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Volume 2, No. 10 - March 2003

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Ayman al-Zawahiri - THE MAN BEHIND BIN LADEN
How an Egyptian doctor became a master of terror.

In 1950, the year before Ayman al-Zawahiri was born, Sayyid Qutb, a well-known literary critic in Cairo, returned home after spending two years at Colorado State College of Education, in Greeley. He had left Cairo as a secular writer who enjoyed a sinecure in the Ministry of Education. One of his early discoveries was a young writer named Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. "Qutb was our friend," Mahfouz recalled recently in Cairo. "When I was growing up, he was the first critic to recognize me." Mahfouz, who has been unable to write since 1994, when he was stabbed and nearly killed by Islamic fundamentalists, told me that before Qutb went to America he was at odds with many of the sheikhs, who he thought were "out of date." According to Mahfouz, Qutb saw himself as part of the modern age, and he wore his religion lightly. His great passion was Egyptian nationalism, and, perhaps because of his strident opposition to the British occupation, the Ministry of Education decided that he would be safer in America.

Qutb had studied American literature and popular culture; the United States, in contrast with the European powers, seemed to him and other Egyptian nationalists to be a friendly neutral power and a democratic ideal. In Colorado, however, Qutb encountered a postwar America unlike the one he had found in books and seen in Hollywood films. "It is astonishing to realize, despite his advanced education and his perfectionism, how primitive the American really is in his views on life," Qutb wrote upon his return to Egypt. "His behavior reminds us of the era of the caveman. He is primitive in the way he lusts after power, ignoring ideals and manners and principles." Qutb was impressed by the number of churches in America—there were more than twenty in Greeley alone—and yet the Americans he met seemed completely uninterested in spiritual matters. He was appalled to witness a dance in a church recreation hall, during which the minister, setting the mood for the couples, dimmed the lights and played "Baby, It's Cold Outside." "It is difficult to differentiate between a church and any other place that is set up for entertainment, or what they call in their language, 'fun,' " he wrote. The American was primitive in his art as well. "Jazz is his preferred music, and it is created by Negroes to satisfy their love of noise and to whet their sexual desires," he concluded. He even complained about his haircuts: "Whenever I go to a barber I return home and redo my hair with my own hands."

Qutb returned to Egypt a radically changed man. In what he saw as the spiritual wasteland of America, he re-created himself as a militant Muslim, and he came back to Egypt with the vision of an Islam that would throw off the vulgar influences of the West. Islamic society had to be purified, and the only mechanism powerful enough to cleanse it was the ancient and bloody instrument of jihad. "Qutb was the most prominent theoretician of the fundamentalist movements," Zawahiri later wrote in a brief memoir entitled "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," which first appeared in serial form, in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, in December, 2001. "Qutb said, 'Brother push ahead, for your path is soaked in blood. Do not turn your head right or left but look only up to Heaven.' "

Egypt was already in the midst of a revolution. The Society of Muslim Brothers, the oldest and most influential fundamentalist group in Egypt, instigated an uprising against the British, whose lingering occupation of the Suez Canal zone enraged the nationalists. In January, 1952, in response to the British massacre of fifty Egyptian policemen, mobs organized by the Muslim Brothers in Cairo set fire to movie theatres, casinos, department stores, night clubs, and automobile showrooms, which, in their view, represented an Egypt that had tied its future to the West. At least thirty people were killed, seven hundred and fifty buildings were destroyed, and twelve thousand people were made homeless. The dream of a cosmopolitan metropolis ended, and the foreign community began to leave. In July of that year, a military junta, dominated by an Army colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, packed King Farouk onto his yacht and seized control of the government, without firing a shot. According to several fellow-conspirators who later wrote about the event, Nasser secretly promised the Brothers that he would impose Sharia—the rule of Islamic law—on the country.

A power struggle developed immediately between the leaders of the revolution, who had the Army behind them, and the Muslim Brothers, who had a large presence in the mosques. Neither faction had the popular authority to rule, but, as Nasser imposed martial law and eliminated political parties, the contest narrowed to a choice between a military society and a religious one, either of which would have been rejected by the majority of Egyptians, had they been allowed to decide.

Nasser was pleased when Sayyid Qutb, who had been one of his closest advisers and chief political ideologues, became the head of the Muslim Brothers' magazine, Al-Ikwan al-Muslimoun. Presumably, he hoped that Qutb would enhance his standing with the Islamists and keep them from turning against the socialist and increasingly secular aims of the new government. One of the writers Qutb published was Zawahiri's uncle Mahfouz Azzam, who was then a young lawyer. Azzam had known Qutb nearly all his life. "Sayyid Qutb was my teacher," he told me. "He taught me Arabic in 1936 and 1937. He came daily to our house. He held seminars and gave us books for discussion. The first book he asked me to write a report on was 'What Did the World Lose with the Decline of the Muslims?' "

It quickly became obvious to Nasser that Qutb and his corps of young Islamists had a different agenda for Egyptian society from his, and he shut down the magazine after only a few issues had been published. But the religious faction was not so easily controlled. The ideological war over Egypt's future reached a climax on the night of October 26, 1954, when a member of the Brothers attempted to assassinate Nasser as he spoke before an immense crowd in Alexandria. Eight shots missed their mark. Nasser responded by having six conspirators executed immediately and arresting more than a thousand others, including Qutb. He had crushed the Brothers, once and for all, he thought.

Stories about Sayyid Qutb's suffering in prison have formed a kind of Passion play for Islamic fundamentalists. Qutb had a high fever when he was arrested, but the state-security officers handcuffed him and took him to prison. He fainted several times on the way. For several hours, he was kept in a cell with vicious dogs, and then, during long periods of interrogation, he was beaten. His trial was overseen by three judges, one of whom was a future President of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat. In the courtroom, Qutb ripped off his shirt to display the marks of torture. The judges sentenced him to life in prison but, when Qutb's health deteriorated further, reduced that to fifteen years. He suffered chronic bouts of angina, and it is likely that he contracted tuberculosis in the prison hospital.

One line of thinking proposes that America's tragedy on September 11th was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human-rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri. The main target of their wrath was the secular Egyptian government, but a powerful current of anger was directed toward the West, which they saw as an enabling force behind the repressive regime. They held the West responsible for corrupting and humiliating Islamic society. Indeed, the theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the Islamists' rage against the West. Egypt's prisons became a factory for producing militants whose need for retribution—they called it "justice"—was all-consuming.

The hardening of Qutb's views can be traced in his prison writings. Through friends, he managed to smuggle out, bit by bit, a manifesto entitled "Ma'alim fi al-Tariq" ("Milestones"). The manuscript circulated underground for years. It was finally published in Cairo in 1964, and was quickly banned; anyone caught with a copy could be charged with sedition.

Qutb begins, "Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice. Humanity is threatened not only by nuclear annihilation but by the absence of values. The West has lost its vitality, and Marxism has failed. At this crucial and bewildering juncture, the turn of Islam and the Muslim community has arrived."

Qutb divides the world into two camps—Islam and Jahiliyya. The latter, in traditional Islamic discourse, refers to a period of ignorance that existed throughout the world before the Prophet Muhammad began receiving his divine revelations, in the seventh century. For Qutb, the entire modern world, including so-called Muslim societies, is Jahiliyya. This was his most revolutionary statement—one that placed nominally Islamic governments in the crosshairs of jihad. "The Muslim community has long ago vanished from existence," he contends. "It is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to Islamic teachings." Humanity cannot be saved unless Muslims recapture the glory of their earliest and purest expression. "We need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country," he writes, in order to fashion an example that will eventually lead Islam to its destiny of world dominion. "There should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path."

Ayman al-Zawahiri heard again and again about the greatness of Qutb's character and the terrible things he endured in prison. The effect of these stories can be gauged by an incident that took place one day in the mid-sixties, when Ayman and his admiring younger brother Mohammed were walking home from the mosque after dawn prayers. Hussein al-Shaffei, the Vice-President of Egypt and one of the judges in the 1954 roundup of Islamists, "offered to give them a ride," Omar Azzam recalls. "We would all have been proud to have the Vice-President give us a ride—even to be in a car! But Ayman and Mohammed refused. They said, 'We don't want to get this ride from a man who participated in the courts that killed Muslims.' "

In 1964, President Abd al-Salaam Arif of Iraq prevailed upon Nasser to grant Qutb parole, but the following year he was arrested again and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. The prosecutors built their case primarily on inflammatory passages in "Milestones," but they also cited evidence that Qutb and the Muslim Brothers were planning to assassinate various public figures. "It was a revolutionary court, with no defense," Mahfouz Azzam, who was Qutb's lawyer, told me. Qutb received a death sentence. "Thank God," he said. "I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom." Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, and the Islamist threat in Egypt seemed to have been extinguished. "The Nasserite regime thought that the Islamic movement received a deadly blow with the execution of Sayyid Qutb and his comrades," Zawahiri wrote in his memoir. "But the apparent surface calm concealed an immediate interaction with Sayyid Qutb's ideas and the formation of the nucleus of the modern Islamic jihad movement in Egypt." The same year Qutb was hanged, Zawahiri helped form an underground militant cell dedicated to replacing the secular Egyptian government with an Islamic one. He was fifteen years old.

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Courtesy: The New Yorker

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