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From middle-class doctor to the world’s most wanted: Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri?

Ayman al Zawihiri was a key figure behind the 11 September 2001 attacks against the United States. He spent most of his 20-year tenure with a bounty of $25 million on his head.

For the second half, this bespectacled Egyptian doctor led al Qaeda. He is best known for his role as Number 2 to Osama Bin Laden, the charismatic founder and leader of one of the most barbaric terrorist organizations in the world.

Zawahiri assumed command of the group only after bin Laden was killed in a raid by the US Special Forces in Pakistan in 2011.

Under his stewardship Al Qaeda struggled to make an impact, especially since its surviving leaders were either on the run, or hiding from US, British, and other west counter-terrorism forces. Meanwhile, rival Islamist extremist organizations were emerging with a savvier approach social media and more recruits, including Islamic State or ISIS.


Zawahiri (71) remained, up to the weekend, the most prominent Islamist militant to escape death or capture after George Bush’s so-called “war against terror” in response to al Qaeda’s airliner crash in Washington and New York.

It will mean that he died in a CIA drone attack in Kabul is going to be viewed as a significant moment by the thousands of American and British spies, special forces personnel and military personnel who have never stopped searching for him in their mission to disrupt and destroy al Qaeda and prevent it from ever posing a threat again.

In a Monday night address to the nation, Joe Biden stated that “they never forget” and confirmed the death of Zawahiri. He revealed that Zawahiri, the terror chief, had moved to “downtown Kabul”, to reunite his family.

More information about Al Qaeda

Image Ayman Al-Zawahiri (right) with Osama Bin Laden in an image that was published in November 2001

‘Comfortable upbringing’

This risky move contrasts starkly with the years Zawahiri spent trying to hide his location for many years – something he is widely believed to have done in Pakistan’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

This could indicate that the United States’ controversial decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan to face a resurgent Taliban one year ago may have inadvertently created conditions for Zawahiri to escape the shadows. Despite promises to end ties, the Taliban have maintained a close relationship to al Qaeda for years.

Zawahiri’s happy beginnings are far from overt drone strikes in Afghanistan that led to his death.

On 19 June 1951, he was born to a middle-class Cairo family in Maadi. Zawahiri was the son of a professor in pharmacology.

Zawahiri, a gifted academic student, chose to study medicine at the University of Cairo. He was also active politically, and held increasingly extreme views about the Egyptian government. With a few of his followers, he founded the Jihad Group.

Zawahiri was a family man and he married Azza Nowair, a woman named Azza Nowair. They had six children together – one boy and five girls.

Meeting Osama bin Laden

According to the Washington Post, he opened a medical clinic and began to visit refugee camps at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Zawahiri applied his medical training to treat the wounds of Afghan mujahideen rebels fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan government.

He reportedly met Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born man, during this period.

After the 1981 death of the former Egyptian president, Turmoil was returned to Egypt. Zawahiri was detained for three-years. He claimed that he was tortured during this period.

He was able to meet bin Laden again after his release and became both his personal doctor and an increasingly trusted ally. A FBI wanted poster offering a bounty up to $25m (PS20.4m), for information about his whereabouts stated that Zawahiri used a variety of aliases including The Doctor and The Teacher.

Zawahiri was thought to have been a thinker and not a fighter. He traveled extensively in the 1990s around the globe, using false passports, seeking new funding sources.

He had already settled in Jalalabad, Afghanistan by 1997. His militant group merged with bin Laden’s more successful al Qaeda in 1997 – Arabic for “the base”.

Zawahiri is credited for helping to plan the 9/11 attacks and other al Qaeda atrocities. Zawahiri is also believed to have initiated an unsuccessful attempt by the group at acquiring nuclear and biological weapons before they were forced into hiding by the US-led invasion in Afghanistan.

Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy while hiding in hide, appeared on many videos uploaded to websites supporting al Qaeda, ranting about his terrorist views.

Zawahiri took a much lower profile after his boss’s death and encountered friction within al Qaeda’s ranks as well as with other Islamist extremist organizations.

He remained a high target for US counter-terrorism forces.


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