Al Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri Killed in U.S. Drone Strike: Obituary

Zawahiri is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy chief of al Qaeda, is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.AFP through Getty Photographs

The loss of life of Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, in accordance with a number of experiences—is the tip of an period for al Qaeda, the jihadi group liable for the largest-ever terrorist assault on U.S. soil. A devoted Islamist revolutionary for many of his life, Zawahiri might be finest remembered for main al Qaeda after U.S. particular operations forces killed the group’s extra charismatic founder, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.

Al Qaeda stagnated throughout Zawahiri’s management. Regardless of some notable successes—retaining the loyalty of key lieutenants, establishing new associates in locations reminiscent of South Asia, and convincing current allies to focus extra on focusing on the US—U.S. counterterrorism forces stored al Qaeda’s leaders on the run and in hiding, the place they have been targeted extra on making an attempt to remain alive and related than on plotting spectacular assaults in opposition to the West. It was no small feat that Zawahiri was in a position to survive for therefore lengthy, regardless of the U.S. supply of as much as $25 million in reward for any data that might result in his seize. However a rival group, the Islamic State, largely eclipsed al Qaeda throughout a lot of this time.

Zawahiri’s most enduring legacy often is the roles he performed as an ideologue and organizer, selling and spreading jihadi revolution and terror. Al Qaeda means “the bottom” in Arabic, and that’s what bin Laden and Zawahiri hoped to offer: a basis of assist for jihadis around the globe to assist them expel international invaders, topple their very own regimes, and confront the “far enemy”—the US and the broader West.

After U.S. particular operations forces killed bin Laden in a 2011 raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Zawahiri declared in a video assertion that his former comrade would proceed to terrify the US from past the grave. However Zawahiri, even then, maybe realized his personal limitations as a pacesetter. He warned that the risk was not from al Qaeda alone. “Right now, and thanks be to God, America shouldn’t be going through a person or a gaggle … however a rebelling nation, which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadi renaissance difficult it wherever it’s,” he mentioned. Zawahiri would spend a lot of his time making an attempt to prepare and direct this broader resistance, with at finest combined success.

An image taken from a CNN-obtained video shows Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in 1998

A picture taken from a CNN-obtained video exhibits Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in 1998

A picture taken from a group of videotapes obtained by CNN exhibits members of the higher echelon of al Qaeda, together with Zawahiri (left) and Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan on Could 26, 1998. CNN through Getty Photographs

Born in 1951 to an elite Egyptian household, Zawahiri may need appeared an unlikely revolutionary. His family held outstanding positions in Egyptian society. An incredible uncle was the grand imam of Al-Azhar, one of many world’s main facilities for the examine of Islam; his father-in-law was president of Cairo College. Many different family have been docs or pharmacists. Zawahiri’s father, Mohammad Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacology; Ayman himself grew to become a surgeon whilst he embraced radical Islam.

As detailed by journalist Lawrence Wright, Zawahiri grew to become a revolutionary at 15. Supposedly disgusted by the Egyptian regime’s imprisonment and execution of figures reminiscent of Sayyid Qutb, a number one jihadi theologian, Zawahiri cut up off from the extra reasonable Muslim Brotherhood and established an underground cell of his personal. That group finally merged with others to turn into al-Jihad (also known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, to tell apart it from the Palestinian group of the identical identify).

On the time, Zawahiri’s focus was on overthrowing secular Arab governments and changing them with regimes ruled by Islamic regulation—not on preventing the US and even Israel. As late as 1995, he would declare that “Jerusalem won’t be conquered except Cairo is conquered and the battle in Egypt and Algeria is gained.”

Egyptian soil was fertile for Islamists coming of age within the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies. The crushing Israeli victory within the 1967 Six-Day Struggle made younger Arabs query why God had deserted them; many got here to the conclusion that their leaders and societies had turned their backs on Islam and solely a zealous embrace of the religion would restore God’s favor.

With the loss of life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the brand new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, noticed Islamists as a helpful counterweight to his leftist rivals and gave them ample room to prepare and unfold their message. Sadat, nevertheless, finally made peace with Israel and—even worse within the eyes of radicals reminiscent of Zawahiri—refused to implement strict Islamic regulation.

Members of al-Jihad assassinated Sadat in October 1981. Zawahiri was indirectly concerned within the assassination, however he was swept up within the ensuing police crackdown and tortured in jail. He revealed the situation of one other al-Jihad chief, a betrayal that lengthy haunted him and tarnished his picture. “The hardest factor about captivity,” he later wrote, “is forcing the mujahid, beneath the drive of torture, to admit about his colleagues, to destroy his motion together with his personal fingers, and supply his and his colleagues’ secrets and techniques to the enemy.”

After his launch in 1984, Zawahiri fled first to Saudi Arabia, the place he practiced drugs, after which to Pakistan, the place he used his medical abilities to assist Afghans who have been preventing the Soviet invasion of their nation. Whilst his Egyptian motion rose and fell, Zawahiri labored with bin Laden in Pakistan to assist the anti-Soviet resistance. Collectively, they based al Qaeda in 1988, with a brand new focus: to assault the “far enemy”—primarily the US.

All of the whereas, Zawahiri was additionally busy rebuilding al-Jihad, finally taking on management within the early Nineteen Nineties. Al-Jihad, together with its rival the Islamic Group, resumed operations in Egypt and managed to hold out vital terrorist assaults there—in addition to an tried assassination in 1995 of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak throughout a go to to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However because the Nineteen Nineties wore on, Egypt’s safety companies, with vital U.S. backing, steadily dismantled the motion, and the inhabitants turned in opposition to them.

An Egyptian courtroom sentenced Zawahiri to loss of life in absentia in 1999. At that time, Zawahiri was left with a scattered group of exiles, who have been perpetually in need of cash and in want of a haven from which to prepare. These efforts included an unsuccessful try to determine a base in Chechnya. (Years later, core members of the group held in Egyptian prisons would recant, rejecting violence and Zawahiri’s management.)

In the course of the Nineteen Nineties, Zawahiri’s ties with bin Laden and al Qaeda took on higher significance. He served as bin Laden’s No. 2, serving to the group to hold out assaults such because the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, which killed 224 folks, together with 12 People.

Zawahiri himself doesn’t seem to have performed a serious function within the 9/11 assaults. Bin Laden made the important thing choices, and lieutenants reminiscent of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ran the precise operation. Nonetheless, the devastating suicide missions introduced Zawahiri higher notoriety.

In addition they proved expensive for al Qaeda. The group misplaced its haven in Afghanistan after the US invaded and swiftly toppled the Taliban. The US additionally launched a international intelligence marketing campaign, working with allied regulation enforcement and safety companies to determine, monitor, and arrest members of al Qaeda cells around the globe together with these of related jihadi actions.

A number one jihadi thinker, Abu Musab al-Suri, lamented that the assaults forged “jihadis right into a fiery furnace … a hellfire that consumed most of their leaders, fighters, and bases.”

After these setbacks, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq represented a golden alternative for al Qaeda. Right here was proof of al Qaeda’s central declare of a U.S. plot to subjugate Islam. Iraqis and lots of international Muslims took up arms, giving al Qaeda a brand new area by which to wage warfare.

Sadly for Zawahiri, nevertheless, the Iraqi jihadis proved extremely impartial. They initially took on the al Qaeda identify however targeted on focusing on rival Shiite Muslims and waged a brutal warfare in opposition to Sunnis who didn’t assist them—two techniques ineffectually opposed by Zawahiri. Iraqi jihadi brutality nonetheless tarred al Qaeda with the identical brush and discredited it amongst many Muslims.

Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from a video released on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda released a message from bin Laden's successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that year.

Zawahiri is seen in a nonetheless picture taken from a video launched on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda launched a message from bin Laden’s successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that 12 months.

Zawahiri is seen in a nonetheless picture taken from a video launched on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda launched a message from bin Laden’s successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that 12 months. Reuters TV

When U.S. forces killed bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri took the helm, offering continuity when the motion may have fallen aside. Underneath his management, al Qaeda made a number of essential modifications. He gave affiliated teams extra authority to pursue their very own aims, justifying this as a method to maintain the general motion sturdy. He additionally took on new associates reminiscent of al-Shabab within the Horn of Africa, serving to the group to develop explosives to focus on U.S. aviation. That relationship gave al Qaeda a stronger foothold in Africa, the place it could purpose to develop.

Zawahiri additionally proved affected person and pragmatic. He continued a working relationship with Tehran, the main Shiite energy, regardless of mutual hostility between lots of his followers and Shiite Muslims. To this present day, Iran nonetheless supplies not less than a restricted haven to main al Qaeda members.

Zawahiri referred to as for some restraint or discretion in selecting targets, in distinction to the Islamic State, and he sensibly warned jihadis in opposition to seizing territory prematurely. His lack of charisma, nevertheless, plagued him as a pacesetter.

Whilst a youth, a fellow jihadi reportedly instructed Zawahiri, “It doesn’t matter what group you belong to, you can’t be its chief.” His public statements have been dreary, his writings boring, and he didn’t encourage the identical public admiration as did bin Laden. Equally, and in contrast to bin Laden, he had no battlefield glory to his identify—he was a devoted revolutionary however not a warrior himself.

Underneath his management, al Qaeda suffered a big blow in 2013. On the time, the Syrian civil warfare consumed the world’s consideration, with resistance in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime proving widespread amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Al Qaeda’s Iraq department, identified on the time because the Islamic State of Iraq, naturally wished to play a job and established Jabhat al-Nusra to struggle the Syrian regime.

An influence battle then ensued between Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s Iraq department over who would management the fledgling Syrian group. That cut up finally spurred the Iraqi group to declare itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which quickly eclipsed al Qaeda with its ferocity and success on the battlefield. It declared a caliphate in 2014.

Zawahiri, nevertheless, rallied. Al Qaeda associates in locations reminiscent of Yemen and South Asia remained loyal, whereas the Islamic State’s worldwide allies misplaced floor in locations together with the Egyptian Sinai and Libya, the place they briefly managed vital territory. Much more essential, the Islamic State’s caliphate, which electrified the broader jihadi motion, made too many enemies and, as pragmatic jihadis reminiscent of Zawahiri had predicted, steadily misplaced floor. The caliphate misplaced its final vital territory in 2019, diminishing its enchantment.

An officer inspects a wall of photos of wanted al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2010.

An officer inspects a wall of images of wished al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2010.

A Yemeni army officer inspects images of wished al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen at a army base in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 31, 2010. Ed Ou/Getty Photographs

Regardless of Zawahiri’s spectacular comeback, al Qaeda nonetheless shouldn’t be in a position to act on lots of its ambitions. Devastating U.S. drone strikes have repeatedly focused the core management, and international intelligence operations have put jihadi militants at far higher threat of detection and arrest than they have been within the pre-9/11 period.

In his assessment of captured and declassified al Qaeda correspondence discussing the U.S. drone marketing campaign, analyst Bryce Loidolt discovered the airstrikes “eroded the standard of al-Qaeda’s personnel base, pressured the group to scale back communications and different actions, and compelled [group members] to flee its protected haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” with some going to Iran and others scattering to varied warfare zones.

Al Qaeda itself is “in disaster,” in accordance with the previous director of the U.S. Nationwide Counterterrorism Heart. Al Qaeda propagandists nonetheless search to encourage violence in opposition to the West, however it appears the specter of a spectacular top-down terrorist assault has diminished.

Consequently, the grandest visions of bin Laden and Zawahiri have did not be realized in any respect. Al Qaeda itself shouldn’t be widespread amongst Muslims, who present little assist for its extremist concepts. No Muslim-majority state is near turning into the theocracy that al Qaeda envisions—apart from Taliban rule in Afghanistan, which was already in place till al Qaeda’s 9/11 assaults disrupted it.

Zawahiri’s homeland and first goal, Egypt, has a army dictator, and the Saudi regime, overseeing the holiest locations in Islam, is making an attempt to reasonable its spiritual zealotry, even bringing younger Saudis collectively to bounce in a four-day rave.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen have collapsed into civil wars, however jihadis will not be triumphing—their efforts merely add to the killing and the distress of atypical folks. These grinding wars have led People to assist withdrawal from Afghanistan and a diminished function elsewhere within the area, however the U.S. troop presence globally and within the Center East remains to be appreciable. Since 9/11, the US has a foothold in new locations reminiscent of Iraq and Syria, in addition to smaller detachments preventing jihadis in different Arab nations, Africa, and Asia. If the objective was to drive the US and its allies from Muslim-populated lands, al Qaeda has failed.

Zawahiri could also be remembered as a caretaker determine. Al Qaeda may have collapsed after bin Laden’s assassination, and Zawahiri’s organizational abilities and prudence had a lot to do with its survival. On the similar time, the grand aspirations of the bin Laden years, when al Qaeda assaults provoked a large change in U.S. international coverage and have become an essential a part of the discourse in lots of Muslim-majority nations, appear very removed from realization.

Any successor should overcome the traps Zawahiri confronted. Al Qaeda confronts nonetheless formidable rivals such because the Islamic State, whereas al Qaeda’s associates appear extra targeted on native targets than on “far enemies.” The U.S. counterterrorism marketing campaign restricts fundraising, journey, and communication, making it arduous for anybody, however particularly a brand new chief, to consolidate management and direct a worldwide motion. Maybe a extra charismatic chief may return al Qaeda to its glory days, however a gradual decline appears simply as possible.