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Osama bin Laden VS Ayman al-Zawahiri

by The Clarkbar84 5 months ago in degree
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The Leaders of al-Qaeda

Is a Terrorist Group Only as Strong as it is Leader?

Terrorist groups form through ideas and goals from groups of similar individuals that believe their government is no longer listening to them, and violence is the only way. Terrorist leaders have a set of ideologies and goals that tend to draw individuals into their ranks and over time; those individuals become brainwashed into believing the group is the only home for them. Most terrorist leaders have some of the same traits and values, which tend to be very charismatic, great communicators, the ability to manipulate and have others genuinely believe in their cause. They are also highly intelligent and have ideologies that not only make sense to themselves, but others can find common ground which makes it easy for recruitment. Some terrorist groups tend to be more dangerous than others and can strike fear and intimidation into their enemies. As seen in the terrorist group al-Qaeda, under the regime of Osama bin Laden, struck fear into the hearts and minds of United States citizens with their 9/11 attacks. However, now, under the current regime of Ayman, Al-Zawahiri cannot seem to even match the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). An interesting theory to examine is a terrorist group only has strong has the leader in charge of it. This paper will compare Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri's leadership and communication styles within the terrorist group al-Qaeda. It will go over their experience and traits to see how that has affected their decisions and led al-Qaeda during their regimes.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 in Saudi Arabia, his father was Mohammed bin Oud Laden, and he was the seventeenth son out of fifty-four children. Osama was considered an emotionally neglected child, and he was often mentioned as Ibn Al Abeda, meaning son of a slave, since his mother, Hamida, was called a slave within the family. Osama's father, Mohammed, was profoundly religious, and Osama would spend hours learning religious material to please his father and try to earn his approval. Mohammed would take his children out on camping trips into the desert, where Osama would excel at being a natural-born leader. It was during those times that he became his father's right-hand man, during this time Osama also became friends with Abdul Aziz, a prince of the royal family.

Mohammed, in his own right, was also very wealthy; he owned a significant construction contractor within the Saudi royal family; however, tragedy struck, and in 1967 his father died in a helicopter crash when Osama was ten years old (Ross, 2015). Even though Osama was the seventeen child, his inheritance from his father was around three hundred million dollars. However, with the loss of his father, he would no longer be able to work to gain his approval, and even though Osama inherited that large amount, his friend Prince Abdul Aziz shunned him, and the two never spoke again. Osama gets sent back to live with his mother, who was considered a slave in the family and one that he never really connected with; in turn, he entered a state of deep depression.

In 1973 Osama bin Laden was put into an exclusive boarding school in Beirut, where he lives a playboy lifestyle of getting into bar fights, drinking heavily, and getting away with anything-goes mentality. It was not until 1975 when the Lebanon civil war breaks out that he is brought home to Jeddah. However, Osama continued his extravagant lifestyle in Jeddah until 1977 when his brother told him that every Muslim is required to take one pilgrimage to Mecca and asked if Osama would join him. Once Osama returned from his pilgrimage, he stopped drinking and became a devout Muslim.

In 1979 Osama bin Laden joins the Afghan fighters in the fight against Russia when they invaded Afghanistan, and the United States Army Special Operations used Osama as an asset against the Soviets during the Cold War (Ross, 2015). However, in 1989, the United States drops Osama as an asset and turns their back on him, forcing him back into exile and back to Saudi Arabia. During this timeframe, Osama graduates with a civil engineering degree and begins to train his Muslim fighters with Ayman al-Zawahiri, where they form al-Qaeda in 1988 in Peshawar, Pakistan (Counter Extremism Project, 2019).

In 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden with his al-Qaeda fighters returns to the Saudi Royal Family to offer support and help. However, he ushered away so the United States could come in and fought Saddam, which is now known as Desert Storm. Once again, Osama bin Laden is made to feel like the exile that he has been his whole life. Due to this, he turns his hatred towards the United States.

As far as behavioral patterns with Osama bin Laden, due to the lack of a fatherly figure, his behaviors personality is Ambitious and exploitative, he combines his religious martyr and devout while being skilled at exploiting Islamic fundamentals to serve his ambitions. He is considered to have a personality of a narcissist and feels that the world owes him for his time; he also tends to show very anti-social behaviors (Immelman). Osama was a highly effective communicator, and he was considered the CEO of Terrorism (Hoffman, 2003); he ran his terrorist group like a fortune five hundred company. He even had an al-Qaeda training manual with clear-cut Military Organization mission statements (PBS, 2019). All these factors would lead to what history now knows as September 11, 2001, or 9/11.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Ayman al-Zawahiri was born in 1951 to Rabi and Umayma Azzam al-Zawahri in Egypt (In Marquis Who's Who (Ed), 2016). Zawahiri grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Cairo; he was a very respectful and excellent student that hated violent sports and spend his time in books. Zawahiri was a very devout Muslim and had headstrong qualities and conviction in his beliefs. At the age of fifteen, Ayman al-Zawahiri was arrested for joining the Muslim Brotherhood; he had created an underground cell that was meant to overthrow the government and establish an Islamist state (Wright, 2006).

In 1973, Zawahiri would join the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), an extremist organization that ran under the leadership of Abd al-Salam Faraj. This organization would teach and urge Muslims to use violence to help create an Islamic state. It was during Zawahiri’s time in the EIJ that he would complete college and earn a medical degree to become a surgeon. However, in 1981, Zawahiri would be sentenced to prison for three years for illegal weapons when he and members of the EIJ were on trial for the assassination of the Egyptian President. Zawahiri finishes his prison sentence and follows members of the EIJ to fight against the Soviets when they invaded Afghanistan (Counter Extremism Project, 2019).

During the fight against the Soviets, is when Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden would meet and eventually form al-Qaeda in 1988 (Pearson, 2019). When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Zawahiri returned to Egypt as the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; during his time as a leader, the EIJ was successful in one bombing and failed in an assassination attempt. Zawahiri reaches out to Osama bin Laden, and they begin a series of successful attacks against U.S. embassies, which leads Zawahiri to merge the EIJ with al-Qaeda in June 2001 and formally stepped down as leader to become Osama bin Laden right-hand man (Counter Extremism Project, 2019). Zawahiri runs an operational code that states, “that one cannot reason with the West. It can only be attacked, for discussion or debate with the far enemy is impossible: " ... the west is not only an infidel but also a hypocrite and a liar, violence is the only possible medium of communication. (Keppel, 2008)”

The personality profile for Ayman al-Zawahiri is considered abrasive negativist. Zawahiri is very persuasive but also has a single-minded commitment to a cause. He prefers to take the moral high ground and will turn on those that cross from his path. Zawahiri is also very passive-aggressive, yet he has the qualities of being dominant and enjoys control. He also displays a high regard for self-serving patterns (Immelman A. &., 2002).

Analysis Comparison

Osama bin Laden had a life of exile and longing for approval, either through his father or through his family. Osama studied religion, but only for the approval of his father, he pushed himself on camping trips to outshine his brothers and gain the approval of his father; in turn, this developed his abilities to be a natural leader. However, when his father died, Osama was shunned from the Saudi Royal Family, and his family sent him off to live with his mother, who they already called a slave. Osama inherited millions from his father and still was unable to find peace; he partied his way through school. Finally, after one of his brothers suggested they make a pilgrimage to Mecca together, that is when Osama began to follow his religion strictly again. Osama has always struggled to be seen and viewed as an essential person.

Ayman al-Zawahiri had a life of privilege; he was born into the middle class and did not have to seek approval from his father; he was not one to party away and preferred books instead. Unlike Osama, he studied religion because his family was religious; it was used as part of their bonding time. Zawahiri was able to attend school and become a surgeon, yet he was very strong-willed and believed in his beliefs, which cause him to join the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both Osama and Zawahiri are brilliant, where Zawahiri became a surgeon, Osama received a degree in civil engineering due to learning business management. Osama's father ran a construction company, and Osama followed him, while Zawahiri had spent his time joining extremist groups and serving jail time. In a way, Zawahiri was very much a political activist but used violence to get his messages across, at the time, Osama had become a devout Muslim; however, his narcissistic tendencies begin to show.

Zawahiri is very much a player in the background; he does not like to stand out front and prefers to hide in the shadows, much like a puppet master. This is due to his cause for self-perseverance; he believes in ideologies and wants to see them acted on; however, he prefers to sit on the sidelines. He has a very strategic mindset; however, he is driven by one goal set and able to control out in the open. While Osama shares that same strategic mindset, he is also able to see more of the big picture and conduct terrorist business much like a company. Osama is much better at control; this is due to his upbringing and only being able to control things around him. Osama also enjoys being upfront and the feeling of being wanted, this makes his charismatic abilities shine. Zawahiri did not have a rough time growing up as Osama had, so he was more passive aggressive in nature. Though he would take the reins of leadership due to his traits of passive-aggressions, he will always divert to the background where he can assert his control from behind the lines.

The difference can be seen in their leadership styles; Osama would lead from the front and give speeches; he would have a top-down military aspect and give control when it was needed. Osama used his education from his father and his sense of business to make an organization that ran like a fortune five hundred company; however, he was always looking for approval and would make videos taking credits for their successful attacks. This worked in keeping Osama as the leader and would only strengthen al-Qaeda's resolve by seeing their leader praise them for their successes.

Once Osama was killed by the United States, Ayman al-Zawahiri became the leader of al-Qaeda; however, he lacked Osama’s charisma, and since Zawahiri is one to lead from the background and care about his self-preservation more than the terrorist group. Zawahiri fell silent, refusing to make public statements, which put al-Qaeda in disarray and allowed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) to fill in the void. Zawahiri's inability to lead from the front caused him to set allegiances with the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mansour (Gohal, 2017).

When posing the question is a terrorist group only as strong as the leader in charge of it, al-Qaeda is a perfect example of the answer. While both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri formed and later merged al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, just like any group, strong leadership is needed. Osama won the hearts and minds of his followers, his path of being an exile to devout Muslims, and finally showing that the United States could be weakened will go down in history books.

While Zawahiri was there as well, he prefers to be the right-hand man, the one that aided in the plans but did not take the glory. It could be that Zawahiri is the real mastermind and saw the potential in Osama and used that to exploit his own goals. Osama, in turn, is the one that just wanted acceptance and approval, enjoyed finally feeling that acceptance, and continue to lead from the front. However, one thing is for certain Osama was able to maintain control and be the face of al-Qaeda; he was able to run operations and was looked towards to see what the next step was.

With the defeat of Osama, Zawahiri was unable to take reins of the organization and led them from the front, as well as his counterpart did, causing al-Qaeda to lose its’s position within the terrorist hierocracy. This proves that to have a robust terrorist organization that can be productive and maintain a sense of purpose, a strong leader needs to be in charge and have a clear sense of purpose; that leader must be the heart of the hydra.


Counter Extremism Project. (2019, December 12). Ayman al-Zawahiri. Retrieved from Counter Extremism Project:

Gohal, S. M. (2017). Deciphering Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda's strategic and Ideological Imperatives. Perspectives on Terrorism, 54-67.

Hoffman, B. (2003). The Leadership Secrets of Osama bin Laden The terrorist as CEO. The Atlantic.

Immelman, A. &. (2002). "Bin Laden's Brain" The Abrasively Negativistic Personality of Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Saint John's University.

Immelman, A. (n.d.). The Personality of al-Qaida Leader Osama bin Laden. 7-2002. St John's University/College of St. Benedict.

In Marquis Who's Who (Ed). (2016). Who's who in the world 2016 (33rd ed.). In Al Zawahiri, Ayman Mohammed Rabie. New Providence, NJ: Marquis Who's Who LLC.

Keppel, G. &.-P. (2008). Al Qaeda in its own words. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

PBS. (2019, Decemeber 12). Frontline. Retrieved from al Qaeda training manual:

Pearson, E. (2019). Egyptain Islamic Jihad. Britannica. Retrieved from Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Ross, C. A. (2015). A Psychological Profile of Osama bin Laden. The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol 42. Iss 4, 310-319.

Wright, L. (2006). The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11. American publishing house.


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The Clarkbar84

My mind has stories forming all the time; they tend to get wrapped up in life and never on paper. My works are scattered within real life.

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