In addition to being mentor, confidant and chief accomplice to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician. It is not recorded whether he ever pledged to honor a doctor's first obligation: to do no harm. If he did, he didn't mean it. Over the past two decades, he has had a hand in some of the most murderous terrorist attacks in the world. In 1995 his suicide bombers destroyed the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan, where 15 died and 60 more were injured. All the while, al-Zawahiri was laying the groundwork for the East African terrorist operation that would drive truck bombs into the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 224 people and injuring thousands more.
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11. In the view of many experts on terrorism, it was al-Zawahiri as much as bin Laden who launched them. Placid looking, almost avuncular--especially for a man who has been sentenced to death in absentia by the Egyptians--al-Zawahiri, 50, is by choice a less visible symbol of terror than bin Laden. Three years ago, at a small press conference in the Afghan city of Khost, bin Laden announced the formation of the World Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, an umbrella group of radicals from across the Islamic world. You could easily have missed al-Zawahiri, the stocky bearded man in owlish eyeglasses seated beside him. But when bin Laden described to reporters the individual duty he was placing on all Muslims--"to kill Americans and their allies"--it could have been al-Zawahiri doing the talking.
The vision of worldwide jihad is one that al-Zawahiri has imparted steadily to bin Laden since 1985, when they first worked together on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back then, bin Laden, the scion of a rich Saudi family, was helping finance Arab volunteers in the Afghan war. Al-Zawahiri was working in field hospitals treating Afghan and Arab fighters. He was also, however, already the effective head of Al Jihad, the secretive Egyptian terrorist group bent on overthrowing the government of Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak. And al-Zawahiri was becoming further convinced that establishing Islamic rule throughout the Arab world required not just struggle against illegitimate rulers but also a worldwide jihad against infidels who support them. That meant targeting the U.S. and its interests around the world. Bin Laden had the dollars; al-Zawahiri had the dream.