Making of a jihadi mastermind: The elusive Dr Zawahiri

zawahriWhen a US air strike hit the family residence of Azza Ahmed in December 2001, she, along with her three children, were killed. Al Qaeda fighters in Gardez, Afghanistan, feared that the strikes may have also killed their foremost ideologue: Ayman Muhammad Rabi al-Zawahiri.

Speculation swirled amid conflicting claims about the fate of the 1951-born former eye surgeon from Egypt. But Zawahiri survived. His has always been a life of miraculous escapes.

In 1981 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, al Zawahiri was among the hundreds arrested. He was not charged with plotting assassination, but was convicted on weapons charges. Imprisoned, beaten, and tortured, he is said to have given the whereabouts of another Islamist.

The pain of torture and the shame of betrayal during his three years of prison hardened Zawahiri’s view on the inhumanity of secular governments, says Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who was imprisoned with Zawahiri, in his book Ayman al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him.

Zawahiri left prison with his commitments firmly placed on the Islamist cause. But it was not until 1985 that his tryst with the Indian subcontinent began. That year, Zawahiri worked as a surgeon at a Red Cross hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan. He also travelled to Afghanistan to support the mujahideen fighting the Soviets.

Bin Laden’s apprentice

It was in Afghanistan and Pakistan that his relationship with Osama bin Laden matured grew. And in 2001, Zawahiri’s organisation Egyptian Islamic Jihad merged with bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

The two complemented each other. Bin Laden, was a popular but politically naïve cult figure while Zawahiri was an intellectual type, who knew how to drum up the call of jihad.

Zawahiri provided bin Laden’s organisation much-needed intellectual sophistication.  The Egyptian recruits he brought with him helped reinforce the organisation’s commitment to an Islamic state. Of the nine-member leadership council, six were Egyptians.

Why India

It was also after meeting Osama bin Laden that Zawahiri shifted his focus on India. Bin Laden had called on his fighter to wage jihad against injustices towards Muslims in Kashmir and Assam in 1996, this message was later picked up by Zawahiri.  In 2001 in a manifesto written by him, he claimed that his cadre had “revived a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.”

Again, in September 2003, Zawahiri invoked India to warn Pakistanis that President General Pervez Musharraf would “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.”

Reports suggest that Zawahiri’s Egyptian jihadi circle was at odds with jihadi circles in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, forcing him to find alliances in Afghanistan and Pakistan where he developed close friendship with Pakistani Jihadi fighter like Fakir Muhammad, who was arrested in 2013.

His closeness with Pakistani jihadists also helped bring India, and especially Kashmir, within the radar of global Jihad.

But by 2006 Zawahiri was a wanted man. After the 9/11 attacks the US government had declared a $25 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Yet the wily Zahawiri has managed to avoid capture.  That year, while in Damadola, Pakistan Zawahiri escaped death once more, after a CIA-led missile targeting him killed 18 other people.

A long-time lieutenant of bin Laden, he was made amir (supreme leader) of the Al Qaeda in June 2011 after bin Laden’s death.

By the time Zawahiri took charge of the organisation, Al Qaeda had changed its working style. With its limited capability to launch major strike against the ‘far enemy’, the United States, it was reported that it now work with regional and local organisation in places like India.

In a speech in 2012, Zawahiri urged Muslims to unite and liberate ‘Muslim lands’, including those in Indian-administered Kashmir, from ‘infidel’ occupiers.

The September 4 announcement of the formation of the “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” comes at a time when global Islamic jihad itself in is a flux.  In his first videotape in over a year, Zawahiri said Al Qaeda has not forgotten injustices and oppressions suffered by Muslims “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir” and called on the group to “break all borders created by Britain in India” and “raise the flag of jihad” across the subcontinent.

This focus on the subcontinent, experts say, is due to many  factors. First, in the last few years Al Qaeda has conceded political space to the ISIS in West Asia, forcing it to look towards South Asia. Second, Indian Muslims have become more radicalised in the past few decades, making it a perfect place for recruitment. Third, the leadership of AQIS and the Al Qaeda itself is shifting towards Pakistan.

A major cause of concern for intelligence agencies is the growing linkages between local terror organisations like the Indian Mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen, and Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan and the Al Qaeda.

With the Islamic State, and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the limelight, both in terms of media coverage and its ability to recruit more people, the speech is seen as a desperate bid to proclaim Al Qaeda’s relevance.

Zawahiri’s focus on the Indian subcontinent will test the resolve of the Indian government and the capability of the intelligence agencies. Tackling the challenge posed by him will entail enhanced cooperation between intelligence agencies of the various countries in the region.

The Al Qaeda leader, while managing to avoid capture is under immense internal pressure. His latest warning to the sub-continent should provide the governments of the region to reinvigorate efforts for his capture. If countries do manage to ‘take him out’ Al Qaeda will be weakened still.

Where is Zawahiri?

But where is this elusive jihadi? Since there is no consensus of where he might be — he may be hiding in any jihadi havens around the globe –capturing him is quite a challenge. But when the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India in 2012, she narrowed the option to one.

“There are several significant leaders still on the run”, said Clinton, “Zawahiri is somewhere, we believe, in Pakistan.”