From Bin Laden to al-Zawahiri: The story of al-Qaeda’s rise

By Jihâd Gillon

Posted on Friday, 7 May 2021 12:03, updated on Thursday, 13 May 2021 16:48
Osama bin Laden (left) stands next to Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Visual News/Getty Images/AFP

10 years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Egypt’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded him as head of al-Qaeda, was for a long time the leading ideologist of this jihadist international organisation, despite being seen as much less charistmatic.

At an age when people are just beginning to think about their future, 15-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri established a clandestine Muslim Brotherhood cell in his high school.

Zawahiri was not one of those people whose commitment stemmed more from a need for recognition than from real convictions. Throughout his life, he travelled around the world setting up cells. He also founded and led Al Qaeda, which – at the height of its power – served as an umbrella organisation for all the major terrorist groups.

Currently holed up somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zawahiri is now just a gray-haired old man who is regularly given up for dead and mocked by part of the jihadist sphere. Yet the latter owes him a lot.

Sayyid Qutb’s corpse dangled at the end of a rope on 29 August 1966. The Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue was executed on the orders of Egypt’s former president Nasser. The very same day al-Zawahiri, a high school student at the time, decided to take up Islamism.

Small steps VS violence

For the majority of his generation, Qutb’s death sentence was considered a significant historical event. It marked the beginning of a deep schism within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was divided between members who supported violence and others who were in favour of political “small steps.” The latter grouped around the old Brotherhood guard, embodied by Hassan al-Hudaybi and Omar Telmassani, which – faced with Nasserite repression – was anxious to offer the government pledges of moderation.

This compromise was unacceptable to Zawahiri, who admired Qutb’s work and who experienced prison and torture for the first time in the 1960s, alongside this charismatic ideologue. “The torture that the youngest detainees undergo gives rise to the idea of takfir, excommunication. Neither their torturers nor the rulers who command these torturers, nor the people who do not revolt against these unjust rulers, can be Muslims in their eyes.” (Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and Pharaoh). This broadened conception of takfir broke down the theoretical barriers to religious-based violence.

Respected guru

The older segment of the Brotherhood movement believed that the islamisation of society should start from below, while the others, who saw themselves as an Islamic avant-garde, wanted to follow Qutb’s recommendations on destabilising and overthrowing the region’s impious regimes.

Radical Islamism was thus born and Zawahiri was one of its most respected gurus for nearly 40 years.

It was he, rather than Osama Bin Laden, who really defined Al Qaeda’s strategy. “Bin Laden had 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 distinguished family would grow up to have a career in international terrorism. For instance, he didn’t fight with his friends or play football on the street, as he preferred to read quietly in the library. Moreover, his small build automatically excluded him from the rougher sports that the bigger boys engaged in.

Zawahiri was raised in the bourgeois and cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Maadi, in the suburbs of the Egyptian capital. As the grandson of the director of Cairo University and founder of the King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia as well as the grandnephew of the Al-Azhar Mosque’s Grand Imam, Zawahiri was certainly not left to his own devices as a teenager.

His father, who was a professor of pharmacology, came from a long medical dynasty that included many renowned surgeons, dermatologists and other pharmacists. His mother’s family, the Azzams, had long been involved in Egypt’s political affairs, usually on the side of the opposition.

His great-uncle Mahfouz Azzam’s anti-British nationalism even earned him a few days in prison in the 1940s. Zawahiri’s parents were a religious couple, who lived in a neighbourhood with more churches than mosques.

While some members of his family, especially on his mother’s side, held anti-colonial sentiments, there was no trace of anti-Westernism sentiment as such. Little Zawahiri himself was a great fan of Disney films, which his father took him to see at the local cinema whenever he wanted to reward his son for his grades – Al Qaeda’s future leader routinely finished top of the class.

But the family did not fit into this very British world of tennis courts and cricket pitches. Zawahiri was enrolled in a public school, located opposite Victoria College, which was attended by the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, the American Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and King Hussein of Jordan. The family was no stranger to Qutb. In the 1930s, he taught Arabic grammar to Mahfouz Azzam, Zawahiri ‘s uncle, who later wrote for the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood magazine, which was edited by the Brotherhood ideologue in the 1950s.

Decline of Arab nationalism

The Arab armies’ humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War, a few months after Qutb’s execution, accelerated the Islamist wave across the Arab world. Many felt that they had been defeated by the modern world and betrayed by incompetent and corrupt elites.

Young Zawahiri and his comrades within the clandestine cell believed that Muslims had been defeated by the Jews because they had turned their backs on Islam, notably by entrusting their destiny to secularist tyrants who upheld Arab nationalism.

Their cell was harmless for the moment, and was more of a high-school think tank than a real subversive organisation. All over the country, similar clandestine cells began forming. They were very much influenced by Qutb’s 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 posed by the radicalised fringe of this movement, he promised them an end to repression in exchange for their political support. Thousands of Islamist militants were released. To use the terminology of the most radical elements, it was first necessary to defeat the “near enemy” – the nationalist Arab regimes responsible for their defeat against Israel – before attacking the West.

From 1973 onwards, these Islamists who refused to be satisfied solely with preaching were grouped together within the Gamaa al-Islamiyya, which 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 Cairo University’s campus. Abdallah Schleifer – a Jewish American man, who was a Marxist until he converted to Islam – witnessed young Zawahiri’s evolution and his switch to Salafism.

A friend of Mahfouz Azzam, Ayman’s great-uncle, met the young militant. Zawahiri showed him around his campus, where the progress of Islamism was obvious. He congratulated himself on how quickly the nation’s elites had adopted his ideas. Schleifer was dubious, pointing out that these same faculties – medicine and engineering – were bastions of Marxism 20 years earlier. “When you talk, I feel like I’m back in the [communist] party, not with a traditional Muslim,” he tells Zawahiri.

The Afghan adventure

Zawahiri nevertheless continued on his way. He graduated in 1974, began 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. This movement was also under the umbrella of the Gamaa organisation, and was even more explicitly dedicated to overthrowing the Egyptian regime. For the time being, Zawahiri was still under the radar of the Egyptian authorities. “My relationship with Afghanistan began in the summer of 1980 by a twist of fate,” Zawahiri wrote in his memoirs.

The Soviet invasion began a few months after and caused waves of Afghan refugees. The director of a clinic in Cairo, a Muslim Brother, offered to accompany Zawahiri to Pakistan to treat the refugees. Zawahiri accepted immediately and went to Peshawar under the auspices of the Red Crescent.

The Pakistani city was then a real jungle, as arms dealers and opium traffickers took over the streets of what was becoming the rear base of the jihad in Afghanistan. At the time, a young bin Laden was regularly travelling back and forth between Peshawar and Saudi Arabia, from where he brought back suitcases full of money to finance the resistance against the Russians. The two future leaders of al-Qaeda did not yet know each other at this point.

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 World War I. The first US Stinger missiles did not arrive until 1986, which stung Zawahiri.

Dressed in a traditional Pakistani outfit, he returned to Egypt to promote the Afghan jihad. Although the Russians were the enemy of the moment, the US was not perceived as an ally. During a discussion with Schleifer, his uncle’s converted friend, Zawahiri indignantly asked “How can you compare the USSR and America, where Muslims are free to practice their faith?”

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

In the meantime, the evolution of Egyptian foreign policy angered the Qatbists, as Sadat was in the process of signing a peace treaty with Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood was asked to silence its objections. The Gamaa’s different cells were repressed, the niqab was 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.”

In their eyes, murdering the Egyptian president would be religiously justified.

First public appearance

Zawahiri hoped to overthrow the government and recruit officers for this purpose, including Major Qamari to whom he delegated much of the leadership of the Maadi cell. However, it was another cell of the Islamic Jihad that was responsible for Sadat’s assassination on 6 October 1981, during a military parade.

Zawahiri was arrested and claimed to have only been informed of this event, which he considered premature and badly prepared, a few hours before it took place. He was nevertheless charged, along with nearly 300 other Islamist militants.

During their trial on 4 December 1982, his comrades appointed him as their spokesman. It was the first time he was filmed. The world discovered a 31-year-old man with a thick black beard, an angry look in his eyes and who spoke English 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 an ideology and a praxis. Therefore, we have done our best to establish an Islamic state and society.” Every time he paused, his companions shouted: “Muhammad’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 them particularly miserable – had made him a time bomb. He decided to leave Egypt and headed for Peshawar, where he was joined by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Once there, Zawahiri found a city that was even more lawless than the one he had left a few years earlier. US money was flowing in and the city was rife with arms dealers, spooks from all over the world, Pakistani agents, Afghan warlords and young martyrs.

Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian, had also settled in Peshawar. He organised, financed and directed the flow of Arab jihadists who wanted to fight in Afghanistan and enjoyed considerable prestige, especially as he had managed to enlist the help of Bin Laden, who maintained his small business of death.

Zawahiri had no desire to take orders from Azzam, as he wanted to break the monopoly that the latter had over the Arab mujahideen. His first objective was to get his hands on bin Laden and gradually surround him with his followers. A muted civil war within the Arab mujahideen then played out. But Zawahiri had an advantage over Azzam. When Bin Laden’s blood pressure dropped dangerously low, he called on Zawahiri to help him, rather than Azzam.

The Al-Qaeda Matrix

The two men could not have been better suited to one another, as both came from prestigious families within the Arab world. Furthermore, Zawahiri needed money and contacts, of which Bin Laden had plenty, while Bin Laden, who was a young idealist lacking in strategic thinking, was in search of a precise ideological orientation, which was certainly not something that Zawahiri lacked.

Liberating Afghanistan from the Soviets was not Zawahiri’s real goal, as he believed that the country would make a good rear base for a global jihad, in Egypt and other Muslim countries. Azzam’s organisation bothered him, so he spread a rumour that the Palestinian was working hand in hand with the US services. Later, on 24 November 1989, the jihadist leader’s car exploded.

Bin Laden was finally all on his own. The Al-Qaeda Matrix was finally in place, and the departure of Soviet troops closed the Afghan parenthesis for a while.

Shortly afterwards, Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden offered his help to the Saudi monarchy, which was rejected as the Saudis preferred to turn to Washington. Bin Laden, whose anti-Westernism was more deeply rooted than that of Zawahiri, was not happy with Saudi Arabia’s decision. As a result, he completely broke with his country and left for Sudan. Bin Laden devoted himself for a while to infrastructure projects and invested 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 Egyptian, 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 US, to Silicon Valley, where he addressed the Muslim community in Santa Clara and San Jose, claiming to be acting on behalf of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent.

Dr Ali Zaki, a prominent member of the community in San Jose who accompanied Zawahiri on his US tour, says: “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 backer, and encouraged several of his followers to switch from Islamic Jihad to al-Qaeda.

This decision did not please everyone, as many distrusted Bin Laden and believed he was not fully committed to the jihadist cause. However, necessity dictated, 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 rather Iran, notably through Hezbollah. This explains why the terrorist organisation never explicitly attacked the Shiites and the Islamic Republic, which today has become one of the main enemies of the Sunni jihadist sphere.

1993 marked the beginning of a wave of attacks carried out from Sudan and led by Zawahiri, including the one against the Egyptian interior minister, which missed its target but killed about 20 people. It was at this time that the head of Al Qaeda came up with the idea of suicide attacks en masse, in which terrorists would express themselves on film before they launched into action. Above all, it established a structure of strictly autonomous cells, which made it possible to keep the group’s plans secret in case of arrest.

The Egyptian services were forced to act more decisively against the movement after the double assassination attempt on Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak and an extremely deadly attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad.

Two children of Zawahiri’s relatives were lured, drugged, raped and filmed. The video of their ordeal forced them to cooperate with their parents, who were tempted to put them to death to avoid 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 it as close as possible to the jihadist leader.

However, the Sudanese 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. In reality, 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 Jews and Crusaders”

Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their 100 or so followers were expelled from Sudanese territory. It was hard to keep track of all of Zawahiri’s movements during these difficult years as he was successively seen in Yemen, Switzerland, Bosnia, Holland, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.

He went to Chechnya at one point as he hoped to establish a new base for the jihad world, before moving on to Dagestan. He was also 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. Bin Laden had grown up and no longer wanted to be told what to do.

From 1996 onwards, he made US and Western interests the jihadist group’s number one priority. Al-Qaeda was now advertising itself as the “international Islamic front of jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” This new slogan attracted the attention of the CIA, which was tracking down the numerous cells that Zawahiri had set up.

The arrest of the members of an Albanian cell in 1998 and their extradition to Egypt launched the 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 were launched on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. The US retaliated by sending Tomahawk missiles towards the Afghan caves where they assumed the Islamist militants were hiding. However, 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 $10m, a sum that helped finance actions in Chechnya. This episode made Bin Laden a legendary figure for all anti-American people in the world. The events that would lead to 9/11 were set in motion. The 2000s were punctuated by attacks from al-Qaeda in New York, London, Madrid and Bali, right up until Bin Laden’s death in 2011.

Zawahiri became the leader of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. However, this role doesn’t suit him well due to his old age, lack of charisma, his undisclosed location somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan and finally, because of the emergence of a new generation of jihadists who are unwilling to listen to the advice of a man who is perceived as outdated.

These factors have contributed more to Zawahiri’s diminishing influence than the US strikes ever did. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of Islamic State highlighted the decline of the old Egyptian and his organisation.

Zawahiri continued for a few years to follow events and to give advice on unity to the various jihadist movements that were waging a war of fierce rivalry. However, Islamic State proved a long time ago that it had no use for his orders and Jabhat al-Nosra (which has since become Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), which was more faithful to the old Egyptian, stopped listening to his advice in 2016.

Recently given up for dead, he appeared in a video broadcasted in mid-March that called on Rohingya Muslims in Burma to take up arms against the Burmese regime. However, nothing in the video confirms that he is still alive. Even though the major jihadist groups located in the Sahel and Maghreb are still linked to al-Qaeda, Zawahiri does not seem to have any control over them. The small cells no longer need their home base.

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