Al-Zawahiri: From Cairo campuses to Kandahar caves, the jihadist route of Bin Laden’s successor

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Friday, 5 August 2022 12:34, updated on Saturday, 6 August 2022 12:24


The Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, was killed Saturday night in Afghanistan by a US drone strike. Although far less charismatic than Osama Bin Laden, his successor was long the true ideologist behind the international jihadist organisation.

This article was originally published on 2 May 2021. We are republishing it today after the announcement of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death by US President Joe Biden.

At an age when most people are just beginning to wonder about their future, one 15-year-old Egyptian boy set up a clandestine Muslim Brotherhood cell at his high school. Ayman al-Zawahiri was not one of those enthusiastic teenagers whose commitment stems more from a need for recognition than from real convictions. Over his lifetime, he would cross the globe setting up terrorist cells all over the place and would go on to found and lead the movement which, at the height of its power, would be the umbrella of all terrorist movements: Al Qaeda. In 2021, holed up somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zawahiri was just a grey-haired old man regularly given up for dead or mocked by some in the jihadist sphere. Yet the latter owes him a great deal.

Sayyid Qutb’s corpse dangles at the end of a rope. It is 29 August 1966. On the very day of the execution of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, ordered by Egyptian President Nasser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still a high school student, decides to enter the world of Islamism. For a whole part of Zawahiri’s generation, Qutb’s death sentence was a founding event. It marked the beginning of a deep schism within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, divided between advocates of violence and partisans of the policy of “small steps”. The latter rallied around the Brotherhood’s old guard, embodied by Hassan al-Hudaybi and Omar Telmassani, who, faced with repression from the Nasser camp, were anxious to offer the government their pledges of moderation.

Sayyid Qutb’s hanging marked the beginning of a deep schism within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

An unacceptable compromise for the younger generation, who admired Sayyid Qutb, and who experienced prison and torture for the first time in the 1960s, alongside the charismatic ideologue: “The torture they undergo gives rise among the youngest detainees to the idea of takfir, ex-communication: neither their torturers nor the rulers who command these torturers, nor the people who fail to revolt against these unjust rulers, can be Muslims in their view”, (Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt). This broadened conception of takfir broke down the theoretical barriers to religious violence.

Respected guru

The greener militants – who saw themselves as an Islamic avant-garde – preferred destabilisation over the Islamisation of the society from the bottom up, which was favoured by the historic wing of the Brotherhood movement. Why not, then, support the overthrow of the region’s impious regimes, following Sayyid Qutb’s recommendations? Radical Islamism was born, and Zawahiri was one of its most respected gurus for nearly forty years. While Osama Bin Laden was merely a Saudi from the affluent youth with rather weak ideas, it was al-Zawahiri who really defined the orientation and strategy of al-Qaeda: “Bin Laden had the Islamist references, but had nothing against the various Arab regimes. When Ayman met Bin Laden, he sparked a real revolution in him,”  says Montasser al-Zayat, Zawahiri’s former Egyptian lawyer.

However, there was nothing to suggest that this shy, polite and brilliant boy from a family of venerable Cairo notables would make a career out of international terrorism. Childhood scuffles or football games on the pavement? Zawahiri preferred the sober delights of the library instead. Moreover, his slight build automatically excluded him from the boisterous activities of the bigger boys on the playground.

Television footage taken on 17 June 2005 from the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera shows al-Zawahiri giving a speech. ©AL-JAZEERA/AFP

Raised in the bourgeois and cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Maadi, in the suburbs of the Egyptian capital, grandson of the director of Cairo University and founder of King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia, grand nephew of the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, Ayman was far from a teenager left to his own devices. On the side of his father, a professor of pharmacology, the Zawahiri form a medical dynasty that includes many renowned surgeons, dermatologists and pharmacists. His mother’s family, the Azzams, have long been involved in Egypt’s political affairs, usually on the side of the opposition.

The Zawahiris hail from a medical dynasty that includes many renowned surgeons, dermatologists and pharmacists.

His anti-British nationalism even earned his great-uncle Mahfouz Azzam a few days in prison in the 1940s. Ayman’s parents were religious without being ostentatious, in a neighbourhood that had more churches than mosques. While some family members, especially on his mother’s side, professed anti-colonial ideas, there was no trace of anti-Westernism as such.

Little Ayman himself was a great fan of Disney films, which his father took him to see at the local film club whenever he wanted to reward his son for his school results – finishing first in his class was routine for the future number one of Al Qaeda.

But the family did not fit into this very Britishised world of tennis courts and cricket pitches. Ayman was enrolled at the public school, located opposite Victoria College, which had schooled actor Omar Sharif, intellectual Edward Saïd and King Hussein of Jordan. The family was no stranger to Sayyid Qutb. In the 1930s, the latter was the Arabic grammar teacher of Mahfouz Azzam, Ayman’s uncle, who later wrote for the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood magazine, directed in the 1950s by the Brotherhood ideologue.

Decline of Arab nationalism

The humiliation of the Arab armies during the Six-Day War, a few months after Qutb’s execution, accelerated the Islamist wave in the Arab world. Many felt that they had been defeated by the modern world and betrayed by incompetent and corrupt elites. If Muslims were defeated by the Jews, it was because they had turned their backs on Islam, notably by entrusting their destiny to secularist despots stemming from Arab nationalism: this summed up, in a few words, the position of young Ayman and his comrades in the clandestine cell.

Their actions were harmless for the moment, and the group was more of a high-school think tank than a true subversive organisation. All over the country, similar clandestine cells were forming, heavily influenced by Qutbist ideas and often unaware of each other’s existence.

When Nasser died in 1970, Anwar al-Sadat had the difficult task of succeeding the charismatic leader. This son of Upper Egyptian peasants had no sympathy for the Soviet camp, and needed allies to counter the influence of the Marxists and Nasser’s followers. His gaze naturally turned to the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose members were languishing in prison.

Unaware of the danger represented by the radicalised fringe of the movement, he promised them an end to repression in exchange for their political support. Thousands of Islamist militants were released. In the terminology of the most radical elements, it was first necessary to defeat the “near enemy” – the nationalist Arab regimes responsible for the defeats against Israel – before attacking the West.

From 1973 onwards, these Islamists who refused to be satisfied with preaching alone grouped together within the Gamaa al-Islamamiyya, which Ayman al-Zawahiri’s cell also joined. The organisation was extremely successful on campus, where Western-style suits and short dresses gradually gave way to long beards and niqabs. It was in this atmosphere that Zawahiri spent his medical school years. He and his group became very active on the campus of Cairo University. Abdallah Schleifer, an American Jew, and a former Marxist who converted to Islam, witnessed the evolution of the young Ayman and his switch to Salafism.

From 1973 onwards, the Islamists who refused to be satisfied with preaching alone came together within the Gamaa al-Islamamiyya, which Zawahiri’s cell also joined.

A friend of Mahfouz Azzam, Zawahiri’s great-uncle, Schleifer met the young militant, who showed him around campus, where the progress of Islamism was obvious. [Schleifer says] Zawahiri congratulated himself on the way his ideas had managed to make headway with the nation’s elites. Schleifer was dubious, pointing out that these same faculties – medicine and engineering – had been bastions of Marxism twenty years earlier: “When you talk, I feel like I’m back in the [communist] party, not with a traditional Muslim,” he says he told Zawahiri.

The Afghan adventure

Zawahiri continued on his path nevertheless, graduated in 1974, started his career as a surgeon and married a girl from Cairo’s upper middle class in 1978. He joined the Islamic Jihad organisation in the late 1970s. The movement was also under the umbrella of the Gamaa and was even more explicitly dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian regime. For the time being, Zawahiri was still off the Egyptian authorities’ radar. “My relationship with Afghanistan began in the summer of 1980 by a twist of fate,” he would later write in his memoirs.

The Soviet invasion had already begun several months earlier, creating waves of Afghan refugees. The director of a clinic in Cairo, a Muslim Brother, invited Zawahiri to accompany him to Pakistan to treat the refugees. Zawahiri immediately accepted and went to Peshawar under the aegis of the Red Crescent. The Pakistani city was then a real jungle: arms dealers and opium traffickers had taken over the streets of what was becoming the rear base of the jihad in Afghanistan. A young Saudi regularly shuttled between Peshawar and his country, from which he brought back suitcases of dollars to finance the resistance against the Russians: Osama Bin Laden. The two future leaders of al-Qaeda did not yet know each other.

During the four months he spent in the area, Zawahiri witnessed the courage of the mujahideen, who fought the Russian troops with old rifles from the First World War. The first American Stinger missiles did not arrive until 1986. Zawahiri’s interest had been piqued: dressed in traditional Pakistani costume, he returned to Egypt to promote the Afghan jihad. If the Russians were the enemy of the moment, America was not perceived as an ally. During a discussion with Schleifer, his uncle’s converted friend, the latter was indignant: “How can you compare the USSR and America, where Muslims are free to practice their faith”?

“The conversation ended badly,” Schleifer recalls. “In our previous debates, a joke would conveniently lighten the mood. Now I had the feeling that he was no longer addressing me, but hundreds of thousands of people.” Zawahiri saw the Afghan jihad “as training of the utmost importance to prepare the mujahideen to fight against the American superpower”.

In the meantime, the evolution of Egyptian foreign policy seemed to prove the Qatbists right: Sadat was in the process of signing a peace deal with Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood had been asked to silence its objections. The different cells of the Gamaa were being repressed, the niqab had been forbidden on campuses, and religious student associations were dissolved. Some Islamist militants began to accuse the Egyptian president of apostasy, implying that his “blood is lawful”. Clearly, the murder of the Egyptian president could be religiously justified.

First public appearance

Zawahiri hoped to overthrow the government and recruited officers for this purpose, including Major Qamari, to whom he delegated much of the leadership of the Maadi cell. But it was another Islamic Jihad cell that took charge of Sadat’s assassination on 6 October 1981, during a military parade. Arrested, Zawahiri claimed to have been informed of the action – which he considered premature and badly prepared – only a few hours before it took place. He was nevertheless charged, along with nearly 300 other Islamist militants.

I had the feeling that Zawahiri was no longer addressing me, but hundreds of thousands of people

At the time of their trial, on 4 December 1982, Zawahiri was designated as spokesman by his comrades. It was the first time he was filmed. The world discovered a 31-year-old man with a thick black beard and an angry look, speaking in masterful English tinged with a strong Arabic accent: “We want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Why have they locked us up here? What do we want to say? We are Muslims who believe in our religion, both as ideology and praxis. Therefore, we have done our best to establish an Islamic state and society”. At every break, his companions exclaimed, “Mohammed’s army is back!”

When he was released from prison in 1984, Zawahiri was a hardened radical. Three years of humiliation and torture – some of it particularly ignominious – had transformed him into a time bomb. For the time being, he had to leave Egypt. He headed back to Peshawar, where he was joined by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Zawahiri found a city even more lawless than the one he had left a few years earlier. American money was now flowing in and there were arms dealers, spooks from all over the world, Pakistani agents, Afghan warlords and young martyrs. A Palestinian, Abdallah Azzam, had settled in the city.

Azzam organised, financed and directed the flow of Arab jihadists wishing to fight in Afghanistan and enjoyed considerable prestige, especially as he had managed to enlist the help of Osama Bin Laden, who maintained his small business of death. Al-Zawahiri had no desire to follow the orders of Azzam, whose monopoly on the Arab mujahideen he wanted to break. His first objective was to get his hands on the young Saudi, whom he gradually surrounded with his followers. A muted war between Arab mujahideen was then played out. But the Egyptians had an advantage over the Palestinian: Bin Laden’s blood pressure was too low, and it was Zawahiri whom he called upon to help him.

The matrix of al-Qaeda

The two men could not have been better matched: both hailed from the bourgeois classes of their countries and prestigious families in the Arab world. Al-Zawahiri needed money and contacts, two things Bin Laden could offer. The Saudi, a young idealist lacking strategic reflection, was in search of a precise ideological orientation, which Zawahiri’s experience as a propagandist would provide.

Al-Zawahiri needed money and contacts, which Bin Laden did not lack, and he was looking for an ideology…

Liberating Afghanistan from the Soviet presence was not Zawahiri’s real goal: he saw the country as a rear base for global jihad in Egypt and other Muslim countries. Abdullah Azzam’s organisation bothered him. Zawahiri spread a rumour that the Palestinians were working hand in hand with the Americans: on 24 November 1989, the jihadist leader’s car exploded. Bin Laden was finally all his. The matrix of al-Qaeda was now in place. The departure of Soviet troops closed the Afghan parentheses for a while.

Shortly afterwards, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden offered his help to the Saudi monarchy, which was rejected with disdain. The Saudis preferred to turn to Washington. An intolerable solution for Osama Bin Laden, whose anti-Westernism was more deeply rooted than Zawahiri’s. The break with his country was complete and he left for Sudan. Bin Laden devoted himself for a while to infrastructure projects, investing in the construction of an airport and motorways.

Zawahiri, who was trying to reorganise the Islamic Jihad, followed his cash cow with a few dozen of his followers. Times were hard for the Egyptians, who grumbled about the lack of support from Bin Laden. He sent his followers all over the world to raise funds, without much success. Zawahiri even travelled to the United States, to Silicon Valley, where he addressed the Muslim community in Santa Clara and San José, claiming to represent the Kuwaiti Red Crescent.

Dr Ali Zaki, a prominent member of the San José community who was responsible for guiding the Egyptian on his American tour, recalls: “We talked about the children and farmers injured by Russian mines.” Financially, the trip was a failure. Zawahiri realised that he would not be able to achieve anything without his Saudi financier, and encouraged several of his followers to switch from Islamic Jihad to al-Qaeda.

A decision that did not please everyone, so great was the distrust of Bin Laden and his commitment to the jihadist cause. But necessity dictated the move, and most of them formed the first ranks of the new organisation. At the time, the main state providing arms and assistance to al-Qaeda was not a Gulf monarchy, but Iran, notably through Hezbollah. This original support partly explains why the terrorist organisation never explicitly attacked the Shiites and the Islamic Republic, which has today become one of the main enemies of the Sunni jihadist sphere.

Zawahiri set up a strictly autonomous cell structure, which made it possible to keep the group’s plans secret in case of arrest.

The year 1993 marked the beginning of a wave of attacks carried out from Sudan and thought up by Zawahiri, including the one against the Egyptian interior minister, which missed its target but killed about twenty people. The Al Qaeda mastermind innovated: he had recourse to suicide attacks en masse and had the terrorists’ martyrdom wishes filmed before they took action. Above all, it set up a structure of strictly autonomous cells, which made it possible to keep the group’s plans secret in case of arrest. A double assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak followed by an extremely deadly attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad made the Egyptian authorities decide to take more determined action against the movement.

Two children close to the Zawahiri family were kidnapped, drugged, raped and captured on film. The video of their ordeal forced them to cooperate against their parents, who may well have decided to put them to death to wash away the humiliation. The information they provided led to the arrest of many jihadists. They were then used to trap Zawahiri: the plan was to provide them with a suitcase full of explosives and to get as close as possible to the jihadist leader. But the Sudanese [secret] services discovered the plot and saved Zawahiri’s life. The two children were arrested and handed over to Zawahiri, who said he wanted to interrogate them. Instead, he organised a trial and had them executed. This was too much for the Sudanese authorities, who were already under increasing international pressure to stop harbouring the terrorist organisation.

‘Against the Jews and Crusaders’

Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their hundred or so followers were expelled from Sudanese territory. We lost track of the Egyptians during these difficult years. He was successively seen in Yemen, Switzerland, Bosnia, Holland, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. We found him again in Chechnya, where he hoped to establish a new base for the global jihad, before moving on to Dagestan. He was arrested by the Russians for holding a fake Sudanese passport and, despite his protests, was imprisoned for six months. He emerged from this pathetic world tour weaker than ever and had no choice but to join Bin Laden, who had returned to Afghanistan after the Sudanese adventure. The Saudi had grown up and was no longer willing to let his strategy be dictated to him.

New York, London, Madrid, Bali… the 2000s were punctuated by attacks by the jihadist organisation

From 1996 onwards, the United States and other western interests became the priority target of the jihadist group. Al-Qaeda now presented itself as the “international Islamic front of jihad against the Jews and the crusaders”. The insistence on these new objectives attracted the attention of the CIA, which was everywhere tracking down the cells set up by Zawahiri.

The arrest of the members of an Albanian cell in 1998 and their extradition to Egypt launched hostilities. Zawahiri then declared in a London-based Arab newspaper that “the message sent by the Americans has been received, and the response, being prepared with God’s help, will be written in the only language they understand”. The next day, two simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed more than 200 people. The Americans retaliated by sending Tomahawk missiles toward the Afghan caves where they assumed the Islamist militants were hiding: the operation was a fiasco.

Far from hitting the intended targets, one of the Tomahawks landed without even exploding. According to Russian sources, it was recovered and sold to China for $10 million, a sum that helped finance actions in Chechnya. The episode made Bin Laden a legendary figure for the entire anti-American world. The spiral that would lead to 9/11 had been set in motion. New York, London, Madrid, Bali… the 2000s were punctuated by attacks by the jihadist organisation until Bin Laden’s death in 2011.

The death of the Saudi leader made Zawahiri the international organisation’s number one and forced him to play a role that did not suit him well. Zawahiri’s old age, lack of charisma, his isolation somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan and above all the emergence of a new generation of jihadists unwilling to listen to the advice of a man perceived as outdated – all had a more powerful neutralising influence on him than the American strikes. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State would enhance the decline of the old Egyptian and his organisation.

The Syrian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State would enhance the decline of the old Egyptian and his organisation

For a few years, Zawahiri continued to follow current events and offer advice on unity to the various jihadist movements that were engaged in a fierce rivalry. In a vacuum: the Islamic State demonstrated a long time ago that it had no use for his orders, and Jabhat al-Nosra (which has since become Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), more faithful to the line drawn by the old Egyptian, shook off his weighty tutelage back in 2016.

Recently given up for dead, he appeared in a video released in mid-March [2021] to call on Burmese Rohingya Muslims to take up arms against the Burmese regime. However, there was nothing in the video to confirm that was indeed alive. In the Sahel and Maghreb, while the major jihadist groups are still linked to central Al Qaeda, Zawahiri did not seem to be able to control them closely. The small stem cells no longer needed their stump.

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