Obituary

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Legacy of Terror

He inherited the leadership of al Qaeda when U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden but lacked his predecessor’s charisma.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy leader of al Qaeda, is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy leader of al Qaeda, is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy leader of al Qaeda, is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006. AFP via Getty Images
By , a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, according to multiple reports—is the end of an era for al Qaeda, the jihadi organization responsible for the largest-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil. A dedicated Islamist revolutionary for most of his life, Zawahiri will be best remembered for leading al Qaeda after U.S. special operations forces killed the group’s more charismatic founder, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.

Al Qaeda stagnated during Zawahiri’s leadership. Despite some notable successes—retaining the loyalty of key lieutenants, establishing new affiliates in places such as South Asia, and convincing existing allies to focus more on targeting the United States—U.S. counterterrorism forces kept al Qaeda’s leaders on the run and in hiding, where they were focused more on trying to stay alive and relevant than on plotting spectacular attacks against the West. It was no small feat that Zawahiri was able to survive for so long, despite the U.S. offer of up to $25 million in reward for any information that would lead to his capture. But a rival group, the Islamic State, largely eclipsed al Qaeda during much of this time.

Zawahiri’s most enduring legacy may be the roles he played as an ideologue and organizer, promoting and spreading jihadi revolution and terror. Al Qaeda means “the base” in Arabic, and that is what bin Laden and Zawahiri hoped to provide: a foundation of support for jihadis around the world to help them expel foreign invaders, topple their own regimes, and confront the “far enemy”—the United States and the broader West.

Zawahiri is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.
Zawahiri is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-deputy leader of al Qaeda, is seen in a screengrab taken from a video that aired on Al Jazeera on Aug. 5, 2006.AFP via Getty Images

The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, according to multiple reports—is the end of an era for al Qaeda, the jihadi organization responsible for the largest-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil. A dedicated Islamist revolutionary for most of his life, Zawahiri will be best remembered for leading al Qaeda after U.S. special operations forces killed the group’s more charismatic founder, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.

Al Qaeda stagnated during Zawahiri’s leadership. Despite some notable successes—retaining the loyalty of key lieutenants, establishing new affiliates in places such as South Asia, and convincing existing allies to focus more on targeting the United States—U.S. counterterrorism forces kept al Qaeda’s leaders on the run and in hiding, where they were focused more on trying to stay alive and relevant than on plotting spectacular attacks against the West. It was no small feat that Zawahiri was able to survive for so long, despite the U.S. offer of up to $25 million in reward for any information that would lead to his capture. But a rival group, the Islamic State, largely eclipsed al Qaeda during much of this time.

Zawahiri’s most enduring legacy may be the roles he played as an ideologue and organizer, promoting and spreading jihadi revolution and terror. Al Qaeda means “the base” in Arabic, and that is what bin Laden and Zawahiri hoped to provide: a foundation of support for jihadis around the world to help them expel foreign invaders, topple their own regimes, and confront the “far enemy”—the United States and the broader West.

After U.S. special operations forces killed bin Laden in a 2011 raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Zawahiri declared in a video statement that his former comrade would continue to terrify the United States from beyond the grave. But Zawahiri, even then, perhaps realized his own limitations as a leader. He warned that the threat was not from al Qaeda alone. “Today, and thanks be to God, America is not facing an individual or a group … but a rebelling nation, which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadi renaissance challenging it wherever it is,” he said. Zawahiri would spend much of his time trying to organize and direct this broader resistance, with at best mixed success.


An image taken from a CNN-obtained video shows Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in 1998
An image taken from a CNN-obtained video shows Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in 1998

An image taken from a collection of videotapes obtained by CNN shows members of the upper echelon of al Qaeda, including Zawahiri (left) and Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan on May 26, 1998. CNN via Getty Images

Born in 1951 to an elite Egyptian family, Zawahiri might have seemed an unlikely revolutionary. His relatives held prominent positions in Egyptian society. A great uncle was the grand imam of Al-Azhar, one of the world’s leading centers for the study of Islam; his father-in-law was president of Cairo University. Many other relatives were doctors or pharmacists. Zawahiri’s father, Mohammad Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacology; Ayman himself became a surgeon even as he embraced radical Islam.

As detailed by journalist Lawrence Wright, Zawahiri became a revolutionary at 15. Supposedly disgusted by the Egyptian regime’s imprisonment and execution of figures such as Sayyid Qutb, a leading jihadi theologian, Zawahiri split off from the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood and established an underground cell of his own. That group eventually merged with others to become al-Jihad (often referred to as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, to distinguish it from the Palestinian group of the same name).

At the time, Zawahiri’s focus was on overthrowing secular Arab governments and replacing them with regimes governed by Islamic law—not on fighting the United States or even Israel. As late as 1995, he would claim that “Jerusalem will not be conquered unless Cairo is conquered and the battle in Egypt and Algeria is won.”

Egyptian soil was fertile for Islamists coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. The crushing Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War made young Arabs question why God had abandoned them; many came to the conclusion that their leaders and societies had turned their backs on Islam and only a zealous embrace of the faith would restore God’s favor.

With the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, saw Islamists as a useful counterweight to his leftist rivals and gave them ample room to organize and spread their message. Sadat, however, eventually made peace with Israel and—even worse in the eyes of radicals such as Zawahiri—refused to implement strict Islamic law.

Members of al-Jihad assassinated Sadat in October 1981. Zawahiri was not directly involved in the assassination, but he was swept up in the ensuing police crackdown and tortured in prison. He revealed the location of another al-Jihad leader, a betrayal that long haunted him and tarnished his image. “The toughest thing about captivity,” he later wrote, “is forcing the mujahid, under the force of torture, to confess about his colleagues, to destroy his movement with his own hands, and offer his and his colleagues’ secrets to the enemy.”

After his release in 1984, Zawahiri fled first to Saudi Arabia, where he practiced medicine, and then to Pakistan, where he used his medical skills to help Afghans who were fighting the Soviet invasion of their country. Even as his Egyptian movement rose and fell, Zawahiri worked with bin Laden in Pakistan to support the anti-Soviet resistance. Together, they founded al Qaeda in 1988, with a new focus: to attack the “far enemy”—primarily the United States.

All the while, Zawahiri was also busy rebuilding al-Jihad, eventually taking over leadership in the early 1990s. Al-Jihad, along with its rival the Islamic Group, resumed operations in Egypt and managed to carry out significant terrorist attacks there—as well as an attempted assassination in 1995 of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But as the 1990s wore on, Egypt’s security services, with significant U.S. backing, steadily dismantled the movement, and the population turned against them.

An Egyptian court sentenced Zawahiri to death in absentia in 1999. At that point, Zawahiri was left with a scattered group of exiles, who were perpetually short of money and in need of a haven from which to organize. These efforts included an unsuccessful attempt to establish a base in Chechnya. (Years later, core members of the group held in Egyptian prisons would recant, rejecting violence and Zawahiri’s leadership.)


During the 1990s, Zawahiri’s ties with bin Laden and al Qaeda took on greater importance. He served as bin Laden’s No. 2, helping the group to carry out attacks such as the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

Zawahiri himself does not appear to have played a major role in the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden made the key decisions, and lieutenants such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ran the actual operation. Still, the devastating suicide missions brought Zawahiri greater notoriety.

They also proved costly for al Qaeda. The group lost its haven in Afghanistan after the United States invaded and swiftly toppled the Taliban. The United States also launched a global intelligence campaign, working with allied law enforcement and security services to identify, monitor, and arrest members of al Qaeda cells around the world along with those of associated jihadi movements.

A leading jihadi thinker, Abu Musab al-Suri, lamented that the attacks cast “jihadis into a fiery furnace … a hellfire that consumed most of their leaders, fighters, and bases.”

After these setbacks, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq represented a golden opportunity for al Qaeda. Here was proof of al Qaeda’s central claim of a U.S. plot to subjugate Islam. Iraqis and many foreign Muslims took up arms, giving al Qaeda a new arena in which to wage war.

Unfortunately for Zawahiri, however, the Iraqi jihadis proved highly independent. They initially took on the al Qaeda name but focused on targeting rival Shiite Muslims and waged a brutal war against Sunnis who did not support them—two tactics ineffectually opposed by Zawahiri. Iraqi jihadi brutality nevertheless tarred al Qaeda with the same brush and discredited it among many Muslims.


Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from a video released on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda released a message from bin Laden's successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that year.
Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from a video released on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda released a message from bin Laden's successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that year.

Zawahiri is seen in a still image taken from a video released on Sept. 12, 2011, when al Qaeda released a message from bin Laden’s successor after the 9/11 mastermind was killed earlier that year. Reuters TV

When U.S. forces killed bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri took the helm, providing continuity when the movement could have fallen apart. Under his leadership, al Qaeda made several important changes. He gave affiliated groups more authority to pursue their own objectives, justifying this as a way to keep the overall movement strong. He also took on new affiliates such as al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa, helping the group to develop explosives to target U.S. aviation. That relationship gave al Qaeda a stronger foothold in Africa, where it would aim to expand.

Zawahiri also proved patient and pragmatic. He continued a working relationship with Tehran, the leading Shiite power, despite mutual hostility between many of his followers and Shiite Muslims. To this day, Iran still provides at least a limited haven to leading al Qaeda members.

Zawahiri called for some restraint or discretion in choosing targets, in contrast to the Islamic State, and he sensibly warned jihadis against seizing territory prematurely. His lack of charisma, however, plagued him as a leader.

Even as a youth, a fellow jihadi reportedly told Zawahiri, “No matter what group you belong to, you cannot be its leader.” His public statements were dreary, his writings dull, and he did not inspire the same public admiration as did bin Laden. Similarly, and unlike bin Laden, he had no battlefield glory to his name—he was a dedicated revolutionary but not a warrior himself.

Under his leadership, al Qaeda suffered a significant blow in 2013. At the time, the Syrian civil war consumed the world’s attention, with resistance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime proving popular among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch, known at the time as the Islamic State of Iraq, naturally wanted to play a role and established Jabhat al-Nusra to fight the Syrian regime.

A power struggle then ensued between Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s Iraq branch over who would control the fledgling Syrian organization. That split eventually spurred the Iraqi group to declare itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which soon eclipsed al Qaeda with its ferocity and success on the battlefield. It declared a caliphate in 2014.

Zawahiri, however, rallied. Al Qaeda affiliates in places such as Yemen and South Asia remained loyal, while the Islamic State’s international allies lost ground in places including the Egyptian Sinai and Libya, where they briefly controlled significant territory. Even more important, the Islamic State’s caliphate, which electrified the broader jihadi movement, made too many enemies and, as pragmatic jihadis such as Zawahiri had predicted, steadily lost ground. The caliphate lost its last significant territory in 2019, diminishing its appeal.


An officer inspects a wall of photos of wanted al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2010.
An officer inspects a wall of photos of wanted al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 2010.

A Yemeni military officer inspects photos of wanted al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia and Yemen at a military base in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 31, 2010. Ed Ou/Getty Images

Despite Zawahiri’s impressive comeback, al Qaeda still is not able to act on many of its ambitions. Devastating U.S. drone strikes have repeatedly targeted the core leadership, and global intelligence operations have put jihadi militants at far greater risk of detection and arrest than they were in the pre-9/11 era.

In his review of captured and declassified al Qaeda correspondence discussing the U.S. drone campaign, analyst Bryce Loidolt found the airstrikes “eroded the quality of al-Qaeda’s personnel base, forced the group to reduce communications and other activities, and compelled [group members] to flee its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal regions,” with some going to Iran and others scattering to various war zones.

Al Qaeda itself is “in crisis,” according to the former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. Al Qaeda propagandists still seek to inspire violence against the West, but it seems the threat of a spectacular top-down terrorist attack has diminished.

As a result, the grandest visions of bin Laden and Zawahiri have failed to be realized at all. Al Qaeda itself is not popular among Muslims, who show little support for its extremist ideas. No Muslim-majority state is close to becoming the theocracy that al Qaeda envisions—with the exception of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, which was already in place until al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks disrupted it.

Zawahiri’s homeland and primary target, Egypt, has a military dictator, and the Saudi regime, overseeing the holiest places in Islam, is trying to moderate its religious zealotry, even bringing young Saudis together to dance in a four-day rave.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen have collapsed into civil wars, but jihadis are not triumphing—their efforts simply add to the killing and the misery of ordinary people. These grinding wars have led Americans to support withdrawal from Afghanistan and a reduced role elsewhere in the region, but the U.S. troop presence globally and in the Middle East is still considerable. Since 9/11, the United States has a foothold in new places such as Iraq and Syria, as well as smaller detachments fighting jihadis in other Arab countries, Africa, and Asia. If the goal was to drive the United States and its allies from Muslim-populated lands, al Qaeda has failed.

Zawahiri may be remembered as a caretaker figure. Al Qaeda could have collapsed after bin Laden’s assassination, and Zawahiri’s organizational skills and prudence had much to do with its survival. At the same time, the grand aspirations of the bin Laden years, when al Qaeda attacks provoked a massive change in U.S. foreign policy and became an important part of the discourse in many Muslim-majority countries, seem very far from realization.

Any successor must overcome the traps Zawahiri faced. Al Qaeda confronts still formidable rivals such as the Islamic State, while al Qaeda’s affiliates seem more focused on local targets than on “far enemies.” The U.S. counterterrorism campaign restricts fundraising, travel, and communication, making it hard for anyone, but especially a new leader, to consolidate control and direct a global movement. Perhaps a more charismatic leader could return al Qaeda to its glory days, but a steady decline seems just as likely.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism. Twitter: @dbyman

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