Who Was Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda Chief and 9/11 Mastermind Killed by the US?
Killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, al-Zawahiri, once a surgeon, leaves behind a long legacy of violence.
Video Producer: Mayank Chawla
Video Editor: Prajjwal Kumar
Referred to as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man until the US took the former out in 2011, Zawahiri had been al-Qaeda's chief since June that year.
He made himself known to the world in a courtroom cage after President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981. Al-Zawahiri was rounded up as a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which played a role in the assassination.
"We have sacrificed and we are still ready for more sacrifices until the victory of Islam," shouted Zawahiri from his cage, enraged about Egypt's peace treaty with Israel that was signed in 1979 with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the presence of US President Jimmy Carter.
So, what else do we know about the man who is considered to be the brains behind al-Qaeda's terrorism, and the real orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks?
Early Life, Prison, and Release
Born in 1951 in Giza, Egypt, al-Zawahiri studied medicine at Cairo University and then served as a surgeon in the Egyptian military. He went on to set up his own clinic.
At the age of 14, he had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organisation founded in 1928. He took inspiration from Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic scholar, considered to be the father of Salafi jihadism, the ideology preached by terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
While in jail for the Sadat assassination, he was reportedly tortured regularly, which may have accelerated his radicalisation. He served a three-year jail term for possessing illegal arms, and was acquitted of the main charges, that is, in the role of Sadat's killing.
After his release, he went to Pakistan where he worked with the Red Crescent as a trained surgeon. He treated the US-backed Islamist mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.
Al-Zawahiri met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and followed him to Sudan, from where he led a bombing campaign against Egypt’s US-allied government.
He also planned the attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan that occurred in 1994, although bin Laden reportedly disapproved of the attack.
There was also a failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995. After bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, he went to Afghanistan, and al-Zawahiri went along with him. There they found a regime that would protect them, the Taliban.
The 1998 United States embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya brought bin Laden and al-Zawahiri on the hit-list of the US government for the first time.
Al-Zawahiri is also considered to be the true architect of the 9/11 attacks that shook the world in 2001, being responsible for most of the elaborate planning that brought those four planes down.
After the 9/11 attacks, when the US invaded Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden fled to Pakistan. Around this time, a US airstrike killed the former's wife and at least two of his six children in Kandahar, in Southern Afghanistan. Both he and bin Laden had bounties of $25 million on their heads.
Al-Qaeda Leadership and Assassination
After bin Laden was taken out in Pakistan in 2011, al-Zawahiri took over the leadership role in the organisation.
In a 2014 video, he announced the creation of the "Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya", or "Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent," claiming that his organisation had not forgotten about Indian muslims.
According to US intel, the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad that led to 100 deaths was planned by al-Zawahiri.
When the Arab Spring uprising started in 2011, al-Zawahiri unsuccessfully tried to get together the local Islamist groups fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Al-Qaeda in Syria and the Islamic State severed ties with him completely.
By 2020, al-Zawahiri rarely appeared on video, not making any speech on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 or the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August. Only once did he release a video in 2021 – to refute rumours of his death.
In 2022, he hit the headlines in India after praising a girl named Muskan Khan, a Karnataka student whose video went viral after she raised slogans of Allah-hu-Akbar in response to being heckled by a mob of Hindu students shouting slogans of "Jai Shri Ram."
That appears to be his last major contribution. His death poses a major problem for al-Qaeda because after bin Laden's assassination, he was seen as the obvious successor. It's yet to be seen who will fill the leadership vacuum in al-Qaeda now, given al-Zawahiri's brutal track record.
Nevertheless, there are a few names that are already making the rounds with respect to the leadership question. One of them is that of Saif al-Adel, according to the Middle East Institute, a non-profit think-tank based in Washington DC.
Born in the early 1960s, al-Adel is one of the most experienced military professionals in the global network of Islamists. It is believed that his real name is Mohammed Salah al-Din Zaidan, while Saif al-Adel, a pseudonym, means "Sword of Justice". You can read more about him here.
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