Ayman al-Zawahiri

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Osama bin Laden (left) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (right)
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Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951–2022) was the leader of the radical Islamist group al-Qaeda upon the untimely demise of Osama bin Laden. Before he put tinfoil on his head and moved to Pakistan he was a promising young Egyptian physician. Zawahiri studied under many of the founders of modern jihadi thought. Zawahiri came from a distinguished family of scholars and diplomats.[1][note 1] The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb was a very close family friend.[2] Zawahiri has urged Muslims all over the world to seek "jihad against the Americans and Jews."[3]

Jailed in Egypt[edit]

Beginning in the 1970s Zawahiri headed the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He and his organization fell under the influence of the Qutbist, Muhammad abd-al-Salam FarajWikipedia, who masterminded the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Salam Faraj argued the necessity of destroying "the near enemy", that is, the secular regime of Nasser and Sadat, before fighting "the far enemy" - Israel. Egypt's secular leaders had lost three embarrassing wars to Israel in recent memory, 1948, 1967, and 1973; the religiously oriented Qutbists wanted to redress the national disgrace. Zawahiri stockpiled weapons in his medical clinic for an armed uprising against the regime. He was arrested along with 300 others, and became the chief spokesman of the conspirators. Speaking to a global television audience in English from a cage while on trial, he shouted[4],

We are Muslims! We are Muslims who believe in their religion! We are Muslims who believe in their religion, both in ideology and practice, and hence we tried our best to establish an Islamic state and an Islamic society!

He was convicted for possession of arms and sentenced to three years, avoiding the more serious charge of conspiracy to murder. In prison Zawahiri came in competition with the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman[note 2] to become the chief figure head of two competing factions of the Egyptian Islamist movement.[note 3]

Released in 1984, Zawahiri fled to Peshawar as part of the Afghan jihad support network[note 4] where he first became acquainted with Osama bin Laden. By 1992 both men found themselves as exiles in Sudan, each contemplating to destroy "the near enemy" -- the apostate regimes of their respective homelands. Bin Laden had financial resources, and Zawahiri an experienced terrorist organization, so the two formed Al-Qaeda but somewhat on a different model than predecessor terrorist groups.

Forms alliance with bin Laden[edit]

Bin Laden came to view the United States as the power behind the Saudi throne and convinced Zawahiri to alter his priority of overthrowing the "near enemy", Mubarek's Egypt.[5] Bin Laden's controversial new strategy was a reversal of conventional Qutbist wisdom by focusing on defeating "the far enemy" first - the United States - as the way to bring about the Islamic state and caliphate.[note 5] The apostate regimes of Mubarek and the Saudis could be dealt with later.

Bin Laden envisioned a cooperative alliance between Muslims, including Shiites. In the early days in Sudan, Iran provided weapons and Hezbollah provided explosives training to the bin Laden-Zawahiri network.[6] The Khobar Towers bombing of American military personal was one such joint Sunni-Shiite attack in which the evidence points back to bin Laden and the Iranians.[note 6]

Zawahiri publicly cemented the alliance between his Islamic Jihad organization and bin Laden on 23 February 1998 in the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. Zawahiri committed his group to bin Laden's without consulting its members. The new organization issued a fatwa to all Muslims stating,

to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.

Many of Zawahiri's group were wary of bin Laden’s plans for war on the far enemy. Ayman's brother Muhammad, the deputy emir of the terrorist group, quit over the alliance with al-Qaeda. By the summer of 1999, Zawahiri was ousted as the leader of Islamic Jihad and replaced by leadership that wanted to limit the relationship with bin Laden and concentrate the group's fight against the near enemy Egypt, not America. Without bin Laden, money became scarce and morale declined. Zawahiri was able to resume control by Spring 2001.[7]

The full merger of Zawahiri and bin Laden's organizations occurred in June 2001, yet as 9/11 drew near there were still serious reservations in the group about the wisdom and unprofitableness of "throwing good seeds on barren land" (martydom operations in a non-Islamic country).[8]

Zawahiri became the second-in-command and face of al-Qaeda and was often seen in propaganda videos promoting Shahid (marriage with G-d aka suicide missions). After bin Laden's death, Zawahiri assumed al-Qaeda's leadership. For reasons unknown, he appeared with about twice the frequency as the late Osama Bin Laden in publicity videos taunting the West or his rival for power Caliph Ibrahim, trying to recruit young Muslims away from ISIS and to his cause.

Embassy bombings[edit]

Zawahiri and his brother Muhammad received death sentences in absentia in Egypt. The CIA was behind the kidnapping of five members of an Albanian cell who were sent to Cairo and confessed under torture. A month later Zawahiri wrote a note to an Arabic newspaper in London:

We are interested in briefly telling the Americans that their message has been received and that the response, which we hope they will read carefully, is being prepared, because, with God’s help, we will write it in the language that they understand.

The following day, simultaneous suicide bombings destroyed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; two hundred and twenty-three people died and more than five thousand were injured.

In 1995 Zawahiri was behind a failed assassination attempt on the life of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek while on a state visit to Ethiopia.

Zawahiri the man[edit]

A West Point study of jihadi theorists says that Zawahiri, while portrayed by Western media as the main brain in the Jihadi Movement, was totally insignificant in the Jihadi intellectual universe and that he and bin Laden have had little to no impact on Jihadi authors and thinkers.[9]

While in prison Zawahiri snitched out a bunch of jihadi buddies, including his good friend and hero Essam al-QamariWikipedia, which is why he beat the murder-conspiracy charge, got released early, and made a quick exit out of Egypt.[10]

It is rumored that he may have been behind the 1989 death of Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a rival for power and bin Laden's wallet.[11]

After conducting a mock-Sharia trial in Sudan of two 13 and 14 year old boys who were victims of homosexual rape he ordered them to be executed. The two were being blackmailed by the Egyptian intelligence service and Zawahiri had them executed allegedly for treason.

In 2013 Zawahiri expelled the Islamic State from al Qaeda after they repeatedly refused to obey his orders.


In August 2022, President Joe Biden announced that Zawahiri had been killed by a drone strike conducted on 31 July. [12] He had been tracked to Kabul, Afghanistan by US intelligence, where he had seemingly re-located to following the Taliban's takeover of the country.

See also[edit]


  1. Shaykh Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, a cousin of Zawahiri's grandfather, was a major player at the 1926 International Islamic Caliphate Conference in Cairo. The Caliphate, The Hijaz and the Saudi Wahabi Nation State, Imran N. Hosein, MASJID DARUL QUR’AN, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, 1996.
  2. Rahman was convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations headquarters and is currently serving a life sentence in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in the U.S.
  3. The factions then were Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) headed by Zawahiri, and al-Gama'a al-IslamiyyaWikipedia, or the Islamic Group. The Islamic Group which focused on overthrowing the Egyptian government and rejected bin Laden's call for making war on the far enemy - the United States, became the largest jihadist organization in the Arab world, dwarfing competitors.
  4. Most Arab Afghan jihadis spent little or no time in Afghanistan, serving in support roles smuggling weapons and supplies from Peshawar, Pakistan to the Afghanis, who did most of the fighting against the Soviet Union.
  5. Bin Laden viewed both Superpowers as Paper tigersWikipedia ripe for defeat; many jihadists consider the Afghan jihad as the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  6. Immediately after the bombing Zawahiri called bin Laden to congratulate him on the operation and later, 13 members of the Saudi Hezbollah were indicted; Hezbollah is an armed wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards wholly funded by the government of Iran.


  1. Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, Ayman Al-Zawahiri: The Ideologue of Modern Islamic Militancy, Counterproliferation Paper No. 21, USAF Counterproliferation Center, March 2004
  2. The Road Ahead for Al-Qaeda: The Role of Aymaan al Zawahiri, Siddharth Ramana, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 17/06/2011.
  3. http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/09/28/inv.second.command/
  4. Zawahiri's defense speech, 4 December 1982 on YouTube.
  5. Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures, Assaf Moghadam & Brian Fishman, Taylor & Francis, May 10, 2011, p.49.
  6. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/09/16/the-man-behind-bin-laden
  7. Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive, ALAN CULLISON, The Atlantic, SEP 1 2004.
  8. The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Fawaz A. Gerges, Cambridge University Press, Apr 13, 2009, p. 187 pdf.
  9. Militant Ideology Atlas, Combating Terrorism Center at Westpoint, November 2006.
  10. Aboul-Enein, p. 6.
  11. http://www.kashmirherald.com/profiles/zawahiri6.html
  12. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-62387167