Ayman al-Zawahri led life of secrecy and violence
Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born surgeon-turned-jihadist who assumed the leadership of Al Qaida after the killing of Osama bin Laden and who died at 71 in a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, over the weekend, according to US officials, led a life steeped in secrecy, betrayal, conspiracy and violence, most murderously in the September 11 attacks against the US in 2001.
While Bin Laden, who was killed by an American raid in 2011, was widely seen as the terrorist mastermind of those attacks, many counter-terrorism experts considered al-Zawahri more responsible. With his white turban and dense, grey beard, his forehead marked by the bruising prized by some Muslims as denoting piety from frequent prayer, Zawahri had little of Bin Laden’s charisma and none of his access to fabled family wealth.
But he was widely depicted as the intellectual spine of al Qaida — its chief operating officer, its public relations executive, and a profound influence who helped the Saudi-born Bin Laden grow from a charismatic preacher into a deadly terrorist with global reach. In an interview in May 2011 with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a research group, Tawfik Hamid, a former Islamist militant who now studies the subject, said that of the two men, Zawahri was a more influential leader. “When you listen to him, you can tell clearly that he has the ambition and is dedicated 100 per cent to achieving this mission,” Hamid said.
During his leadership of al Qaida, the organisation’s global influence waned as the Islamic State rose. But the group remained a threat, with affiliates in several countries carrying out attacks. And Zawahri, to whom they all swore allegiance, was still one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists at his death. From his teenage years in an upscale suburb of Cairo, Zawahri led a cat-and-mouse existence, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia and hunted by adversaries, including US counterterrorism authorities, who placed a $25 million bounty on his head.
Yet he seemed always to stay one step ahead, hiding out in the craggy redoubts of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Over time, his aims and ideology evolved from a visceral hatred of secular rule in Egypt, where he was among those tried for conspiracy in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, to a virulent campaign to strike at the so-called “far enemy”, the US, al Qaida’s target of preference.
The group’s tactical strength lay in its ability to launch spectacular assaults, starting with the simultaneous attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the suicide bombing of the American destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000, and culminating in the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 that led to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the following decade, American counterterrorism authorities pursued Bin Laden and Zawahri, his deputy and chosen successor.
Drone strikes decimated al Qaida’s leadership in a sustained effort to degrade the organisation and avenge the September 11 attacks. On at least one occasion, Zawahri was said to have died, only to resurface in the sporadic video and audiotapes that spread his message. In May 2011, a Navy SEAL team killed Bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. For more than a month, al Qaida was silent on its future leadership. Then Zawahri put out a 28-minute video of himself.
With a rifle in the background and making a chopping motion with his hand, he promised that Bin Laden would continue to “terrify” America after his death. “Blood for blood,” he said. By that time, a newer generation of jihadists had grown, first in the chaos of Iraq after the American invasion, and then spreading to Syria after civil war broke out there in 2011. In the ensuing mayhem, the Islamic State rose to prominence as a new beacon of jihadist zeal, attracting tens of thousands of followers with its media-savvy, Internet-age messages, its slick videos of beheadings and its capture of huge swaths of territory in which it declared a new caliphate for the world’s Muslims.
Shorn of its iconic leader, al Qaida, by contrast, had been forced to abandon its centralised command structure while its affiliates, particularly in Yemen and Syria, pledged allegiance to Zawahri in a sharpening and bloody feud with the Islamic State, which, paradoxically, had begun as an offshoot of al Qaida in Iraq. Both groups were rooted in Sunni extremism. But the distinctions between them were legion.
While the Islamic State sought hegemony among jihadist groups and thirsted for territorial expansion, al Qaida’s affiliates showed increasing readiness to cooperate with other groups and little appetite for occupation.
Zawahri castigated the IS and its leaders for their practice of killing Shia civilians, fearing that such killings would taint the jihadist cause among Muslims. And while the Islamic State disciples reinforced the group’s reputation for brutality through videos of the decapitations of western hostages and other acts of savagery, Zawahri opposed such displays, apparently to avoid alienating potential supporters.
Sajjan M. Gohel, a specialist in international terrorism based in London, wrote that Zawahri was happy to let the Islamic State face attacks by US-backed coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, giving al Qaida the space to “reconstitute its infrastructure and networks across the Islamic world” and revive its long-term goal of striking targets in the West. In 2015, Zawahri played what he calculated would be a winning card in his group’s revival, introducing to followers Hamza bin Laden, a son of the al Qaida founder, and describing him in an audio recording as a “lion from al Qaida’s den”.
In the broadcast, Hamza bin Laden exhorted jihadists to carry out “the highest number of attacks” on western cities. A year later, in a message aimed at America titled “We are all Osama,” Hamza bin Laden issued a personal appeal to avenge his father. “Yours will be a harsh reckoning,” he said. “We are a nation that does not rest over injustice.”
Hamza bin Laden had been among a group of Bin Laden relatives who took refuge in Iran after the September 11 attacks, held under house arrest arrangements of varying severity. Some analysts believed that he was no more than a figurehead whose utterances were intended to lure younger jihadists from the Islamic State.
According to Gohel, Hamza bin Laden had at least two wives, including a daughter of Zawahri’s who bore two children, linking the two families in a “strategic marriage alliance”. Hamza bin Laden was killed in a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan sometime in 2017 or 2018, American officials said.
Zawahri’s deputies were also picked off. Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was killed by a US drone strike in Syria in 2017. A successor, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed by Israeli operatives in Tehran in 2020. In 2021, nearly 20 years after the US invaded Afghanistan to drive al Qaida out, the Taliban retook control of the country and gave its ally, al Qaida, safe haven.
Zawahri duly returned. Ayman Muhammad Rabie al-Zawahri, one of five children, was born on June 19, 1951, in Maadi, a Cairo suburb. His father was a pharmacology professor whose uncle had been the grand imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old university that is a centre of Islamic learning. His mother’s father was president of Cairo University, founder and director of King Saud University in Riyadh and an ambassador to Saudi Arabia and other countries. Another of her relatives was the first secretary general of the Arab League. Despite its prominence, the family displayed little evident prosperity and never owned a car until Ayman was grown.
Lawrence Wright, in his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaida and the Road to 9/11 (2006), said that the al-Zawahris’ reclusive, conservative, even backward ways caused them to be perceived as “hicks.” Zawahri was a brilliant student when he was not daydreaming and opposed contact sports as inhumane.
He began reading Islamist literature at an early age. One enormous influence was Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic thinker who saw the world diametrically divided between believers and infidels. (He included moderate Muslims among the infidels.) Qutb was imprisoned and tortured in Egypt and hanged there in 1966.
“In Zawahri’s eyes, Sayyid Qutb’s words struck young Muslims more deeply than those of his contemporaries because his words eventually led to his execution,” Montasser al-Zayyat, an Islamic radical and lawyer, wrote in The Road to Al Qaida: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man (2004). Another influence was the humiliating defeat the Arab countries suffered at the hands of Israel in 1967.
It turned many young people away from the Pan-Arab socialism pursued by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and toward anti-western forms of Islam.
In 1966, Zawahri helped form an underground militant cell dedicated to replacing Egypt’s secular government with an Islamic one. He was 15. At first, there were five members. By 1974 there were 40. Zawahri kept his involvement secret from even his family while he attended medical school at Cairo University.
He graduated in 1974, served three years in the army and earned a master’s degree in surgery in 1978. Through his and her families, Zawahri met Azza Nowair, who, Wright wrote, came from a well-off background. He suggested that in another time she might have been a professional or a socialite. But she had become deeply religious, wore a veil and spent whole nights reading the Quran. When they were married in 1979, Zawahri had seen her face exactly once.
At the ceremony, there were men’s and women’s sections. At the bride’s request, there was no music or photography. In October 2001, soon after the attacks on America, Azza Zawahri and at least one of their children were killed by bombardments in Afghanistan. Wounded, she had refused to be pulled from the rubble, news accounts of the bombardment said, for fear that rescuers would see her face — an offence against Islamic modesty. Published reports have said that they had four daughters and a son.
Al-Zawahri was working in a clinic in Egypt in 1980 when he seized an opportunity to go to Peshawar, Pakistan, for the Red Crescent, the Muslim correlate of the Red Cross, to treat refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion.
He visited Afghanistan and recognised it as a good place to launch a jihad, returning many times. When he was arrested in 1981 for conspiring to murder Sadat, he was slapped by the chief of police. Zawahri slapped him back. At his trial, along with hundreds of others, he was convicted only of gun possession. But as the trial proceeded for nearly three years, he was repeatedly tortured in prison.
Under interrogation, he revealed the name, activities and whereabouts of one of his collaborators, a soldier, which led to the man’s arrest. In an interview with The New Yorker in 2002, Zayyat, the lawyer for many Islamist activists, suggested that the guilt Zawahri felt over this betrayal was a major reason for his leaving Egypt after he was released in 1984.
His journey took him to Saudi Arabia and then, in 1986, back to Peshawar, where Bin Laden sometimes lectured at the hospital where Zawahri worked. Zawahri became Bin Laden’s personal physician, set up a security force around him and helped the Saudi begin thinking about specific ways to hurt the western powers and the West Asian governments they supported.
“When Ayman met Bin Laden, he created a revolution inside of him,” Mr. Zayyat told The New Yorker. The deal was straightforward: Zawahri would supply the political acumen and an educated leadership cadre to turn Bin Laden’s loose coalition, and his own unformed impulses, into an instrument of mass murder. Bin Laden provided money and prestige. Zayyat, who once shared an Egyptian prison cell with al-Zawahri, wrote that he was convinced that Zawahri was more responsible than Bin Laden for the attacks on the US, a view shared by other counterterrorism experts.
In 1998, Zawahri wrote a document intended to unite militant groups in the common cause of killing Americans anywhere. In 2001, his organisation, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, officially merged with Bin Laden’s Qaida network to create Qaida al-Jihad. Zawahri had the delicate task of explaining al Qaida’s deviation from Islamic teachings that prohibit killing innocent people, particularly Muslims. He maintained that a martyr’s true faith reversed these prohibitions. “According to him the majority of Muslims around the world are not Muslim,” Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, told Time magazine.
(New York Times News Service)