On May 2, 2011, a few minutes past 1 a.m. Pakistan Standard Time, a U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six left the Bagram Air Base in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan and headed for the compound of a high-value target in Abbottabad, Pakistan, located just a few miles away from that nation’s military academy.
It was an operation that lasted 38 minutes, following which U.S. forces returned to Afghanistan with the slain body of Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. The raid, code-named Operation Neptune Spear, marked the successful ending of an almost decade-long manhunt for America’s most wanted. The man who masterminded the brutal attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
For a little over a month, the world was uncertain about Al Qaeda’s future and leadership. Then like a bolt from the blue, the man who was often seen seated beside Bin Laden put out a 28-minute video of him. With a rifle in the background, the white turbaned and grey-bearded figure promised that Bin Laden would continue to “terrify” America even after his death: “blood for blood.” His name was Ayman al-Zawahri, a 60-year-old Egyptian. But how did a highly trained medical doctor of elite pedigree transmute to a merchant of death and destruction?
Ayman Muhammad Rabie al-Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951, in Maadi, an affluent Cairo suburb. He was one out of five children. His father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a pharmacology professor and came from a long line of doctors and scholars. His paternal grandfather was the 34th Grand Imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old university centered on Islamic learning.
He began reading Islamist literature at an early age, and one of his biggest influences growing up was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood called Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was an Islamic thinker who saw the world as divided between believers and infidels. Though he was later imprisoned, tortured, and hanged in 1966 for plotting the assignation of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, young Muhammad’s life goal was how to put the scholar’s teachings and vision into action.
In the year Qutb was killed, al-Zawahri joined others of like minds to form an underground militant cell dedicated to replacing Egypt’s secular government with an Islamic one while he attended medical school at Cairo University. He graduated in 1974, served three years in the Egyptian army, and earned a master’s degree in surgery in 1978.
Another major influence on Al-Zawahri was the humiliating defeat the Arab countries suffered at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was a six-day conflict that ended with a decisive victory for the Israelis who seized territories, bringing about one million Arabs under the direct control of the Jewish State in the newly captured territories.
Al-Zawahri was working in a clinic in Egypt in 1980 when he had an opportunity to join the Red Crescent to treat refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and so moved to Peshawar, Pakistan. This was where he met Osama Bin Laden, who sometimes gave lectures at the hospital where al-Zawahri worked, and they bonded instantly.
Al-Zawahri would later become Bin Laden’s personal physician, and over time, their relationship blossomed. Earlier on, al-Zawahri had formed his terrorist group, and in 1998, he authored a document asking similar militant groups to unite in the common cause of killing Americans anywhere in the world and not just in the Middle East. In 2001, his organization, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, officially merged with Bin Laden’s Qaeda network to create Qaeda al-Jihad.
Al-Zawahri organized several terrorist acts from his base, including an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister. The bomb missed its target but wounded many and caused the death of a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
With his bruised forehead denoting piety from frequent prayer, al-Zawahri had none of Bin Laden’s fabled family wealth nor his charisma but was widely regarded as the intellectual powerhouse of Al Qaeda. He made the group grow into a deadly terrorist organization with global reach.
Before his death, he was wanted in connection with the planning and execution of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil and the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, to mention but a few. He played a leading role in the organizational planning and providing logistic support to global terrorist networks, making recruiting and promotional videos and inspiring wound-be jihadists worldwide.
Al-Zawahri was once described as living “a cat-and-mouse life, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia and hunted by adversaries, including U.S. counterterrorism authorities, who placed a $25 million bounty on his head.” Yet he always seemed to stay one step ahead, hiding in the rugged terrorist redoubts of Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Pakistan’s other tribal areas.
Though the al-Zawahri did everything within his power to ensure that he was not being watched and to keep his location secret, American intelligence agencies soon learned that he too had returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of the U.S.-backed secular government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in August 2021
Al-Zawahri was later tracked to a safe house owned by an aide to senior officials in the Haqqani network, a violent wing of the Taliban government. Senior Taliban leaders occasionally met at the house, but unbeknownst to them, the American secret service knew that the Haqqanis were hiding their high-value target and were tracking his daily routine.
On July 25, President Biden, now satisfied with the plan, authorized the CIA to conduct an air strike when there was a window of opportunity. That opportunity came last Sunday morning when a CIA drone found al-Zawahri on his balcony and fired a Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person, bringing an end to a more than two-decade-long hunt.
Shafiq (not his real name), 25, was arranging fruit at his stand in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul when he heard a powerful explosion, reported the New York Times. For a moment, Shafiq froze, worried to death and seized by the fear that the bang could signal the beginning of yet another bloody conflict in his homeland. “We want peace and security in our country after this, and we do not want a war to start in our country again,” he said.
Truth is a country that offers a safe haven for jihadist terrorists doesn’t desire peace and will never know one. Caveat emptor.
Osmund Agbo is a pulmonary physician.
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