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Ayman al-Zawahiri: From doctor to terrorist-in-chief


Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born surge on turned-jihadi who assumed the leadership of al-Qaida after the killing of Osama bin Laden, led a life steeped in secrecy, betrayal, conspiracy and violence, most murderously in the September 11 attacks against the US in 2001.
While bin Laden, who was killed by a US raid in 2011, was widely seen as the terrorist mastermind of those attacks, many counterterrorism experts considered al-Zawahiri more responsible.
With his white turban and dense, grey beard, his forehead marked by the bruising prized by some Muslims as denoting piety from frequent prayer, alZawahiri had little of bin Laden’s charisma. But he was widely depicted as the intellectual spine of al-Qaida — its chief operating officer, its public relations executive, and a profound influence who helped bin Laden grow from a charismatic preacher into a deadly terrorist with global reach.
During Zawahiri leadership of al-Qaida, the organisation’s global influence waned as the IS group rose. But the group remained a threat, with affiliates in several countries carrying out attacks. And al-Zawahiri, to whom they all swore allegiance, was still one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists at his death.
From his teenage years in an upscale suburb of Cairo, al Zawahiri led a cat-and-mouse existence, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia and hunted by adversaries, including US counterterrorism authorities, who placed a $25 million bounty on his head. Yet he seemed always to stay one step ahead, hiding out in the craggy redoubts of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. A trained surgeon — one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor.
Over time, his aims and ideology evolved from a visceral hatred of secular rule in Egypt, to a virulent campaign to strike at the so-called “far enemy,” the US. The group’s tactical strength lay in its ability to launch spectacular assaults, starting with the simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the suicide bombing of the American destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and culminating in the 9/11 attacks. In the following decade, US pursued bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Drone strikes decimated Qaida’s leadership.
In May 2011, a Navy SEAL team killed bin Laden in a raid. For a more than a month, al-Qaida was silent on its future leadership. Then al-Zawahri put out a 28-minute video of himself. With a rifle in the background and making a chopping motion with his hand, he promised that bin Laden would continue to “terrify” America. “Blood for blood,” he said.

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