CAIRO – Ayman al-Zawari, an Egyptian surgeon who became a mastermind of jihad against the West and took over the leadership of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden in a US raid, was killed. He was 71.
Five people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend killed al-Zawari. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
His death is likely to cause more confusion within the organization than bin Laden’s death in May 2011, as it is far less clear who his successor will be at the helm of the terror network.
Al-Zawari shaped al-Qaeda like no other, first as bin Laden’s deputy in 1998 and then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the guns of the jihadist movement on the United States and carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil – the suicide kidnappings of September 11, 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s No. 1 enemy. But without his second-in-command, he probably never would have been able to carry them out. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawari brought with him the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants in a network of cells in countries around the world.
Their bond was forged in the late 1980s when al-Zawari was reportedly treating Saudi millionaire bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan while Soviet bombardments rattled the mountains around them.
“Al-Zawari was always bin Laden’s mentor, bin Laden always looked up to him,” says Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. Al-Zawari “spent some time in an Egyptian prison, he was tortured. He was a jihad from his youth.”
When the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaeda’s safe haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawari ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt their leadership in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.
He also transformed the organization from a centralized planner of terrorist attacks to the head of a franchise chain. He led the establishment of a network of autonomous offices across the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al Qaeda inspired or was directly involved in attacks in all of these areas, as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London. Twice, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen attempted to attack US soil, with a bombing of a US passenger plane in 2009 and an attempted package bomb the following year.
But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawari was struggling to maintain al-Qaeda’s relevance in a changing Middle East.
He tried, with little success, to capture the wave of insurgency that swept across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamic hardliners to seize power in countries where leaders had fallen. But while Islamists have risen to prominence in many places, they have strong ideological differences with al-Qaeda and oppose its agenda and leadership.
As al Qaeda leader, al-Zawari also faced the challenge of the explosive rise of the Islamic State group, an even more radical rival that was draining recruits with its dramatic conquest of much of Syria and Iraq. The ISIS “caliphate” was overthrown by a US-led campaign after years of fighting, but the jihadist movement was irrevocably fragmented and al-Qaeda lost much of its luster in the eyes of the radicals.
Al-Zawari was also a more divisive figure than his predecessor. Many militants described the soft-spoken bin Laden in admiring and almost spiritual terms.
In contrast, al-Zawari was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He engaged in ideological disputes with critics from the jihad camp, and in his videos he raised his index finger in a scolding manner. Even some key figures in al Qaeda’s central leadership have been put off, calling it overly controlling, secretive and divisive.
Some militants, whose links with bin Laden predated al-Zawari’s, always saw him as an arrogant intruder.
“I have never taken orders from al-Zawari,” scoffed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s leaders in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a 2009 paper posted online. “We don’t take orders from anyone except our historical leadership.”
During his years as head of the Islamic Jihad militant group in Egypt in the 1990s, al-Zawari honed the skills he would bring to al-Qaeda.
He was born on June 19, 1951 into an upper-middle-class family of doctors and scholars in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. His father was a professor of pharmacology at Cairo University School of Medicine and his grandfather, Rabia al-Zawari, was the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, a leading center for religious studies.
Early on, al-Zawari was fascinated by the radical writings of Egyptian Islamist Sayed Qutb, which taught that Arab regimes were “infidel” and should be replaced by Islamic rule. He began his militant life at the age of 15 when he created an underground cell of high school students to oppose the government.
In the 1970s, when he was completing his medical degree as a surgeon, he was active in militant circles. He and others formed Islamic Jihad and attempted to infiltrate the military. At one point he even stored guns in his private medical clinic.
As he relates in his writings, his first trip to Afghanistan in 1980 to treat Islamic militants fighting Soviet forces opened his eyes to new opportunities.
He called this war in Afghanistan “the training course that will prepare the Muslim mujahideen youth to begin their forthcoming struggle with the great power that would rule the world: America.”
Then in 1981 came the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad militants. The murder was carried out by another cell in the group – and al-Zawari wrote that he only found out about the plot hours before the assassination.
But he was arrested along with hundreds of other militants and served three years in prison. He was reportedly severely tortured while in detention, a circumstance which some say is more radical.
After his release in 1984, al-Zawari returned to Afghanistan and joined militants from across the Middle East who were fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets. He courted bin Laden, who became a hero through his financial support of the mujahideen.
Al-Zawari followed bin Laden to his new base in Sudan and from there led a reassembled Islamic Jihad in a violent campaign of bombing aimed at overthrowing the US-allied government of Egypt.
In one of the most daring attacks, Jihadi and other militants attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995. Mubarak escaped the hail of bullets on his motorcade, and his security forces nearly crushed the militant movement in Egypt in the ensuing crackdown.
Although the Egyptian movement failed, its tactics lived on in al-Zawari.
He promoted the use of suicide bombings, which became al-Qaeda’s trademark. He planned a 1995 car bomb attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad that killed 16 people – a precursor to the more devastating al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed more than 200 people came United States.
In 1996, Sudan expelled bin Laden, who brought his fighters back to Afghanistan, where they found safe haven under the radical Taliban regime. Again al-Zawari followed.
Their connection was sealed when bin Laden, al-Zawari and other militant leaders issued the “Declaration of Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” in which they proclaimed that the United States was Islam’s greatest enemy and instructed Muslims to stop it was their religious duty to “kill the Americans and their Allies.”
A series of spectacular attacks followed: the bombings of US embassies in Africa, the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen, and finally the 9/11 attacks.
When the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation, al-Zawari and bin Laden fled to Pakistan. A US airstrike killed al-Zawari’s wife and at least two of their six children in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The CIA came tantalizingly close to possibly capturing al-Zawari in 2003 and killing him in 2004. The CIA thought it finally had its sights on al-Zawari in 2009, only to be tricked by a double agent who blew himself up, killing seven staff members and wounding six others in Khost, Afghanistan.
But ultimately, al-Zawari never achieved his long-term goals for jihad that he outlined in his writings – to hurt the US with “as many casualties as possible” while seizing control of a country from which a “caliphate” could be erected around the world Muslim world.
Al Qaeda attacks that killed Muslims deterred many in the Arab world, attacks that killed Americans never gained wide popularity, and the group never garnered widespread popular support beyond a fringe of radical sympathizers.
Still, he vowed to keep beating the Americans in the video eulogy for his murdered boss.
Bin Laden “terrified America in his lifetime,” he said, and “will continue to terrify it after his death.”
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