Many believe Zawahiri has left behind a more robust and pervasive Al Qaeda that has its footprints in more countries than it ever had.
by Shome Basu
In 2003, just two years after the 9/11 when the World Trade Centre (WTC) was hit by hijacked airplanes by militants affiliated to Al-Qaida, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked a question over a briefing at the Pentagon: Why couldn’t the US government locate the masterminds behind the dastardly act.
It was about Osama bin-Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Rumsfeld was quick to retort: “It is hard to find a single individual in the world. It’s a big place … they are either alive, injured or dead.”
Two years after this incident, the US claimed to have eliminated Zawahiri. But, soon, he appeared on TV screens, telling the US that he was still alive.
Fast forward to 31 July 2022. US president Joe Biden, nearly 21 years after the attack on the WTC, claimed that Zawahiri had been killed in Kabul, a few hundred meters away from the compound that housed the erstwhile US embassy in Afghanistan.
At the time of the drone strike, Zawahiri was in his seventies and had spent more than 50 years fighting various battles – first one at home against the autocratic ruler of Egypt, then in Afghanistan against the Soviets and the last two decades against the Americans. Sources in the intelligence and defence community point fingers at the Taliban regime. The US government is in negotiations with the Islamic emirate on the release of the first tranche of $3.5 billion of the total of $7 billion of the frozen funds.
Back in 2005, at the peak of war in Iraq, CIA had intercepted a letter written by Zawahiri to Iraq based Al-Qaida military leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
That letter essentially provided a large cache of information which later steered the global intelligence community to know Al-Qaida’s deep policy making procedures. The letter started by thanking the brigades that were fighting in Iraq against the US backed forces. The plan, envisaged by Zawahiri, targeted to radicalise the Sunni areas and the Arab lands which were secular in nature. His abhorrence towards Israel was also noted in the letter.
When it came to Taliban, Zawahiri was a supporter as well as a critic, specifically about the misgovernance that Taliban did by restricting itself to madrasas, and Kandahar, while not connecting to the larger people of Afghanistan which, Zawahiri thought, had led to Taliban’s fall with little resistance.
People, Zawahiri believed, weren’t with them. He believed political measures had to go hand in hand with military strategies. The content of the letter was an eye-opener for analysts as Zawahiri was trying to assert his presence as a senior patron of the global Islamist movement.
Who was Zawahiri?
Zawahiri was born in Al-Sharqiyyah suburb of Egyptian capital Cairo in 1951 in a family dominated by highly educated elite. Zawahiri studied to become a medical practitioner and specialized in surgical oncology. Later he even taught medicine. His father was a professor of pharmacology and had five children to raise. His grandfather was a scholar and his maternal grandfather the first Secretary of the Arab League who later became the first Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan. Zawahiri, many years later, on 19 November 1995, would plan the attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad killing seventeen and leaving numerous others injured.
At a young age, Zawahiri was immensely impressed by the works of Syed Qutb, the author of major Islamist works like ‘Milestones’, who was hanged by the Egyptian government.
Zawahiri was first arrested in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Al Sadat who was shot dead at the annual victory parade by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli.
The soldier was found guilty and executed by the firing squad. Zawahiri was one of the thousands arrested and tortured in the prison. When he was released in 1984, he straight away left for Pakistan.
At that time, the war in Afghanistan against the occupation by the Soviet Union was at its peak. Peshawar had become the magnet that was attracting everyone: diplomats, journalists, spies, and jihadists around the world. Zawahiri also reached there to treat those injured in the fight against Soviets.
It was in Peshawar that Zawahiri first met Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri’s philosophy and Bin Laden’s financial support would soon come together to build the foundation of first modern global jihad against the non-Islamic forces. Taking the queue from thousand years of crusades, both Bin Laden and Zawahiri got enlightened from Mohammad Azzam, a Palestinian cleric who could be called the founding inspiration for the Al Qaida.
Over the next four decades, Zawahiri and bin Laden would build a robust militant organization that would outlast nearly a dozen US presidentships as it waged war around the globe: New York, London, Madrid, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali, Indonesia, and scores more.
While the London bombing took place on July 7, 2005, killing 52, the mastermind Mohammed Siddique Khan claimed that he was inspired by bin Laden and Zawahiri. In a video message that followed, Zawahiri claimed the attack in London was a response to the participation of the British forces in the invasion of Iraq.
Back in the decades, in Cairo, Zawahiri had got married to Azza Ahmed and they had seven children among whom six were girls. Zawahiri fondly mentions, in the intercepted letter, about his youngest daughter whom he named Nawar, which means a female gazelle.
For over twenty years, Zawahiri was wanted by governments around the world and carried a bounty of 25 million dollars. Yet he remained elusive for most part of his life and directed a resurgence of Al Qaeda.
The US government claimed that Zawahiri had recently moved to a house in posh Kabul neighbourhood, where he was under the protection of Taliban interior minister Siraj Haqanni.
With Zawahiri now dead, the world is still waiting how it will impact Al Qaeda and who will succeed him. Analysts of Islamist movements remain divided about the legacy left by Zawahiri. Some say he lived in the shadow of bin Laden and could never fill his larger than life image. Others believe Zawahiri had a successful tenure and has left behind a more robust and pervasive Al Qaeda that has its footprints in more countries than it ever had.