Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda leader after years as its main organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival militants ISIS hobbled his ability to inspire sizeable attacks on the West.
Zawahiri, 71, was killed in a US drone strike, US President Joe Biden said on live television on Monday evening. US officials said the attack took place on Sunday in the Afghan capital Kabul.
In the years following bin Laden’s death in 2011, US air strikes killed a succession of Zawahiri’s deputies, weakening the veteran Egyptian militant’s ability to coordinate globally.
Despite a reputation as an inflexible and combative personality, Zawahiri managed to nurture loosely affiliated groups around the world that grew to wage devastating insurgencies, some of them rooted in turmoil arising from the so-called Arab Spring. The violence destabilized a number of countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
But al-Qaeda’s days as the centrally directed, hierarchical network of plotters that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were long gone. Instead, militancy returned to its roots in local-level conflicts, driven by a mix of local grievances and incitement by transnational extremist networks using social media.
Zawahiri’s origins in militancy went back decades.
The first time the world heard of him was when he stood in a courtroom cage after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.
Zawahiri served a three-year jail term for illegal arms possession, but was acquitted of the main charges.
A trained surgeon – one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor – Zawahiri went to Pakistan on his release where he worked with the Red Crescent treating mujahideen guerrillas wounded in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces.
During that period, he became acquainted with bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who had 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 set up a purist “Islamic” state. More than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.
Egyptian authorities mounted a crackdown on “Islamic Jihad” after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in June of 1995 in Addis Ababa. The greying, white-turbaned Zawahiri responded by ordering a 1995 attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Two cars filled with explosives rammed through the compound’s gates, killing 16 people.
In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced Zawahiri to death in absentia. By then he was living the spartan life of a militant after helping Bin Laden to form al-Qaeda.
A videotape aired by Al Jazeera in 2003 showed the two men walking on a rocky mountainside – an image that Western intelligence hoped would provide clues on their whereabouts.
Threats of global extremism
For years Zawahiri was believed to be hiding along the forbidding border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This year, US officials identified that Zawahiri’s family – his wife, his daughter and her children – had relocated to a safe house in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri at the same location, a senior administration official said.
He was killed in a drone attack when he came out on the balcony of the house on Sunday morning, the official said. No one else was hurt.
Zawahiri assumed leadership of al-Qaeda in 2011 after US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan. Since then, he repeatedly called for global extremism, with an Ak-47 as his side during video messages.
As it turned out, the emergence of the even more hardline ISIS in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria drew as much, if not more, attention from Western counter-terrorism authorities.
On a practical level, Zawahiri is believed to have been involved in some of al-Qaeda’s biggest operations, helping organize the 2001 attacks, when airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda were used to kill 3,000 people in the United States.
He was indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of the 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 Cairo’s slums, like others drawn to militant groups who promised a noble cause. Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, Zawahiri was a grandson of the grand imam of Al Azhar, one of Islam’s most important mosques.
Zawahiri was raised in Cairo’s leafy Maadi suburb, a place favored by expatriates from the Western nations he railed against. The son of a pharmacology professor, Zawahiri first embraced fundamentalism at the age of 15.
He was inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, an extremist executed in 1966 on charges of trying to overthrow the state.
People who studied with Zawahiri at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine in the 1970s describe a lively young man who went to the cinema, listened to music and joked 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.