The Story of bin Laden's Slain Successor

Ayman al-Zawahri went from surgeon to al-Qaeda leader, was killed over the weekend
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 2, 2022 1:29 AM CDT
Updated Aug 2, 2022 6:34 AM CDT
Ayman al-Zawahri, From Surgeon to al-Qaeda Leader
In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Ayman al-Zawahri poses for a photograph in Khost, Afghanistan.   (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File)

Before he became Osama bin Laden's deputy, and later the leader of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed, Ayman al-Zawahri was a brilliant student in Egypt, where he got a master's degree in surgery in 1978. He also, at age 15 in 1966, was part of forming an underground militant cell that aimed to see Egypt's secular government replaced with an Islamic one—he'd been reading Islamist literature from his early days, reports the New York Times in an extensive profile of the militant, who was killed over the weekend by a US drone strike. His involvement in the cell continued, secretly, even as he earned his degrees.

While working at a clinic in 1980, he joined the Muslim version of the Red Cross and went to Pakistan to treat refugees who were escaping Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded. He visited Afghanistan and realized he could start a jihad from there, then went back multiple times. Then, in 1981, he was among a group of people tried for conspiracy to murder in Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassination, though he was convicted just of gun possession. He was tortured and interrogated in prison multiple times during the three years the trial took, and in 1984, when he was released, he left Egypt. He went to Saudi Arabia and then back to Pakistan in 1986, where he became bin Laden's personal physician.

He started talking with him about how to hurt Western countries and their allies. Some counterterrorism experts, as well as an Islamic radical who once shared a prison cell with al-Zawahri and later wrote a book about him, believe al-Zawahri was in fact more responsible for al-Qaeda's attacks on the US than bin Laden himself. In 1998, al-Zawahri's group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with bin Laden's Qaeda network with the goal of killing Americans everywhere. He became bin Laden's deputy and chosen successor, often seen sitting at his side in videos. In its own profile, NPR says that while bin Laden may have been the face of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahri was its "hate-filled heart." (See the Times' full profile here.)

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