Born June 19, 1951 to an upper-middle class Egyptian family in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, al-Zawahiri was grandson to Rabi’a al-Zawahri, who had been the grand imam at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
At age 14 al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and at 18 he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which would later carry out the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. (Al-Zawahiri would be among the hundreds of suspects arrested, but not convicted, for their possible role in the assassination.) Over time, al-Zawahiri became one of EIJ’s chief organizers.
Al-Zawahiri graduated in 1974 from Cairo University’s medical school, where his father was a Professor of Pharmacology. Four years later he completed a master’s degree in surgery.
In 1979 al-Zawahiri made his first trip to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen struggle against Soviet occupiers. While there, he met Osama bin Laden, and the two worked together under the guidance of Abdullah Azzam.
Returning to Egypt in 1990, al-Zawahiri trained the members of Islamic Jihad in the tactics of the Afghan conflict.
Al-Zawahiri is believed to have collaborated with the Islamic Group terrorists who murdered at least 58 foreign tourists in Luxor in 1997. This was one of a series of lethal terrorist attacks for which al-Zawahiri was sentenced to death in absentia.
During the 1990s al-Zawahiri traveled in Europe and resided for a time in Denmark and Switzerland. He also reportedly was twice smuggled into the United States for secret fundraising events at mosques and elsewhere, collecting between the two trips an estimated $500,000 from American Muslims.
A 1998 fatwa introducing the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders was issued jointly by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. This new organization, they wrote, was created “to eliminate all U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, the U.N. embargo against Iraq and Israel’s control of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.”
In 1998 al-Zawahiri began merging Islamic Jihad into al Qaeda, a merger formally sealed in 2001. Both he and bin Laden would be indicted for allegedly masterminding the August 7, 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
When American al Qaeda James Ujaama became ill in 2000 while attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri was the doctor who treated him.
Subsequent to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, two al Qaeda videos showed bin Laden in the company of al-Zawahiri.
“Bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s public face, and he is al Qaeda, as far as most people are concerned,” said RAND Corporation terrorism specialist William Rosenau in April 2004. “In some respects, however, al-Zawahiri as a far more sinister figure … a profound influence on bin Laden, helping to radicalize him and make him more violent and anti-American. Al-Zawahiri has also served as an ideological transmission belt by injecting into the al Qaeda movement the worldviews of individuals like Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theorist of jihad hanged by Nasser in 1966.”
Al-Zawahiri was not found when U.S. and allied forces swept into Afghanistan in October 2001 in “Operation Enduring Freedom.” A London Arab-language newspaper reported that American bombing raids killed one of his wives and two of his children.
While hiding in Afghan caves, al-Zawahiri wrote a second book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, about his career and philosophy as a terrorist. His first book in 1991, Bitter Harvest, gives what one biographer described as “a moral justification for nearly indiscriminate murder under the pretext of jihad.”
The U.S. Department of State offered up to $25 million for information leading directly to al-Zawahiri’s capture or conviction.
In March 2004, Al-Jazeera Television broadcast what it reported was the voice of al-Zawahiri calling for the overthrow of President Musharraf.
In an August 4, 2005 interview on on Al-Jazeera, al-Zawahiri made the following remarks:
In a letter dated July 9, 2005, al-Zawahiri wrote to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (al Qaeda’s top agent in Iraq at that time) that the American occupation of Iraq had provided Islamic radicals with a golden opportunity to win popular support. In this correspondence (which was obtained by American forces in Iraq during the summer of 2005), al-Zawahiri spelled out his views on how the battle against the U.S. should be prosecuted. “The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam,” he wrote, “and how they ran and left their agents, is noteworthy. Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations, and their plans to fill the void behind them.” In short, al-Zawahiri was counting on America to succumb to its “Vietnam Syndrome” and eventually withdraw from Iraq.
The al-Zawahiri letter also made clear al Qaeda’s intention, as the first step in its maximalist agenda, to war against all secular nations in the Middle East. The long-term plan was to expel the Americans from Iraq, establish an Islamic authority, and take the war to Iraq’s secular neighbors, including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The final stage, al-Zawahri wrote, would be a clash with Israel, which he said had been established to challenge “any new Islamic entity.”
Al-Zawahiri’s letter also acknowledged that al Qaeda had lost key leaders; that its members had, to a large degree, resigned themselves to defeat in Afghanistan; and that their lines of communication and sources of funding had been severely disrupted.
On July 27, 2006, Al Jazeera television broadcast a new videotape showing al-Zawahiri exhorting Muslims to wage jihad against Israel by joining the ongoing military conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza. Asserting that he viewed “all the world as a battlefield open in front of us,” and that the Israeli-Hezbollah war could not be ended with “cease-fires or agreements,” al-Zawahiri said:
“It is a jihad for the sake of God and will last until [our] religion prevails … from Spain to Iraq. We will attack everywhere…. My fellow Muslims, it is obvious that Arab and Islamic governments are not only impotent but also complicit … and you are alone on the battlefield. Rely on God and fight your enemies … make yourselves martyrs. … The shells and rockets ripping apart Muslim bodies in Gaza and Lebanon are not only Israeli [weapons], but are supplied by all the countries of the crusader coalition. Therefore, every participant in the crime will pay the price. We cannot just watch these shells as they burn our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon and stand by idly, humiliated.”
Al-Zawahiri further instructed Muslims to attack “crusaders and Zionists” and to support jihad “until American troops are chased from Afghanistan and Iraq, paralyzed and impotent … having paid the price for aggression against Muslims and support for Israel.”
In a September 2006 videotape aired by Al-Jazeera, al-Zawahri warned that Persian Gulf countries and Israel would be al-Qaeda’s next targets for attack. Addressing the West directly, al-Zawahri said: “You should not waste your time in reinforcing your troops in Iraq and Afghanistan because they are doomed to defeat and are already all but defeated. Instead, you have to reinforce your troops in two regions. First is the Gulf, where you will be thrown out after you are defeated in Iraq, at which point your economic ruin will be achieved. The second is Israel, because the jihad reinforcements are getting closer to it.”
On the same video, al-Zawahiri also impugned the United Nations peacekeeping force that was then deploying in Lebanon under the terms of the cease-fire resolution. “What is so terrible in this resolution,” said Al-Zawahiri, “… is that it approves the existence of the Jewish state and isolates our mujahedeen in Palestine from Muslims in Lebanon.” In other portions of the tape, al-Zawahri told the United States: “We have repeatedly warned you and offered a truce with you. Now we have all the legal and rational justification to continue to fight you until your power is destroyed or you give in and surrender. … Your leaders are hiding from you the true extent of the disaster. And the days are pregnant and giving birth to new events, with Allah’s permission and guidance.”
In addition, al-Zawahiri criticized the West for giving aid to Israel, and he called on the Islamic world “to rush with everything at its disposal to the aid of its Muslim brothers in Lebanon and Gaza.”
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, in July 2007 al Qaeda’s media company Al-Sahab issued two audio messages by al-Zawahiri, wherein he: (a) called on the Muslims of Pakistan to “deal a fatal blow to the plans of the Crusaders and their helpers in South Asia”; and (b) warned that all those who were “collaborating with the Americans, Zionists, and Arab states” were “digging their graves with their own hands.”
In May 2007, Zawahiri said: “… I want blacks in America, people of color, American Indians, Hispanics, and all the weak and oppressed in North and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world, to know that when we wage jihad in Allah’s path, we aren’t waging jihad to lift oppression from Muslims only; we are waging jihad to lift oppression from all mankind, because Allah has ordered us never to accept oppression, whatever it may be…This is why I want every oppressed one on the face of the earth to know that our victory over America and the Crusading West — with Allah’s permission — is a victory for them, because they shall be freed from the most powerful tyrannical force in the history of mankind.”
On June 16, 2011 — a few weeks after the death of Osama bin Laden — al Qaeda announced that al-Zawahiri would be its new leader. The organization released a statement that said: “As the best form of gratitude for the righteous martyr and for the life of the mujahid Sheikh Osama bin Laden is to continue on the path of jihad . . . the General Command of Qaeda . . . announces that Sheikh Dr. Abu Muhammad Ayman al-Zawahiri . . . has assumed the responsibility of the leadership the group.”
On September 9, 2016, a new video by Zawahiri was made public. Echoing themes from his earlier videos, Zawahiri again praised 9/11 and portrayed it as a product of Muslim grievances and payback for Western crimes; he vowed a “thousand more” 9/11s; and he described apostates as being more dangerous than original infidels. Moreover, Zawahiri called on American blacks to convert to Islam, asserting that they would never receive justice and would always live in “humiliation” unless they converted to Islam and rebelled against the “white majority.” He even showed footage of the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X preaching.