WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman Al Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and made sure al Qaeda survived and spread in subsequent years. President Joe Biden announced Al Zawahri’s death on Monday, a significant victory against terrorism just 11 months after US troops left the Asian country.
Here’s a look at the leader of Al Qaeda, who evaded capture by Washington for 21 years after suicide attacks changed the United States in many ways and its relations with the rest of the world.
WHO WAS AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI?
Americans living when the 9/11 attacks occurred might not remember al-Zawahri’s name, but after two decades many know his face: a bespectacled man with a faint smile who invariably appears in photographs alongside bin Laden.
Egyptian Al Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951 into a wealthy family in a quiet, leafy suburb of Cairo. Highly religious from childhood, he was immersed in a violent sector of a revival of the Sunni brand of Islam that wanted to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a strict interpretation of Islamic rule.
Al Zawahri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but he also wandered Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing the Afghans’ war against Soviet invaders there, and met the young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab extremists. organized to help Afghanistan drive out the Soviets.
He was one of hundreds of extremists captured and tortured in an Egyptian jail after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981. His biographers say that experience made him even more radical. Seven years later, Al Zawahri was present when Bin Laden founded Al Qaeda.
Al Zawahri merged his own Egyptian extremist group with Al Qaeda. He brought to this network the organizing skills and experience—honed underground in Egypt, evading Egyptian intelligence—that allowed Al Qaeda to organize cells of followers and carry out attacks in various parts of the world.
WHY WAS AL ZAWAHRI IMPORTANT?
After years spent quietly organizing suicide bombers, raising funds, and drawing up plans for the 9/11 attacks, al-Zawahri made sure al-Qaeda survived the global manhunt that followed.
A fugitive since 9/11, Al Zawahri rebuilt al Qaeda’s leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and was the supreme leader of branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. After the attacks in the United States, al Qaeda carried out relentless attacks for years: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. The attacks that left 52 dead in London in 2005 were among al Qaeda’s last devastating attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counter-terrorist raids and missiles launched by the United States and others killed al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and ripped apart parts of the net.
HOW WAS HE KILLED?
Near dawn on Sunday, al-Zawahri stepped onto the balcony of a house in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and apparently stood there, the way US intelligence analysts had noted he used to do. That day, a US drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the al Qaeda leader while he was there, according to US officials, who requested anonymity for comment.
It had long been suspected that he was in Afghanistan, analysts said. Officials in Washington learned this year that Al Zawahri’s wife and other relatives had recently moved to a safe house in Kabul. Al Zawahri soon followed them there, US officials said.
US officials spent months carefully confirming his identity — and his fateful habit of going out on the same balcony — and planned the attack.