Ayman al-Zawahiri: How a young Cairo doctor became world’s most wanted terrorist

Ayman al-Zawahiri: How a young Cairo doctor became world’s most wanted terrorist
The Egyptian medic who became the world’s most feared terrorist

According to the FBI website, al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri was the world’s most wanted terrorist.

His aliases included “the doctor” and “the teacher” among dozens of other names, but announcing his death, US president Joe Biden called the 71-year-old “Osama bin Laden’s leader”.

That confirmed the importance of al-Zawahiri’s position.

From a middle class Egyptian family, his foray into the world of terrorism and jihad began in a Cairo clinic where he was working as a young doctor and eye surgeon.

He was offered a chance to treat Islamic fighters injured battling against Soviet forces, a year after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Already radicalised, he jumped at the chance. And with it, his life and world history was to change.

Al-Zawahiri had been moving in militant circles in Egypt prior to that. He joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad militant group and pursued his teenage aim to overthrow Cairo’s “infidel” regime.

He was jailed after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat along with hundreds of other suspects of Islamist activists. In prison he was regularly tortured, which led to further radicalisation.

After leaving prison in 1984, he returned to Afghanistan and worked with militants pouring in from the Middle East fighting Soviets alongside the Afghans.

His 2001 biography-cum-manifesto read that what he saw in Afghanistan was “the training course preparing Muslim mujahedeen youth to launch their upcoming battle with the great power that would rule the world: America”.

Under al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda network carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil, 9/11. This made Bin Laden America’s Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy.

Al-Zawahiri had the experience of an underground revolutionary. Bin Laden provided al-Qaida with charisma and money, but al-Zawahiri brought tactics and organisational skills.

“Bin Laden always looked up to him,” said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University.

The guerrilla and underground revolutionary traits of of al-Zawahiri complemented the charisma, intelligence and money bin Laden brought to a deadly militant organisation.

He also became the movement’s public face, putting out a constant stream of video messages while bin Laden largely hid.

This made him the perfect successor of the most dangerous Islamic terrorism movement when a US raid caught Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed him in May 2011.

He was declared the group’s leader less than two months later.

In a sharp rebuke to Washington, he said at the time: “The jihad against America “does not halt with the death of a commander or leader”.

He had made several efforts to ensure his mentor and fellow terrorist mastermind’s survival by building leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas and filled the absence of bin Laden by streaming video messages but eventually went on to take his place.

Al-Zawahiri was known to more ideologically pedantic and over controlling, secretive and divisive by some key figues in the terrorism group’s central leadership.

He was not like the soft-spoken, revered figure adored in spiritual terms bin Laden.

He lent some of the tactics Al Qaeda has widely deployed in terrorising and maiming people in their deadly attacks like promoting the use of suicide bombings, which has become the outfit’s hallmark.

And he also reshaped the organisation from a centralised planner of terror attacks into the head of a franchise chain. He led the creation of a network of autonomous branches around the region, including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and Asia.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings around the Mideast presented a major blow to al-Qaeda, showing that jihad was not the only way to get rid of Arab autocrats.

It was mainly pro-democracy liberals and leftists who led the uprising that toppled Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, the longtime goal al-Zawahri failed to achieve. But al-Zawahri sought to co-opt the wave of uprisings, insisting that they would have been impossible if the 9/11 attacks had not weakened America.

And he urged Islamic hardliners to take over in the nations where leaders had fallen.

His death, announced on Monday evening, comes at a time the terrorist organisation has not put out the face of a successor, suggesting a turmoil caused by the absence of mastermind.