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 state.

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 government.

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.

He then 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.

Zawahri then 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 months.

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 state sponsorship.

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.

In the 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 its existence.”

The author’s recently released book, Virtual Caliphate; Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet, examines al-Qaida’s online presence.

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