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updated 6/16/2011 1:03:05 PM ET 2011-06-16T17:03:05

In a story that has become part of jihadi lore, Ayman al-Zawahri, the man succeeding Osama bin Laden as leader of al-Qaida, once ordered his followers to dig a huge hole in the east of Afghanistan.

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It was near the end of the Soviet occupation of the country in the late 1980s, and al-Zawahri's followers were curious about the pit's purpose, recalled Noman Benotman, a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

"(Al-Zawahri) said it is just a swimming pool for the people to enjoy themselves in the summer," the former bin Laden associate told msnbc.com.

"But it ended up being a prison when they finished it," said Benotman, who now eschews violence and is a senior analyst at British counter-extremist think tank Quilliam.

The wartime jail was meant to impress on the men fighting with al-Zawahri how far he would go to enforce his will and establish discipline, Benotman said.

Lacking charisma?
Osama bin Laden's longtime deputy has long brought discipline, ideological fire and tactical and organizational cunning to al-Qaida, which has found itself increasingly decentralized and prone to internal disputes following its expulsion from Afghanistan after its invasion by U.S. forces in 2001.

But while al-Zawahri, who turns 60 in a few days, is said to have been behind the use of suicide bombings and the independent militant cells that have become the network's trademarks, he is also thought to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden's charisma.

"When you join al-Qaida you don't swear an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida," journalist and author Peter Bergen told NBC News after bin Laden's death in May.  "You swear a personal oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden."

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"He's (al-Zawahri) not well-liked or well-regarded, even by people in his own Egyptian sort of jihad group," he said. "He's regarded as a divisive figure."

According to Bergen, many people who knew bin Laden said they loved him even if they disagreed with his methods.

"No one describes feelings of love for Ayman al-Zawahri," Bergen added.

Al-Zawahri was one of the biggest proponents of transforming al-Qaida from a local guerilla resistance group in Afghanistan to a terror organization with a global reach, according to Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer in Cairo.

His appointment means al-Qaida will continue trying to attack the United States and European countries involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the goal of forcing the West from Arab lands, she said.

Al-Zawahri has tried to portray the so-called "Arab Spring" uprisings as a collective desire by people in the Mideast to replace their leaders with Islamic governments, Gubash said.

His personality and leadership style was forged over many years fighting against Western and Israeli interests.

He is the son of an upper middle-class Egyptian family of doctors and scholars. His father was a pharmacology professor at Cairo University's medical school and his grandfather was the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, a premier center of religious study.

At the age of 15, he founded his first underground cell of high school students to oppose the Egyptian government. He continued his militant activities while earning his medical degree, later merging his cell with other militants to form Islamic Jihad.

Al-Zawahri served three years in an Egyptian prison before heading to Afghanistan in 1984 to fight the Soviets, where he linked up with bin Laden. Al-Zawahri later followed bin Laden to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan, where they found a haven under the radical Taliban regime.

Interactive: Al-Qaida timeline (on this page)

Soon after came the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, followed by the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, an attack al-Zawahri is believed to have helped organize.

In a 2001 treatise, he set down the long-term strategy for the jihadi movement — to inflict "as many casualties as possible" on the Americans.

"Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task," he wrote. "Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar."

Hatred for Americans
Al-Zawahri's hatred for Americans has also become deeply personal: His wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. airstrike following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

While he has the passion and track record, al-Zawahri also has a reputation as a stubborn and contentious individual who is not universally popular among jihadis, Former CIA operations officer John J. Lebeau told Reuters.

"He will tenuously preside over an organization that has to an important extent mutated into loose networks of quasi-autonomous units which make their own decisions and plan and conduct their own operations," he said.

But Benotman warns that al-Zawahri's abrasive personality doesn't necessarily mean he will fail.

"I don’t think it’s going to be easy for al-Qaida ... to adapt to this new leadership," he said. "But we can't forget (al-Zawahri's) skills.

"He is more intellectual than bin Laden. He's very smart," Benotman said, adding: "He's an ... exceptional militant leader, full of experience."

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: New Zawahri recording rips Arab leaders

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction

Timeline: Al-Qaida timeline

  1. Above: Timeline Al-Qaida timeline
  2. BIN LADEN
    Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP
    Timeline A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

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