A US drone strike in Kabul killed Ayman al Zawahiri, a top Al Qaeda leader, in what is being seen as a major blow to the group. Here are some highlights of his life journey.

As the news of Ayman al Zawahiri’s killing broke out on Monday, reactions pouring in from the world elicited praise and reflected President Biden’s “delivered justice” sentiment. 

What made the 71-year-old Al Qaeda supremo one of the prime US targets and how did he arrive to the point where he had to live discreetly, away from the public glare?

Zawahiri was accused by the US of plotting the Sept 11 attacks alongside Osama bin Laden, who was killed 11 years ago in another US raid in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. 

9/11 made both Laden and Zawahiri the faces of Al Qaeda. 

But who was this man, who appeared to have a calm demeanour in often released photos and videos, while the group that he led spread fear across the world?

Family of doctors and scholars

Born in Egypt on June 19, 1951, Zawahiri belonged to a middle-class, educated family that lived in the suburbs of Cairo. Many in his family were learned scholars and doctors with professional degrees. 

His grandfather, Rabia al Zawahiri, was a highly respected and influential man who served as the grand imam of Al Azhar — a mosque and a reputed centre of Islamic learning that enjoys credibility across the Muslim world. 

His great-uncle, Abdel Rahman Azzam, was the first secretary of the Arab League, while his father was a professor of pharmacology at Cairo University. 

In 1974, Zawahiri graduated from Cairo University’s medical school and obtained a master’s degree in surgery four years later. He opened a medical clinic in the suburbs of Cairo but soon gave up on it.

While growing up, Zawahiri was religiously observant. At the age of 15, he was taken into custody by the Egyptian police for his Muslim Brotherhood membership — the country’s oldest and largest religious party.

Journey to radicalisation

In his youth, Zawahiri took inspiration from the narrative of radical groups looking to overthrow the Egyptian government and those of other Arab countries to be replaced with their brand of religious rule.

When Egyptian Islamic Jihad became active in the country in the 1970s, Zawahiri became a member and later its leader. In 1981, he was rounded up and tortured along with hundreds of other members suspected of assassinating President Anwar Sadat. 

While he was cleared from the charges of assassinating the president, he was convicted and was subsequently put in jail for three years for illegal possession of arms. After serving his sentence, Zawahiri left for Saudi Arabia and later went to Afghanistan to fight the invading Soviet forces. It was there that he met Laden. 

When Laden formed Al Qaeda in 1988, Zawahiri was with him and later merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad into it. 

Zawahiri brought Al Qaeda organisational skill and experience — honed underground in Egypt, evading Egyptian intelligence — that allowed the outfit to organise cells of followers and strike around the world.

A literary man, Zawahiri’s influence within Al Qaeda came from his writings and arguments that shaped and set the outfit’s ideological goals. The New York Times called Zawahiri Al Qaeda’s “intellectual spine”.

In recent years, Al Qaeda’s influence and appeal had been waning with the emergence of the Daesh. In this context, the execution of Zawahiri is a blow to the group.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies