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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bin Laden No. 2 Sat in a Jail in Dagestan

DERBENT, Dagestan -- On a winter night five years ago, Ayman al-Zawahri slipped into Russia across a narrow wedge of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. Dr. Zawahri, now America's most wanted man after Osama bin Laden, was on a risky clandestine mission as head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group that was scattered, battered and nearly bankrupt after years on the run.

His purpose: to scope out Chechnya as a possible sanctuary for his wounded cause. Traveling in a minivan with two confederates, he came equipped with $6,400 in cash, a fake identity as a businessman, a laptop computer, a satellite phone, a fax machine and a small library of medical textbooks.

His plans quickly unraveled. After a night of furtive travel, the Egyptian trio ran into a Russian roadblock on the outskirts of this ancient walled city. Police, seeing they had no visas, handed them over to the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Zawahri spent the next six months in a crumbling jail, fretting that the Russians would discover his true identity and lock him up for years or send him back to Egypt to face likely execution.

In the end, his cover held, and he was freed. Still, Zawahri's brush with disaster, previously known to only a few Islamist chieftains, forced a critical change in his lethal planning. It also set the stage, ultimately, for Sept. 11 and the global war now under way between America and terrorists under the banner of al-Qaida. Instead of Chechnya, Afghanistan became the locus of his terrorist plotting. And America, not Egypt, became the target.

The Wall Street Journal has pieced together the story of how this happened from interviews with Islamist activists and investigators, court files and documents contained on an al-Qaida computer found in the Afghan capital of Kabul. It illuminates the evolution, motives and also weaknesses of what is today America's principal enemy.

Through apocalyptic violence and a cult of secrecy, Islamic militants torment the West with the specter of a highly disciplined and unshakably united foe. In reality, they have regularly been torn by venomous policy disputes, personal feuds and repeated failures. The Sept. 11 cataclysm both masked and flowed from militant Islam's truest feature: disarray and an inability to take and hold power in almost any Islamic country since Iran in 1979.

Islamists preaching revolution in Egypt and elsewhere were in retreat, not ascendancy. Attacking America, Zawahri hoped, would reinvigorate and unite their cause. His story shows from the inside how the down-on-his-luck Egyptian Jihad leader came to link up with Osama bin Laden and contribute a critical arsenal of terrorist skills and manpower to the cause.

Freed from Russian jail in May 1997, Zawahri found refuge in Afghanistan, yoking his fortunes to bin Laden. Egyptian Jihad, previously devoted to the narrow purpose of toppling secular rule in Egypt, became instead the biggest component of al-Qaida and major agent of a global war against America. Zawahri became bin Laden's closest confidant and talent scout.

"Zawahri was cornered. He had nowhere to go. He joined with bin Laden because he needed protection," says Hani al-Sebai, a former Egyptian Jihad activist who spent time in a Cairo jail with Zawahri in 1981.

Eight months after the Russian fiasco, Zawahri and bin Laden announced an alliance dedicated to killing Americans, a task they called the "duty of every Muslim."

The wealthy bin Laden provided some money, a safe haven and global horizons. Zawahri provided a seasoned cadre of operatives steeped in the tradecraft and theology of terrorism. He also provided a bureaucracy, which, though jury-rigged and prone to infighting, gave some structure to what they called "the company." Thus, says Montasser al-Zayat, a Cairo lawyer once close to Zawahri, the Egyptian doctor became "the brains of bin Laden."

The alliance frequently wobbled, buffeted by defections and disagreements. Some activists complained that bin Laden was a skinflint and a publicity hound. Zawahri pressed on, and in May of last year, he rallied his followers for a climactic battle against America alongside his partner.

"Stop digging problems from the grave," he pleaded in a letter to followers that was stored on the computer in Kabul, dated May 31, 2001, and signed with one of Zawahri's aliases. Bin Laden, he said, had a "project" that needed their support. "Our friend has been successful and is seriously preparing for other successful jobs. ... Gathering together is a pillar for our success." Four months later, the twin towers of the World Trade Center crumpled.

After the attack, the al-Qaida computer was used to store television images of the inferno, kept in a video file. Its name: "The Big Job."

Textbooks and Zealotry



Zawahri, now 51, plunged early into the turbulent and turbid waters of radical Islam. As a teenager in Cairo he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate but banned organization. Egyptian security officials began compiling files on him when he was just 16.

Thanks to good grades and the solid bourgeois reputation of his prosperous family, he won a place at Cairo University. Graduating with a medical degree in 1974, he began a double life as a family doctor and underground activist.

His first contact with armed jihad came in 1980, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He went to Pakistan for a four-month stint at a clinic for Afghan refugees that a Muslim Brotherhood member set up, later serving a second tour there. Then came Egyptian Jihad's 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. Zawahri wasn't involved but, like many others, was thrown in jail.

He spent three years in a medieval prison known as the Citadel, where, according to fellow Islamists, he hardened his views, made contacts and, under torture, snitched on some of his friends. In an account of this period written years later, Zawahri fulminated against the brutality of his jailers, whom he accused of torturing to death the founder of the Afghan refugee clinic where he'd worked. Egyptian authorities said the man committed suicide.

Furious that the Muslim Brotherhood "did not act to avenge his blood," and radicalized by his own prison ordeal, Zawahri embraced the violent ardor of Egyptian Jihad. Al-Zayat, who was jailed in an adjoining cell, says they spent many hours discussing how to bring Islamic rule to Egypt. He remembers Zawahri as "very calm in character" but "very violent and strong in his ideas."

Freed, Zawahri returned briefly to his practice of medicine. His office was on the second floor of his family's home in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, on a leafy side street where vendors sold vegetables and live chickens from donkey-drawn carts. But within a year, he left Egypt to work full time with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. The eventual defeat of the Soviets thrilled him. "It is as if 100 years were added to my life when I came to Afghanistan," he wrote later. Intoxicated by the victory, he set about to repeat it in Egypt, operating from Yemen and then Sudan.

Bloody Attacks



In 1993 he became head of Egyptian Jihad -- and promptly launched bloody attacks. One was a disaster: A car bomb, instead of blowing up the prime minister, killed an Egyptian schoolgirl. His group and a rival militant organization also struck at tourists, massacring foreigners at ancient ruins and elsewhere.

The government fought back ruthlessly, and many militants who had stayed in Egypt were imprisoned, killed in shoot-outs or executed after secret trials. Leading Islamists called for a cease-fire. But Zawahri stuck to his guns, writing in a 1995 article that even the struggle for Israel must wait until the battle for Egypt was won. Too bruised inside Egypt to cause carnage there, his group instead hit Egypt's embassy in Pakistan, killing 17.

Under pressure from Egypt, Sudan a year later booted out Zawahri and many other foreign militants, including bin Laden, a Saudi exile who had also found shelter there. After three years as leader of Egyptian Jihad, Zawahri had no real following left in his homeland and no secure base elsewhere. He began wandering the world in search of a haven.

An uncle, Mahfuz Azzam, says Zawahri always hid his movements even from his family. Aides sometimes spread false reports of his whereabouts. Arabic-language newspapers began reporting that he had moved to Switzerland. A Cairo journalist tells of receiving faxes saying Zawahri had scheduled a "jihad conference" at a Geneva hotel. A day before the meeting, the journalist, Mohmad Salaah, was told it had been canceled. He suspects it was all a hoax to put security forces off the scent.

Zawahri's Russian arrest records, however, give some clues to his activities.

Documents the Russians found on Zawahri and his companions included a visa application for Taiwan; a bank card from Hong Kong; details of a bank account in Guangdong, China; a receipt for a computer modem bought in Dubai; a copy of a Malaysian company's registration certificate that listed Zawahri, under an alias, as a director; and details of an account in a bank in St. Louis, Missouri.

According to Russian records of entry stamps in a fake Sudanese passport seized after Zawahri's arrest, in the 20 months before he sneaked into Russia, he traveled to Yemen four times, to Malaysia three times, to Singapore twice and once to "China" -- believed to be a reference to Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China.

Road to Chechnya



He crossed the border to Russia around 4 a.m. on Dec. 1, 1996, accompanied by two Egyptian Jihad underlings and a guide provided by Chechen "brothers," according to an account of the trip he wrote later that was filed on the computer found in Kabul. His companions were Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who ran Egyptian Jihad's cell in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, a militant widely traveled in Asia.

The trip, Zawahri told his lieutenants later, was perilous but necessary: Their group desperately needed a secure base. Russia's rebellious Chechnya region -- Muslim, chaotic and then effectively independent -- was promising. "Conditions there were excellent," he wrote.

To disguise their tracks, they changed vehicles three times, Zawahri wrote. He traveled on a Sudanese passport in the name of Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin. It carried a photograph of an earnest, balding man with a tie, trim moustache and a very short beard. Mabruk and Hennawi also used false names and bogus passports, one from Sudan and the other from Egypt.

But they were arrested within hours of entering Dagestan. The FSB seized their belongings and sent their laptop to Moscow for analysis. After a few days of interrogation, the three were moved north to a frigid prison on a hill overlooking Makhachkala, the regional capital.

Russians who met them vividly recall the trio, who they say kept falling to their knees in prayer. Zawahri's identification as "Mr. Amin" included two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University's medical faculty, each with a different date. The travelers' cash hoard was in seven currencies: from the United States, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Malaysia and Kuwait.

Looking into Bavari-C, the Azeri trading firm the Arabs said they represented, the Russians found no such business registered in Azerbaijan. Residents at the address given, in a cluster of grimy Soviet-era apartment blocks in Baku, say that some Arabs once rented a tiny basement storeroom, near a big sign advertising Bavaria Beer, but left.

Lobbying for Release



The Russian investigators and a lawyer who defended the trio were puzzled by a groundswell of support for them from local Islamic organizations. These included groups that had embraced the fundamentalist form of Islam known as Wahhabism and received funding from Saudi Arabia, where the sect emerged two centuries ago. Twenty-six clerics signed an appeal for release of the three "merchants." One local Muslim accused a Russian investigator of doing "the devil's work" by detaining the three.

A then-member of Russia's State Duma, Nadyr Khachilayev, who had founded a group called the Muslim Union of Russia, wrote to Dagestan's highest court that the three "businessmen" had come to "study the market for food trade" and should be freed. Khachilayev, a wiry former boxer linked by the police to a string of violent attacks, denies any tie to extremism. Interviewed in his gothic brick mansion in Makhachkala, its outer wall and metal door pock-marked from gunfire, Khachilayev today says he can't recall any imprisoned Arabs.

The Russians received a plea from a man claiming to be a director of Bavari-C. "Honesty and decency," he wrote, were the "integral features" of the arrested Arabs' character. Two other men arrived in Dagestan to join the lobbying, claiming to be businessmen affiliated with Bavari-C. In reality, both worked for Egyptian Jihad. They were Ibrahim Eidarous, an activist in Baku and later London, and Tharwat Salah Shehata, a veteran who later became head of Egyptian Jihad.

Shehata won permission to visit Zawahri in jail and was given a coded letter. The Russians copied it but couldn't understand it. After the visit, says a former Russian official, guards found $3,000 hidden in the Arabs' cell.

Correspondence on the Kabul computer and wiretaps by the Russian police suggest frenetic maneuvering behind the scenes. A person familiar with the Russian investigation says security services overheard telephone discussions of a $10,000 bribe offer by the head of the Dagestan town of Karamakhi, a center of fundamentalist fervor that later was reduced to rubble by Russian troops. One investigator says he suspected the three were terrorist "big fish" en route to Chechnya, but couldn't prove it.

On Trial



When the case got to court in April 1997, Zawahri, held in a pen with metal bars, lied fluently and prayed frequently. The judge had to call several recesses because of the defendants' disruptive piety. Testifying as "Mr. Amin," Zawahri feigned ignorance of Russia's post-Soviet frontiers, saying: "I couldn't imagine that such problems could arise."

Why had he come to Russia? "We wanted to find out the price for leather, medicine and other goods," he said.

The judge rejected prosecution demands for a three-year sentence and gave the men only six months. They'd already been in jail five months, so the Russians soon freed them.

"God blinded them to our identities," Zawahri wrote later, in his account of his trip. "God's mercy accompanied us during these months." The Russians returned the cash, the communications gear and the computer, its mostly Arabic-language documents nearly all unread. Abulkhalik Abdusalamov, their court-appointed lawyer, says he never got close to his clients and couldn't figure out what they were up to or why they were carrying so much electronic equipment. He says all he knows is that they stiffed him on his $1,800 legal bill, pleading poverty. "There was no honesty in their soul. They cheated me," he says.

After his release, Zawahri spent 10 days meeting secretly with Islamists in Dagestan. "We delivered our product to them," he wrote in his report, using a frequent code word for recipes for explosives. He also sent Shehata to Chechnya to meet with Abu Khattab, a Saudi who was among the most prominent Arabs fighting Russian forces in Chechnya in the 1990s. (Khattab died in March, poisoned by one of his own men.)

Zawahri faced intense questioning by followers who hadn't been told of his Russia journey. One angrily demanded an explanation for his "mysterious disappearance." But instead of the facts, some followers got only a smokescreen, perhaps designed to prevent suspicions of betrayal that might arise from such a quick release from Russian arrest. Sebai in London says he was told Zawahri had been seized by one of the kidnapping-for-ransom gangs active in the region. Meanwhile, Western terrorism experts trying to explain the absence came up with various theories of their own, all of them wrong.

Zawahri developed an ulcer in this period, prompting get-well messages from confederates but not defanging their criticism. "We ask God to grant you recovery from your ulcer, but this illness is not too serious to prevent you from working," said a letter sent by mutinous militants in Yemen. They denounced the Russian trip as "a disaster that almost destroyed the group" and lamented there hadn't been "any progress in Egypt for two years." Zawahri ought to cure Egyptian Jihad's ill health along with his own, they said.

With bin Laden



Running out of both friends and hiding places, Zawahri settled in Afghanistan, by this time largely ruled by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. The move signaled a dramatic change not just of scenery but also of strategy.

On Feb. 23, 1998, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, an Arabic-language newspaper, published a statement that set off alarms in Washington. Announcing an alliance between Zawahri and bin Laden, it declared the founding of the International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders. The front, including three other militant groups, said in its founding manifesto: "We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim ... to comply with God's order to kill Americans."

The call overturned Zawahri's prior diktat that the struggle for Egypt trumped all other battles. Explaining the shift later, he said an Islamic state in Egypt remained the goal but was "not an easy objective that is close at hand." America, he said, propped up "infidel" Arab governments and would let them fall "only if the shrapnel from the battle reaches their own homes and bodies."

The new approach rattled some members of Egyptian Jihad, who thought it unwise to take on the world's superpower. The head of the group's Islamic-law committee, in Yemen, derided it as a "great illusion." Why, he asked cuttingly in a note stored on the Kabul computer, had Zawahri not gone to "Egypt to perform the work there that he says he supports so much?" And he complained -- without elaborating -- that bin Laden had a "dark past" and a "black history" and could not be trusted.

Some militants demanded an emergency meeting, according to a letter seized by police raids in London. "There is a deep abyss in thinking," the March 1998 letter said. Not that the world need know this. "Needless to say," the letter added, "it is forbidden to discuss the content of this message with anybody outside the group."

The emergency meeting took place the next month in Afghanistan. Its minutes, faxed to militants abroad and later seized by London police, allude to the discord in flaccid bureaucratic language. More spirited is an account by one militant, Tariq Anwar. Apologizing for the dry vagueness of the faxed minutes, he said that a more honest account would have led to "arguments that would take us 10 years to finish ... since we would disagree on every word."

He reported that Zawahri had repeatedly threatened to resign; had denounced his own brother, military commander Mohammed Zawahri; and had revealed that financial accounts for two years were missing. "Everybody agreed this was a disaster," wrote Anwar, his account stored in the Kabul computer. "I expected some members to start wrestling each other. I always felt this entity may dissolve in seconds."

Trouble in Albania



These same issues -- bin Laden, money, inertia in Muslim states and the wisdom of baiting America -- would convulse Egyptian Jihad and the whole Islamist movement for the next three years.

The debate gained new urgency when the Central Intelligence Agency began a covert campaign to arrest Egyptian Jihad activists hiding in Albania, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan and ship them home to Egypt. Among those returned was Mabruk, one of Zawahri's cellmates in Russia. Egypt gave him 15 years in prison, according to Islamist activists.

In July 1998, Zawahri received an SOS from "Akram," an alias of Ahmed Saleh, an Egyptian Jihad member working in Albania. Saleh was wanted in Egypt for the car bombing that killed the schoolgirl. He said two Jihad friends had just been grabbed by U.S. agents. "I want to leave quickly. Please help," he pleaded. Two weeks later, Saleh, too, was arrested. He was flown on a CIA-chartered plane to Cairo, where he was hanged 18 months later.

Complaints and warnings cascaded into Afghanistan by fax, telephone and courier. In one intercepted by British security services, an Egyptian Jihad leader in Yemen said the alliance with bin Laden, who was known as "the Contractor," had caused "continuous catastrophes." He added, "If you keep receiving messages through the Contractor's system a big and huge disaster will occur."

Zawahri paid little heed. On Aug. 4, 1998, Egyptian Jihad denounced the CIA-led arrests in Albania and said America would soon receive a response "in the only language that they understand." Three days later, terrorists blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 220 people, mostly Africans. The blasts, according to court testimony in New York last year, were planned by a top Egyptian Jihad commander, Mohammed Atef.

The United States responded with a cruise-missile strike on an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. Shortly afterward, Zawahri used bin Laden's satellite phone to call a Pakistani journalist, saying he and bin Laden were safe and adding: "The war has only just begun."

Rancor in the Ranks



The militants' internal war, meanwhile, was heating up, fueled by fear of America's fury and by frustration at penny-pinching. The Yemen chapter ran through three leaders in just a few months. In London, Eidarous, one of those who traveled to Russia to seek Zawahri's release, also quit. The British police arrested him shortly afterward.

Several activists the CIA nabbed and sent to Egypt began to talk, revealing code names and hiding places. More arrests followed. Egyptian Jihad issued a new list of code names and a new system of numerical coding for messages.

Money grew tighter. Zawahri cut members' salaries in half and quibbled over their expense reports. "Why did you buy a new fax machine for $470? Where are the two old ones? Did you get permission to buy a new one?" he chided the Yemen cell. "Please explain the mobile phone invoice. ... Stop all expenses unless it is an emergency!"

The Yemen cell's chief sent a huffy reply: "The first step to implement this advice is my immediate resignation."

To balance the books, Zawahri borrowed from members and scrounged from bin Laden. Monthly accounts list expenses ranging from $3 for an inner tube to $3,200 for a failed effort to spring a jailed activist with a bribe. There are multiple IOUs to members, particularly one code-named "Sami." Sami later quit, too.

Squeezed by America, by Egypt and by parts of his own group, Zawahri stepped down as leader of Egyptian Jihad in summer 1999. Taking his place was Shehata, the militant who had visited him in jail in Russia. Shehata, according to Sebai, the London-based Islamist, wanted to limit ties with bin Laden because "it was far more important to fight against the regime in Egypt than America."

But Zawahri's travails only fortified his own commitment to global struggle. He began exploring chemical and biological weapons around this time, exchanging notes with Atef on how to build a laboratory for what they dubbed the "Zabadi" -- yogurt -- program. Fluent in English and French, Zawahri studied foreign medical journals and provided Arabic-language summaries. The program, though fearsome in intent, seems to have gotten off to a slow start. It had an initial budget of just $2,000.

In the summer of 2000, Zawahri wrote a series of letters to radical clerics in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Britain urging them to decamp to Afghanistan, praising the Taliban-ruled country as a "den of 'garrisoned' lions" from Muslim countries. The struggle against Islam's enemies, he said, was moving into high gear. "We haven't changed despite claims otherwise," he told Abu Quttada, a Jordan-born militant preacher in London whose prayer sessions, according to investigators, were attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, the flight student arrested in Minnesota and now facing trial in Virginia.

Also in 2000, Zawahri began work on a book, "Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet." He didn't anticipate a best seller: "I expect no publisher to publish it or any distributor to distribute it." But the book, a draft of which is on the Kabul computer, explains the evolution of his thinking. "The battle today cannot be fought on just a regional level," he writes, arguing that America must replace Arab countries as the main arena for combat.

'Maximum Casualties'



He gives an ominous warning: "We must move the battle to the enemy's grounds to burn the hands of those who ignite fire in our own countries." The "only language understood by the West," he writes, is "maximum casualties."

But Zawahri's replacement, Shehata, presided over yet more setbacks. In early 2000, Zawahri's brother, Mohammed, vanished. Egyptian Jihad said on its web site that he'd been seized in the United Arab Emirates and sent back to Cairo. Egyptian security officials deny any knowledge of his whereabouts, as does his family in Cairo. There have been whispers in Islamic circles that he was detained and possibly murdered by fellow militants for theft or treachery.

Meanwhile, four influential veterans quit, voicing disgust at "the thinking and management, whether old or new." Like earlier deserters, they vowed to keep their departure secret. "We will try to give the impression that we are coordinating with the group to preserve the image," reads a joint letter filed on the Kabul computer.

Shehata gave up. Zawahri resumed control of Egyptian Jihad. Another bulletin went out to members to try explain this latest convulsion. "The heart is full of pain, sorrow and bitterness. ... There is a new problem and a new dispute every day," it said.

Shehata had been unfit to lead, said the report, because he had attacked Zawahri as a "liar, a sinner and a cheat," had thrown stones at an accountant and called him a homosexual, and had pushed others "to the brink of explosion." It said some members, upset with Shehata's tantrums, "left the city to avoid meeting or even seeing" him.

Back in command, Zawahri did what he'd always done in difficult times: upped the ante. Only bold action, he argued, could heal divisions, rally new recruits and revive the cause. Using code words borrowed from global commerce, he warned of increased market share for "international monopolies" -- Western security agencies -- and urged a full "merger" with the wealthy "Contractor," bin Laden. Only this, he said, could "increase profits" -- the publicity and support that terrorism could produce.

Some rejected his blueprint. "These are not profits. They are rather a compound of losses," replied one member, arguing for a focus on Egypt. He accused Zawahri of "following the Contractor blindly" and said that "going on in this dead end is like fighting ghosts and windmills. Enough pouring musk on barren land!"

Others applauded the approach. "We encourage the merger with the Contractor's company as long as it leads to stimulating profitable trade" and "ends the state of inertia we are in now," said one.

The merger went through. In June 2001, Egyptian Jihad and al-Qaida drafted "Statement No. 1" under a new "company" name: Qaida-al Jihad Group. Islam's enemies, it said, "will soon roast in the same flames that they now play with."

Desperation had hardened into clear strategy. A month later, someone sat down at the computer in Kabul and composed a short, blunt text, trumpeting "martyrdom operations" against the West. Its title: "The Solution."

Where Is He Now?



Zawahri was last seen on a videotape made somewhere in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime and broadcast in April. It shows him sitting cross-legged in a rocky field next to bin Laden. He has a long beard and turban, and looks decades older than in the photo in the fake passport he took to Russia. The tape was obtained by the Arabic-language television channel al-Jazeera.

But it is unclear when the tape was made, where Zawahri is now and even whether he is alive. The British government has received persistent reports he was killed, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said six months ago. U.S. officials have not confirmed this.

Last month, a radical Muslim cleric who was with al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan asserted in an audio message that Zawahri and Bin Laden are in "good health" and preparing new attacks. Americans, said the cleric, Suleimain Abu Gaith, "should fasten their seat belts. We are coming to them where they never expected."

The last person claiming to have talked to Zawahri is Farrag Ismail, a Cairo journalist who covered the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. After Sept. 11, he asked officials close to the Taliban to help arrange an interview. He said his phone finally rang in late November, after U.S.-backed forces had overrun most of Afghanistan, Atef had been killed in a U.S. missile attack, and Zawahri's wife and three children were rumored to have been killed by U.S. bombing near Kandahar. Zawahri's relatives in Cairo later published a notice announcing their deaths.

Ismail said he spoke with Zawahri briefly and then had a written exchange with him through a Taliban intermediary. Ismail offered Zawahri condolences for the loss of his wife and daughters. "They are fine," he says Zawahri replied. "No condolences should be offered for martyrdom if they were granted it."

On the run again and surrounded by destruction, Zawahri claimed "remarkable victories during the past days." He repeated what, since his retreat to Afghanistan after the debacle in Russia, had become his mantra: "The real war has started now."

Write to Andrew Higgins at andrew.higgins@wsj.com and Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

Copyright Dow Jones and Company