19 March 2004

---Not As Cold-Blooded As You Might Have Suspected

As I write this, newswires are piling up reports about Pakistan authorities cornering Osama bin Laden's top strategist and second-in-command in a mud fort on the wild Afghan frontier of Waziristan, one of the most remote parts of the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, 52, stands taller than anyone else in the Al Qaeda terrorism organization. Experts say he is the real ideological driving force in Al Qaeda and that his capture or killing would do more to cripple the organization than would the apprehension or death of Osama bin Laden himself. He is Bin Laden's right-hand man and top planner for Al Qaeda. He is America's second-most-wanted man and wears a $25 million FBI bounty on his head.

His capture and that of Osama Bin Laden would look good on Dubya's profile especially now that he is seeking reelection. But before I end up digressing and hitting Dubya again, I would like to provide you about some personal details about Zawahiri you probably do not know:

- Zawahiri was the son of a Cairo University pharmacology professor and the grandson of a president of that prestigious university.

- he is an introverted bookworm and stood out early as particularly devout for his age.

- he was an adolescent when Egypt was in the grips of a revolution, and began his career as a radical at age 15 by joining the Muslim Brotherhood, a group devoted to purging Egypt of foreign influences and elevating Islam as the law of the land. This same group also served as the seed for the dozens of militant Muslim groups that have since sprung up around the world.

- he went to medical school and studied to become a surgeon.

- he is so religiously devout as a Muslim that he developed calluses on his forehead, noted only on the most observant Muslims, who touch their heads to the ground during prayer.

- after graduating from medical school, he married Azza Nowair, a well-schooled daughter of two lawyers who shocked her upper-class family by choosing to wear the veil of Muslim women. They have five daughters and one son.

- he founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a radical operation that for 20 years was one of the loudest proponents of violence and accused of the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

- in 1982, Zawahiri organized a defiant protest with his fellow defendants, proclaiming themselves holy warriors. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

- in the late 80s, Zawahiri went to Afghanistan to treat the Islamic wounded in the war with the Soviet Union. There, he met Osama Bin Laden, who then was focused solely on the battle to oust the Soviet invaders. He has since served as Bin Laden's doctor, treating him for low blood pressure and assorted ailments.

- Zawahiri and Bin Laden grew so close that they shared sleeping quarters. Zawahiri saw him as a charismatic front man for jihad, and worked to broaden bin Laden's perspective, persuading him that religious holy war was needed worldwide to bring Islam to its proper place of dominance. In the early 1990s, the effort to build a global al Qaeda network began in earnest.

- since then, Zawahiri has served as chief organizer and logistical mover for the loose network, setting up cells, buying weapons and arranging false passports. He was an early pioneer of suicide-bombing techniques and implemented a system of information and planning compartmentalization that left just him and Bin Laden privy to full knowledge of al Qaeda workings.

After the New York City and Pentagon attacks, Zawahiri and Osama fled into the mountains of Afghanistan. U.S. military leaders say they believe Zawahiri's wife and some of their children were killed in a pitched barrage of bombs on a network of caves near Jalalabad, but have no official confirmation.

Plenty of rumors have swirled in the region that Zawahiri and Bin Laden were in one village or another, or that one or the other of them had died, or that they were close to being captured...until the news today that Zawahiri has been cornered.

You would think that the person(s) masterminding terroristic attacks that have killed thousands would probably be purely psychotic and criminal. More than meets the eye, as the cliche goes.

All those deaths, all those senseless killings, the purpose of which was, and is, the complete transformation of everyone to become Islamic radicals seem to me a disproportionate reason to pursue such a goal.

I hope Dubya's boys capture him.

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