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Pakistan: Though Lesser Known, Al-Zawahri Is A Top Figure In Al-Qaeda

Al-Zawahri (Left) with Osama bin Laden in October 2001 (epa) Pakistani troops are engaged in fierce fighting with suspected Al-Qaeda militants and local tribesmen in the remote South Waziristan region. They are believed to be protecting a senior Al-Qaeda leader there, whom some military officials are reported as identifying as Ayman al-Zawahri, the organization's No. 2 authority. Though al-Zawahri is lesser known than Al-Qaeda's reputed leader, Osama bin Laden, some observers say the deputy is just as powerful as the chief.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It was a chilling message. Late last month, the Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera broadcast what it said was a warning to U.S. President George W. Bush.

"Bush, change your priorities, strengthen your defenses, and toughen your security measures. For the Muslim nation, which sent you the legion to New York and Washington [on 11 September 2001], has determined to send you legion after legion seeking death and paradise."

A CIA analysis concluded the audiotaped voice was likely that of Al-Qaeda’s number-two authority, Ayman al-Zawahri -- the man now speculated to be the focus a search by Pakistan troops, now engaged in fierce fighting with Al-Qaeda militants near the border with Afghanistan. Al-Zawahri may be among the few people in the world with the audacity to issue so bold a threat on behalf of what he calls the "Muslim nation."

Western authorities often refer to al-Zawahri as the world's second-most-wanted terrorist, after Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, whom he serves as chief aide. Some experts even suggest that an organization founded by al-Zawahri and later merged with Al-Qaeda, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, in fact took control of Al-Qaeda -- making al-Zawahri bin Laden's equal.

Born In Egypt

Al-Zawahri was born in Egypt in 1951 to a prominent family -- his mother's forebears claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad. He first surfaced in Egyptian police records when he was just 15, arrested for membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization.

Al-Zawahri later completed medical school at Cairo University, but from there his career path appeared to veer toward Islamic activism. Accused of collusion in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he stood trial and was eventually imprisoned for illegal arms possession.

From then on, he surfaced from time to time in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Russia. He practiced medicine in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1970s and 80s. The U.S. State Department in 1997 listed him as a leader of the Vanguards of Conquest, a faction of the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

Rise To Power

His prominence became unmistakable a year later, when bin Laden issued the now-notorious fatwa, or religious command, calling for attacks on the United States. Ayman al-Zawahri's signature appeared immediately after bin Laden's. He is widely believed to have participated in the planning of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.

Since then, al-Zawahri's whereabouts have been largely unknown. But his voice apparently surfaced internationally more than once last month. Another Arab TV channel, Al-Arabiyah, broadcast a recording of a voice attributed to al-Zawahri denouncing France's decision to ban Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools. The speaker believed to be al-Zawahri expresses incredulity that the French government would strip Muslim girls of a traditional garment signifying modesty.

"France is a country of freedom that defends the freedom to be naked and to be corrupt and to be depraved, [yet] fights modesty and being covered. In France, you are free to show yourself, but you are not free to be covered," the speaker said.

Whereabouts Unknown

Many Western experts believe that al-Zawahri was in Afghanistan when it fell to U.S. invaders in 2001. Some reports say that he has controlled much of Al-Qaeda's financing operations since. Al-Zawahri is now believed to be the prey in a massive military battle under way in Pakistan's South Waziristan region.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday evening told CNN that a "high-value target" had "very likely" been surrounded in South Waziristan. But he and other Pakistani officials have refused to confirm the target is al-Zawahri. Pakistani military officials say 7,000 troops are in the area.

Afghanistan has also sent hundreds of extra troops to its border with Pakistan to prevent any Al-Qaeda militants from attempting to escape the military onslaught.