Ayman al-Zawahri: Suburban doctor who became chief of al Qaeda
The Egyptian who has taken the helm of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden did not emerge from the crowded slums of Egypt’s sprawling capital a militant or develop his ideas in any religious college or seminary. Instead, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri was raised in Cairo’s leafy Maadi suburb where comfortable villas are a favourite among expatriates from the Western nations he rails against. He studied at Cairo University and qualified as a doctor.
The son of a pharmacology professor was not unique in his generation. Many educated youngsters were outraged at the treatment of Islamists in the 1960s when Egypt veered towards a Soviet-style one-party state under socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thousands of people suspected of subversion were thrown into prison after show trials. “Zawahri is one of the many victims of the Nasser regime who had deep political grievances and a feeling of shame at Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. He grew up a radical,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at Durham University.
He rose to be al Qaeda’s No. 2 before taking over as leader after bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces at his Pakistan hideout on May 2, almost 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, Zawahri was a grandson of the grand imam of Al Azhar, one of the most important mosques in the Muslim world. As he studied for a masters in surgery in the 1970s, Zawahri was active in a movement that later became Islamic Jihad, which aimed to expel the government and establish an Islamic state.
Taking over the leadership of Jihad in Egypt in 1993, Zawahri was a main figure in a violent campaign in the mid-1990s to set up a purist Islamic state, when more than 1,200 Egyptians were killed. In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced Zawahri to death in absentia. By then he had swapped his comfortable suburban background for the spartan life of a holy warrior in Afghanistan.