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Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri: ‘The Doctor’ who Terrorized the World

By: Shankhyaneel Sarkar


Last Updated: August 02, 2022, 10:27 IST

New Delhi

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, left, listens during a news conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan in the 1998 file photo. (Image: AP File)

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, left, listens during a news conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan in the 1998 file photo. (Image: AP File)

Ayman al-Zawahiri pursued medicine and became a doctor but was deeply committed to radical Islam. He was a violent and fanatical terrorist who killed thousands

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a drone operation last Sunday killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al Qaeda chief who took over the lead role following the killing of former chief of the terrorist group - Osama Bin Laden.

Zawahiri, according to security experts, along with Osama played an operational role in the September 11, 2001 attacks which led to the deaths of at least 2,977 people. 19 al-Qaeda terrorists also died in the attack.

Zawahiri, born in 1951 in Egypt, had several aliases. The FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ notice says that Osama Bin Laden’s right hand man was known by these aliases - Abu Muhammad, Abu Fatima, Muhammad Ibrahim, Abu Abdallah, Abu al-Mu’iz, The Doctor, The Teacher, Nur, Ustaz, Abu Mohammed, Abu Mohammed Nur al-Deen, Abdel Muaz, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri.

The FBI most wanted poster seeking whereabouts of Zawahiri (Image: FBI)

The former eye surgeon appeared in many videos compared to his predecessor Osama Bin Laden and appeared to have taken the role of the chief ideologue in a bid to recruit more Muslims so that he could force them to participate in jihad.

The US put Zawahiri on its ‘most wanted terrorists’ list and marked him No. 2, behind Osama Bin Laden. The US state department’s Rewards For Justice Program announced a bounty of $25m on his head.

One of his recent videos, released in April 2022, led to concerns in India that al-Qaeda was trying to radicalise Indian Muslim citizens after Zawahiri slammed the government over the hijab controversy and praised Muskan Khan - a female student who argued with a mob who were opposed to her wearing a headscarf.

Ayman al-Zawahiri penned a poem for her and titled the video - ‘the Noblewoman of India.’

Family of Doctors

The BBC report says that Zawahiri was born in a middle-class family of distinguished doctors and scholars. His grandfather was the grand imam of al-Azhar.

Al-Azhar is the centre of Sunni Islamic learning in west Asia and one of his uncles was also a main member of the Arab League and was appointed its first secretary-general.

Zawahiri was attracted to religion from a young age but he believed in a hardline interpretation of Islam.

His was first arrested when he was 15 years old. Police held him for being a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

He, however, went on to study medicine at Cairo University’s medical school and graduated in 1974. He also earned a masters’ degree in surgery four years later. Mohamed al-Zawahiri, his father, was a pharmacology professor in the same university.

After completing his studies, Zawahiri stuck to the family tradition for some time and practised medicine. He however could not hold himself back from the allure of radical Islam.

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad

Zawahiri joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1973 - the same year it was founded. He would later join this group with the al-Qaeda in the early 90s.

In 1981, the police rounded him up with several other suspects who dressed up as soldiers and assassinated President Anwar Sadat in Cairo during a military parade.

Sadat was assassinated because he signed a peace deal with Israel which angered Islamists.

Zawahiri was cleared of charges of conspiring with the others but was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal possession of arms.

His beliefs in radical Islam further ossified when he was in prison.

According to the BBC report, his fellow prisoners said that he was tortured by the Egyptian jailers which further pushed him towards radical Islam and made him fanatical and violent.

He was released in 1985 and after that Zawahiri left for Saudi Arabia. He travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Soviet Russia where he was held in Chechnya.

When the Egyptian Islamic Jihad reemerged in 1993, he took over its leadership with the aim of toppling the Egyptian government. This led to a series of attacks which led to the deaths of more than 1,200 people.

He also headed the Vanguards of Conquest group which was responsible for the massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor in 1997.

Meeting Osama Bin Laden and the First Terrorist Attack

In the 1990s, Zawahiri travelled far and wide to collect funding for al Qaeda. Zawahiri even lived in Europe in Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark and Switzerland and even travelled to the Philippines. He also travelled Iran, Iraq and Yemen extensively.

In 1997, Zawahiri moved to Jalalabad in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden is based. In 1998, Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamist groups joined forces to from the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.

Their first victims were 223 citizens who were killed when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998.

This was first in the series of attacks against innocent individuals across the planet. He along with Bin Laden planned and executed the attack on the World Trade Centre by assembling the suicide attackers, funds and plans. After that he disappeared, but carried out attacks in Bali, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Mombasa and other cities.

He was known for keeping al-Qaeda active even after the global manhunt launched after 2001 and before his demise concentrated on rebuilding the al-Qaeda leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

(with inputs from Associated Press and the BBC)

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first published:August 02, 2022, 10:06 IST
last updated:August 02, 2022, 10:27 IST
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