Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike conducted by the US foreign intelligence agency CIA in Afghanistan’s Kabul. He was one of the most sought-after terrorists and was the mind behind the twin tower attacks of 2001, also known as the 9/11 attacks.
He helped Osama bin Laden plot the attacks on the United States and helped al-Qaida survive and spread in the years after. By finding and striking al-Zawahiri, President Joe Biden said, the U.S. was ensuring that Afghanistan under the Taliban would never again become a base for attacks on the rest of the world, as it was in 2001.
WHO WAS AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI?
Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had just turned 71, took over the leadership of Al-Qaeda after the US Forces hunted down Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad of Pakistan. 11 years after Laden was killed, Zawahiri had become an international symbol of the group, and a global terrorist with a reward of USD 25 million on his head.
An Egyptian, al-Zawahri was born June 19, 1951, to a comfortable family in a leafy, drowsy Cairo suburb. Al-Zawahri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but also roamed Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing Afghans’ war against Soviet occupiers in that country, and meeting young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants rallying to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops. Al-Zawahri merged his own Egyptian militant group with al-Qaida.
WHY WAS AL-ZAWAHRI IMPORTANT?
After years of quietly assembling the suicide attackers, funds, and plans for the Sept. 11 attack, Zawahri and lieutenants ensured that al-Qaida survived the global manhunt that followed to attack again. On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahri rebuilt al-Qaida leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was the supreme leader over branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen, and beyond.
With a credo of targeting near and far enemies, al-Qaida after 9/11 carried out years of unrelenting attacks: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London, and beyond.
Attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among al-Qaida’s last devastating attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counterterror raids, and missiles launched by the U.S. and others killed al-Qaida-affiliated fighters and shattered parts of the network.
WHAT DOES HIS KILLING MEAN FOR AL-QAIDA?
It depends on which al-Qaida lieutenant succeeds him. And after decades of the U.S. and other strikes, that’s a pretty thin group. Al-Qaida expert Ali Soufan points to an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as one of the candidates to be dreaded by the West, given al-Adl’s revered status within al-Qaida, his experience, and the potential of his charisma to draw back al-Qaida defectors who’ve moved to other groups.
But al-Qaida overall now faces a succession crisis and a shaky future. That includes rivalries against aggressive upstart extremist groups that came into being after 9/11 and also have a presence in Afghanistan.
DID THE TALIBAN KNOW AL-ZAWAHRI WAS IN AFGHANISTAN?
Undoubtedly, U.S. officials said. It wasn’t clear Monday how long al-Zawahri had been in Afghanistan, but his presence there had been widely rumored for some time, said Asfandyar Mir, a Central Asia expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The house where Al-Zawahri was living with his family was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. It could be that someone among the Taliban sold out al-Zawahri and his family to the U.S. or other foreign interests.
But it was a Taliban government that took in al-Qaida’s leaders in the mid-1990s and allowed them to plot the 9/11 attacks there, sparking the 20-year U.S.-led war there. The worry after al-Zawahri’s death in Afghanistan’s capital was that the Taliban were allowing armed extremist organizations a home in Afghanistan again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, as the West had feared.