For years, Osama bin Laden’s charisma kept al-Qaeda’s ranks filled with zealous recruits.
However, it was the strategic thinking and the organizational skills of his Egyptian right-hand man that kept the terror network together after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and pushed al-Qaeda out.
With bin Laden killed, Ayman al-Zawahri becomes the top candidate for the world’s top terror job.
It’s too early to tell how exactly al-Qaeda would change with its founder and supreme mentor gone, but the group under al--Zawahri would likely be further radicalized, unleashing a new wave of attacks to avenge bin Laden’s killing by US troops in Pakistan yesterday to send a message that it’s business as usual.
Unlike bin Laden who found his jihadist calling as an adult, al-Zawahri’s activism began when he was in his mid-teens, establishing his first secret cell of high school students to oppose the government of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat he viewed as infidel for not following the rule of God.
The doors of jihad opened for him when, as a young doctor, a visitor came to him with an offer to travel to Afghanistan to treat Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces. His 1980 trip to the Afghan war zone — only a few months long, but the first of many — opened his eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.
The bond between al-Zawahri and bin Laden began in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated the Saudi millionaire-turned-jihadist in Afghanistan’s caves as Soviet bombardment shook the mountains around them. The friendship laid the foundation for al-Qaeda.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon made bin Laden enemy No. 1 to the US, but he likely could never have carried it out without al-Zawahri. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with the charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought the ideological fire, tactics and organizational skills needed to forge disparate militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
“Al-Zawahri was always bin Laden’s mentor, bin Laden always looked up to him,” terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University said.
Al-Zawahri ensured al-Qaeda’s survival, rebuilding its leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.