A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and ensured that al Qaeda survived and spread in the later years. President Joe Biden announced the assassination of al-Zawahri on Monday, scoring a major victory against terrorism just 11 months after US troops left the country.

A look at the leader of al-Qaida, who evaded US capture for 21 years after the suicide airliner attacks that in many ways changed the United States and its relations with the rest of the world.


Americans who lived through the 9/11 attacks may not remember al-Zawahri’s name, but many know his face more than two decades later: a slightly smiling, bespectacled man invariably appears in photos next to bin Laden while the two fixed the strike in the United States.

An Egyptian, al-Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951, to a comfortable family in a sleepy, leafy suburb of Cairo. Religiously observant since childhood, he was drawn into a violent offshoot of a Sunni Islamic revival that sought to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.

Al-Zawahri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but he also toured Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing the Afghans’ war against the Soviet occupiers in that country, and met the young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants. who banded together to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops.

He was one of hundreds of militants captured and tortured in an Egyptian prison after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981. Biographers say the experience further radicalized him. Seven years later, al-Zawahiri was present when bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahri merged his own Egyptian militant group with al-Qaeda. He brought to al-Qaida the organizational skill and experience—honed clandestinely in Egypt, evading Egyptian intelligence—that allowed al-Qaida to organize cells of followers and strike around the world.


After years of quietly gathering suicide bombers, funds and plans for the 9/11 attack, Zawahri made sure al-Qaida survived the ensuing global manhunt to strike again.

Fleeing after 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. With the creed of targeting enemies near and far, al-Qaeda after 9/11 carried out years of relentless attacks: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. The attacks that killed 52 people 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 they destroyed parts of the network.


Around dawn Sunday, Al-Zawahri stepped onto the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, and apparently lingered there, as US intelligence said he often did. That day, a US drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the al Qaeda leader while he was on his feet, according to US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the attack.

His presence in Afghanistan had been widely suspected for some time, analysts said. US authorities learned this year that Zawahri’s wife and other family members had recently moved to a safe house in Kabul. Zawahri soon followed, senior administration officials said.

US officials, along with top leaders up to, and finally, Biden, spent careful months confirming his identity — and his fateful practice of standing alone on that very balcony — and planned the attack.

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