Ayman al-Zawahiri obituary

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FILE PHOTO: Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian linked to the al Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in an image supplied by Dawn newspaper November 10, 2001. Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

After nearly two decades in hiding, the Egyptian terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri, successor to Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaida, has died aged 71. He was killed by two missiles fired from a US drone at his home in central Kabul. Zawahiri provided the arguments and the systematic organisation that persuaded Bin Laden, six years his junior, to operate on an international scale, culminating in the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the US that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths. However, after Bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011, Zawahiri made threats, but never repeated atrocities against the west on the scale of 9/11.

Once leader, he steered an al-Qaida demoralised by Bin Laden’s death, and later by the emergence in Iraq of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) movement. Though the rival jihadis rapidly outdid al-Qaida in brutality, after five years they were largely crushed, leaving Zawahiri’s now more decentralised operation intact, and spreading.

The extent to which Zawahiri had shaped al-Qaida showed in the 9/11 attacks. He placed Egyptian allies in key positions, improved the organisation’s use of media and introduced the blind-cell structure he had used in Egyptian jihadi circles, with lethal results.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri both came from privileged backgrounds. The former was the son of a wealthy Saudi building contractor; the latter a product of Egypt’s educated class. Each was raised in religious but not especially radical households. Both gave up their chosen career paths – medicine in Zawahiri’s case, engineering in Bin Laden’s – to fight a global jihad against what they perceived as enemies of Islam.

Zawahiri officially became leader of al-Qaida in June 2011, six weeks after US Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Al-Qaida affiliates from Yemen to Iraq, Pakistan to Malaysia, soon swore their allegiance to him. Zawahiri had formally been Bin Laden’s deputy since 1998 and chaired al-Qaida’s consultative council, and its religious committee, which issued fatwas. As a spokesperson, he often appeared on video; seven weeks after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, for instance, he hailed “the blessed London battle … a slap to the face of the tyrannical, crusader British arrogance”.

Nonetheless, delays in choosing Bin Laden’s successor suggested schisms at the top and coincided with setbacks for the group. Starting in December 2010 in Tunisia and January 2011 in Egypt, young, mainly secular, protesters ousted two longstanding authoritarian Arab presidents. Al-Qaida, by contrast, had used violence for decades yet had not toppled a single ruler. Zawahiri’s claims rang hollow when in September 2011 he broadcast an hour-long oration about how 9/11 had prepared the way for what became known as the Arab spring, or what he called “Arab volcano”. By contrast with the charismatic Bin Laden, he seemed austere and less inspirational.

Zawahiri, right, with Bin Laden in a television image
Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, with Osama bin Laden in a television image from an undisclosed location shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Photograph: AP

Zawahiri was born in Maadi, a comfortable suburb of Cairo, in the year before the Free Officers overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. His father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacology at Cairo University. His mother, Umayma Azzam, came from a political family. Ayman’s paternal grandfather had been grand imam of al-Azhar University, the world’s most respected seat of Sunni Muslim learning. His uncle chaired the Egyptian Labour party and his grand-uncle Abdel-Rahman Azzam was the first secretary-general of the Arab League.

From a state school Zawahiri went to Cairo University, and in 1974 graduated as a doctor. Proficient in English, French and Arabic, he took a master’s degree in surgery four years later and practised in the Egyptian military.

At the age of 15 he was arrested for belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. He called secular pan-Arabism a false panacea and in his book A Bitter Harvest (1991) rejected the Brotherhood’s ameliorative approach.

From Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian ideologue killed in an Egyptian jail in 1966, he accepted millenarian ideas that the world was in a state of ignorance, that all leaders of Muslim countries deserved denunciation as apostates, and that only armed struggle and sharia (religious law) could restore past Islamic glories. Zawahiri called democracy “a new religion that deifies humans and gives them the authority to formulate their own laws … while Islam gives the right to legislate exclusively to Allah”. More than anything, he wrote, Egypt’s rapid defeat in the June 1967 war persuaded him that existing Arab structures were bankrupt.

In 1978, he married Azza Nowari, and soon travelled to Pakistan, where from 1980 he treated those injured in the Soviet invasion in neighbouring Afghanistan. Witnessing battlefield horrors fuelled his rage, and on returning home he galvanised the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and a wing of the ultra-violent Takfir wal Hijra (Denunciation and Migration).

In October 1981 extremists assassinated the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and when Cairo authorities could not prove Zawahiri’s direct complicity they charged him with illegal possession of arms. He was confined to a tiny cell and reportedly beaten every day, allegedly betraying associates under electric torture.

After his release in 1984, the following year he left Egypt for Saudi Arabia and then Pakistan, never to return. He treated Afghan mujahideen, recruited and trained Arab volunteers to fight Russia’s Red Army, and met Bin Laden in Peshawar in 1986. Both men were inspired by the Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam, with whom Bin Laden had set up the Afghan Services Bureau, Maktab al-Khidamat, in 1984. While Azzam wanted to attack Israel, Zawahiri’s chief target was Cairo.

After Azzam was murdered in 1989, Zawahiri became Bin Laden’s new mentor, personal physician, spokesperson and arms procurer. Many credit him with steering Bin Laden towards dreams of global conquest, alongside Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric who died in a US jail in 2017.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri accused the Saudi royal family – “brothers of Satan” – of betraying Islam through deference to a Jewish-controlled west. After the 1991 Gulf war they charged the US with stealing Arab oil, propping up corrupt regimes, persecuting Palestinians and Iraqis, and occupying the holy soil of Arabia.

An undated picture of Ayman Zawahiri
An undated picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri as a younger man. Photograph: Balkis Press/Abaca/Rex/Shutterstock

In 1992, Zawahiri’s EIJ and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) initiated a bloody campaign against state officials and Coptic Christians in Egypt. An EIJ attempt in 1993 on the life of the Egyptian prime minister Atef Sidqi backfired, when he survived; a schoolgirl was killed. As popular support ebbed and police harassment grew in Egypt, Zawahiri began to focus more on international operations. In June 1995, EIJ gunmen fired at the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; in November the faction bombed the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad.

Zawahiri also helped plan the massacre near Luxor in which 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed in November 1997. He was sentenced to death in absentia in April 1999, along with his brother Mohammed, an EIJ military commander. By now, indigenous EIJ leaders had disowned him and renounced violence, feeling he had acted peremptorily by absorbing them into Bin Laden’s coalition in 1998.

Zawahiri was granted asylum in Denmark in 1991, visited Dagestan, Yemen and Switzerland, held Dutch, Swiss and French passports and used a variety of names and considered founding a television channel in the Netherlands. He even gained a US green card and toured American mosques in 1993, ostensibly seeking charity for indigent Afghan orphans.

Bin Laden moved his headquarters to Sudan late that year and Zawahiri followed. From his vast farm north of Khartoum he promoted al-Qaida’s expanding business interests, deepened ties with Sudan’s political elite, pioneered suicide attacks in Egypt and in 1996 set up Islamist sleeper cells in Bosnia.

But infighting among militants, penetration by Egyptian spies and pressure from Washington led Sudan to expel al-Qaida. Zawahiri sought a new haven: in December 1996 Russian authorities, not realising his true identity, jailed him for six months after he tried to enter Chechnya. The next year he returned to Afghanistan, where in 1998 he co-signed with Bin Laden a fatwa that launched what they called the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, known as al-Qaida.

Zawahiri urged Muslims to kill US soldiers and civilians and plunder their wealth. On 6 August that year, he warned Americans of “a response which we will write, with God’s help, in a language they will understand”. The next day, terrorists bombed two US embassies in east Africa, killing more than 200 people. The FBI offered $5m for his capture, later raised to $25m.

In 2000, Zawahiri was blamed for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. In 2001, he hired the Malaysian biochemist Yazid Sufaat to cultivate anthrax in a laboratory near Kandahar airport. Then came the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, atrocities consistent with Zawahiri’s approach. Interpol sought his arrest.

That December, Zawahiri’s wife Azza and at least one of his children were killed in an American bombing raid in Afghanistan. The defeat of the country’s Taliban government severely hampered al-Qaida’s global effectiveness.

‘Justice has been delivered’: al-Qaida leader killed in US drone strike, Biden says – video

In 2005, Zawahiri pleaded with Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in post-Saddam Iraq, to stop killing Shia civilians and Sunni foes in such numbers. Muslim support for al-Qaida fell until Zarqawi’s death the following year. Zawahiri further inflamed intra-Muslim tensions when he accused Iran – and by extension, Shias – of being “religion-sellers” who helped the UK and US bring down the Taliban.

Even before Bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri had established links with groups in Algeria, Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Egyptian Sinai around 2006, and with al-Shabaab in Somalia in 2008. In 2009, Zawahiri approved the merger of Saudi and Yemeni militants into Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, which proved to be the most loyal and effective of franchises. By this stage, US intelligence called Zawahiri al-Qaida’s strategic commander, relegating Bin Laden to ideological figurehead.

However, the killing by US drone strikes of 14 AQAP senior leaders between 2011 and 2020 damaged al-Qaida, as did the rise of Zarqawi’s fanatical heirs. In April 2013 the former leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the birth of IS in Raqqa, Syria. Soon his zealots were fighting al-Qaida’s official Syrian subsidiary, the al-Nusra Front. They attracted Nusra deserters and younger foreign recruits, including from Britain, France, the US and Australia. Unlike al-Qaida, IS conquered actual territory. They ultimately ruled an area as large as Britain between eastern Syria and northern Iraq. From Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque, Baghdadi declared a caliphate in July 2014 – something else Zawahiri had never done – and started marching on Baghdad.

Zawahiri furiously rejected Baghdadi’s demand for allegiance. In January 2017 he called IS cowardly killers and power-hungry liars who “exceeded the limits of extremism” and “misused the enthusiasm of youth”. Eventually an unlikely alliance of Shia and Kurdish militias, Iranian land forces and US air power defeated IS. Al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019.

By then Zawahiri was the “defining authority” of Hurras al-Din, a coalition of seven factions fighting moderate Syrian rebels, US forces and the Assad regime. But a rebranded Nusra Front disavowed ties with al-Qaida in 2017.

In 2014, Zawahiri launched al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent to counter IS in Asia. In 2020, UN monitors admitted that al-Qaida was “deeply embedded” with the Taliban, and Zawahiri had directly advised them in talks with Washington. Al-Qaida cooperated in particular with the Taliban’s radical Haqqani network.

Al-Qaida benefited from the 2020 US-Taliban Doha agreement, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan starting in April 2021, and especially the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan the following August. In 2016, Zawahiri had declared loyalty to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s then new amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful). Five years later he was delighted when the elusive Akhundzada became Afghanistan’s de facto leader.

Clearly, the Taliban had broken their 2020 promise to the Trump administration to sever ties with al-Qaida. A June 2022 UN report noted increased al-Qaida communications, spoke of influence over Taliban ministers, and warned that Afghanistan might become a base for resumed al-Qaida long-range attacks.

Zawahiri soon moved from the Pakistani borderlands to join his family in the affluent Sherpur neighbourhood of Kabul.

He is survived by three wives and a number of children.

Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, terrorist leader, born 19 June 1951; died 31 July 2022

Source: The Guardian

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