Ayman al-Zawahri is an Egyptian medical doctor from a wealthy family who became
involved in militant Islamism in his home country at a young age. He has been
described as a highly intelligent, cunning and ruthless ideologue, who, while
lacking bin Laden’s personal charisma, has an insatiable appetite for mass
murder terrorism attacks for the sake of building a radical Islamist
Zawahri’s life story contains within it the story of how the
modern al-Qaida network was formed by figures who failed to topple their
national governments in Arab states, and then merged in Afghanistan in the 1980s
to create an international jihadi movement.
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By the time he was a teenager
living in a well off Cairo suburb in the 1960s, Zawahri had become involved in
Islamist opposition forces who aimed to rid Egypt of its secular
A disciple of the seminal Islamist ideologue Sayid Qutb,
Zawhiri was determined to change Egypt from a country ruled by secular
government to a fundamentalist state through an armed revolution. Zawahri became
a member of the al-Jihad organization in Egypt in 1966, at age 16, and fervently
worked to realize Qutb’s vision. Following Sadat’s assassination by Islamist
gunmen in 1981, Zawahri was one of hundreds of jihadis thrown in jail by the
Egyptian authorities, but was released after three years.
traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he met Osama bin Laden, who had also tried but
failed to institute a jihadi revolution in his home country.
flew to Afghanistan, where he began to work with jihadi volunteers from across
the Arab world.
He officially merged the Egyptian al-Jihad movement
(later known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad) with bin Laden’s al-Qaida in 2001.
According to some reports, Zawahri traveled to Bosnia in 1992 to
oversee jihadi armed forces fighting the Serbs. He reportedly lived in Bulgaria
before attempting to enter Chechnya in 1996 to assist armed jihadis fighting
Russian forces, but was arrested by Russian authorities and jailed for six
After his release, Zawahri returned to Afghanistan, where the
Afghan Taliban was in the process of setting up the first fully sovereign
radical Islamist state. That development allowed Zawahri, bin Laden and their
followers unprecedented freedom to operate and organize attacks while enjoying
All that changed following the 9/11 atrocities, when
Zawihiri once again became a hunted fugitive. He is believed to have remained in
the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and continues to release al-Qaida propaganda
messages on a regular basis.
In 2001, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq
Al-Awsat published excerpts from Zawahri’s book, Knights Under the Prophet’s
Banner, which offered an insight into his mindset and strategy.
book, he describes himself as “an emigrant fugitive, who gives his backing to
other emigrants and mujahidin (holy fighters); he strengthens their resolve, and
reminds them of God’s bountiful mercy.”
He describes the process of how
the jihad network came to see itself as a global network dedicated to a common
cause, writing, “In the training camps and on the battlefronts against the
Russians, the Muslim youths developed a broad awareness and a fuller realization
of the conspiracy that is being weaved. They developed an understanding based on
shari’ah of the enemies of Islam, the renegades, and their collaborators.” He
added, “Of course the world order was not going to accept the existence of this
growing phenomenon of Arab Afghans that is rebellious against it and a threat to
The author’s recently released book, Virtual Caliphate;
Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet, examines al-Qaida’s online