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Doctor of death — inside Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 50-yr career at heart of global jihadist factory

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike on his home in Kabul Sunday represents the end of the generation that built the road to 9/11.

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New Delhi: Few things had ever outraged the sensibilities of the Maadi Sporting Club like this scandal-in-reverse — not the hot-pink dalliances of pashas and princesses, nor dowdier teen pregnancies. Azza Ahmad Nowari, the daughter of highly-successful lawyers, had abandoned her skirts and heels and retreated into niqab — like the women of baladi donkey-cart owners. Even as her peers spent their evenings at parties where they might be introduced to suitable young men, Azza was reading the Quran till dawn.

In the lounge, looking out on to the lily-pond studded lawn that drew flamingos from the Nile, and on the eighteen-hole all-sand golf course nestled in the shadows of the Giza pyramids, a terrible realisation dawned in the Maadi club — Azza would never, ever find a husband.

Then, a young physician called Ayman al-Zawahiri, from a storied family which lived up the road, arrived to seek Azza’s hand in marriage. He raised her veil briefly, as custom demanded, and then met again only on the day of their marriage. There was no music at the wedding, held at the Continental-Savoy Hotel, and photographs were forbidden.

“It was pseudo-traditional,” one guest told the writer Lawrence Wright, author of an authoritative account of the 9/11 attacks. “Lots of cups of coffee and no one cracking jokes.”

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The doctor of death

The killing of al-Zawahiri, 71, in a United States drone strike on his home in Kabul’s upmarket Sherpur neighbourhood Sunday — at accommodation believed to have been provided by Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani — represents the end of the generation that built the road to 9/11. Through the decade after al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s elimination in 2011, al-Zawahari carefully nursed his relationship with the Taliban, using it to lay foundations for new regional affiliates.

Even though al-Zawahiri enmeshed al-Qaeda with religious conflicts across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the organisation had no great recruiting cadre or staging operations from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan. That task, he has left to a new generation of leaders.

The real significance of Ayman’s story, though, is in the insight it provides into al-Qaeda’s genesis, and its rise as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. Far from being driven by mindless religious fanaticism, al-Qaeda was enmeshed in a wider ideological and political struggle against secularism and modernity.

Few Egyptian families had credentials as respectable as the al-Zawahiri family. Sheikh al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, Ayman’s paternal grandfather, served as the imam of the famous al-Azhar mosque. His father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams university. His maternal grandfather, the literary scholar Abdul-Wahab Azzam, served as Egypt’s ambassador to Pakistan, and was the inaugural rector of Saudi Arabia’s first university.

Even though the family lived in Cairo’s highly-westernised Maadi, its cultural moorings were distinct. Ayman studied at a state-run Arabic-language school, not the English-medium Victoria College, and the family, despite its wealth, never joined the Maadi Club.

From the mid-1960s, according to his biographer Muntaser Zayyat, Ayman began to soak up the ideas of the ideologue Sayyid Qutb, the dark star of Egypt’s growing Islamist movement. He drifted into the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamist movement. First imprisoned at just fifteen, the quiet teenager was beginning a five-decade career as a global jihadist.

Turning to God

Late in 1949, literary scholar and bureaucrat Qutb had arrived in the small American town of Greeley, at the beginning of a journey that would transform the Islamist world. Tightly bound by conservative Christian values, town laws even prohibited establishments from serving alcohol — something the state department officials who financed Qutb’s education thought would be a plus.

“You’ll die of dullness in less than five hours,” poet Sara Lippincott had once been warned by friends. “There is nothing there but irrigation.”

Fellow Egyptian students, like the élite at Maadi, revelled in the small pleasures of the flesh Greely afforded. To Qutb, though, Greeley provided evidence that industrial civilisation led to moral downfall. American women, Qutb wrote in his memoirs, were “live, screaming temptations”. Jazz was music “the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”.

Early in his life, Qutb had encountered the anti-enlightenment ideas of the Nobel Prize-winning French eugenicist, Alexis Carrel. Instead of liberating human beings, Carell argued, technological civilisation had subjected them to a numbing system of control. The answer, for Qutb, lay in God’s word.

In his key work, Milestones, Qutb laid out a roadmap for the jihadist movement — a civilisational struggle existed between Islam and jahiliyah, a state of ignorance of God’s order. Even states like Egypt, though ruled by Muslims, constituted the world of jahiliyah, since they defied God’s law, the sharia.

Egypt’s socialist-leaning president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had often publicly mocked the Muslim Brotherhood’s calls for hijab and sharia. The failures of Nasser’s economic policies, and defeat in the war with Israel in 1967, empowered the Brotherhood, though. From the mid-1960s, tens of thousands of Brotherhood cadre were jailed. The Brotherhood backed away — spawning a more violent successor, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Finally, following an abortive Islamist coup in 1975, al-Zawahiri himself was imprisoned. Tortured, al-Zawahiri betrayed his idol and coup leader, the former armoured corps officer Issam al-Qamari, expert Youssef Aboul-Enein has recorded.

Also readHow Lucknow-educated Chinese cleric lit the first Jihad fire in Xinjiang

A homecoming to Pakistan

To pursue his ideological convictions, al-Zawahiri now turned to a distant battlefield. The anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan had broken out in 1979, and al-Zawahiri travelled there to fundraise for jihadist groups in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1986. Together with Bin Laden, he became a key part of a circle of Peshawar-based Arab jihadists, grouped around the charismatic Abdullah Azzam. Al-Zawahiri treated injured jihadists, helped run Azzam’s office, and published the group’s new magazine, al-Fath.

Al-Zawahiri was no stranger to the milieu in Peshawar. His maternal grandfather, Abdul-Wahab, had been appointed Egypt’s ambassador to Pakistan in 1954. The ambassador’s home in Karachi served as a salon for Islamist-leaning intellectuals, key among them Said Ramadan, the de-facto foreign minister of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s then prime minister, had met Ramadan in 1948, when he visited Karachi to attend a meeting of the World Muslim Congress. Khan gave the Islamic ideologue a weekly radio programme to air his views. Ramadan, journalist Caroline Fourest has recorded, “was omnipresent in the media, arguing, on every occasion, for legislation based on the sharia”.

The Central Intelligence Agency, declassified documents show, described Ramadan as a “phalangist” and a “fascist”. The intelligence agency, though, supported Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood politicians, seeing them as reliable anti-communists.

“In the 1950s and 1960s”, historian Ian Johnson records, “the United States supported him as he took over a mosque in Munich, kicking out local Muslims to build what would become one of the Brotherhood’s most important centres”.

In turn, Ramadan introduced the Pakistani Islamist leader Abul’ Ala Maududi of the Jamaat-e-Islami to Qutb. Maududi had long argued that it was imperative to “eliminate un-lslamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place”. These ideas were seized on by Qutb in the 1970s.

The road to 9/11

The defeat of the Soviet Union in 1988 opened up deep divisions on the future of the Arab jihadists. Azzam wanted the Arabs to stay in Afghanistan, and build a firm base for the movement that could slowly expand into central Asia. Al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden, however, feared the jihadists would be sucked into local ethnic and factional fighting, and wanted them to rejoin movements in their homelands. The assassination of Azzam in 1989 decisively settled this debate.

From 1989 on, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad waged a ferocious campaign against the regime. Elsewhere in the Middle East, too, from Algeria to Lebanon, Islamists engaged in ferocious warfare. Though ferocious bloodletting followed, the jihadist movement failed to secure victory. To al-Qaeda’s leadership, the lesson was apparent — until the United States itself was defeated, Arab regimes would not collapse.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan in 1996, scholar Anne Sternersen has recorded, seeking to use it as a base for their campaign against America. A new jihadist campaign began, with the bombings of United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam. Though spectacular in their impact, the operation proved a strategic failure — al-Qaeda was hunted down across the Middle-East, and decimated within Afghanistan.

Azza, along with two of their six children, was killed in a United States Air Force raid on an al-Qaeda camp.

The campaign against America faced sharp criticism from within jihadist ranks. The Syrian jihadist ideologue Mustafa al-Nasr insisted “that without confrontation in the field and seizing control of the land, we cannot establish a state, which is the strategic goal of the resistance”. Leadership of the global jihadist movement passed to the Islamic State, which set up its caliphate in 2014.

Following Bin Laden’s killing in 2011, Ayman set about patiently rebuilding al-Qaeda. Leveraging his relationship with the Taliban’s most important group — the Haqqani Network— al-Zawahiri positioned al-Qaeda as a provider of trainers and military experts. He focussed on building semi-autonomous region affiliates, riding on the back of entrenched local ethnic and religious conflicts. The affiliates have slowly grown, especially in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Mali, and Somalia.

Like al-Zawahiri, his successor will have to nurture that growth, hoping many Afghanistans will blossom

(Edited by Poulomi Banejee)

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