Ayman al-Zawahiri doesn’t look like the number-one villain in the world, but since Osama bin Laden’s retirement as head of al Qaeda and then assassination, al-Zawahiri became the organization’s leader and public face. The former surgeon looks more like a retired school teacher than a global bad guy, which perhaps explains al Qaeda’s disorientation and decline under his leadership.
VICE is the first Western media organization to conduct a personal interview with al-Zawahiri, who arranged to meet us at an undisclosed location between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri claimed that the half-destroyed building where we met was his permanent residence, but it felt more like an underground bar that someone’s house. Getting al-Zawahiri to open up was hard work, but he eventually revealed a lot about his personal anxieties and his approach to his work.
VICE: Hey Ayman. I like what you’ve done with the turban.
Ayman al-Zawahiri: What do you mean?
It’s an ironic comment on ethnic stereotypes, no?
What does that mean?
Obviously the getup is crucial to your public persona, but do you have to dress like that all the time?
This is proper Islamic clothing.
But we have seen old photographs of you, you didn’t always dress like this.
We all made fashion mistakes in the 70s. But these years of confusion are behind me and Allah has blessed my heart with clarity and belief.
And a completely new wardrobe. You are big on monochromatic colors, could you talk a little bit about this choice? A visual allusion to puritanism?
I’m the leader of al Qaeda, what do you want me to wear? Be serious with your questions. We want our message to reach young Americans and that’s what we should be talking about.
Fine. Let’s talk about your work. It’s hard to classify it as conventional terrorism, and I know you have reservations about the term, but you have tried to take it in a different direction, haven’t you?
We are fighting global tyranny and defending our faith. The imperialist West is the terrorist aggressor, not us.
I’m into your delivery, you sound very convincing. But in terms of attitude, you smashed all the established conventions of terrorism, you don’t have political aims, you don’t have specific demands, you don’t have a program, this is very bold conceptually. I know the word nihilism has been thrown around a lot…
Our aim is the restoration of the Islamic caliphate and spreading Allah’s religion, this is what we are fighting for. I don’t know what you mean by nihilism; we are waging a war against global arrogance and to stop the crusading nations from oppressing our people.
I like the caliphate angle—retro. Why go back to the sixties if you can go back one thousand years. Very bold, but you must admit, obviously not a serious plan?
I won’t say it’s easy, but yes this is our aim. And we will fight until we achieve it.
Why do you hate the West?
The West represents moral decline. Look at your relationships with each other, everything is governed by money. You exploit each other, you exploit nature. Look at all the environmental problems, why you are paying for what you have done to the planet. The West is corrupt and unjust.
You sound just like some of my lefty friends. Have you read Naomi Klein?
A Jew? Have you done any research about me at all?
I think you would like her work.
We have the word of Allah, we don’t need your books.
Why is Ayman angry? Do you feel misunderstood?
I am angry because of the injustice against my fellow Muslims. What happened in Egypt was a crime, look at what is happening in Burma. Yes, we are misunderstood.
This is pretty standard al-Qaeda stuff, I am asking Ayman the person, how do you feel? Does the weight of replacing someone like Osama bin Laden weigh too heavily on you?
Sheikh Osama was a great mujahid, but we each have our own style, you can’t compare.
But everybody has their favorite Bond, you can’t stop people from choosing.
What have you heard? Are people criticizing me?
It is generally felt that you are less flashy than bin Laden, more subtle. I personally don’t mind under-statement, but people will make comparisons.
But what is it exactly? The speeches? The threats? Our strategy? You have to be more specific.
It’s not a tangible thing, it’s more about style and image.
Is it the speeches? Should they be longer? Should I dwell more on the evils of the West? Should I do more of them?
I really don’t think it’s one thing. It’s an overall impression.
It’s the glasses, isn’t it? They’re too old-fashioned. I keep telling my wife that but she says, “No, no, they suit you.”
Well, you can always say you’re wearing them ironically.
Karl Sharro is an architect, writer, satirist, and commentator on the Middle East. He has written for a number of international publications. You can see more of his work on his blog, Karl reMarks Follow him on Twitter @KarlreMarks
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