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From Cairo doctor to terrorist leader


Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda leader after years as its main organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival Islamic State militants hampered his ability to inspire spectacular attacks on the West.

Al-Zawahiri, 71, was killed in a U.S. drone strike over the weekend, U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday.

He had watched with dismay as al-Qaeda was effectively sidelined by the Arab revolts of 2010-2011, launched mainly by middle-class activists and intellectuals opposed to decades of autocracy.

In the years since bin Laden’s death, US airstrikes have killed a succession of al-Zawahiri’s aides, weakening the veteran Egyptian militant’s ability to coordinate globally.

Despite a reputation as an inflexible and combative personality, al-Zawahiri managed to nurture loosely affiliated groups around the world that grew to lead devastating local insurgencies, some of them rooted in the unrest resulting from the Arab Spring. The violence has destabilized a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

But the days of al-Qaeda as a centralized, hierarchical network of plotters that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 are long gone. Instead, militancy has returned to its roots in local-level conflict, driven by a mix of local grievances and incitement by transnational jihadist networks using social media.

Al-Zawahiri’s origins in Islamist militancy go back decades.

The world first heard of him was when he stood in a courtroom after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

“We have sacrificed, and we are always ready to do more until Islam wins,” al-Zawahiri shouted, dressed in a white robe, as his co-defendants enraged by the treaty Sadat’s peace with Israel chanted slogans.

Al-Zawahiri served a three-year prison sentence for illegal possession of weapons, but was acquitted of the main charges.

A skilled surgeon – one of his aliases was The Doctor – al-Zawahiri traveled to Pakistan upon his release, where he worked with the Red Crescent to treat wounded Islamist Mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces.

During this period, he met bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who joined the Afghan resistance.

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 establish a purist Islamic state. More than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.

Egyptian authorities launched a crackdown on Islamic Jihad after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in June 1995 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Al-Zawahiri, grizzled and wearing a white turban, responded by ordering a 1995 attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Two cars packed with explosives slammed into the gates of the complex, killing 16 people.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced al-Zawahiri to death in absentia. At that time, he was leading the Spartan life of an activist after helping bin Laden form al-Qaeda.

Videotape released by Al Jazeera in 2003 showed the pair walking down a rocky mountainside – an image Western intelligence hoped would provide clues to their whereabouts.

Global Jihad Threats

FILE – A photo of al-Qaida leader Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in this still image from video released September 12, 2011. (SITE Monitoring Service/Handout via Reuters TV)

For years, it was believed that al-Zawahiri was hiding along the forbidden border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He took over the leadership of al-Qaeda in 2011 after US Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan. Since then, he has repeatedly called for global jihad, with an AK-47 at his side during video messages.

In a eulogy for bin Laden, al-Zawahiri vowed to continue attacks on the West, recalling the Saudi-born activist’s threat that “you won’t dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the lands of the Muslims”. “

As it turns out, the emergence of the even more radical Islamic State group in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria has attracted as much, if not more, attention from Western counterterrorism authorities.

Al-Zawahiri often attempted to stir up passions among Muslims by commenting online on sensitive issues such as US policy in the Middle East or Israeli actions against the Palestinians, but his delivery was seen as lacking Ben’s magnetism. Laden.

On a practical level, al-Zawahiri was reportedly involved in some of al-Qaeda’s largest operations, helping to organize the 2001 bombings, when al-Qaeda-hijacked airliners were used to kill 3,000 people in United States.

He was indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The FBI put a $25 million bounty on his head on its most wanted list.

Prominent family

Al-Zawahiri did not emerge from the slums of Cairo, like others drawn to militant groups that promised a noble cause. Born in 1951 into a prominent Cairo family, al-Zawahiri was a grandson of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, one of Islam’s most important mosques.

Al-Zawahiri grew up in the leafy suburb of Maadi in Cairo, a place favored by expatriates from Western countries against whom he rebelled. The son of a professor of pharmacology, al-Zawahiri first embraced Islamic fundamentalism at the age of 15.

He was inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist executed in 1966 for trying to overthrow the state.

People who studied with al-Zawahiri at Cairo University Medical School in the 1970s describe a high-spirited young man who went to movies, listened to music, and joked around with friends.

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

In the courtroom cage after Sadat was assassinated during a military parade, al-Zawahiri addressed the international press, saying the activists had been subjected to severe torture, including beatings and whippings. wild dog attacks in prison.

“They arrested wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and sons in a trial to put psychological pressure on these innocent prisoners,” he said, throwing a wild-eyed man next to him and other activists.

Other prisoners said these conditions further radicalized al-Zawahiri and set him on the path to global jihad.

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