Killed at 71, Ayman al-Zawahri led a life of secrecy and violence
By Douglas Martin and Alan Cowell
Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born surgeon-turned-jihadi 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 U.S. officials, led a life steeped in secrecy, betrayal, conspiracy and violence, most murderously in the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States 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 counterterrorism experts considered al-Zawahri more responsible.
With his white turban and dense, gray beard, his forehead marked by the bruising prized by some Muslims as denoting piety from frequent prayer, al-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 Islamic militant who now studies the subject, said that of the two men, al-Zawahri was a more influential leader. “When you listen to him, you can tell clearly that he has the ambition and is dedicated 100% to achieve this mission,” Hamid said.
During his leadership of al-Qaida, the organization’s global influence waned as the Islamic State group rose. But the group remained a threat, with affiliates in several countries carrying out attacks. And al-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, al-Zawahri led a cat-and-mouse existence, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia and hunted by adversaries, including U.S. 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 United States, 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 U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the suicide bombing of the American destroyer USS 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 al-Zawahri, his deputy and chosen successor. Drone strikes decimated al-Qaida’s leadership in a sustained effort to degrade the organization and avenge the Sept. 11 attacks. On at least one occasion, al-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 a more than a month, al-Qaida was silent on its future leadership.
Then al-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.
A rising competitor
By that time, a newer generation of jihadis 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 group rose to prominence as a new beacon of jihadi 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 centralized command structure while its affiliates, particularly in Yemen and Syria, pledged allegiance to al-Zawahri in a sharpening and bloody feud with the Islamic State group, which, paradoxically, had begun as an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Both groups were rooted in Sunni Muslim extremism. But the distinctions between them were legion. While the Islamic State group sought hegemony among jihadi groups and thirsted for territorial expansion, al-Qaida’s affiliates showed increasing readiness to cooperate with other groups and little appetite for occupation.
Al-Zawahri castigated the Islamic State group and its leaders for their practice of killing Shiite Muslim civilians, fearing that such killings would taint the jihadi cause among Muslims. And while Islamic State group disciples reinforced the group’s reputation for brutality through videos of the decapitations of Western hostages and other acts of savagery, al-Zawahri opposed such displays, apparently to avoid alienating potential supporters.
Sajjan M. Gohel, a specialist in international terrorism based in London, wrote that al-Zawahri was happy to let the Islamic State group face attacks by U.S.-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, al-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 jihadis 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 Sept. 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 jihadis from the Islamic State group.
According to Gohel, Hamza bin Laden had at least two wives, including a daughter of al-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, U.S. officials said.
A prominent family
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 grand imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old university that is a center 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-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” (2006), said that the al-Zawahris’ reclusive, conservative, even backward ways caused them to be perceived as “hicks.”
Al-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 al-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-Qaeda: 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, al-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. Al-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, al-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, al-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 al-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 offense 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 recognized 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. Al-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 al-Zawahri felt over this betrayal was a major reason for his leaving Egypt after he was released in 1984.
Deviating From Islam
In 1998, al-Zawahri wrote a document intended to unite militant groups in the common cause of killing Americans anywhere, not just in the Middle East. In 2001, his organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, officially merged with bin Laden’s Qaida network to create Qaida al Jihad.
Al-Zawahri had the delicate task of explaining al-Qaida’s deviation from Islamic teachings that prohibit killing innocent people, particularly Muslims, and that bar suicide. 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. “His ideas negate the existence of common ground with others, irrespective of religion.”
Al-Zawahri became familiar to the world as the man sitting at bin Laden’s side in videos, and, later, by himself.
His turn of phrase shone in his greeting to President Barack Obama in 2008: “Be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them.”
But he could also counsel moderation, if public relations required it. In 2005, he wrote Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, that he should stop attacking mosques and making videos of beheadings. In 2003, he scrubbed a plan to flood New York subway tunnels with cyanide because, he said, it “was not sufficiently inspiring.”
By 1990, Islamic guerrillas, backed by Pakistan and the CIA, had forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the Arabs who had come to fight the Soviets were leaving. Sudan’s government invited bin Laden there. He and al-Zawahri bought farms in Sudan and converted them into military training bases. They also established camps in Yemen.
Al-Zawahri organized several terrorist acts, including an assassination attempt on the Egyptian prime minister. The bomb missed its target, but 21 people were wounded and a 12-year-old schoolgirl was killed.
In 1995 and 1996, a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia killed Americans. In 1998, al-Zawahri commissioned a study on Jewish influence in the United States; it led to the United States’ being formally placed on Islamic Jihad’s list of acceptable targets. Bin Laden was so pleased that he raised Islamic Jihad’s annual budget from $300,000 to $500,000.
As a result of the founding document written by al-Zawahri, the International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders was formed in February 1998, combining the organizations of bin Laden and al-Zawahri. Its goal: kill Americans everywhere.