Keeping Al-Qaeda in His Grip
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 16, 2006
CAIRO -- In January 2003, one of the two most wanted men in the world couldn't contain his frustration. From a hiding place probably somewhere in South Asia, he tapped out two lengthy e-mails to a fellow Egyptian who'd been criticizing him in public.
"I beg you, don't stop the Muslim souls who trust your opinions from joining the jihad against the Americans," wrote Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al-Qaeda. He fired off the message even though it risked exposing him.
"Let's put it this way: Tensions had been building up between us for a long time," explained the e-mail's recipient, Montasser el-Zayat, a Cairo lawyer who shared a prison cell with Zawahiri in the 1980s and provided this account. "He always thinks he is right, even if he is alone."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zawahiri has broadcast his views to the world relentlessly. Despite a $25 million price on his head, he has published memoirs, given interviews and recorded a dozen speeches that find their way to the Internet and television. Video of a speech was posted Thursday on a Web site.
Zawahiri's visibility, eclipsing Osama bin Laden's, reminds al-Qaeda's enemies that the network is capable of more attacks. But a closer look at his speeches and writings, and interviews with several longtime associates in radical Islamic circles, suggest another motive: fear of losing his ideological grip over a revolutionary movement he has nurtured for 40 years.
The success of the Sept. 11 hijackings temporarily united al-Qaeda's feuding factions under the leadership of bin Laden and Zawahiri. But now long-standing ideological and tactical disputes have resurfaced, according to analysts and former Zawahiri associates.
The schisms are reflected in Zawahiri's many speeches, in which he has attempted to assert influence over a host of seemingly unrelated issues: the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, elections in Egypt, oil production in Saudi Arabia and obscure questions of Muslim theology.
He is risking his credibility among Islamic radicals by speaking out on so many subjects, according to Osama Rushdi, an Egyptian who spent three years in a Cairo prison with Zawahiri in the 1980s and now lives in exile in Britain.
"He's trying to stay in control and give the impression that he's behind everything in the Middle East and everywhere else, fighting against the Americans in Iraq and against Britain in Europe," Rushdi said in an interview. "He is trying to take responsibility as a leader for what is going on in Iraq. But he knows, and everyone knows, that that is not true, that he has nothing to do with anything in Iraq."
Al-Qaeda was founded as a decentralized coalition of Islamic extremists. That structure has complicated efforts by intelligence services to penetrate the network. But the lack of clear chains of command also can make it difficult for leaders to maintain control.
Terrorism analysts said that with the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda unleashed events that are now largely outside of its control. With Zawahiri and bin Laden in hiding, most likely in Pakistan, new leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq have emerged as potential rivals who follow their own script. Others have launched attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, sometimes in the name of al-Qaeda but usually as independent operators with their own agendas.
"What they've started has taken on a momentum of its own," said Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Obviously, this is a global movement. And it has global support, and it can't be controlled centrally as much as perhaps they'd like it to be. It's almost as if Zawahiri doesn't want to be left behind. They don't want the events on the ground to supersede them."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company