of Islam's two holiest places – was being defiled by the presence of infidel troops in US bases.

The two men did not at first see eye to eye. Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad movement in 1995 attacked the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan, a move that Bin Laden feared would jeopardise the supply route into Afghanistan. Two years later, Zawahiri organised a mass attack on one of ancient Egypt's most high-profile sites at Luxor, in which 58 tourists were machine-gunned and hacked to death. Such was the international outrage most Islamists tried to disown it.

But by 1998, the two men had formed a loose alliance under the "World Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders" umbrella, issuing a fatwa, written by Zawahiri, that ordered all Muslims to kill all Americans and their allies, civilian and military. Bin Laden had the money, but lacked the unifying theological vision. Zawahiri had that, along with a team of doctors, engineers and soldiers who were experienced covert revolutionaries. He brought to Bin Laden the notion that secular, pro-Western Arab governments were as much the enemy as the Soviets, Americans or Israelis. In 2001, the two men's organisations merged into a single entity, Qaeda al-Jihad.

Zawahiri was the organisational brain. He is believed to have been behind the 1993 assault on US troops in Somalia; the 1995 assassination attempt on Egypt's Hosni Mubarak; the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in East Africa; the 2000 attack on a US naval ship in Aden harbour; and the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001.

He pioneered the use of suicide bombers, a strategy that necessitated circumventing powerful Islamic prohibitions on suicide and the murder of innocents. He came up with the idea of bombers making videotapes on the eve of their "martyrdom". It was he who began testing biological and chemical weapons; samples of anthrax were found in his house in Afghanistan. He paid Chechen mobsters millions of dollars in cash and heroin in an attempt to obtain radiological "suitcase" bombs left over from Soviet days. In the 1990s, he travelled tirelessly through the Balkans, Austria, the former Russian republics, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Argentina and the Philippines establishing cells and setting up training camps.

Bin Laden funded all this. But fractures began to appear in al-Qa'ida. In 2005, Zawahiri issued a reprimand to the Sunni head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq for killing too many Shia Muslims and damaging the organisation's reputation in the "race for the hearts and minds" of Muslims worldwide. In 2007, when the group's military commander was killed, Zawahiri and Bin Laden quarrelled over who should succeed him. Revealingly, Zawahiri won, but Bin Laden was not happy.

In the past few years, the relationship between the al-Qa'ida leader and his deputy appears to have been strained. The CIA peddled the line that Zawahiri was the operational and strategic commander, Osama bin Laden only a figurehead. But the computers found in Bin Laden's compound show that he remained deeply involved in planning. Yet there were no clues as to the whereabouts of Zawahiri. One Saudi newspaper has even claimed that Zawahiri convinced Bin Laden to move from his mountain hideout – and then leaked his whereabouts to US intelligence.

What is clear is that relations between the al-Qa'ida organisations in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Algeria are more fragmented than before, with significant disagreements on priorities. The notion that the network can be controlled by a single leader on a day-to-day basis seems implausible. It may explain why it has taken six weeks for al-Qa'ida to announce its new leader.

All this makes al-Qa'ida look weaker but less predictable. Zawahiri may now launch a spectacular attack on the West to avenge Bin Laden's death assert his own credibility. He may revert to his old preoccupation, Egypt, particularly in the light of the Arab Spring to which he is anxious to stake a claim. He may want to focus on Yemen and Somalia which he sees as training grounds for the militants who will bring revolution to Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Or he may want to foment further discontent in Pakistan, where he has urged the people to rise up against their leaders. Al-Qa'ida may be weaker, but that might well make it even more dangerous.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Transport & Logistics Assistant

£16000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This highly regarded industry l...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Team Leader

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for a Compa...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for a Compa...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an innovative a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The small Irish town of Athenry has a special place in my heart. What might the arrival of Apple do to it?

John Walsh
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September  

Let’s face it, our free museums subsidise tourists

David Lister
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower