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Who was Ayman Al-Zawahiri and why did the United States kill him?  – NBC Chicago

A US drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, who helped Osama bin Laden plan the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and ensured the survival and spread of al-Qaeda in the years that followed. President Joe Biden announced the killing of al-Zawahiri on Monday, delivering a major victory against terrorism just 11 months after US troops left the country.

A look at the leader of al-Qaeda, who evaded American capture for 21 years after suicide bombings that in many ways changed America and its relationship with the rest of the world.

WHO WAS AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI?

Americans who lived through the 9/11 attacks may not remember al-Zawahiri’s name, but many have known his face for more than two decades: a bespectacled, faintly smiling man invariably shown in photos at bin Laden’s side as the two arranged the strike in the United States.

Egyptian, al-Zawahiri was born on June 19, 1951 into a comfortable family in a leafy and sleepy suburb of Cairo. A religious observer since childhood, he immersed himself in a violent branch of a Sunni Islamic revival that sought to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.

Al-Zawahiri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but also traveled through Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing the Afghan war against the Soviet occupiers there and meeting the young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants rallying to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops.

He was among hundreds of activists captured and tortured in an Egyptian prison after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981. Biographers say the experience further radicalized him. Seven years later, al-Zawahiri was present when Bin Laden founded Al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahiri merged his own Egyptian militant group with Al-Qaeda. He brought al-Qaeda the organizational skills and experience—honed underground in Egypt, eluding Egyptian intelligence—that enabled al-Qaeda to organize partisan cells and strike around the world. .

WHY WAS AL-ZAWAHIRI IMPORTANT?

After years of quietly gathering suicide bombings, funds and plans for the 9/11 attack, Zawahiri ensured that al-Qaeda would survive the ensuing global manhunt to attack in new.

On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahiri rebuilt the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was supreme leader of branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. With a credo of targeting enemies near and far, al-Qaeda has carried out years of relentless attacks after 9/11: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. The attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among al-Qaeda’s last devastating attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counter-terror raids and missiles launched by the United States and others have killed al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and smashed parts of the network.

HOW WAS AL-ZAWAHIRI KILLED?

Around sunrise on Sunday, Al-Zawahiri stepped out onto the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, and apparently lingered there, as noted by US intelligence. A US drone that day fired two Hellfire missiles at the al-Qaeda leader as he stood, according to US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the strike.

Its presence in Afghanistan had been widely suspected for some time, analysts said. US officials learned this year that Zawahiri’s wife and other family members had recently moved to a safe house in Kabul. Zawahiri quickly followed, senior administration officials said.

US officials, joined by top leaders up to Biden, spent painstaking months confirming his identity — and his fateful practice of standing alone on that same balcony — and planning the strike.

WHAT DOES AL-ZAWAHIRI’S KILLING MEAN FOR AL-QAIDA?

NBC 7’s Dave Summers spoke with a San Diego-based terrorism expert about the impacts of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It depends on the al-Qaeda lieutenant who succeeds him. And after decades of American and other strikes, it’s a pretty thin bunch. Al-Qaeda expert Ali Soufan singles out an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as one of the candidates feared by the West, given al-Adl’s revered status within al-Qaeda , his experience and the potential of his charisma to roll back Al Al Qaeda defectors who have moved on to other groups.

But al-Qaeda as a whole now faces a succession crisis and a precarious future. This includes rivalries against aggressive extremist groups that sprung up after 9/11 and are also present in Afghanistan.

Charles Lister, another expert on violent extremist networks, wrote after the killing that the nature and spread of conflict in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia today favors local rather than global jihadist organizations.

Al-Qaeda’s next leader will have to prove his relevance against “confident affiliates who have been more willing to push back against a central leadership perceived as detached from the realities of conflict thousands of miles away,” Lister wrote.

DID THE TALIBAN KNOW AL-ZAWAHIRI WAS IN AFGHANISTAN?

Without a doubt, said US officials. It was unclear on Monday how long al-Zawahiri had been in Afghanistan, but his presence there had been widely rumored for some time, said Asfandyar Mir, a Central Asia expert at the American Institute for Peace. Not only that: the house where Al-Zawahiri lived with his family belonged to a senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior US intelligence official.

It could be that someone in the Taliban sold out al-Zawahiri and his family to US or foreign interests. But the concern after al-Zawahiri’s death in the heart of the Afghan capital was that the Taliban were allowing armed extremist organizations to move into Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, as the West had feared.

NBC Chicago

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