Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said Monday, was the main ideologue behind the global terror network for decades, though he was never able to revive the status it had. . under the charismatic founder Osama bin Laden.
The Egyptian ophthalmologist, 71, was central to Al Qaeda’s signature attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the massive attack on the United States itself on September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000.
But during the decade he presided over the group after bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, it never regained its prominence as the aggressive Islamic State (IS) group took the lead in the jihadist movement, covering large parts of the territory. in Iraq and Syria and declare a caliphate.
Though some analysts said Zawahiri was getting older and slower, he seemed to be trying to rebuild the group in partnership with the Taliban since they took control of Afghanistan last August.
“Justice has been handed down and this terrorist leader is no more,” President Joe Biden said Monday as he announced Zawahiri’s death in a US drone strike in Kabul, where he had apparently relocated after years of hiding on the Afghan-Pakistan border. .
On Bin Laden’s Side
Zawahiri grew up in a leafy neighborhood of Cairo before turning to dissident politics. He became involved with Egypt’s radical Islamic community at a young age and was reportedly arrested at the age of 15 for joining the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
He was sentenced to three years in prison for militancy in Egypt and was implicated in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the murder of foreign tourists in Luxor city in 1997. He then joined bin Laden in Afghanistan and became Al Qaeda’s chief strategist. — and, to underline their commitment, to serve as bin Laden’s personal physician.
Zawahiri was one of five signatories to bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling for attacks on Americans, and he began appearing regularly on the side of the al-Qaeda leader.
It was often up to Zawahiri—recognizable by a prominent bump on his forehead—to motivate the group’s followers with his frenetic video appearances, jabbing his finger and staring from behind heavy-rimmed glasses.
Like bin Laden, he disappeared after the September 11, 2001 attacks, survived repeated attempts on his life, and reappeared after reports that he was already dead. But he remained in the US’s sights, with a $25 million bounty on his head for the 1998 embassy attacks.
In the shadow of the IS group
Zawahiri took command of al-Qaeda in 2011 after US Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s home in Pakistan and killed him at close range.
The new jihadist leader remained free around the Afghan-Pakistan border, with a much-done organization overshadowed by the IS group. Still, al-Qaeda was able to maintain a security risk through powerful franchises in Yemen, Africa and East Asia.
Analysts described Zawahiri’s leadership as more of an advisory board than a coherent, centralized command. Over the years, US airstrikes have killed a succession of his deputies, weakening the veteran Egyptian militant’s ability to coordinate globally.
Still, analysts Colin Clarke and Asfandyar Mir wrote in Foreign Policy that while Zawahiri “had incited less of a cult of personality” than bin Laden, he was just as dangerous to the United States.
“While al-Qaeda has failed to replicate an attack like 9/11, that’s also a naive measure of success,” they said.
A comeback under the Taliban?
Zawahiri never shied away from threatening his enemies in public and maintained alliances with those, such as the Taliban, who were taken out by the ruthless tactics of the IS group targeting fellow Muslims.
“Zawahiri’s call for unity and his general lack of interest in surpassing violence allowed Al Qaeda to portray itself to its supporters and potential recruits as the more trustworthy jihadist front against the Islamic State,” Clarke and Mir wrote.
The Taliban’s swift return to Kabul last year seemed to increase Al Qaeda’s chances of a comeback, despite the Taliban’s assurances that they would not harbor the jihadist group.
A United Nations report in July said Zawahiri recently showed “greater comfort and ability to communicate” with close allies in the Taliban government.
Zawahiri was unlikely to launch international attacks any time soon so as not to embarrass the new Kabul leadership, the report said. Nevertheless, it said, “the international context is favorable for al-Qaeda, which intends to be re-recognized as the leader of global jihad”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)