Ayman al-Zawahiri co-founded al-Qaeda with Osama bin Laden in 1988. He has led the group since bin Laden’s death in 2011, and expanded the number of al-Qaeda affiliates around the world. The FBI’s Rewards for Justice program offered a reward of $25 million for information leading to Zawahiri’s capture.“Most Wanted Terrorists: Ayman Al-Zawahiri,” FBI, accessed August 7, 2017, https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/ayman-al-zawahiri. Zawahiri maintained that al-Qaeda’s primary target is the United States and “its ally Israel, and secondly its local allies that rule our countries.”Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, September 2013, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/dr-ayman-al-e1ba93awc481hirc4ab-22general-guidelines-for-the-work-of-a-jihc481dc4ab22-en.pdf. On November 20, 2020, security sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as an al-Qaeda translator with close ties to the group, claimed Zawahiri died in Ghazni, Afghanistan from “asthma because he had no formal treatment.”Baker Atyani and Sayed Salahuddin, “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan — sources,” Arab News, November 20, 2020, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1765746/world; Tim Stickings, “Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has died, reports claim terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from 'asthma-related breathing issues',” Daily Mail, November 20, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8970231/Al-Qaedas-leader-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-died-reports-claim.html. Reports of Zawahiri’s death remain unconfirmed.
Zawahiri’s path to extremism began in Egypt. He first joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager and was arrested at age 15 for membership in the group.“Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” BBC News, August 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286. In 1973, Zawahiri joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He would go on to earn a medical degree and become a surgeon. Following the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Egypt jointly tried Zawahiri and hundreds of other EIJ members for conspiracy in assassination. Zawahiri was known during the trial as Defendant 113.“Authorities target bin Laden's second-in-command,” CNN, September 28, 2001, http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/28/inv.second.command/; Leila Fadel, “In Egypt, A New Courtroom Drama Every Day,” NPR, March 14, 2014, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/03/14/289815812/in-egypt-a-new-courtroom-drama-every-day. The court sentenced Zawahiri to three years in prison for the illegal possession of weapons.“Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” BBC News, August 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286.Following his release in 1985, Zawahiri traveled to Saudi Arabia.“Timeline of Al-Zawahiri,” CNN, June 16, 2011, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/16/timeline-of-al-zawahiri/; “Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” BBC News, August 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286. In 1987, Zawahiri met bin Laden in Pakistan, where Zawahiri was treating wounded Islamist fighters from the Afghan-Soviet war.“Timeline of Al-Zawahiri,” CNN, June 16, 2011, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/16/timeline-of-al-zawahiri/; “Authorities target bin Laden's second-in-command,” CNN, September 28, 2001, http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/28/inv.second.command/. The following year, he helped bin Laden establish al-Qaeda in Peshawar, Pakistan.Declan Walsh, “Ayman al-Zawahiri: from doctor to Osama bin Laden's successor,” Guardian (London), June 16, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/16/ayman-al-zawahiri-osama-bin-laden.
Zawahiri returned to Egypt and became the leader of the EIJ in 1993.“Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” BBC News, August 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286. Zawahiri allegedly moved to Yemen in late 1994 for about a year before traveling to Pakistan. It is unclear if Zawahiri took command of EIJ in Yemen alongside cell leader Ahmad al-Naggar. However it is reported that Zawahiri continued to direct EIJ in Egypt from Yemen.“The Role of Egyptian Militants in Developing al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Jamestown Foundation, January 6, 2011, https://www.refworld.org/docid/4d26cd802.html. Under his leadership, the EIJ carried out a 1995 bombing of Egypt’s embassy in Pakistan, as well as a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.Phil Hirschkorn, “Al-Zawahiri faces single set of U.S. charges,” CNN, March 19, 2004, http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/03/18/alzawahiri.charges/. In February 1998, the Zawahiri-led EIJ joined with al-Qaeda, the Egyptian Islamic Group, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan, and the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh to form the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Christians. The groups released a joint fatwa calling on Muslims to “kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military….”“Profile: Ayman al-Zawahiri,” BBC News, August 13, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13789286; “Timeline of Al-Zawahiri,” CNN, June 16, 2011, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/16/timeline-of-al-zawahiri/; “Jihad Against Jews and Christians,” Federation of American Scientists, February 23, 1998, https://fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm. On August 6, the EIJ sent a fax to an Egyptian newspaper, stating that the terrorist group would seek revenge against the United States for arresting several of the group’s members. The following day, al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people.“Authorities target bin Laden's second-in-command,” CNN, September 28, 2001, http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/28/inv.second.command/. The U.S. government indicted Zawahiri for his role in the attacks.Phil Hirschkorn, “Al-Zawahiri faces single set of U.S. charges,” CNN, March 19, 2004, http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/03/18/alzawahiri.charges/. In 1999, an Egyptian court sentenced Zawahiri in absentia to death for his role in an alleged terrorist plot against U.S. interests in Albania.“Ayman al-Zawahiri Fast Facts,” CNN, June 10, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/14/world/ayman-al-zawahiri---fast-facts/index.html.
Zawahiri merged the EIJ into al-Qaeda in June 2001.“Country Reports on Terrorism 2008,” U.S. Department of State, April 2009, 305, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122599.pdf. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for Zawahiri.“Authorities target bin Laden's second-in-command,” CNN, September 28, 2001, http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/09/28/inv.second.command/. The following month, bin Laden’s biographer, Hamid Mir, told the Christian Science Monitor that bin Laden was the public face of al-Qaeda but Zawahiri held more sway over the group’s direction. Zawahiri “is not interested in fighting in the mountains. He is thinking more internationally,” according to Mir.Scott Baldauf, “The ‘cave man’ and Al Qaeda,” Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2001, https://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1031/p6s1-wosc.html. Zawahiri’s wife and three children died in a U.S. strike against the family’s home in Afghanistan in December 2001.Chelsea J. Carter, “Al Qaeda leader calls for kidnapping of Westerners,” CNN, October 28, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/27/world/asia/al-qaeda-kidnap-threat/.
By 2009, the U.S. State Department believed that bin Laden served only as a figurehead in al-Qaeda, while Zawahiri had emerged as the group’s “strategic and operational planner.”“U.S. Country Reports on Terrorism 2008,” U.S. Department of State, April 2009, 318, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122599.pdf. Zawahiri became al-Qaeda’s new leader after bin Laden’s May 2011 death.“Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed as al-Qaeda leader,” BBC News, June 16, 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13788594. That August, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein in Pakistan. Two months later, Zawahiri released a video statement calling for Muslims to kidnap more U.S. citizens to win the freedom of captured fighters.Chelsea J. Carter, “Al Qaeda leader calls for kidnapping of Westerners,” CNN, October 28, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/27/world/asia/al-qaeda-kidnap-threat/.
Under Zawahiri’s stewardship, al-Qaeda became increasingly decentralized, with authority resting primarily in the hands of al-Qaeda’s affiliate leaders. Zawahiri brokered mergers with a number of Islamist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (previously the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or GSPC) and al-Shabab.Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Algerian Challenge or Global Threat?” Carnegie Papers Number 104 (2009): 3; Jonathan Masters, “Al-Shabab,” Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/somalia/al-shabab/p18650. Zawahiri also sanctioned the creation of a number of al-Qaeda affiliates, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Nusra Front. In September 2014, Zawahiri announced the creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda Opens Branch in the ‘Indian Subcontinent,’” Long War Journal, September 3, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/al_qaeda_opens_branc.php. Analysts generally believe that Zawahiri created AQIS in order to promote al-Qaeda’s brand as ISIS was gaining influence.Jordan Olmstead, “The Real Reason al-Qaeda Is Establishing an India Branch,” Diplomat, September 23, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/the-real-reason-al-qaeda-is-establishing-an-india-branch/.
Zawahiri severed al-Qaeda’s ties with ISIS in February 2014 due to the group’s repeated attempts to subsume al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, under its command.Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda’s General Command Disowns the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham,” Long War Journal, February 3, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/02/al_qaedas_general_co.php. Zawahiri has publicly criticized ISIS and its declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In a series of audio messages released in September 2015, Zawahiri accused Baghdadi of dividing the Muslim community. He called ISIS’s declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria to be illegitimate because it “is an emirate of taking over without consultation, and Muslims are not obligated to pledge allegiance to it.”Tim Lister, “Al Qaeda leader to ISIS: You’re wrong, but we can work together,” CNN, September 15, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/14/middleeast/al-zawahiri-al-qaeda-isis-olive-branch/. In another audio message that month, Zawahiri called for Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq to unite against “the crusaders, the Safavids, and the secularists….”Tim Lister, “Al Qaeda leader to ISIS: You’re wrong, but we can work together,” CNN, September 15, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/14/middleeast/al-zawahiri-al-qaeda-isis-olive-branch/. Despite his criticism of ISIS, Zawahiri has not ruled out the possibility of cooperating with ISIS, or absorbing its fighters if ISIS is eventually defeated.Carla E. Humud, “Al Qaeda and U.S. Policy: Middle East and Africa,” Congressional Research Service, August 11, 2016, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R43756.pdf.
Zawahiri was in hiding since the U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Taliban government in December 2001. Security analysts believed that Zawahiri most likely resided in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, although he repeatedly managed to evade capture.“Al-Qaeda's remaining leaders,” BBC, December 6, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11489337. The Obama administration reportedly targeted Zawahiri in a January 2016 drone strike in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area. Newsweek reported that the strike killed five of Zawahiri’s bodyguards and wounded the al-Qaeda leader, but he ultimately escaped. Reports emerged in early 2017 that Zawahiri was in Karachi, Pakistan, allegedly under the protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.Jeff Stein, “Ayman Al-Zawahiri: How a CIA Drone Strike Nearly Killed the Head of Al-Qaeda,” Newsweek, April 21, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/ayman-al-zawahiri-cia-donald-trump-drone-strike-osama-bin-laden-pakistan-587732.
On November 13, 2020, there were reports that Zawahiri may be dead or at least “completely off the grid.” The claim came from Hassan Hassan, the director of the U.S.-based Center for Global Policy (CGP), who has closely monitored the militant group’s activities over the years. According to Hassan—who corroborated the claim with sources close to al-Qaeda—Zawahiri had been seriously ill and had possibly died in mid-October due to natural causes.Daniel L. Byman, “The death of Ayman al-Zawahri and the future of al-Qaida,” Brookings, November 17, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/11/17/the-death-of-ayman-al-zawahri-and-the-future-of-al-qaida/; Hassan Hassan, Twitter, November 13, 2020, https://twitter.com/hxhassan/status/1328378494611492865?s=20. According to Arab News on November 20, security sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as an al-Qaeda translator with close ties to the group, claimed Zawahiri died in Ghazni, Afghanistan from “asthma because he had no formal treatment.” The exact date of Zawahiri’s death was not released, but a Pakistani anti-terror security officer claims Zawahiri died sometime in November 2020.Baker Atyani and Sayed Salahuddin, “Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan — sources,” Arab News, November 20, 2020, https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1765746/world; Tim Stickings, “Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has died, reports claim terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from 'asthma-related breathing issues',” Daily Mail, November 20, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8970231/Al-Qaedas-leader-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-died-reports-claim.html. It is suspected that Saif al-Adel, one of Zawahiri’s chief deputies, is next in line to succeed Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda.Kabir Taneja, “Al Qaeda is battered, but don’t rejoice yet,” Observer Research Foundation, November 18, 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/research/al-qaeda-is-battered-but-dont-rejoice-yet/.
On March 12, 2021, al-Qaeda released a new video featuring Zawahiri’s voice addressing the plight of Rohingya Muslims in China. However, Zawahiri was not the main speaker, nor did he physically appear in the video, leading observers to question whether the video had used pieces of a previously recorded speech by Zawahiri.“New video message from al-Qai’dah’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri: “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Islamic Nation,” Jihadology, March 12, 2021, https://jihadology.net/2021/03/12/new-video-message-from-al-qaidahs-dr-ayman-al-%e1%ba%93awahiri-the-wound-of-the-rohingya-is-the-wound-of-the-islamic-nation/; Cole Bunzel, “Is Ayman al-Zawahiri Dead?,” Jihadica, March 17, 2021, http://www.jihadica.com/is-ayman-al-zawahiri-dead/.
On June 5, 2021, the United Nations released a report that claimed Zawahiri was alive, albeit in too frail of a condition to be featured in propaganda. The same report claims that Zawahiri is located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that al-Qaeda’s current strategy is maintaining its safe haven in Afghanistan for core al-Qaeda leaders before resuming attacks against international targets.“Al-Qaeda leader Aiman al-Zawahiri probably alive but too frail: UN report,” Tribune, June 5, 2021, https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/world/al-qaeda-leader-aiman-al-zawahiri-probably-alive-but-too-frail-un-report-263808?.
The United Nations listed “Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri” (Ayman al-Zawahiri) as an individual associated with Al-Qaida on January 25, 2001. “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends One Entry on Its Sanctions List,” U.N. Security Council, May 22, 2015, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc11902.doc.htm.
President George W. Bush issues Executive Order 13224 on September 23, 2001, listing “Ayman al-Zawahiri” as a Specially Designated National.“Recent OFAC Actions,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 24, 2001, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20010924.aspx.