Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been killed in a US drone attack in Afghanistan, was the group’s key ideologue and strategist, masterminding its global network and planning attacks on the United States.

The 71-year-old Egyptian eye doctor had central roles in the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the 9/11 attacks on the Washington DC and New York City, where nearly 3,000 people were killed.

He was named as the group’s leader two months after founder Osama Bin Laden was killed by the US in 2011.

While Bin Laden came from a privileged background in a prominent Saudi family, al-Zawahiri had the experience of an underground revolutionary. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but it was al-Zawahiri who brought tactics and organisational skills.

“Bin Laden always looked up to him,” Bruce Hoffman, a professor and expert in security studies at Georgetown University, told the Associated Press news agency.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri walking through a mountainous area in 2003.
A TV grab from Al Jazeera shows Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) walking with the group’s founder Osama Bin Laden in 2003. Bin Laden was killed by the US in 2011 after a raid on his hideout in Pakistan [Al Jazeera via AFP]

Al-Zawahiri first rose to prominence when he stood in a courtroom cage after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

“We have sacrificed and we are still ready for more sacrifices until the victory of Islam,” shouted al-Zawahiri, wearing a white robe, as fellow defendants enraged by Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel chanted slogans.

Al-Zawahiri served a three-year jail term for illegal arms possession but was acquitted of the main charges in the assassination.

A trained surgeon — one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor — al-Zawahiri went to Pakistan on his release where he worked with the Red Crescent treating mujahideen fighters wounded in Afghanistan battling Soviet forces.

That was when he became acquainted with bin Laden, who had joined the Afghan resistance.

Egypt attacks

Taking over the leadership of Islamic Jihad in Egypt in 1993, al-Zawahiri was a leading figure in a campaign in the mid-1990s to overthrow the government and set up a purist Islamic state in which more than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.

The US embassy in Kenya in ruins after the attack.
Al-Zawahiri had a central role in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, that left the building in ruins and more than 200 dead [File: JN/JDP/Reuters]

Egyptian authorities mounted a crackdown on Islamic Jihad after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in June of 1995 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The greying, white-turbaned al-Zawahiri responded by ordering a 1995 attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two cars filled with explosives rammed through the compound’s gates, killing 16 people.

He was also linked to the attacks on foreign tourists in the city of Luxor, Egypt, in 1997, which left 62 people dead.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced al-Zawahiri to death in absentia.

By then, he was already helping Bin Laden to form al-Qaeda and for years was believed to be hiding along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In a eulogy for Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri promised to continue attacks on the West, recalling the threat of the group’s founder that “you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the lands of the Muslims”.

But he watched in dismay as al-Qaeda was effectively sidelined by the 2011 Arab revolts, launched mainly by middle-class activists and intellectuals opposed to decades of autocracy, and as the emergence of the ISIL (ISIS) group in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria drew global attention.

Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, al-Zawahiri was a grandson of the grand imam of Al Azhar, one of Islam’s most important mosques.

He was brought up in Cairo’s leafy Maadi suburb, a place favoured by expatriates from the Western nations he railed against.

The son of a pharmacology professor, al-Zawahiri was reportedly arrested at 15 for joining the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He also found inspiration in the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 on charges of trying to overthrow the state.

People who studied with al-Zawahiri at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine in the 1970s describe a lively young man who went to the cinema, listened to music and joked with friends.

“When he came out of prison he was a completely different person,” said a doctor who studied with al-Zawahiri and declined to be named.



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