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Al-Zawahiri’s path went from clinic in Cairo to top of al-Qaeda – NBC Chicago

The doors of jihad opened for Ayman al-Zawahiri as a young doctor in a Cairo clinic, when a visitor arrived with a tempting offer: a chance to treat Islamic fighters fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

With that offer in 1980, al-Zawahiri embarked on a life that for three decades took him to the top of the world’s most feared terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, after the death of Osama bin Laden.

Already a seasoned activist who had sought to overthrow the “infidel” Egyptian regime since the age of 15, al-Zawahiri made a trip to the Afghan war zone that lasted only a few weeks, but it opened up his eyes on new possibilities.

What he saw was “the training course preparing young Muslim mujahideen to launch their next battle against the great power that would rule the world: America,” he wrote in a 2001 biography-manifesto.

Al-Zawahiri, 71, was killed this weekend by a US drone strike in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden announced the death Monday evening.

The strike is likely to lead to greater disarray within the organization than bin Laden’s death in 2011, as it is far less clear who his successor would be.

Al-Zawahiri played a crucial role in guiding the jihadist movement towards the United States as the right-hand man of bin Laden, the young Saudi millionaire he met in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Under their leadership, the Al-Qaeda terrorist network carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil, the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s No. 1 enemy. But he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without his deputy.

While bin Laden came from a privileged background in a prominent Saudi family, al-Zawahiri had experience as an underground revolutionary. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahiri brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.

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

When the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 demolished al-Qaeda’s haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawahiri ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt his leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.

He also became the public face of the movement, broadcasting a steady stream of video messages while bin Laden largely went into hiding.

With his thick beard, thick-rimmed glasses, and a prominent bruise on his forehead from prostration in prayer, he was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He picked ideological fights with critics within the jihadist camp, waving his finger in reprimanding fashion in his videos. Even some key figures in al-Qaeda’s central leadership have been pushed back, calling him too controlling, secretive and divisive – a contrast to Bin Laden, whose soft-spoken presence many militants described in adoring terms , almost spiritual.

Yet he reshaped the organization from a centralized terrorist planner to the head of a franchise chain. He led the creation of a network of self-sustaining branches throughout the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and Asia.

In the decade since 9/11, Al-Qaeda has inspired or directly participated in attacks in all of these regions as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the bombings of a train at Madrid in 2004 and the London transit bombings in 2005. More recently, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has shown itself capable of planning attacks on American soil with an attempted bomb on a US airliner in 2009 and a package bomb attempt the following year.

With the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan after 20 years, one might get the impression that nothing has changed in US foreign relations since 2001. NBCLX political editor Noah Pransky talks to the experts about what’s different in 2021.

After bin Laden was killed in a US raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, al-Qaeda proclaimed al-Zawahiri its supreme leader less than two months later.

The jihad against America “does not end with the death of a commander or a leader”, he said.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East threatened to deliver a major blow to al-Qaeda, showing that jihad was not the only way to get rid of Arab autocrats. It was mainly liberals and pro-democracy leftists who led the uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the longstanding goal that al-Zawahiri failed to achieve.

But al-Zawahiri sought to co-opt the wave of uprisings, insisting they would have been impossible if the 9/11 attacks had not weakened America. And he urged Islamic hardliners to pick up the slack in countries where leaders had fallen.

Al-Zawahiri was born on June 19, 1951, the son of an upper-middle-class family of doctors and scholars in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.

From an early age, he was inflamed by the radical writings of Sayed Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist who taught that Arab regimes were “infidels” and needed to be replaced by an Islamic regime.

In the 1970s, when he obtained his medical degree as a surgeon, he was active in militant circles. He merged his own militant cell with others to form the Islamic Jihad group and began trying to infiltrate the military – at one point even stockpiling weapons in his private clinic.

Then came the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad militants. The killing was carried out by another cell in the group – and al-Zawahiri wrote that he learned of the plot just hours before the assassination. But he was arrested along with hundreds of other activists and served three years in prison.

After his release in 1984, al-Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan and joined Arab militants across the Middle East fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets. He courted bin Laden, who became a heroic figure for his financial support of the mujahideen.

Al-Zawahiri tracked bin Laden to his new base in Sudan, and from there he led a reassembled Islamic Jihad group in a violent campaign of bombings aimed at overthrowing the US-allied Egyptian government .

The Egyptian movement failed. But al-Zawahiri would bring to al-Qaeda the tactics he honed in Islamic Jihad.

He promoted the use of suicide bombings, to become the hallmark of Al-Qaeda. He plotted a 1995 suicide car bomb attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad that killed 16 people – presaging al-Qaeda’s most devastating 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania which killed more than 200 people, the attacks for which al-Zawahiri has been charged in the United States.

In 1996, Sudan expelled bin Laden, who brought his fighters back to Afghanistan, where they found refuge under the radical Taliban regime. Once again, al-Zawahiri followed.

NBC Chicago

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