The life of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, was killed by a drone strike, according to President Joe Biden, who spoke from the White House on Monday. In order to permanently remove him from the battlefield, Biden remarked, “I authorized a precise strike.”

Zawahiri, Biden said, “was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11, one of the most responsible for the attacks that murdered 2,977 people on American soil. For decades, he was the mastermind of attacks against Americans.”

“Now, justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer,” he continued. “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm. We make it clear again tonight, that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

Ayman Al-Zawahiri had been indicted for his alleged role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.

Early Years

It is important to look at the past of the leader of the organization as it presents many common characteristics with the rest of the leaders of other organizations around the world. Educated, coming from a bourgeois family, he sacrificed any social advancement to follow his radicalized beliefs.

Zawahiri was born on June 19, 1951, in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, into a devout middle-class family that included doctors and academics. While still in school, Zawahiri became interested in political Islam. At the age of 15, he was detained for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamist group in Egypt.

His grandfather, Rabia’a al-Zawahiri, was an imam at al-Azhar University in Cairo. His great-uncle, Abdel Rahman Azzam, was the first secretary of the Arab League.

Zawahiri first carried on the family history by establishing a medical facility in a Cairo suburb, but he soon found himself drawn to extremist Islamist movements that demanded the overthrow of the Egyptian government.

He was arrested in 1981 along with hundreds of other people who were thought to be members of the gang after many of them killed President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in Cairo while posing as soldiers.

By striking a peace agreement with Israel and by rounding up hundreds of his detractors in an earlier security operation, Sadat had infuriated Islamist radicals.

Zawahiri emerged as a figurehead for the prisoners throughout the mass trial and was captured on camera telling the judge: “We are Muslims who believe in our religion. We are trying to establish an Islamic state and Islamic society.”

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad

The major objective of the group at first was to topple the Egyptian government and replace it with an Islamic state. Later, it widened its objectives to include defending Israeli and American interests at home and abroad. The EIJ has seen setbacks as a result of multiple operators being detained around the world, most recently in Yemen and Lebanon.

Al-Zawahiri was a surgeon and received his medical degree and master’s in surgery from Cairo University. He rose to the position of emir within the EIJ.

He spent the years 1981 to 1984 in prison for his part in the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He was given a death sentence in absentia during the 1999 “Returnees from Albania” trial as a result of his efforts against the Egyptian government, including his plotting of the 1995 attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan.

Al-Sharif was the real leader even if Ayman al-Zawahiri was “the one in front.” From 1988 through 1992, Nabil Na’eem presided over the organization as its head. After that, the al-Zawahiri faction joined forces with Al-Qaeda, and as time went on, the two organizations’ operations in Afghanistan effectively merged.

Al-Zawahiri was frequently described as Al-“lieutenant” Qaeda’s or “second in command,” however this phrase is inaccurate because it suggests a hierarchical relationship. Al- Zawahiri’s doctrinal and operational leadership, along with the financial resources of bin Laden, form the current Al-Qaeda organization.

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