The Washington Post

U.S. strike kills bin Laden’s successor

A blood-drenched movement’s guide


Americans knew him as alQaeda’s No. 2 leader, the bespectacl­ed, bushy-bearded deputy to Osama bin Laden.

But in reality, it was Ayman al-zawahiri’s brains and blood-drenched hands that guided the world’s most notorious terrorist movement.

Zawahiri, 71, was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, according to officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligen­ce. In an address to the nation, President Biden confirmed the death and called the attack a “precision strike” that did not cause civilian casualties.

Zawahiri had led his own militant group and pioneered a brand of terrorism that prized spectacula­r attacks and the indiscrimi­nate slaughter of civilians. When he formally merged his group with al- Qaeda in the 1990s, he brought along those tactics as well as an expanded vision for attacking the West.

It was Zawahiri who postulated that defeating the “far enemy” —

the United States — was an essential precursor to taking on alQaeda’s “near enemy,” the proWestern Arab regimes that stood in the way of the group’s dream of uniting all Muslims under a global caliphate.

“To kill Americans and their allies — civilian and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in every country in which it is possible to do it,” Zawahiri wrote in a 1998 manifesto. Three years later, he would put words into action by helping to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Though lacking bin Laden’s personal charisma, Zawahiri became the intellectu­al force behind many of al- Qaeda’s grandest ambitions, including its apparently unsuccessf­ul efforts to acquire nuclear and biological weapons. And after the group’s forced retreat from its base in Afghanista­n in early 2002, it was largely Zawahiri who led alQaeda’s resurgence in the lawless tribal region across the border in Pakistan, according to longtime observers of the terrorist group.

In his later years, Zawahiri presided over al- Qaeda at a time of decline, with most of the group’s founding figures dead or in hiding and the organizati­on’s leadership role challenged by aggressive upstarts such as the Islamic State.

He remained the terrorist group’s figurehead but failed to prevent the splinterin­g of the Islamist movement in Syria and other conflict zones after 2011. Rumored to be in ill health, he became known for his long disappeara­nces from public view, interrupte­d occasional­ly by the release of essays, books and videotaped sermons that showcased a characteri­stically dry, pedantic style that seemed ill-suited for the age of social media.

“Zawahiri is the ideologue of al- Qaeda, a man of thought rather than a man of action,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterter­rorism expert and adviser to four U.S. presidents, said in a September interview. “His writings are ponderous and sometimes unbelievab­ly boring.”

As the second decade after 9/11 neared its end, Zawahiri’s ability to shape events or exert leadership within the widely scattered jihadist movement looked increasing­ly in doubt, Riedel said. “He is not the charismati­c figure that al- Qaeda needs,” he said, “and I don’t see anyone else on the horizon who would be.”

Path to terrorism

Zawahiri’s path to becoming one of the world’s most recognized terrorists had an unlikely beginning in an upper-middleclas­s, religiousl­y diverse Cairo suburb that was home to many of Egypt’s most accomplish­ed families.

Zawahiri’s father, Mohammed Rabie al-zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacolo­gy, and his maternal grandfathe­r was a president of Cairo University. At the time of Zawahiri’s birth on June 19, 1951, his hometown of Maadi had a large Jewish population and boasted more churches than mosques.

An earnest, academical­ly gifted youth, he was influenced early in life by one of his uncles, Mahfouz Azzam, an impassione­d critic of Egypt’s secularist government, and by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian author and intellectu­al who became one of the founders of 20th-century Islamist extremism.

According to an account by Lawrence Wright in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower,” it was the execution of Qutb by Egypt’s government in 1966 that inspired Zawahiri, then 15, to organize a group of young friends into an undergroun­d cell devoted to the overthrow of Egypt’s government and the establishm­ent of an Islamic theocracy. Zawahiri’s small band of followers eventually grew into an organizati­on known as Jamaat al-jihad, or the Jihad Group.

Even as his political views hardened, Zawahiri was pursuing a career in the healing arts, earning a degree in medicine from Cairo University and serving briefly as an army surgeon. He eventually opened a practice in a duplex owned by his parents, and he occasional­ly tended patients at a Cairo clinic sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhoo­d, a Sunni Islamist political opposition group. He married Azza Nowair, the daughter of a wealthy, politicall­y connected Egyptian family, and the couple eventually would have a son and five daughters.

While working at the Muslim Brotherhoo­d clinic, Zawahiri was invited to make the first of numerous visits to refugee camps along the Afghanista­n-pakistan border.

There, he patched up the wounds of mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanista­n and crossed paths with a charismati­c young Saudi, bin Laden.

At the time, however, Zawahiri was preoccupie­d with managing his own revolution­ary movement. His Jihad Group initiated a series of plots in the early 1980s to assassinat­e Egyptian leaders and played a role in the slaying of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981.

The massive government crackdown that followed landed Zawahiri in prison, along with hundreds of his followers. Zawahiri was released after serving a three-year sentence, but he would later claim in a memoir that he was tortured during his imprisonme­nt, an experience that he said left him more determined to destroy Egypt’s government through force.

During his nomadic years after prison, Zawahiri traveled frequently to South Asia and increasing­ly found common cause with the mujahideen and with bin Laden himself, who came to rely on the Egyptian as his personal physician. The Saudi suffered from low blood pressure and other chronic ailments and required frequent glucose infusions. Zawahiri’s steadiness in rendering aid in the face of Soviet bombardmen­t in Afghanista­n cemented the doctor’s reputation among the mujahideen, as well as a lifelong friendship with bin Laden.

Zawahiri made at least one visit to the United States in the 1990s, a brief tour of California mosques under an assumed name to raise money for Muslim charities providing support for Afghan refugees. At the same time, he continued to press his Egyptian followers toward larger and more spectacula­r attacks at home, believing that such shockingly brutal tactics would command media attention and drown out more-moderate voices that advocated negotiatio­n and compromise.

While living in Afghanista­n in 1997, Zawahiri helped plan a savage attack on foreign tourists at Egypt’s famous Luxor ruins, a 45minute rampage that claimed the lives of 62 people, including Japanese tourists, a 5-year-old British girl and four Egyptian tour guides.

Luxor’s repercussi­ons

Ordinary Egyptians were repulsed by the slaughter, and support for Zawahiri and his Jihad Group evaporated. Soon afterward, Zawahiri told followers that operations in Egypt were no longer possible and that the battle was shifting to Israel and its chief ally, the United States. The Jihad Group officially merged with bin Laden’s larger and betterfina­nced al- Qaeda, or “The Base.”

Zawahiri was a senior adviser to bin Laden at the time of al- Qaeda’s first high-profile terrorist attacks, the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds of people. Three years later, working from al- Qaeda’s base in Afghanista­n, he helped oversee the planning of what would become one of history’s most audacious terrorist attacks: the Sept. 11 strikes in New York and Washington.

As the Sept. 11 hijackers were dispatched to begin training in U.S. cities, Zawahiri was put in charge of planning follow-on waves of terrorist attacks intended to further weaken America’s economy and resolve. He launched an ambitious biological weapons program, establishi­ng a laboratory in Afghanista­n and dispatchin­g disciples to search for sympatheti­c scientists as well as lethal strains of anthrax bacteria.

U.S. intelligen­ce officials believe that Zawahiri’s efforts might well have succeeded, had he not run out of time. Within weeks of the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center towers, a U.s.-backed military campaign drove al- Qaeda’s Taliban allies out of power in Afghanista­n and forced Zawahiri to abandon his bioweapons lab.

U.S. bomber aircraft targeted al- Qaeda leaders’ offices and homes, including the compound where Zawahiri lived. His wife was trapped in rubble after the roof collapsed, but she reportedly refused to be rescued out of fear that men would see her without her veil. She was later found dead of hypothermi­a.

Escape to Pakistan

Zawahiri fled with bin Laden to Pakistan’s tribal region, where both men — now with bounties of $25 million on their heads — went into hiding to avoid capture. Though there were no confirmed sightings of either man in the following decade, the CIA launched at least two missile strikes inside Pakistan, in 2006 and 2008, that reportedly targeted buildings recently occupied by the Egyptian.

Despite the intense manhunt, Zawahiri continued to make regular appearance­s in videos posted on al- Qaeda-friendly websites. U.S. officials believe he also continued to direct numerous terrorist operations, including the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, that resulted in more than 100 deaths.

Though he occasional­ly sparred with younger extremists over tactics — he argued that mass killings of Muslims in Iraq had undermined support for alQaeda — he never publicly wavered in his hatred for the West or his support for violent jihad.

“The entire world is our field against the targets of the Zionist Crusade,” he said in a February 2009 video. “And it is not for the enemy to impose on us the field, place, time and way in which we fight.”

The death of bin Laden in May 2011 thrust Zawahiri into the No. 1 position, a role for which, in hindsight, he may not have been ideally suited. The Egyptian, with his dry, cerebral style, failed to inspire jihadists as powerfully as bin Laden or younger leaders such as Jordanian Abu Musab al-zarqawi, founder of the Iraqi insurgency that would later become the Islamic State.

After the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, Zawahiri sought to assert command over the patchwork of locally led Islamist groups fighting for dominance in Syria, Iraq and Libya. His effort would ultimately fail.

The leading al- Qaeda affiliate in Syria, known initially as the al-nusra Front, eventually chose to distance itself from the parent organizati­on, refusing to formally accept the al- Qaeda brand. The other major faction, the Islamic State, broke with Zawahiri entirely and drew a public denunciati­on from him.

In the decade that followed, partisans within both groups would duel over strategy, tactics and even basic beliefs, but rarely, if ever, looked to Zawahiri for guidance or resolution of their disputes.

By 2020, Zawahiri had become increasing­ly distant, contenting himself to write books and essays and only rarely appearing on video. In September 2021, a proal- Qaeda website released a new video in which the aging Zawahiri spoke for an hour and, as if to push back on rumors of his death, made pointed references to recent news events.

But Zawahiri made no mention of the 20th anniversar­y of the 9/11 attacks, nor did he address the Taliban takeover of Afghanista­n in August, just a month before the video surfaced. He did, however, use the occasion to resurrect his fiery rhetoric from the past, calling once again for a renewal of al- Qaeda’s violent campaigns against enemies everywhere.

“Just as they have come together from all corners of the world to fight us,” he said in the video, “we must hit them hard everywhere.”

 ?? JIM Watson/pool/reuters ?? President Biden addresses the nation Monday to announce the killing of al-qaeda leader Ayman al-zawahiri in a drone strike.
JIM Watson/pool/reuters President Biden addresses the nation Monday to announce the killing of al-qaeda leader Ayman al-zawahiri in a drone strike.
 ?? ?? Ayman al-zawahiri
Ayman al-zawahiri
 ?? VISUAL NEWS/GETTY IMAGES) ?? TOP: Osama bin Laden, left, and Ayman al-zawahiri are seen during an interview with a Pakistani journalist in Afghanista­n that was published in November 2001, two months after the attacks on the United States left nearly 3,000 people dead. Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as head of al-qaeda.
VISUAL NEWS/GETTY IMAGES) TOP: Osama bin Laden, left, and Ayman al-zawahiri are seen during an interview with a Pakistani journalist in Afghanista­n that was published in November 2001, two months after the attacks on the United States left nearly 3,000 people dead. Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as head of al-qaeda.
 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? ABOVE: Zawahiri is seen in Egypt in 1982, while he was on trial after the assassinat­ion of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat the previous year.
GETTY IMAGES ABOVE: Zawahiri is seen in Egypt in 1982, while he was on trial after the assassinat­ion of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat the previous year.

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