Ayman al-Zawahri: An inglorious end to the doctor who dispensed death, by Osmund Agbo
On May 2, 2011, a few minutes past 1:00 a.m. Pakistan Standard Time, a US Navy SEAL Team Six left the Bagram Air Base, in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan and headed for the compound of a high-value target in Abbottabad, Pakistan located just a few miles away from that nation’s Military Academy.
It was an operation that lasted for precisely 38 minutes, following which, U.S. forces returned to Afghanistan with the slain body of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, a Sunni Islamic extremist global network, composed of Salafist jihadists. The raid was code-named Operation Neptune spears and marked the successful ending of an almost decade-long manhunt for America’s most wanted. The man who masterminded the brutal attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
For a little over a month, the world was uncertain about Al Qaeda’s future and leadership. Then like a bolt from the blue, the man who was often seen seated beside Bin Laden, put out a 28-minute video of him. With a rifle in the background, the white turbaned and grey-bearded figure promised that Bin Laden would continue to “terrify” America even after his death, “Blood for blood.” His name was Ayman al-Zawahri, a 60-year-old Egyptian. But how did a highly trained medical doctor of elite pedigree, transmute into a merchant of death and destruction?
Ayman Muhammad Rabie al-Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951, in Maadi, an affluent Cairo suburb. He was one out of five children. His father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a pharmacology professor and came from a long line of doctors and scholars. His paternal grandfather was the 34th Grand Imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old university that is a centre of Islamic learning. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was president of Cairo University and another of his mother’s relatives was the first secretary general of the Arab League.
He began reading Islamist literature at an early age and one of his biggest influences growing up was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood called Sayyid Qutb.
Qutb was an Islamic thinker who saw the world as divided between believers and infidels. He was regarded as the Father of Salafi jihadism, the religio-political doctrine that underpins the ideological roots of global jihadist organisations such as al-Qaeda and later ISIS. Though Qutb was later imprisoned, tortured and hanged in 1966 for plotting the assignation of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, young Muhammad’s life goal was how to put the scholar’s teachings and vision into action.
In the year Qutb was killed, al-Zawahri joined others of like minds to form an underground militant cell dedicated to replacing Egypt’s secular government with an Islamic one.
According to reports, he was only 15 at the time. Al-Zawahri, however, kept his involvement secret from even his own family and continued to participate in the group activities while he attended medical school at Cairo University. He later graduated in 1974, served three years in the Egyptian army and later earned a master’s degree in surgery in 1978.
Another major influence on Al-Zawahri was the humiliating defeat the Arab countries suffered at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was a 6-day conflict that ended with a decisive victory for the Israelis who seized the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights, bringing about one million Arabs under the direct control of the Jewish state in the newly captured territories. The outcome of that war turned many young people away from the Pan-Arab socialism pursued by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and toward anti-Western forms of Islam.
Al-Zawahri was working in a clinic in Egypt in 1980 when he got an opportunity to join the Red Crescent to treat refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and so moved to Peshawar, Pakistan. From there, he visited Afghanistan and quickly realised how under Taliban rule, the country was a good place to launch an Islamic jihad. He later on visited Saudi Arabia but in 1986, upon his return to Peshawar, he met Osama Bin Laden who sometimes gave lectures at the hospital where al-Zawahri worked and they bonded instantly.
Al-Zawahri would later become Bin Laden’s personal physician and over time, their relationship blossomed. They were united by the common goal to go after Western powers and the Middle Eastern governments they supported. Earlier on, al-Zawahri had formed his own terrorist group and in 1998, he authored a document asking similar militant groups to unite in the common cause of killing Americans anywhere in the world and not just in the Middle East. In 2001, his organisation, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, officially merged with Bin Laden’s Qaeda network to create Qaeda al-Jihad.
By 1990, Islamist guerrilla fighters, backed by Pakistan’s ISI and the American C.I.A., had forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Arabs who had come to fight the Soviets were leaving and the Sudanese government invited Bin Laden and his friend. The deceased Al-Qaeda leader and al-Zawahri moved to Sudan and bought farms which they later converted to military training bases. They also established terrorist cells in Yemen.
From his base, Al-Zawahri organised several terrorist acts, including an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister. The bomb missed its target, but wounded many and caused the death of a 12-year-old schoolgirl. Becoming a diplomatic liability for Sudan, the government expelled the Arab radicals who then returned to Afghanistan as guests of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban government of Afghanistan.
As time went on, the Egyptian kid from a very privileged background, who worked hard to become a surgeon, had morphed into a battle-hardened Jihadist. He went from harbouring a visceral hatred of secular rule in Egypt, were earlier on, was among those tried for conspiracy in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, to mounting a virulent campaign to strike at Western targets, most especially the United States, Al Qaeda’s arch enemy.
With his bruised forehead denoting piety from frequent prayer, al-Zawahri had none of Bin Laden’s fabled family wealth, nor his charisma but was widely regarded as the intellectual powerhouse of Al Qaeda. He made the group grow into a deadly terrorist organisation with global reach.
Before his death, he was wanted in connection with the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks on US soil, and the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya to mention but a few. He played a leading role in the organisational planning and providing logistic support to global terrorist networks across the globe, making recruiting and promotional videos and inspiring wound-be jihadists all over the world.
Al-Zawahri was once described as living “a cat-and-mouse life, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia and hunted by adversaries, including U.S. counterterrorism authorities, who placed a $25 million bounty on his head.” Yet he seemed always to stay one step ahead, hiding out in the rugged terrorist redoubts of Afghanistan, Waziristan and Pakistan’s other tribal areas.
Though the al-Zawahri did everything within his power to ensure that he was not being watched and to keep his location secret, American intelligence agencies soon learned that he too had returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of the US-backed secular government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in August 2021.
Al-Zawahri was later tracked to a safe house owned by an aide to senior officials in the Haqqani network, a violent wing of the Taliban government founded in 1970 by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of the current deputy leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani. Senior Taliban leaders occasionally met at the house, but unbeknownst to them, the American secret service knew that the Haqqanis were hiding their high-value target and were tracking his daily routine.
When American officials decided to target him, the location of the house in a high-density Sherpur neighbourhood of Kabul posed a huge challenge. A missile armed with a large explosive would for sure evaporate Al-Zawahiri but would also result in severe collateral damage. The US has to come up with other options.
On July 25, President Biden, now satisfied with a new plan, authorised the CIA to conduct the air strike when there was a window of opportunity. That opportunity came last Sunday morning when a CIA drone found al-Zawahri on his balcony and fired a Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person, bringing an end to a more than two-decade-long hunt.
Shafiq (not real name), 25 was arranging fruit at his stand in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood of Kabul when he heard a powerful explosion, reported the New York Times. For a moment Shafiq froze, worried to death and seized by the fear that the bang could signal the beginning of yet another bloody conflict in his homeland. “We want peace and security in our country after this, and we do not want a war to start in our country again, he said.”
Truth is a country that offers a safe haven for jihadist terrorists doesn’t desire peace and will never know one. In such climes, peace and tranquillity are a delusive mirage. Sadly, this is the kind of country many wish and desire for Nigeria. But we have only two words of advice for them all; caveat emptor.
Dr Agbo, a Public Affairs Analyst is the coordinator of African Centre for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com