Ayman al-Zawahiri: From Cairo doctor to al-Qaeda leader

  • Joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager
  • From a respected family in Cairo
  • Al-Qaeda acquired after bin Laden’s death
  • Influenced as an ideologue, strategist
  • Was Bin Laden’s Charisma Missing?

DUBAI, Aug. 1 (Reuters) – Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda leader after years as its chief organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival Islamic State militants hampered his ability to launch massive attacks on the West.

Zawahiri, 71, was killed in a US drone strike, US President Joe Biden said on live television Monday night. US officials said the attack took place in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Sunday. read more

In the years since bin Laden’s death in 2011, US airstrikes killed a succession of Zawahiri’s deputies, weakening the veteran Egyptian militant’s ability to coordinate globally.

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He had seen al-Qaeda effectively sidelined by the 2011 Arab uprisings launched mainly by middle-class activists and intellectuals resisting decades of autocracy.

Despite a reputation as an inflexible and combative personality, Zawahiri managed to nurture loosely affiliated groups around the world that grew into devastating uprisings, some of which were rooted in the turmoil caused by the Arab Spring. The violence destabilized a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

But the days of al-Qaeda as the centrally-led, hierarchical network of conspirators who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 were long gone. Instead, militancy returned to its roots in local-level conflict, driven by a mix of local grievances and instigation from transnational jihadist networks using social media.

Zawahiri’s origins in Islamic militancy went back decades.

The first time the world heard of him was when he stood in a courtroom cage after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.

“We have sacrificed and we are still ready for more sacrifices to the victory of Islam,” Zawahiri, dressed in a white robe, shouted as co-defendants furious over Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel chanted slogans.

Zawahiri served a three-year prison sentence for illegal possession of weapons, but was acquitted of the main charges.

A trained surgeon – one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor – Zawahiri went to Pakistan after his release, where he worked with the Red Crescent to treat Islamic mujahideen guerrillas wounded in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces .

It was during this period that he met Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who had joined the Afghan resistance.

Zawahiri took charge of Islamic Jihad in Egypt in 1993 and was a leading figure in a campaign in the mid-1990s to overthrow the government and create a purist Islamic state. More than 1200 Egyptians were killed.

Egyptian authorities have cracked down on Islamic Jihad after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995. Graying, white-turbaned Zawahiri responded by ordering an attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995. Two cars filled with explosives rammed through the gates of the compound, killing 16 people.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced Zawahiri to death in absentia. By this time, he was living the Spartan life of a militant after helping bin Laden form Al Qaeda.

A videotape broadcast by Al Jazeera in 2003 showed the two men walking on a rocky mountainside — an image Western intelligence hoped would provide clues to their whereabouts.


For years, Zawahiri was thought to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

This year, US officials determined that Zawahiri’s family — his wife, his daughter and her children — had moved to a hiding place in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri in the same location, a senior government official said.

He was killed in a drone strike Sunday morning when he reached the balcony of the house, the official said. No one else was injured. Zawahiri took charge of al-Qaeda in 2011 after US Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan. Since then, he has repeatedly called for global jihad, with an Ak-47 by his side during video messages.

In a eulogy for bin Laden, Zawahiri pledged to continue attacks on the West, recalling the Saudi-born militant’s threat that “you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the country.” of the Muslims”.

It turned out that the rise of the even tougher Islamic State in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria attracted as much, if not more, attention from Western counter-terrorism authorities.

Zawahiri often tried to stir passion among Muslims by commenting online on sensitive issues such as US policy in the Middle East or Israeli actions against Palestinians, but his speech was seen as lacking in bin Laden’s appeal.

On a practical level, Zawahiri is said to have been involved in some of Al-Qaeda’s largest operations, helping to organize the 2001 attacks, when planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda were used to kill 3,000 people in the United States. kill.

He was charged with his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The FBI put a $25 million bounty on his head on the most wanted list.


Zawahiri was not from Cairo’s slums, like others drawn to militant groups promising a noble cause. Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, Zawahiri was a grandson of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, one of Islam’s most important mosques.

Zawahiri grew up in Cairo’s leafy suburb of Maadi, a place favored by expats from the western countries he railed against. The son of a pharmacology professor, Zawahiri first embraced Islamic fundamentalism at the age of 15.

He was inspired by the revolutionary ideas of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist who was executed in 1966 on charges of attempted overthrow of the state.

People studying with Zawahiri at Cairo University’s medical school in the 1970s describe a lively young man who went to the cinema, listened to music and joked with friends.

“When he got out of prison, he was a completely different person,” said a doctor who studied with Zawahiri and declined to be named.

In court after Sadat’s assassination during a military parade, Zawahiri addressed the international press and said that militants had suffered severe torture, including whipping and attacks by wild dogs in prison.

“They arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters and the sons in a process to put psychological pressure on these innocent prisoners,” he said.

Fellow inmates said those circumstances further radicalized Zawahiri and set him on his path to global jihad.

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Editing by Howard Goller, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Stephen Coates

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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