x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Qa'eda expected to focus regionally with al Zawahiri as chief

New chief of al Qa'eda will probably focus more on Middle East as he seeks to revive the influence of the group in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, a leading former prison-mate says.

Osama bin Laden, left, sitting with his then deputy Ayman al Zawahiri at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in a picture issued in November 2001. EPA /AUSAF NEWSPAPER / HANDOUT
Osama bin Laden, left, sitting with his then deputy Ayman al Zawahiri at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in a picture issued in November 2001. EPA /AUSAF NEWSPAPER / HANDOUT

CAIRO // Ayman al Zawahiri, who was announced as the new chief of al Qa'eda yesterday, will probably focus more on the Middle East as he seeks to revive the influence of the militant group in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death, a leading Islamist lawyer and former prison-mate of al Zawahiri said.

Montasser el Zayat, the Egyptian lawyer who has also written a book about his relationship with al Zawahiri, said: "I felt from the statements given by Mr al Zawahiri recently that he is going back to the old basis from which he first launched his actions. It is evident that he wants to communicate with all the Arab revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries about toppling regimes."

Mr el Zayat, who spent three years in prison with al Zawahiri after they were arrested as part of a sweep of Islamists following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, said that al Zawahiri's philosophy was originally focused on the "un-Islamic" regimes of the Middle East and North Africa. It was bin Laden's more grandiose ideas about "striking the snake on the head" that inspired him to join in the battle against the Western superpowers, such as the United States.

"He used to say that liberation of Jerusalem starts from Cairo," Mr el Zayat said. "This could be a possible focus for him."

In a video eulogy for bin Laden released earlier this month, al Zawahiri vowed to fight the United States and its allies to "expel the invaders from the land of Islam".

But more importantly, he linked the al Qa'eda cause to the uprisings across the region, calling on Muslims "to rise up and continue the struggle, persistence and devotion until all the corrupt and oppressive regimes imposed by the West are gone".

Al Qa'eda released a statement on a website yesterday that identified al Zawahiri - long identified as the second-in-command of the group - as the new head of the terrorist organisation. The move was widely expected and comes two months after US special forces killed bin Laden in an early morning raid on his compound in Pakistan.

"The general command of al Qa'eda announces, after consultations, the appointment of Sheikh Ayman al Zawahri as head of the group," the statement said. "We seek with the aid of God to call for the religion of truth and incite our nation to fight," the statement said.

Western intelligence analysts have said that al Zawahiri, who will turn 60 next week, is believed to be operating from somewhere near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Born into an upper middle class Egyptian family, he was trained as a surgeon in Cairo. He became immersed in Islamic radicalism and rose to become the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that was later merged into al Qa'eda in 1998.

bhope@thenational.ae