The Man Behind bin Laden
In March 2002, a band of horsemen journeyed through the province of Paktika, in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. Predator drones were circling the skies and American troops were sweeping through the mountains. The war had begun six months earlier, and by now the fighting had narrowed down to the ragged eastern edge of the country. Regional warlords had been bought off, the borders supposedly sealed. For twelve days, American and Coalition forces had been bombing the nearby Shah-e-Kot Valley and systematically destroying the cave complexes in the al-Qaeda stronghold. And yet the horsemen were riding unhindered toward Pakistan.
They came to the village of a local militia commander named Gula Jan, whose long beard and black turban might have signaled that he was a Taliban sympathizer. “I saw a heavy, older man, an Arab, who wore dark glasses and had a white turban,” Jan said four days later. “He was dressed like an Afghan, but he had a beautiful coat, and he was with two other Arabs who had masks on.” The man in the beautiful coat dismounted and began talking in a polite and humorous manner. He asked Jan and an Afghan companion about the location of American and Northern Alliance troops. “We are afraid we will encounter them,” he said. “Show us the right way.”
While the men were talking, Jan slipped away to examine a poster that had been dropped into the area by American airplanes. It showed a photograph of a man in a white turban and glasses. His face was broad and meaty, with a strong, prominent nose and full lips. His untrimmed beard was gray at the temples and ran in milky streaks below his chin. On his high forehead, framed by the swaths of his turban, was a darkened callus formed by many hours of prayerful prostration. His eyes reflected the sort of decisiveness one might expect in a medical man, but they also showed a measure of serenity that seemed oddly out of place. Jan was looking at a wanted poster for Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had a price of $25 million on his head.
Jan returned to the conversation. The man he now believed to be Zawahiri said to him, “May God bless you and keep you from the enemies of Islam. Try not to tell them where we came from and where we are going.”
There was a telephone number on the wanted poster, but Gula Jan did not have a phone. Zawahiri and the masked Arabs disappeared into the mountains.
in june of 2001, two terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamist group al-Jihad, formally merged into one. The name of the new entity—Qaeda al-Jihad—reflects the long and interdependent history of these two groups. Although Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, was the public face of Islamic terrorism, the members of al-Jihad and its guiding figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri, provided the backbone of the larger organization’s leadership and was responsible for much of the planning of the terrorist operations against the United States, from the assault on American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, and the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri were bound to discover each other among the radical Islamists who were drawn to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. For one thing, both were very much modern men. Bin Laden, who was in his early twenties, was already an international businessman; Zawahiri, six years older, was a surgeon from a notable Egyptian family. They were both members of the educated classes, intensely pious, quiet-spoken, and politically stifled by the regimes in their own countries. Each man filled a need in the other. Bin Laden, an idealist with vague political ideas, sought direction, and Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it. “Bin Laden had followers, but they weren’t organized,” recalls Essam Deraz, an Egyptian filmmaker who made several documentaries about the Soviet-Afghan War. “The people with Zawahiri had extraordinary capabilities—doctors, engineers, soldiers. They had experience in secret work. They knew how to organize themselves and create cells. And they became the leaders.”
The goal of al-Jihad was to overthrow the civil government of Egypt and impose a theocracy that might eventually become a model for the entire Arab world; however, years of guerrilla warfare had left the group shattered and bankrupt. For Zawahiri, bin Laden was a savior—rich and generous, with nearly limitless resources, but also pliable and politically unformed. “Bin Laden had an Islamic frame of reference, but he didn’t have anything against the Arab regimes,” Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer for many of the Islamists, told me. “When Ayman met bin Laden, he created a revolution inside him.”
five miles south of the chaos of Cairo is a quiet middle-class suburb called Maadi. A consortium of Egyptian Jewish financiers, intending to create a kind of English village amid the mango and guava plantations and Bedouin settlements on the eastern bank of the Nile, began selling lots in the first decade of the twentieth century. The developers regulated everything, from the height of the garden fences to the color of the shutters on the grand villas that lined the streets. They planted eucalyptus trees to repel flies and mosquitoes, and gardens to perfume the air with the fragrance of roses and jasmine and bougainvillea. Many of the early settlers were British military officers and civil servants, whose wives started garden clubs and literary salons; they were followed by Jewish families, who by the end of the Second World War made up nearly a third of Maadi’s population. After the war, Maadi evolved into a community of expatriate Europeans, American businessmen and missionaries, and a certain type of Egyptian—typically one who spoke French at dinner and followed the cricket matches.
The center of this cosmopolitan community was the Maadi Sporting Club. Founded at a time when Egypt was occupied by the British, the club was unusual for admitting not only Jews but Egyptians. Community business was often conducted on the all-sand eighteen-hole golf course, with the Giza Pyramids and the palmy Nile as a backdrop. As high tea was served to the British in the lounge, Nubian waiters bearing icy glasses of Nescafé glided among the pashas and princesses sunbathing at the pool. High-stepping flamingos waded through the lilies in the garden pond. The Maadi Club became an ideal expression of the founders’ vision of Egypt—sophisticated, safe, secular, and ethnically diverse, though still married to British notions of class.
The careful regulations could not withstand the pressure of Cairo’s burgeoning population, and in the late 1960s another Maadi took root. “We called its residents the ‘Road 9 crowd,’ ” Samir Raafat, a journalist who has written a history of the suburb, told me. “It was very much ‘them’ and ‘us.’ ” Road 9 runs beside train tracks that separate the tony side of Maadi from the baladi district—the native part of town. Here donkey carts clop along unpaved streets past peanut vendors and yam salesmen hawking their wares and fly-studded carcasses hanging in butcher shops. There is also, on this side of town, a narrow slice of the middle class, composed mainly of teachers and low-level bureaucrats who were drawn to the suburb by the cleaner air and the dream of crossing the tracks and being welcomed into the club.
In 1960, Dr. Rabie al-Zawahiri and his wife, Umayma, moved from Heliopolis to Maadi. Rabie and Umayma belonged to two of the most prominent families in Egypt. The Zawahiri (pronounced za-wah-iri) clan was creating a medical dynasty. Rabie was a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University in Cairo. His brother was a highly regarded dermatologist and an expert on venereal diseases. The tradition they established continued into the next generation; a 1995 obituary in a Cairo newspaper for one of their relatives, Kashif al-Zawahiri, mentioned forty-six members of the family, thirty-one of whom were doctors or chemists or pharmacists; among the others were an ambassador, a judge, and a member of parliament.
The Zawahiri name, however, was associated above all with religion. In 1929, Rabie’s uncle Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri became the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old university in the heart of Old Cairo, which is still the center of Islamic learning in the Middle East. The leader of that institution enjoys a kind of papal status in the Muslim world, and Imam Mohammed is still remembered as one of the university’s great modernizers. Rabie’s father and grandfather were Al-Azhar scholars as well.
Umayma Azzam, Rabie’s wife, was from a clan that was equally distinguished but wealthier and also a little notorious. Her father, Dr. Abd al-Wahab Azzam, was the president of Cairo University and the founder and director of King Saud University, in Riyadh. He had also served at various times as the Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Another relative was secretary-general of the Arab League. “From the first parliament, more than a hundred and fifty years ago, there have been Azzams in government,” Umayma’s uncle Mahfouz Azzam, who is an attorney in Maadi, told me. “And we were always in the opposition.” Mahfouz was a fervent Egyptian nationalist in his youth. “I was in prison when I was fifteen years old,” he said proudly. “They condemned me for making what they called a ‘coup d’état.’ ” In 1945, Mahfouz was arrested again, in a roundup of militants after the assassination of Prime Minister Ahmad Mahir. “I myself was going to do what Ayman has done,” he said.
Despite their pedigrees, Rabie and Umayma settled into an apartment on Street 100, on the baladi side of the tracks. Later, they rented a duplex at No. 10, Street 154, near the train station. High society held no interest for them. At a time when public displays of religious zeal were rare—and in Maadi almost unheard of—the couple was religious but not overtly pious. Umayma went about unveiled. There were more churches than mosques in the neighborhood, and a thriving synagogue.
Children quickly filled the Zawahiri home. The first, Ayman and a twin sister, Umnya, were born on June 19, 1951. The twins were extremely bright, and were at the top of their classes all the way through medical school. A younger sister, Heba, also became a doctor. The two other children, Mohammed and Hussein, trained as architects.
Obese, bald, and slightly cross-eyed, Rabie al-Zawahiri had a reputation as being eccentric and absentminded, and yet he was beloved by his students and by the neighborhood children. He spent most of his time in the laboratory or in his private medical clinic. Professor Zawahiri’s research occasionally took him to Czechoslovakia, at a time when few Egyptians traveled, because of currency restrictions. He always returned laden with toys for the children. He sometimes found time to take them to the movies at the Maadi Sporting Club, which were open for nonmembers. Young Ayman loved the cartoons and Disney films, which played three nights a week on an outdoor screen. In the summer, the family went to a beach in Alexandria. Life on a professor’s salary was constricted, especially with five ambitious children to educate. The Zawahiris never owned a car until Ayman was out of medical school. To economize, the Zawahiris kept hens behind the house for fresh eggs, and the professor bought oranges and mangoes by the crate, which he pressed upon the children as a natural source of vitamin C.
Umayma Azzam was a wonderful cook, famous for her kunafa—a pastry of shredded phyllo filled with cheese and nuts and drenched in orange-blossom syrup. She inherited several substantial plots of farmland in Giza and the Fayyum Oasis from her father, which provided her with a modest income. Ayman and his mother shared a love of literature. “She always memorized the poems that Ayman sent her,” Mahfouz Azzam told me. Although Ayman maintained the Zawahiri medical tradition, he was actually closer in temperament to his mother’s side of the family. “The Zawahiris are professors and scientists, and they hate to speak of politics,” Azzam said. “Ayman told me that his love of medicine was probably inherited. But politics was also in his genes.”
for anyone living in Maadi in the fifties and sixties, there was one defining social standard: membership in the Maadi Sporting Club. “The whole activity of Maadi revolved around the club,” Samir Raafat, the historian of the suburb, told me one afternoon as he drove me around the neighborhood. “If you were not a member, why even live in Maadi?” The Zawahiris never joined, which meant that Ayman would be curtained off from the center of power and status. “He wasn’t mainstream Maadi; he was totally marginal Maadi,” Raafat said. “The Zawahiris were a conservative family. You would never see them in the club, holding hands, playing bridge. We called them saidis. Literally, the word refers to someone from a district in Upper Egypt, but we use it to mean something like ‘hick.’ ”
At one end of Maadi, surrounded by green playing fields and tennis courts, is Victoria College, a private British-built preparatory school for boys. The students attended classes in coats and ties. One of its best-known graduates was a talented cricket player named Michel Chalhub; after he became a film actor, he took the name Omar Sharif. Edward Said, the Palestinian scholar and author, attended the school, along with Jordan’s future king, Hussein.
Zawahiri, however, attended the state secondary school, a modest low-slung building behind a green gate, on the opposite side of the suburb. “It was the hoodlum school, the other end of the social spectrum,” Raafat told me. The students of the two schools existed in different worlds, never meeting each other even in sports. Whereas Victoria College measured itself by European standards, the state school had its back to the West. Inside the green gate, the schoolyard was run by bullies and the classrooms by tyrants. A physically vulnerable young boy such as Ayman had to create strategies to survive.
Ayman’s childhood pictures show him with a round face, a wary gaze, and a flat and unsmiling mouth. He was a bookworm and hated contact sports—he thought they were “inhumane,” according to his uncle Mahfouz. From an early age, he was devout, and he often attended prayers at the Hussein Sidki Mosque, an unimposing annex of a large apartment building; the mosque was named after a famous actor who renounced his profession because it was ungodly. No doubt Ayman’s interest in religion seemed natural in a family with so many distinguished religious scholars, but it added to his image of being soft and otherworldly.
Although Ayman was an excellent student, he often seemed to be daydreaming in class. “He was a mysterious character, closed and introverted,” Zaki Mohammed Zaki, a Cairo journalist who was a classmate of his, told me. “He was extremely intelligent, and all the teachers respected him. He had a very systematic way of thinking, like that of an older guy. He could understand in five minutes what it would take other students an hour to understand. I would call him a genius.”
Copyright © 2016 by Lawrence Wright. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.