A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plan the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and ensured al-Qaida’s survival and spread in subsequent years. . President Joe Biden announced the assassination of al-Zawahri on Monday, marking a significant counter-terrorism victory just 11 months after US troops left the country.
A look at the leader of al-Qaeda, who evaded US imprisonment for 21 years after the suicide bombings that changed America and its relations with the rest of the world in many ways.
WHO WAS AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI?
Americans who lived through the September 11 attacks may not remember al-Zawahri’s name, but many know his face more than two decades later: a man wearing glasses, smiling slightly, invariably shown in photos next to bin Laden as the two had agreed to strike in the United States.
Egyptian al-Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951, to a comfortable family in a leafy, sleepy suburb of Cairo. Religiously observant from childhood, he immersed himself in a violent branch of a Sunni Islamic revival that sought to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab countries with a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.
While working as an eye surgeon as a young adult, Al-Zawahri also roamed Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessed the Afghans’ war against the Soviet occupiers in that country, and met the young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants gathered to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops.
He was one of hundreds of militants imprisoned and tortured in the Egyptian prison after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981. According to biographers, this experience has radicalized him further. Seven years later, al-Zawahiri was present when bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.
Al-Zawahri merged his own Egyptian militant group was al-Qaida. He brought al-Qaida with the organizational skills and experience — honed underground in Egypt, dodging Egyptian intelligence — that allowed al-Qaida to organize cells of followers and strike around the world.
WHY WAS AL-ZAWAHRI IMPORTANT?
After years of quietly amassing the suicide bombers, funds and plans for the September 11 attack, Zawahri ensured that al-Qaeda survived the global manhunt to strike again.
On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahri rebuilt al-Qaeda’s leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was supreme leader over branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. With a credo of targeting enemies near and far, Al-Qaida carried out years of relentless attacks after 9/11: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. Attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among the latest devastating Al-Qaeda attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counter-terrorism attacks and missiles launched by the US and others killed Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and parts of the network shattered.
HOW WAS HE KILLED?
Around dawn Sunday, Al-Zawahri emerged from the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, and apparently lingered there, as US intelligence had noted he often did. On this day, a US drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the al-Qaeda leader as he spoke on condition of anonymity, according to US officials, to discuss the attack.
His presence in Afghanistan had been suspected for some time, analysts said. US officials learned this year that Zawahri’s wife and other relatives had recently moved to a hiding place in Kabul. Zawahri soon followed suit, the senior government officials said.
US officials, joined by top leaders up to and including Biden, spent months meticulously confirming his identity — and his ill-fated habit of standing alone on that same balcony — and planning the strike.