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

  • Joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager
  • From a respected family in Cairo
  • Took control of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death
  • Was influential as an ideologue, strategist
  • Lack of bin Laden’s charisma

DUBAI, Aug 1 (Reuters) – Ayman al-Zawahiri has succeeded Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda after years as its main organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival militants in the Islamic State have hampered its ability to inspire large-scale attacks against the West.

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

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

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He had seen al-Qaeda effectively sidelined by the Arab revolts of 2011, launched mainly by middle-class activists and intellectuals opposed to decades of autocracy.

Despite a reputation as an inflexible and combative personality, Zawahiri managed to nurture loosely affiliated groups around the world that grew to lead devastating insurgencies, some of them rooted in the unrest resulting from the Arab Spring. The violence has destabilized a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

But the days of al-Qaeda as a centralized, hierarchical network of plotters that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 are long gone. Instead, militancy has returned to its roots in local-level conflict, driven by a mix of local grievances and incitement by transnational jihadist networks using social media.

Zawahiri’s roots in Islamist activism go back decades.

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

“We have sacrificed and we are always ready to do more until Islam wins,” shouted Zawahiri, dressed in a white robe, while his co-defendants, exasperated by the peace treaty of Sadat with Israel, chanted slogans.

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

A skilled surgeon – one of his aliases was The Doctor – Zawahiri traveled to Pakistan upon his release where he worked with the Red Crescent to treat wounded Islamist Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces.

During this period, he met bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who joined the Afghan resistance.

Taking over the leadership of Islamic Jihad in Egypt in 1993, Zawahiri was a leading figure in a campaign in the mid-1990s to overthrow the government and establish a purist Islamic state. More than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.

Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on Islamic Jihad after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in June 1995 in Addis Ababa. The grizzled Zawahiri in the white turban responded by ordering a 1995 attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Two cars packed with explosives slammed into the gates of the complex, killing 16 people.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced Zawahiri to death in absentia. At that time, he was leading the Spartan life of an activist after helping bin Laden form al-Qaeda.

Videotape released by Al Jazeera in 2003 showed the two men walking up a rocky mountainside – an image Western intelligence hoped would provide clues to their whereabouts.


For years it was believed that Zawahiri was hiding along the forbidden border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This year, US officials identified that Zawahiri’s family – his wife, daughter and children – moved to a safe house in Kabul and later identified Zawahiri in the same location, a senior administration official said.

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

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

As it turns out, the emergence of the even more radical Islamic State in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria has attracted as much, if not more, attention from Western counterterrorism authorities.

Zawahiri has often tried to stir up passions among Muslims by commenting online on sensitive issues such as US policy in the Middle East or Israeli actions against the Palestinians, but his delivery was seen as lacking the magnetism of bin Laden.

On a practical level, Zawahiri is believed to have been involved in some of al-Qaeda’s biggest operations, helping to organize the 2001 bombings, when airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda were used to kill 3,000 people. in the USA.

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


Zawahiri did not emerge from the slums of Cairo, like others drawn to militant groups that promised a noble cause. Born in 1951 into 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 the leafy suburb of Maadi in Cairo, a place favored by expatriates from the Western nations against whom he rebelled. The son of a pharmacology professor, Zawahiri first embraced Islamic fundamentalism at the age of 15.

He was inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist executed in 1966 for trying to overthrow the state.

People who studied with Zawahiri at Cairo University Medical School in the 1970s describe a high-spirited young man who went to movies, listened to music, and joked around with friends.

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

In the courtroom cage after Sadat was assassinated during a military parade, Zawahiri addressed the international press, saying the activists had been subjected to severe torture, including beatings and beatings of wild dogs in prison.

“They arrested wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and sons during a trial to exert psychological pressure on these innocent prisoners,” he said.

Other prisoners said these conditions further radicalized Zawahiri and set him on the 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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