He was killed by a US drone strike in Kabul, and the US previously placed a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s head. The Egyptian is seen as the man who, together with Osama Bin Laden, planned the attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York. Who was the 71-year-old al-Qaeda leader?
“Zawahiri was not the rock star among jihadist leaders. He was a boring man, an intellectual,” says VPRO journalist Abdou Bouzerda in NOS Radio 1 News. “He came from a middle-class family in Egypt and was a surgeon.”
Zawahiri was born in 1951 and grew up in Cairo. Photos show him wearing glasses and a thick gray beard. He also wore a white turban. At a later age he had a large bump on his forehead, probably caused by praying a lot.
Zawahiri was a follower of radical Islam almost all his life. “It started as a teenager when he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and later as an activist during his studies at Cairo University,” says Jorrit Kamminga of the Clingendael Institute. “In the 1970s, his activism focused mainly on overthrowing the Egyptian government. In the 1980s, when he first visited Pakistan, he gradually became part of the international jihad.”
Zawahiri was one of hundreds of militants who were arrested and tortured in the Egyptian prison after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, according to the AP news agency. This experience would have radicalized him even more. Seven years later, in 1998, he was present when bin Laden founded al-Qaida. His own Egyptian militant group was absorbed into this terrorist organization.
Identity and tactics
While bin Laden gave an identity to al-Qaeda and took care of the money flows, Zawahiri was the man of tactics. He was considered the ideologue of the terrorist organization and was responsible for an organized network of militants located not only in Afghanistan but all over the world. “Within al-Qaeda, he was the intellectual. He wrote numbers of books. For example, about how to wage a dark jihad against the United States,’ says Bouzerda.
Although not much is known about the relationship between bin Laden and Zawahiri, we do know that it was very close, says Kamminga. “Because Zawahiri would also have served as Bin Laden’s personal physician.”
Zawahiri, along with bin Laden, played a major role in the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, when four civilian planes were hijacked. Two crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York. In total, more than 2,700 people were killed. Zawahiri previously played a key role in the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
When bin Laden was killed by the United States in 2011, Zawahiri took over his role as leader of al-Qaeda. He was not an outspoken leader, says Bouzerda. “He was the most important symbol for local jihadist organizations. A symbol they rallied behind.”
Zawahiri was killed on the balcony of his home in Kabul. He is said to have moved to the Afghan capital with his family last August when the Taliban seized power in the country, Reuters news agency reported, citing Taliban sources.
According to correspondent Aletta André, it is striking that Zawahiri lived in a good neighborhood. “It is not surprising that Zawahiri was in Afghanistan, because the ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban still exist. But people are surprised by where he stayed in the country. There are many embassies in that area and rich people live there. “
Bouzerda also calls the location very remarkable. According to him, al-Qaeda’s leaders are very cautious and stay mainly in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The leaders are aware of the danger of drone attacks. This also shows how safe al-Qaeda feels in the Taliban area, if Zawahiri – aware of the danger – has gone to Kabul after all.”
This is footage from right after the attack on Zawahiri:
Smoke in Kabul after drone attack on al-Qaida leader
Zawahiri’s death is a blow to al-Qaeda, says Bouzerda. But the terrorist organization will soon overcome that blow. “In the short term, al-Qaida will have a new leader again. They have never had a problem filling the vacancy.”